Making Assessment a More Positive Experience

I had the enjoyable experience last week of speaking to a group of school and university language teachers on the theme of how to make assessment a more positive experience for students. I built on themes I have discussed in previous blogs on assessment, such as this one and this one too. Here’s a summary of some key points.

Most teachers would agree (i.e. stated beliefs) that assessment should serve positive functions. The 69 responses below collected through an in-session poll reflect this, with higher levels of agreement on the two positive items:

In practice, though (i.e. enacted beliefs), the ways in which assessment is conducted often do not reflect these positive views. This becomes clear when assessment processes and tasks are analysed and especially when students’ perceptions about assessment are explored. Here’s what a secondary school student said when I asked him whether there was anything pleasant about his assessment experiences:

To be honest, it’s pleasant because you’re done with it. You know, you get your mark and you don’t have to worry about that anymore.

A key question for teachers, then, is what adjustments to assessment will give students the best chance to show what they know and make assessment a more motivating and constructive process for them? We can consider this question at different stages of the assessment process:

For example, at the preparation stage, giving students clear information about what is to be assessed and the possible assessment tasks can help them prepare with greater confidence. Effective (i.e. valid) assessment design also gives students better opportunities to perform well. And, especially when students do not perform well, feedback can play an important role in encouraging students to sustain motivation and continue learning.

Many students, though, do not experience motivating feedback of this kind. I asked my student informant what feedback he gets when he does not do well on assessments:

Well, then they don’t really say anything. They just say, ‘oh, you didn’t do well’.

Teachers who write lengthy feedback highlighting what students did wrong may feel they are working hard to support students, but students may not feel this is helpful. Here’s a further extract from my conversation with the same student:

How do you feel when you get a page of writing back and it’s all red?
Annoyed mostly.
Why annoyed?
Well, because if you got the answers wrong there’s nothing you can do about that on an essay. No, there’s no need, like you make a mistake once and then she writes a whole paragraph. ‘Why did you do this?’ and fills up your whole page.
So that kind of detailed feedback doesn’t make you feel good?
No, because it’s not feedback, it is ‘you did this wrong’.

The key messages from the talk were:

  1. Assessment affects student motivation towards the subject.
  2. It does not have to be an unpleasant experience for students and can be motivating.
  3. Small adjustments at different stages of the process can improve students’ ability to prepare, perform, and continue learning afterwards.
  4. Improving teachers’ assessment literacy is a key factor in the process of allowing assessment to serve a more positive function.
  5. Evaluating assessment (stage 6 above) involves reflecting on how effective it was and can be informed by feedback from students.
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