Assessment for Learning: a new way to meet individual learner needs?

They say that there is nothing new under the sun (especially not in teaching?) but the notion of Assessment for Learning (as opposed to assessment of learning)is a big buzzword in mainstream education in the UK and there are plenty of ideas which we can apply to ESOL and ELT.

The idea of AfL originated from a booklet by Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black, Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. In this, and subsequent books and papers, they focus on four main ways of helping students to become more independent learners and to individualise learning:

  •  Questioning techniques
  • Feedback methods
  • Sharing criteria
  • Self  and peer assessment

Questioning techniques

I suspect that questioning is something which the average ESOL/ELT teacher already knows more about than Wiliam and Black assume. In my experience, a lot of teaching in our field(s) takes place through asking the right questions, whereas they seem to think that most teachers are asking closed questions to check knowledge. Having said that, I think it is still an area where further development may be useful.

Some approaches/activities you could try:

  • Opening up ideas by asking other students to comment on what has been said, rather than commenting on it yourself.
  • Bouncing questions around, so you nominate one student to answer another’s question.
  • Get students to put up their hands to ask a question, rather than to answer one.
  • Ask students to write down questions at the end of a lesson about what still confuses them. These could go into a box for you to look at when planning the next lesson, or they could be redistributed for small groups to answer.
  • Ask why rather than just accepting an answer. This is particularly important, I think, when going through the answers to, say, a reading comprehension or a gapfill.

And my personal long time favourite: increasing wait time after you have asked a question. In Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice, Black et al report that teachers who increased wait time found that:

–          Answers were longer

–          Failure to respond decreased

–          Responses were more confident

–          Students challenged and/or improved the answers of other students

–          More alternative explanations were offered.

Feedback methods

This refers to both giving students feedback on their work and on getting feedback as to how well each student is doing.

In terms of the first category, one of the big points made by AfL is that writing comments on students’ work is much more effective than grades. In fact, their research showed that a group of students given only comments improved noticeably, whereas the other two groups given either grades only or both comments and grades, did not.  Of course, the comments have to be helpful and specific about exactly what the student has to do to improve.

In terms of getting feedback on how each student is doing, there are two basic themes. One, which will be familiar I am sure, is getting students to work in pairs and groups so that the teacher can monitor and assess. The other may be less familiar and involves a few nice little techniques:

  • Using miniwhiteboards for students to write answers on and then hold up. If everyone is facing the front, peers will not be able to see who has written what, but the teacher can.
  • Giving each student laminated A,B and C cards, so that they can hold up the answers to multiple choice questions in the same way.
  • Using signals to indicate to the teacher how well they feel they have understood. These could be  ‘traffic light’ red, amber or green cards (green for I am sure I have got this to red I haven’t a clue what you’re on about

Sharing criteria

In the ELT/ESOL context, the idea of sharing the criteria you use may not be that new. As a reminder though, some of the ideas in AfL may be useful:

  • Using models of what you want students to achieve. This obviously applies to writing, but could also apply to speaking, with recordings of native speakers or more proficient students doing the same task. These models can be analysed by the students, using the criteria.
  • Letting students decide on what they think the criteria for assessment should be, or negotiating it with them.

Self and peer assessment

Again, this is something which I think is quite common in ESOL/ELT classrooms, but it is given a lot of emphasis in AfL. Possible ideas:

  •  Two stars and a wish (may be better for Yls). Students peer assess using two stars to say two good things about the work and a wish to identify something which could be improved (further)
  • Students identify what they think is their best piece of work, and say why.
  • Using learning journals to set targets and self evaluate.

If you wish to find out more about AfL, either of the publications mentioned above would be a good place to start. I’d be very interested to hear any comments on any of these approaches, and whether this kind of approach is popular in your context (and of course why or why not 😉 )


Filed under Differentiation

5 Responses to Assessment for Learning: a new way to meet individual learner needs?

  1. Very interesting post!
    I like it that oyu offered several ways for each category as in different teaching situations different ones are applicable.
    What is the difference between AFL and formative assessment? The term AFL is new to me.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Naomi.
    As I understand is formative assessment is part of AfL, but the latter is a broader term because it involves self assessment and things that not everyone might consider assessment, such as questioning techniques. But really, you know, it’s just a slightly new angle or reinvention…
    It’s very big in British schools though- my kids come home all the time talking about two wishes and a star or using lollpop sticks (a way of nominating by picking at random).
    Another thing I like about AfL that I didn’t mention, is the emphasis on mistakes being a positive thing in that they provide learning opportunities. I have always loved the quote from Caleb Gattegno, ‘a mistake is a gift to the class.’

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