Little and Often: 8 Reasons for Using Continuous Assessment in ESL

Little and Often: 8 Reasons for Using Continuous Assessment in ESL

I’m going to guess that the least enjoyable days of your whole time as a student were the exam days.

Perhaps you sat in silent rows with your classmates, or were interviewed one-on-one, but I’m prepared to bet you absolutely hated it. In the past 20-30 years there has been a strong swing in favor of an alternative testing system, one which parcels out the stress and anxiety throughout the semester, rather than piling it all onto the students’ shoulders on a single, final day. These testing methods are known as ‘Continuous Assessment’ and, as the name implies, this means testing ‘little and often’.

Realize the Necessity of Continuous Assessment

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    It’s More Likely to Suit Your Students

    No single testing system is ideal for all the students it examines; some may, on the contrary, get a special lift from the pressure of that single, all-important exam, and perform at their best. However, the general feeling among educators (self included) is that the stress of the One Big Test is often more than sufficient to impair our students’ work. The test itself becomes the objective, eclipsing the more nebulous aims of the course – skills work, language acquisition, the acquiring of confidence and fluency – and becoming a terrifying moment of absolute judgement. If you’re one of those people who gets the sweats during an exam, and can’t sleep in the nights before, you’ll know just what I mean.

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    Traditional Exam Contexts Are Rather Unnatural

    Once you graduated High School, the first occasions on which you were likely to be required to speak French, or Spanish, were at a border crossing, in a restaurant, or in a shop. They were not in a high-stress one-to-one session with an examiner, or answering multiple-choice questions on a written test. It can be argued that examining in this way is artificial, and does not test the aptitudes our students will truly need.

    I’ll offer a personal example, if I may. I passed my US driving test a few months ago, an eight-minute excursion at slow speeds around a quiet neighborhood. The next thing I did in a vehicle was a giant, 1400 mile U-Haul trip from Boston to Florida. The test was scant preparation, and felt as though we’d been going through the motions, rather than ensuring I would be safe and secure in the context in which I would actually find myself. (Most US drivers are taught by their parents for a couple of years, so there’s that, but I still had the sense of being thrown into the deep end.)

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    Too Much Stress Defeats the Objective

    A colleague of mine memorably captured the sentiment: “If I wanted to test your sprinting ability, I wouldn’t make you wear hiking boots”. Traditional, formal examining engenders a quite justifiable hatred of school and, worse still, of the very act of learning. The stress endured by Chinese high-schoolers as they prepare for the Gao Kao, the leavers’ exam, is so severe that there are reports of suicides and mental breakdowns every year. I may be naiive here, but demonstrating our aptitude and the progress we’ve made during a course, should be an enjoyable moment of pride and achievement, not a soul-sapping purgatory of fear and resentment. I refuse to put my students through something like that, and I urge you to consider methods of breaking up the stress of this red-letter day into a range of smaller, more ‘bite-sized’ tests.

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    Continuous Assessment Is More Flexible

    Rather than sitting in rows to be examined, my students might be giving a presentation, building a conversation with a partner, researching a topic as a group, or writing a thoughtful op-ed piece. I’m able to test their performance as an individual, and as a member of a team. Frequent, small tests allow me to focus on very specific aspects of our work – listening for pronunciation, vocab choices, or accuracy of question forms, for example – and the students can be made aware that these areas are to be examined. In formal exams, the students have the unenviable and unnerving challenge of being tested on everything they have learned.

Organize a Continuous Assessment System

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    Consider What You Need to Examine

    This decision flows from the overall aims of your course, which in most cases can be clearly articulated from the outset. Look for proof of skills acquisition, spontaneous and fluent use of the target material, care and accuracy, and evidence of students having gone the extra mile to practice and review the language points.

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    Consider the Relative Importance of Each Element

    I listed the skills required to give successful presentations in advance of a public speaking course I recently ran, and then examined based on a careful weighting of those elements, giving a greater focus to the content of the presentation, but ensuring that the other elements were well represented. Ultimately, my grading sheet looked like this:

    Projection and Use of the Voice 15%
    Posture and Gesture 15%
    Intonation and Pronunciation 15%
    Use of time and Pacing 10%
    Use of graphics 15%
    Thoroughness of Preparation 10%
    Quality of Content 20%
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    Consider Your Assessment Dates in Advance

    This really helps organize the semester, as it provides regular sub-divisions within which the class can focus on a particular skill or topic area. I include assessment dates on my syllabus (with the caveat that they may change) so that the students know just what to expect. For the Public Speaking course, I weighted the five requirements like this:

    Week Four: First Presentation (3 mins, 20%)
    Week Six: First Paper (analysis of a famous speech, 15%)
    Week Nine: Second Presentation (6 mins, 20%)
    Week Twelve: Second paper (analysis of own presentation style, 15%)
    Week Fourteen: Third and Final Presentation (10 mins, 30%)
  4. 4

    Build Behavior and Attitude into the System

    Students respond very differently when they know their attitude will be assessed as part of their final grade. This acts as both carrot and stick, and need not be over-played, but I tend to get good results from expressing disappointment when a student ‘knowingly throws away’ marks by handing a paper in late, or breaking one of our simple classroom rules (no chatting in L1, respect others, be on time etc).

In all, I try to create the kind of system for which I would have been grateful when I was a teenager.

Smaller, less directly stressful objectives are easier to commit to, and the less stress my students experience, the happier and more engaged they seem. Traditional exam contexts seem, inadvertently perhaps, to embody a philosophy of ‘rule by fear’, i.e. the teacher can threaten failure through lack of work, with the students cowering under a Sword of Damocles, represented here by their big, final exam. I say, remove the sword and let a more realistic, humane and compassionate testing methodology guide the learning process.

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