Assessing Learning

One of the most challenging tasks for language instructors is finding effective ways to determine what and how much their students are actually learning. Instructors need to think carefully about what kinds of knowledge their tests allow students to demonstrate.

Traditional Tests

Traditional pencil-and-paper tests ask students to read or listen to a selection and then answer questions about it, or to choose or produce a correct grammatical form or vocabulary item. Such tests can be helpful as measures of students’ knowledge of language forms and their listening and reading comprehension ability.

However, instructors need to consider whether these tests are accurate reflections of authentic language use. The tests usually do not present reading comprehension and listening comprehension questions until after students have read or listened to the selection. In real life, however, people know what information they are seeking before they read or listen. That is, they have specific information gaps in mind as they begin, and those gaps define the purpose for reading or listening.

To make language tests more like authentic listening and reading activities, instructors can give students the comprehension questions before they listen to or read the selection. This procedure sets up the information gaps that students will then seek to fill as they listen or read.

Instructors also need to be careful about what pencil-and-paper tests are actually testing. A quiz on which students listen to a selection and then respond to written questions is testing reading ability as well as listening skills and will give a lower-than-appropriate score for students whose oral comprehension is stronger than their reading comprehension. A test on which students read a selection and then answer multiple-choice questions is testing their knowledge of the language used in the questions as well as that used in the selection itself. If the language used in the questions is not keyed to students’ proficiency level, the test will not reflect their ability accurately.

Language instructors also encounter students who do well on pencil-and-paper tests of grammar and sentence structure, but make mistakes when using the same forms in oral interaction. In such cases, the test is indicating what students know about the language, but is not providing an accurate measure of what they are able to actually do with it.

When the goal of language instruction is the development of communicative competence, instructors can supplement (or, in some cases, replace) traditional tests with alternative assessment methods that provide more accurate measures of progress toward communication proficiency goals. This can be done by combining formative and summative types of assessment.

Summative assessment

  • Takes place at the end of a predetermined period of instruction (for example, mid-term, final)
  • Rates the student in relation to an external standard of correctness (how many right answers are given)
  • Is the approach taken by most traditional and standardized tests

Formative assessment

  • Takes place on an ongoing basis as instruction is proceeding
  • Rates the student in terms of functional ability to communicate, using criteria that the student has helped to identify
  • Helps students recognize ways of improving their learning
  • Is the approach taken by alternative assessment methods

Alternative Assessment

Alternative assessment uses activities that reveal what students can do with language, emphasizing their strengths instead of their weaknesses. Alternative assessment instruments are not only designed and structured differently from traditional tests, but are also graded or scored differently. Because alternative assessment is performance based, it helps instructors emphasize that the point of language learning is communication for meaningful purposes.

Alternative assessment methods work well in learner-centered classrooms because they are based on the idea that students can evaluate their own learning and learn from the evaluation process. These methods give learners opportunities to reflect on both their linguistic development and their learning processes (what helps them learn and what might help them learn better). Alternative assessment thus gives instructors a way to connect assessment with review of learning strategies.

Features of alternative assessment:

  • Assessment is based on authentic tasks that demonstrate learners’ ability to accomplish communication goals
  • Instructor and learners focus on communication, not on right and wrong answers
  • Learners help to set the criteria for successful completion of communication tasks
  • Learners have opportunities to assess themselves and their peers


Designing tasks for alternative assessment

Successful use of alternative assessment depends on using performance tasks that let students demonstrate what they can actually do with language. Fortunately, many of the activities that take place in communicative classrooms lend themselves to this type of assessment. These activities replicate the kinds of challenges, and allow for the kinds of solutions, that learners would encounter in communication outside the classroom.

The following criteria define authentic assessment activities:

  • They are built around topics or issues of interest to the students
  • They replicate real-world communication contexts and situations
  • They involve multi-stage tasks and real problems that require creative use of language rather than simple repetition
  • They require learners to produce a quality product or performance
  • Their evaluation criteria and standards are known to the student
  • They involve interaction between assessor (instructor, peers, self) and person assessed
  • They allow for self-evaluation and self-correction as they proceed


Introducing alternative assessment

With alternative assessment, students are expected to participate actively in evaluating themselves and one another. Learners who are used to traditional teacher-centered classrooms have not been expected to take responsibility for assessment before and may need time to adjust to this new role. They also may be skeptical that peers can provide them with feedback that will enhance their learning.

Instructors need to prepare students for the use of alternative assessments and allow time to teach them how to use them, so that alternative assessment will make an effective contribution to the learning process.

  • Introduce alternative assessment gradually while continuing to use more traditional forms of assessment. Begin by using checklists and rubrics yourself; move to self and peer evaluation later.
  • Create a supportive classroom environment in which students feel comfortable with one another.
  • Explain the rationale for alternative assessment.
  • Engage students in a discussion of assessment. Elicit their thoughts on the values and limitations of traditional forms of assessment and help them see ways that alternative assessment can enhance evaluation of what learners can do with language.
  • Give students guidance on how to reflect on and evaluate their own performance and that of others (see specifics in sections on peer and self evaluation).

As students find they benefit from evaluating themselves and their peers, the instructor can expand the amount of alternative assessment used in the classroom.

Peer and Self Assessment

Peer Assessment

One of the ways in which students internalize the characteristics of quality work is by evaluating the work of their peers. However, if they are to offer helpful feedback, students must have a clear understanding of what they are to look for in their peers’ work. The instructor must explain expectations clearly to them before they begin.

One way to make sure students understand this type of evaluation is to give students a practice session with it. The instructor provides a sample writing or speaking assignment. As a group, students determine what should be assessed and how criteria for successful completion of the communication task should be defined. Then the instructor gives students a sample completed assignment. Students assess this using the criteria they have developed, and determine how to convey feedback clearly to the fictitious student.

Students can also benefit from using rubrics or checklists to guide their assessments. At first these can be provided by the instructor; once the students have more experience, they can develop them themselves. An example of a peer editing checklist for a writing assignment is given in the popup window. Notice that the checklist asks the peer evaluator to comment primarily on the content and organization of the essay. It helps the peer evaluator focus on these areas by asking questions about specific points, such as the presence of examples to support the ideas discussed.

For peer evaluation to work effectively, the learning environment in the classroom must be supportive. Students must feel comfortable and trust one another in order to provide honest and constructive feedback. Instructors who use group work and peer assessment frequently can help students develop trust by forming them into small groups early in the semester and having them work in the same groups throughout the term. This allows them to become more comfortable with each other and leads to better peer feedback.

Self Assessment

Students can become better language learners when they engage in deliberate thought about what they are learning and how they are learning it. In this kind of reflection, students step back from the learning process to think about their language learning strategies and their progress as language learners. Such self assessment encourages students to become independent learners and can increase their motivation.

The successful use of student self assessment depends on three key elements:

  • Goal setting
  • Guided practice with assessment tools
  • Portfolios

Goal setting

Goal setting is essential because students can evaluate their progress more clearly when they have targets against which to measure their performance. In addition, students’ motivation to learn increases when they have self-defined, and therefore relevant, learning goals.

At first, students tend to create lofty long-range goals (“to speak Russian)” that do not lend themselves to self assessment. To help students develop realistic, short-term, attainable goals, instructors can use a framework like SMART goals outline shown in the popup window.

One way to begin the process of introducing students to self-assessment is to create student-teacher contracts. Contracts are written agreements between students and instructors, which commonly involve determining the number and type of assignments that are required for particular grades. For example, a student may agree to work toward the grade of “B” by completing a specific number of assignments at a level of quality described by the instructor. Contracts can serve as a good way of helping students to begin to consider establishing goals for themselves as language learners.

Guided practice with assessment tools

Students do not learn to monitor or assess their learning on their own; they need to be taught strategies for self monitoring and self assessment. Techniques for teaching students these strategies are parallel to those used for teaching learning strategies. The instructor models the technique (use of a checklist or rubric, for example); students then try the technique themselves; finally, students discuss whether and how well the technique worked and what to do differently next time.

In addition to checklists and rubrics for specific communication tasks, students can also use broader self-assessment tools to reflect on topics they have studied, skills they have learned, their study habits, and their sense of their overall strengths and weaknesses. An example of such a tool appears in the popup window.

Students can share their self-assessments with a peer or in a small group, with instructions that they compare their impressions with other criteria such as test scores, teacher evaluations, and peers’ opinions. This kind of practice helps students to be aware of their learning. It also informs the teacher about students’ thoughts on their progress, and gives the teacher feedback about course content and instruction.


Portfolios are purposeful, organized, systematic collections of student work that tell the story of a student’s efforts, progress, and achievement in specific areas. The student participates in the selection of portfolio content, the development of guidelines for selection, and the definition of criteria for judging merit. Portfolio assessment is a joint process for instructor and student.

Portfolio assessment emphasizes evaluation of students’ progress, processes, and performance over time. There are two basic types of portfolios:

  • A process portfolio serves the purpose of classroom-level assessment on the part of both the instructor and the student. It most often reflects formative assessment, although it may be assigned a grade at the end of the semester or academic year. It may also include summative types of assignments that were awarded grades.
  • A product portfolio is more summative in nature. It is intended for a major evaluation of some sort and is often accompanied by an oral presentation of its contents. For example, it may be used as a evaluation tool for graduation from a program or for the purpose of seeking employment.

In both types of portfolios, emphasis is placed on including a variety of tasks that elicit spontaneous as well as planned language performance for a variety of purposes and audiences, using rubrics to assess performance, and demonstrating reflection about learning, including goal setting and self and peer assessment.

Portfolio characteristics:

  • Represent an emphasis on language use and cultural understanding
  • Represent a collaborative approach to assessment
  • Represent a student’s range of performance in reading, writing, speaking, and listening as well as cultural understanding
  • Emphasize what students can do rather than what they cannot do
  • Represent a student’s progress over time
  • Engage students in establishing ongoing learning goals and assessing their progress towards those goals
  • Measure each student’s achievement while allowing for individual differences between students in a class
  • Address improvement, effort, and achievement
  • Allow for assessment of process and product
  • Link teaching and assessment to learning