The traditional way of assessing students’ oral performance is by way of formal oral tests, administered at the end of a teaching period. Typically, students sit in pairs in front of the examiner, many times their own teacher, other times another teacher for an “unbiased judgment”, and perform a task based on a given situation. For test security, reliability and, arguably, validity purposes, the students cannot know in advance the task they are going to be asked to perform. The teacher listens, takes notes, and gives a grade based on a set of scoring rubrics, and students have only one shot at the task. This is the model used in high stakes proficiency tests and replicated in EFL/ESL classes due to the belief that our role is to prepare students for standardized proficiency tests. Or is it?
Upon realizing that traditional, summative tests in general and oral tests in particular create an excessive amount of anxiety in our adult students, the vast majority of whom are not learning English to pass a proficiency exam, my institution decided to adopt a formative assessment model in our adult courses. Rather than take a written and an oral test at the end of the module, students take a set of short assessments throughout the course. At the end of the module, they have the chance to retake the assessments they didn’t do so well on. Two of these assessments are oral.
The idea of formative assessment is that it should be directly linked to the learning outcomes and instructional strategies developed to attain such outcomes. Ideally, the interconnectedness is so natural and fluid that instructional strategies and the assessment itself are naturally intertwined, and students hardly notice when practice finishes and assessment begins. This is sometimes easier said than done. We teachers read a lot about formative assessment in academic articles, but rarely are the specifics and logistics of such assessments explained.
I’m going to describe an assessment I conducted in my class of pre-intermediate adults to illustrate how this idea works and how technology can enhance the formative aspect of oral assessments.
By way of the activities in their book, students had been practicing using the present perfect to ask about experiences with music and the simple past to refer to a specific moment in the past in which these experiences had occurred. They had also learned vocabulary related to music and to talking about experiences. Now it was time to consolidate this knowledge and assess if students had really achieved the intended outcomes:
Students will be able to ask each other about past experiences related to music and expand the conversation by providing details on the experience.
Here are the steps followed:
1) Students were paired up and asked to practice two different dialogues as models. Here is one of them:
2) Then, they were presented with two other dialogues but now had to fill in the blanks with the missing words. Here is an example:
3) Moving on to less controlled practice, they were given some dialogue cues and had to come up with the conversation, based on their own experiences:
4) After the cycle of very controlled to freer practice, students were given the following instructions, developed by my colleague and Course Supervisor Ronaldo Lima Jr:
Ask your partner some questions about musical experience. Begin with a “have you ever” question and then ask some follow-up questions. Below are some ideas, but you can create your own questions about experiences related to music.
Have you ever been to a rock/jazz/pop concert?
Have you ever played in a band?
Have you ever traveled just to go to a concert?
Have you ever been to a concert by “Orquestra Sinfônica do Teatro Nacional”?
Have you ever come to a “Sexta Musical” here at Casa Thomas Jefferson?
Have you ever been to Rock’n’Rio/Porão do Rock?
Have you ever been to a music festival?
Have you ever been to a concert by Roberto Carlos/Tom Jobim/Michael Jackson/Beyoncée/etc.?
They were also given a list of possible follow-up questions and some useful vocabulary. Students worked in pairs and talked about their experiences based on the guidelines.
5) Each pair received an Ipad and the following instructions:
a) Open the app Evernote.
b) Open the notebook with the name of the group (Isabela’s Top Flex 1/2)
c) Open a new note by clicking on the “+” on the top right corner.
d) Name the note by writing the two students’ names and “Assessment 3”
e) Click on the microphone. (It was an older version of Evernote. With the newest version, we click on the paper clip icon and a drop box appears. We then click on “Audio”)
f) When you feel you have practiced enough, record your dialogue.
g) Listen to your dialogue and self and peer assess your performance, based on these scoring rubrics (also developed by the supervisor).
h) Are you happy about your performance? Then save the note and send it to me and to yourselves by e-mail. If not, record again, correcting the problems you perceived in your self-assessment.
6) Later on, I listened to students’ interactions and assessed their performance, using the rubrics above. It took me 20 minutes to assess the fourteen students in class.
7) The next class, I gave students general feedback on their performance and each one received their assessment result. Since they all had the recording, they were able to listen again at home to understand my markings on the assessment sheet and see what they still needed to improve.
As you can see from the sequence above, it’s hard to notice when learning and practicing ended and the assessment began. If you want to make it even more formative and you have time in your schedule for this, you can ask students to repeat the task after your feedback and reassess them.
All this happened in a stress-free environment and students did not feel as anxious and exposed as they normally do during traditional oral tests. Also, they followed their own pace and practiced as much as they thought was necessary, some more than others. I was just there to monitor them and help.