Formative tests and feedback for language learners

When doing formative tests sometimes it is difficult to take the students' attention away from the mark. However, from my point of view, it is very important to make this into an opportunity to facilitate reflection and taking stock for our students. This is not something we can assume our students know how to do and having access to the mark first can actually prevent that reflection from actually taking place.

So how can we facilitate the learning that we really want to happen at the point when students are engaging with formative work in the form of a test? How can we focus on the content and promote deeper learning?

In the context of my language teaching at the moment, I have students coming from many different disciplines. Testing varies widely among disciplines and therefore some of my students' expectations may be more naturally aligned with the kind of testing that translates into a mark, even in formative work. Testing can be very objective, something can be deemed right or wrong or a bit in between, even in language testing. There is an element of students' language learning, which focuses on achieving accuracy. Communication can be achieved without accuracy, but when setting the basis at beginners' level, for example, I find that accuracy features strongly and students are trying to get endings of verbs and words right in a natural attempt to making themselves at home in a new language.

Whilst language learning can be and is objectively measured to some extent, there are elements of language learning that need more open communicative questions. These tend to be marked more subjectively, and when combined with more objective types of testing can balance out the strictness and the limitations of the objective approaches.

With a test that contains both questions that can be objectively and subjectively marked, it may seem tricky to involve students on self-marking as a form of facilitating reflection. However, I have tried this with my students and seems to be working.

For the questions that relate to grammar or concern reading and listening comprehension, one can facilitate answers and marks attached to the various degrees in which variations from the set answers could still attract some marks. So students can manage this part fairly well by themselves.

For writing or composition, some students tend to think that it is only the teacher the one in a position to establish the quality of the work. However, I got the students involved for that part too, and it worked. Students are in a position to make meaningful contributions in the form of deciding upon the quality of their work. One important bit to do first is to explain clearly the criteria to assess the work. Sharing the rationale with the students gives the students the tools for self assessment.

The last part of the formative experience would be that their self-evaluation is shared with the teacher who then can complement the feedback in what seems to me a more constructive dialogical way. One of the main gains with this approach is that we keep a student-centered practice for formative work, where the students play an important role. By implementing this processes we help move the attention away from the mark to a real understanding of what makes their work better. This usually translates into an improvement of subsequent outputs.

What is your formative practice like when linked to tests? Share in the comments!


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