Friday, December 9, 2011

Improving Assessment and Evaluation Practice....One Department at a Time

Recently I've been having informal discussions with members of our ESL Department about rethinking their assessment practices and implementing a more "progressive" approach.  We're looking at a system based on competencies, a key component of BC's new Education Plan, rather than grades, with the culmination being a simple pass or fail upon completion of the course.

This all stems from the ongoing issue that I blogged about here.  Our teachers are getting frustrated with students using their smart phones for legitimate study purposes, but then furtively using them on other tasks after having being asked specifically to put them away.  This practice is counterproductive on every level, and it's up to us to get that point across to the students.  For instance, forgetting completely the moral imperative not to cheat, lower level ESL students who use a translator on a simple vocabulary assignment end up giving the teacher a completely erroneous impression of how much they know.  The teacher, after assessing the work, will assume that the students know the material and will move on.  And though this last point is true in ALL classes, students' other incentive to cheat, "We need the grade to get into university!" has no validity in ESL classes.  Post secondary institutions pay no attention to student achievement in these courses.

To combat this misuse we looked at motivation and incentives.  Students are motivated to cheat because they have too much invested, emotionally, on "getting a good mark".  As long as we offer a "mark", say a number out of 10, then getting 8/10 will always be more desirable than getting 4 or 5/10.  But as educators, we know that the value of assessment does not lie in these these marks, it lies in the formative feedback we give the kids and, more importantly, how the students use that feedback to improve their own learning.

The long and short of it is that there really are no valid reasons for ESL students to continue this practice.  But they do, simply because we attach an extrinsic value to the work.  If we remove this incentive, then students are genuinely left with no reason whatsoever to continue cheating.

Removing extrinsic incentives and implementing more pedagogically sound assessment practices should be the goal in all our classrooms, but given these circumstances, I believe that ESL Departments are an ideal place to start a systemic implementation of these assessment for and as learning practices.