* Article first published in Fortell, September 2011 issue.
Thirty-two years of teaching English tells me that one of the only ways of making testing interesting and relevant is by making it an authentic activity and an integral part of the students’ learning programme. This is especially important for teaching and testing at the under-graduate level. Students at this stage have already had twelve years taking formal testing and most have mastered the art of cracking and passing exams without necessarily learning anything valuable or significant. They are oriented to the system well enough to know that memorizing from guidebooks or kunjis is a sure route to success while for the reckless or the adventurous, cheating from slips of papers tucked away into shoes or blouses or attempting to send in proxy candidates are attemptable options. It is against this mindless taking of tests and examinations that I see value in what I wish to share.
The University of Delhi has thankfully made space for Internal Assessment from 2007 with 15 marks being allotted for Project/Seminar, etc. and 5 marks for Assignment (besides 10 marks for Home Exams and 5 marks for Attendance). It is in the space available for Projects and Assignments that I experiment with interactive, learning-oriented evaluation procedures.
My motivation to explore alternative and authentic assessment procedures arose from a need to make assessment a part of instruction; to integrate the language testing with the teaching and learning process. Assessment activities often stand out as different, formal, threatening or interruptive but they need not be so. If the assessment activity can be an authentic task (and not created exclusively for the purposes of scoring students’ performance) that requires time and effort for completion in a non-threatening atmosphere, then the students can continue to learn while demonstrating the entire scope of what they have learnt. In fact, authentic procedures have been found to be ‘highly cost-effective’ because they save time and maximize ‘the impact of education’. Furthermore, they provide guidance to both teachers and students about effective directions for continued learning.
Setting the stage
Since my attempts at using portfolios, journals and logs met with limited success, I applied some of those principles, when occasions arose, that I could bind the needs of assessment with those of teaching and learning.
Figure.1 Report by Baby Yadav
The first experiment that I wish to share arose by chance. I was asked to set up meetings between a researcher in a UK business school and my college students; the researcher was interested in collecting data for her M Phil dissertation. I decided to use this opportunity to serve my purposes as well.
There were two dissimilar groups of students (approximately 12 each) representing widely divergent sub-sections of the student population in my college (and most colleges in Delhi) for her study. One set constituted B.Com Honours and B.A. English Honours students, all had email ids, spoke fluent English, came from upper-middle class urban homes and wished to study abroad or get high-flying corporate jobs. This group was easy to come by and was more than eager to meet a foreign researcher.
The second group, however, would not have met or interacted with the researcher if I had not made it part of their Project work which would translate into marks for the annual examinations. This was my class of English B students in Year 1, who came from conventional homes, had studied in government-run Hindi-medium schools, and spoke and read little or no English (not having studied it beyond Class X). I explained in class that it was very important for them to listen to a language in order to be able to speak it; however, none of these students had seen a Hollywood film, Hindi was the preferred language for home television and they found it difficult to listen to the English news. Not only did I facilitate the meetings by receiving and passing messages, but I also spent several hours explaining the value they would get in being able to listen and speak to a ‘native speaker’.
The students had to submit a written account of their meetings with the researcher, giving their comments on the entire experience. What was especially heartening is that every student submitted her work readily and each of them wrote it without feeling the need to copy from one another (which is invariably the recourse when faced with written assignments). Figure 1 shows a sample report.
The second opportunity arose when I was asked to co-ordinate a Refresher Course in the Teaching of English for college teachers. For the practice teaching sessions, the student group consisted of thirty student volunteers from my class. The intention was to place them in real-life situations where they interact in English over a sustained period and the written assignment was a report of what they had done. Figure 2 is a sample report from three student volunteers.
Figure. 2. Report submitted by a group about their experiences of ‘being taught’ at the University campus
There are several advantages in such a multi-tasking approach in teaching young adults in colleges. Today, students want tangible value in all their activities. Even if you invite them to a talk, they want to know if they will be given a “certificate” for attending the talk. My strategy makes me kill several birds with one stone: teaching; testing and contributing to ‘corporate life on campus’.
Experimenting with authentic assessment practices allows teachers to combine the requirements of evaluation with teaching and communicating. It makes the enterprise of testing meaningful, flexible and one of discovery. All that is required of the teacher is that he/she be resourceful and flexible. Any teaching situation, whether it is school, college or the university, allows space for the teacher to negotiate the teaching-testing process creatively, if both the teacher and the students want. It is up to the teacher to use this opportunity for the benefit of the learners and the teaching-testing process. The complaint that the system does not allow such innovations is neither valid nor tenable.
For the purposes of this article the terms ‘evaluation’, ‘assessment’ and ‘testing’ are used synonymously without making the distinctions that are made in the literature dealing with evaluation theory. The article is aimed at practicing teachers and at making testing learner-friendly. Therefore, theoretical discussions have been kept to the bare minimum.
O’ Malley, O Michael & Pierce, Lorraine V. Authentic Assessment For English Language Learners. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc. 1996: iv.