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Assessment as learning: towards an empathetic model

The year is 2021 and many of us are still experiencing the world outside via videoconferencing platforms. Emergency remote learning has had us all rethinking our strategies and adding different techniques to our teaching repertoire. The way we manage our (now) virtual classrooms, the way we expose students to language and get their attention, the way we plan their opportunities of practice – I am quite sure all of us have picked up new strategies along the way. Despite missing our offline interaction with students, we have learnt a completely new way to interact with them in our classes. Still, when it comes to assessment, most people are quite reluctant to change the format of what they do.

I have heard of schools that have policies such as students taking a test with cameras on with a teacher on the other side observing them. We are still trying to emulate another world – it seems so distant to me now the old days of yore in which students would come to a class at the end of the term, have a seat and I would be there on a desk ‘observing’ them take their tests… Why is it so hard to make changes in the way we see assessment?

Another question that I have asked myself is when people get to study assessment. I cannot recall a session or class in my grad course or in the teacher training programmes I have taken part in that focused deeply on assessment. The first time I actually stopped to study principles of assessment was in my prep course for the Cambridge Delta. By then, I had already assessed hundreds of students and even designed tests. The need for teachers to be assessment literate is of paramount importance as so well pointed out by Villas Boas & Nobre (2020). How much do we know about the principles of assessment? Can we easily name types and purposes of assessment? Whatever your answer is, I am pretty much certain that knowing how to do this does not actually assess anything, but isn’t it funny that we would be able to do that easily for other macro areas which are also essential to our teaching practice?

Something else that I often think about is how, for many of us, assessment is seen as a detached part of a course. I have studied most of my life in schools and courses that looked at assessment as a synonym of testing what I learnt at the end of a period of time. That is the pure essence of assessment of learning: my teachers wanted to know how much I had learnt in that subject or course against set criteria. Or rather, the system wanted to know if I could pass or fail a test. Assessment of learning has also been part of my whole teaching life – not necessarily because I wanted to, but because the system required me to. For the past decade, though, I have been much more invested in the quality of feedback I could give my students in our classes and after assignments so that they could have the opportunity to adjust and improve throughout the whole process. The tests they were required to take would no longer be a source of anxiety and fear as we tried to see it as just another part of the process and what we were building during our course together was what mattered most. We could say this is in alignment with the view of assessment for learning – the idea that assessment should inform the learning taking place. I believe most teachers see the value of this belief. Still, either as assessment for or of learning, it still seems that ‘assessment’ is this detached component, right?

Let me tell you about a course I was taking as a student. I enrolled at this course at the very end of the year; it was a blended course supposed to last three months combining pre-recorded lessons with live tutoring. My class had about two hundred students with the very same question at the beginning: how were we going to be assessed? The tutors informed us that there was going to be a type of assessment and they would let us know by the end of the course. ‘Do not worry about this, the important thing is the process’, they said. I, myself, have said that to students before when they got too worried about tests. Well, the end of the course came up and only then the tutors explained the projects we were going to develop. Something that called my attention was how often tutors repeated a sentence during the explanation, ‘Do not worry, this is not an assessment, it is just feedback for you to develop.’ I kept wondering, feedback on what exactly? The tasks we were going to develop in our project were not similar to anything we had to do during the course. So, again, feedback on what? Which purpose should it have in my learning process of that course? Well, I have not done my assignments yet – none of the friends I made in this course have.

Assessment of learning and assessment for learning serve different purposes and contexts; however, perhaps it is time for us to view assessment as learning, as if these two were completely intertwined — because they are – assessment should not be detached from the learning process as it is the learning process. As teachers, we must build tools with students so that they can be their own assessors and carry out projects along the way to get a clear picture of what they are doing. Understanding assessment as learning also allows students to develop unique assignments on what is interesting to them, not to the external assessors. It is thus a way to look at ourselves as learners with more kindness when we fail to find the motivation to do tasks that we feel are not going to help us in our learning process and to dive deeper into what matters most to each and every one of us as learners.

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Quevedo-Camargo, Gladys; Tonelli, Juliana Reichert Assunção (2021). Contribuições de um curso EAD para o letramento em avaliação de professores de línguas adicionais para crianças.
Revista do GEL, v. 18, n. 1, p. 230-248. Disponível em: Villas Boas, I. & Nobre, V. (2020) Getting into ELT Assessment. São Paulo: Cengage.

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