Measuring not measurable

He annoyed me. The guy in university. Besides secretly fancying him, I got awfully irritated every time we had an English lesson together. Because he was THE master of the language. He always got the best marks and had such self-confidence in him, I couldn’t but get annoyed by him. And then once it all boiled over. We had one-to-one progress chat with our teacher. During the talk she handed me yet another essay I had written but failed to get a good enough mark. I remember bursting out, ‘What’s wrong again? Why cannot I get the best mark? I worked so hard? And anyway, what does HE do better?’ (childish? maybe, but also very sincere…) And then this teacher told me something that has stuck with me like a wet autumn leaf gets stuck under your shoe sole. ‘He plays it safe. Always. He knows exactly what he’s doing. But you take risks. Always. You trod into unsafe alleys and dare to fail.’

Back at the time it had no effect on me. I was too focused on my failures and ‘bad’ marks and I didn’t buy any of this beautiful talk about risks and alleys. But a month ago the old story surfaced, it rose into the light, into piercing light so that I saw clearly, understood and then sank into deep and troublesome reflection about what on earth should I now do with all the knowledge and understanding. Let me explain.

This year I have a boy in one of the groups, who, before coming to my class, had never had an English lesson before. He’s (was) a complete beginner. If you’ve been reading this blog before, you know that my biggest challenge and worry is extremely mixed-level classes. I have to teach students whose language levels range between A1 – B2. So this poor chap found himself in a group of language learners who could all more or less make themselves understood and definitely comprehended everything that was going on  in the lesson. He, on the other hand, was utterly lost the first weeks, but then after many talks with me, lots of encouragement, additional help and incredible willpower of his own, started getting slowly onto his English feet. He learned hard, revised a lot before tests and got pretty decent results. The last exam of the semester was a written description of two people students could see on the screen. Students had to answer simple questions ‘What’s he wearing? What’s he carrying? What does he look like’ Now, he could have played it safe, like the guy back at university. He had definitely learned the vocabulary and had mastered the basic sentence structure by then. But he didn’t. Instead he wrote like a poet. He tried to play with the language, he used comparisons, was funny, and beautifully imaginative. And I could see it all shine through. I could see clearly everything he wanted to do, aspired for. But couldn’t. Not yet. He tried to fly, to soar high, but his wings are yet too small to carry him up there. So he basically plummeted to the ground. His writing was drowning in mistakes and the mark reflected that. I don’t know if my long and encouraging and hopefully inspiring personal comment at the end of the writing did any good. Maybe he even failed to read it. Maybe he was so disappointed and discouraged when seeing the mark he crumpled his anger together with the sheet and threw it into a bin. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that I am awfully disappointed too. And sad. And lost. Because I have started to wonder if we shouldn’t evaluate effort too. I mean, this guy is struggling along students who don’t even need to revise in order to pass the test. They’ve already acquired the knowledge and skills needed for this particular level. So of course, they simply turn up, jot down all they know and then walk away smugly knowing they’ve got another best mark in store for them. But the guy works hard to learn the material, he sweats his way through the lessons and trembles through tests and then never gets the best mark. I admit, he is in a very heterogenous class and has to put in extra effort to be able to catch up with the others. But there must be something I can do, besides regular encouraging comments and lots of after-the-lesson talks, to ‘pay him the salary’ he deserves.

And this merit issue brings me to one more incident, which falls into the same category as the previous story. I have one other student, a girl this time, whose struggles are pretty much similar to the boy’s. Only that her problem lies in the nature of test taking in general. Or as she put it ‘I learn, I learn and I know it’s okay but then I take the test and it’s all gone. I simply cannot do it!’ She has dyslexia on top of it all. Yet in the classroom she’s a cheerful, energetic and very talkative student. She is struggling too as her level is very low, but she is eager and has the valuable characteristic of a good learner – she LOVES to talk. But then there’s another test and she totally messes it up and I’m totally confused and hugely reluctant to break the news to her. So before the new year break I took her aside and let her know what my feelings were. I told her that the marks failed to reflect her efforts, that I appreciated her participation, her good mood, her energy a lot, that I was just as upset about her marks as she was and last but not least, I would think of possible ways to remedy this catastrophic situation.

Now, as I said above, this girl loves to talk. She’s good. She can make herself understood. Yet how often do we evaluate speaking? Maybe you do it a lot. Maybe you do it as regularly as written evaluation. But I don’t. It’s easier and faster to hand out written tests. Setting up oral evaluations is pretty tricky. I have only one 1 1/5 lesson per week with my students and there are approximately 15 students in each group. So having regular speaking tests seems logistically impossible. Yet languages are meant to be spoken. And there are students who are absolutely capable of talking but freeze in front of a blank page. Now, how unfair is that?! So having this idea in mind, I tossed and turned and tossed some more and decided that from now on I’ll introduce a new testing into the programme. I cannot test all of my students but I could evaluate two per week. So whatever the topic, one of the homework’s will be a short presentation. Say we are learning the vocabulary of seasons and weather. Students’ homework would be to prepare a short description of the seasons and weather in Switzerland. Ten minutes before the end of the lesson I would ask two students (randomly) to come up to me and we’d have a short discussion together. Meanwhile the other students can finish their exercises or start homework.  I would do that throughout the next semester. And I truly hope that the students who panic during regular tests, will be able to show their skills during our short and almost private talks and receive marks which will finally help to boost their self-confidence and back up their motivation.

So here I am all tangled up in the confusing mess of evaluation and student motivation and the possibly toxic fusion of the two. On one hand I have to test my students. We’re in a state school where marks are the signposts of their progress. They need to get familiar with testing and test types in order to pass the years and then eventually the final English test. But on the other hand, I wish to give marks that also reflect their effort, their personal progress, marks which encourage them rather than send yet another devastating blow. How to get around it all? How to be fair yet cater for different needs? How to help everyone on their particular journey?

In our next teacher training session, evaluation will be the central topic. Maybe I’ll walk away with lots of new and great ideas. Maybe not. I have been browsing through different teacher blogs looking for thoughts on the said topic. But the blogosphere is vast and my time limited.

I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this topic. But also any reading tips.

And last but not least – have you set up any original assessments which have tested students progress and effort in more alternative ways?

And yes, I will keep you posted on how the speaking tests go and whether I’ll come up with any other ways of helping my students show what they can rather than cannot do! Promise!


12 thoughts on “Measuring not measurable

  1. Hi Sirja,

    Thanks for this post. I really like the part about playing it safe vs. taking risks. Personally, I’m the one who’d desperately love to take risks, but I prefer to play it safe when writing. I hate it when my feelings don’t correspond with the words I’ve produced, and I understand those learners who simply try to get as close to their thoughts and emotions as possible, no matter the risks. The truth is that their style of writing then becomes too incomprehensible to be fully appreciated by the reader, and thus they lose rather than gain.

    Your problem with evaluation sounds familiar to me. It’s obviously easier and less time-consuming to test people in writing. On the other hand, you don’t need to test somebody orally for 15 minutes – that’s needlessly long. I’ve come to realize that the trickiest type of oral examination for my students is being asked random question on a specific topic. They know the topic but don’t know the questions in advance, so they really need to be spontaneous and inventive. I only accept answers as long as 4-5 sentences, complex ones, if possible. This can take less than a couple of minutes, and you can easily judge how much/little they’ve improved over time and provide the student and the whole class with lots of valuable feedback. I have a class of 22 intermediate students and like you, I can’t afford to spend an enormous time on oral examination – for that reason I also give grades while monitoring the class during group and pair work.

    Good luck with your new methods. 🙂


  2. Hi Hana,
    Thank you so much for commenting. I’m glad to have your wise and profound thoughts in my blog! They’ll make my space so much richer.
    Your current response stays truthful to you, to the Hana I’ve started to get to know through your blog, through your writing. And this means your take on things is very deep and helpful.
    I guess you’re absolutely right about the risk-taking hurdles, about students becoming incomprehensible to their readers. It’s just that seeing someone trying so hard and even starting to enjoy using the new language, but then failing so miserably – it’s this enormous disappointment that gets to me. But then again, you need to learn to handle risk-taking and mere trying and goodwill is not enough.

    As for oral evaluation, I’ve been thinking about using observation tactics as well. I could set up a group work and then assess what I hear over a set time. It’s definitely an idea I’m going to look into!

    Once again, thank you so much, Hana!

  3. Sirja,
    Your blog, I don’t know why exactly, is the only blog I read. I am a teacher of EFL from Egypt. I learn a lot from you and can relate to most of what you say. Your texts energize me and more importantly make me happy for a few reasons.
    Well, unfortunately, I have very little to say helping you in that issue of fair assessment, mainly due to the fact that I teach in a quite different situation; I teach (young) adults, in a private non-profit organization. This might sound like heaven to any teacher. It truly is heaven; I have no set format of tests. I furthermore do not have to stick to any test of any kind. I experiment everything I think of any use to my learners. I focus much more on speaking vs reading and writing. I do the assessment throughout every lesson by asking my students to freely or restrictively practice what they have just learned. My students sometimes tend to over-estimate written tests, though. But I keep reminding them, directly and indirectly, to the importance of skills compared to scores.
    I wish I could help you as you help me, but maybe after this ice-breaker I am a bit less reluctant to speak up and have something useful to say.
    You are a great teacher. I envy you!

    • Hi Shaban, and thank you for your extremely kind words.
      I have always felt that skills are way more important than scores and I oftentimes tell my students that what is important to my mind is that they learn enough basics and hopefully more to be able to communicate.
      But tests are an obligatory part in my teaching situation so this semester’s objective is to try and find ways to assess my students in ways I feel reflect their progress and, let’s hope, motivate them.

  4. I think you have a great assessment model for spoken communication. I don’t know what kind of speaking tasks you give in the class, but you could assess a similar discussion with yourself removed. Focus on two students while the others are having their own unassessed discussions. If technology is available, you can do as I do and just have students record themselves with smartphones in class, send you the file, and you can then assess the entire class several times.

    Great post!

    • Hi Anthony,
      and thanks for stopping by! I guess the idea of assessing a pair of students performing a task is a good one. I will very, very likely use it this semester! Not to mention this kind of assessment is also part of Cambridge exams and why not familiarise my students with that as well.
      I hope I’ll have time to keep a track of my new assessment techniques in this blog, too.

  5. In a past job we gave students a mark for participation as 10% of their final mark. There was a criteria for what they had to do for each score which included taking risks with language. Would that be possible for you?

    • Hi there, Yes, it’s a good idea and I’ll definitely look into it as well.
      I mean, I have to give marks, but how I do it, well, this is pretty much up to me. So yes, I’m open to ALL new ideas and alternatives.
      Thank you very much!

    • Wowdie, thanks a lot for the link! Will read asap.
      My learners are actually young adults. I teach English in a vocational school to future graphic designers.
      Once again, thanks!

  6. Hi Sirja
    Our teaching environments are more or less the same. I am also an EFL teacher in a vocational school and my classes are extremely mixed-ability. The difference lies in the school systems, I’d say. Since there are no standardised or summative tests at the end of the school year, I tend to be more flexible in grading. I strongly believe that a language is learned to be spoken so I grade oral competence of my students. It does not imply that I do not give written tests as well. The final grade is the combination of the two. How to keep weak students motivated is an issue I am struggling with, too. The grading system which only measures the level of proficiency ties our hands. Although I try hard to be supportive, the majority of my weak students get easily discouraged. Only the most ambitious among them persevere. I have written about this issue in my other blog. Here is the link if you feel like reading it –
    I wish you more gains than pains in 2015. 🙂

    • Glad to read your thoughts here!
      Dealing with the demotivated students is an extremely tough nut to crack, isn’t it? I believe that all devoted teachers put lots of effort into helping these students to find their voice, to discover the mysterious way to their self-esteem and to make them believe in success. However, it’s not always possible to help every single learner. After all, it’s one teacher and lots of students. Of course, teachers tend to be their own hardest critics and are quick to blame themselves for any shortcomings in their classes. But that’s when some realistic and self-preserving attitude comes in handy. We can try, test various techniques, establish classroom ambience etc, but we are no wizards. Sometimes all we can do is farm the soil hoping one day something will blossom.

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