Assessment is an essential part of teaching and learning a language. Biggs and Tang highlight that “what and how students learn depends on how they think they will be assessed” [1,164]. Moreover, Long states that without assessment “teaching would be a rather unfocused activity” [5, 47]. Therefore, the purposes of good practice in assessment should be clearly determined. There are three main purposes in assessment: diagnostic, formative and summative.
Diagnostic assessment helps a teacher to understand what the students know. Cohen et al. emphasize that diagnostic assessment defines “student’s particular strengths, weaknesses, difficulties and needs…” [3, 327]. It enables a teacher to determine how the lessons should be designed, what s/he should focus on, and what should be done to make the learning process and assessment productive and effective. Therefore, a teacher’s task is to diagnose students’ knowledge using the assessment methods that should be valid, i.e. assessing what should be assessed and not evaluating any extra knowledge/skills.
After diagnosing students’ knowledge and skills, formative assessment starts. Cohen et al. state that formative assessment is “assessment for learning” [3, 329]. It helps a teacher to form the learning process and improve students’ achievement. That is why, the assessment methods chosen by a teacher are very important. They should be authentic, i.e. true to real life and appropiriate for the level. Being aware of plagiarism can also make assessment authentic because a teacher should be confident that a student will not copy a part from his/her peer’s work or from any other sources. Moreover, assessment should be based on the learning outcomes, which show what students will be able to do. Knowing and understanding the learning outcomes enable learners to have a clear picture of the learning process and final results. That is, the assessment will be transparent to students. Taylor emphasizes the importance of transparency in assessment and refers this principle to the connection between the learning outcomes and assessment criteria [7, 2].
A major feature of formative assessment is providing timely feedback to students. It gives an opportunity for learners to see where they are, what they have achieved and what areas should be improved to achieve the intended learning outcomes. Taylor emphasizes that feedback gives an opportunity to “motivate students, promote their ability and desire for self-assessment, and develop aptitudes for independent and life long-learning” [8, 8]. That is, learners should be stimulated for further learning. Feedback is considered to be an informal method of assessment as it is not mark-based. Comments can be given both in written and oral forms. It might be important to have a special pro-forma for a written one. The pro-forma serves as a record of students’ achievement and they can refer to feedback whenever they want. Long points out that learners received detailed comments in the pro-forma improved their scores by 30 % [5, 50]. Oral feedback can be given individually and in groups. Providing group feedback enables a teacher to give general comments showing what has been achieved by most learners and what areas should be improved. However, individual feedback provides more opportunities for students to have a face-to-face discussion, give more questions and get more explanation. Comments can be also provided by the learners themselves and their peers as they become additional sources for each other and can reflect on both their own and peers’ work.
Working on the feedback enables students to learn from mistakes, improve their ‘weak’ points and to be ready for summative assessment, which Cohen et al. define as “assessment of learning” [3, 329]. Learners show the end product of a definite learning process. However, it is not the final stage in learning as one of the principles of effective assessment is long-lasting learning. Students should know what they have achieved and thus go to the next stage in their learning process.
In summative assessment, grading is very important for students as they see what they have learned and how well they have performed. Summative assessment is mark-based; therefore, it is formal. Criterion-referenced approach, “which grades against sets of predetermined criteria” [4, 171] is crucial in this assessment. It will give an opportunity for students to see what and how well has been done and what needs further improvement. Summative assessment is also provided with feedback which can be both written and oral. However, unlike formative feedback, a summative feedback pro-forma should show the actual mark with comments. In summative assessment marking process is also important. The final decision should not be biased, i.e. be reliable. Light and Cox explain realiability as “consistency in marking” [4, 176]; thus, a teacher is fair to all the students. It can be reached through cross and second marking. Cross marking is a process of marking the same works (randomly chosen out of all) by a group of teachers and discussing them before the marking process of all the works to be marked starts. It is significant to have second marking (re-marking a work by a second teacher) in order not to have discrepancy and avoid subjectivity. Both types of marking enable teachers to make the assessment reliable. Hence, good assessment “lets staff know how they and their students are doing and it gives them the performance indicators that they need” [2, 3].
Having discussed the purposes and principles of good practice in assessment, it is appropriate to focus on an essay, which is considered to be one of the open-ended types of written assessment. Cohen et al. claim that essay as an assessment method has some advantages because it enables learners to [adapted from 3, 344]:
- integrate, apply and synthesize knowledge (the students analyze printed and on-line sources and search for necessary arguments which can be incorporated in the essay)
- demonstrate the ability for expression and self-expression (the students choose the topic of their interest, and prove their own opinion on the problem presenting the arguments)
- demonstrate higher order and divergent cognitive processes (the students evaluate the material they read and the essay they write)
It is essentional so that any essay writing process should be started with a diagnostic test. The learners can be asked to write a short piece (a paragraph or an essay) on the topic relevant to the programme (syllabus). This diagnostic test enables to understand that although the learners might have some knowledge on writing, they will need more knowledge and skills on paragraph development, incorporation of sources, and some knowledge on language (appropriate vocabulary, punctuation, grammar, etc.).
The final version of the essay, i.e. summative assessment, is usually submitted in the middle or at the end of semester. The tutors mark the work and may fill in the summative feedback pro-forma. As it is the formal method, the essay is assessed against the criteria (content, structure, referencing conventiona, language, argumentation, etc.). The feedback should be also provided because long-lasting learning is important for language learners.
Summing up, it is important for every language teacher to take into account assessment principles and purposes while designing an assessment task for writing. This knowledge will enable language instructors to become more professional not only in teaching but also in assessment as “…good teaching helps students to become aware that educationally valid assessment is an opportunity to learn and to reveal the depth of one’s knowledge” [7,190]. Without being able to evaluate students’ knowledge and skills appropriately, teachers will not be able to deliver the relevant content, see how their students are learning and if their teaching methods are effective in the given context.
- Biggs, J. and Tang, C., (2007). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. 3rd ed. Maidenhead: SRHE/Open University Press.
- Brown, S., (1999). Institutional Strategies for Assessment. In: Brown, S. and Glasner, A., (eds.) Assessment Matters in Higher Education. Buckingham: SRHE/Open University Press, pp 3–13.
- Cohen, L. et al., (2004). A Guide to teaching Practice. 5th ed. London and New York: Routledge.
- Light, G. and Cox, R., (2001). Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Professional. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.