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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Alternative Language Testing for Effective Learning

Paper published on MATE 34th Conference Newsletter , January 2014 Tangiers - Morocco

With the advent of the communicative approach to language teaching, student- centeredness and learners-autonomy have become two main touchstones around which the whole teaching-learning process revolves and upon which a language curricula including assessment are being designed. On this basis, if learners‘ autonomy is defined as the ability to take personal or self-regulated responsibility for learning, which would predict academic performance, as Bonson and Voller (1997) defined it, an efficient language assessment model, accordingly, would be the one that provides students with learner-centered feedback on their task performance, promote autonomy and encourage responsibility for learning. A good language test should also increase students‘ intrinsic motivation and engagement in their learning process. Thus, the purpose of an efficient language test is not supposed to merely discriminate between good and poor learners: who should pass or fail a given learning level. Rather, it is meant to 1) inform language facilitators about the strengths, the weaknesses as well as the needs of learners, 2) foster learners‘ learning responsibilities, 3) lower students‘ affective filter and anxiety, and more importantly, 4) enhance learning outcomes.

By incorporating these four objectives while designing a language test, testing becomes an interactive process that involves different elements, allowing learners active participations in the whole testing process, and not simply requiring them to perform the task of reproducing correct answers during an evaluation. A test, according to the dynamic approach, may take different alternative formats, including students’ portfolios, group projects, presentations, and peer and self-assessments among others. On the one hand, by engaging learners in these form of interactive assessments, instructors will not only gain insights about the learners‘ language proficiency level, but also collect data on the learners‘ meta-learning strategies of different language macro-skills (speaking, reading, writing, listening, and understanding), and together with learners, teachers will identify the weaknesses and strengthen of each and every learner both independently and within the group; and thus determine the next learning steps and outcomes. On the other hand, having the chance to participate in the design of test formats and procedures, learners will develop a long-lasting appreciation of assessment, for they no longer perceive it as a moment of anxiety, humiliation, and judgment, but rather a constructive part in their learning journey that informs them about the best ways to become responsible for their learning, and be equipped with the most effective cognitive strategies.

Because of their pivotal roles in the success or failure of any learners‘ language learning experience, teachers can play colossal parts in alternative and dynamic assessment. Poehner and Lantolf (2009) argue that teachers should cater for continuous assistance during interactive assessment for the sake of promoting autonomous learning. Put differently, teachers should encourage students to jointly carry out activities that help the latter stretch beyond their current capabilities. Teachers, in this regard, simultaneously play the role of instructors and assessors, who also encourage learners‘ peer and self-assessments. By so doing teachers contribute both in changing the traditional practice of evaluation in their classroom settings; and in altering their learners‘ perception of assessment into positive attitudes. Finally, an efficacy of a language test depends heavily on understanding the needs of learners, the purpose for which the test is designed, implementation procedures, and clarity of test guidelines and instructions. Of course teachers are not solely expected to understand these elements; they are required to inform about and explain them to students, as well. Studies have shown that learners‘ motivation and performance during evaluation phase gets higher when clear objectives and step-by-step instructions are provided.

To conclude, the field of testing is gaining wider landscapes in modern language didactics due to the complexity and importance of the process, along with the advent of contemporary schools to language teaching such student-centered and task-based approaches that locate learner-autonomy in the core of the learning process. As one of the practitioners and advocates of these models, I do believe that an efficient test in language learning is the one that is set to assist both learners and teachers alike to determine the weaknesses and strengths of the students for the sake of underlying the learners‘ needs upon which the next learning phase will be planned and designed. Accordingly, teachers need to be informed about and make their learners also aware of the multifunction and formats of modern language testing, putting so much emphasis on formative assessment. Alternative and interactive assessments should be given an integral part of teaching, intertwining with, if not replacing, traditional form of assessments. Indeed, if we define language as a means of communication by and through which human being communicatively perform both societal and survival tasks, it follows, then, that testing should help us learn how to perform those tasks successfully in an emotionally and psychologically safe environment.

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