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- Formative Assessment: Opportunities and Challenges in Secondary Language Education
Formative Assessment: Opportunities and Challenges in Secondary Language Education
Anna Jančová has been teaching English in Slovak secondary schools for 25 years. She is also an owner of a small private language school. As a graduate of the Comenius Institute – a programme for progressive teacher leaders in Slovakia, enjoys turning new ideas about teaching into action, and to disseminate them among Slovak teachers. Her professional interests include memory, creativity, and critical thinking in language learning. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Although different ways of formative assessment have become more widely used in Slovak primary schools, this form of evaluation of students is still neglected in secondary schools. This is rather unfortunate, as according to neuroscientists, psychologists and educational researchers, adolescence is a key period in the development of the brain and this time might be essential for development of some skills necessary for the future success of our students. Formative assessment can be one of the most effective tools for supporting secondary students’ development.
Adolescent brain development and its effect on learning skills
Adolescence can be defined as transition from childhood to adulthood, or as psychological, social, and emotional changes that accompany puberty.
This is a time of intensive changes in the brain. In adolescence, synaptic pruning takes place in the frontal lobes of the brain. Adolescents lose approximately 3% of the grey matter in the frontal lobes. Neuroscientist Jay Giedd compares this pruning to Michelangelo chipping away on a block of marble. The marble is sculpted away until David emerges. Something similar happens in the adolescent brain. It starts approximately at the age of 11. The brain prunes away excess material and connections to make a more efficient and refined adult brain. This, together with myelination (the process of forming a myelin sheath around a nerve), leads to huge/major changes to an adolescent brain.
Only after these changes have taken place can a brain see things as relative, not as absolute. It becomes more emphatic. It starts to think abstractly and hypothetically. What is really important (and we should keep it in mind) from this point on is that adolescents learn to think about their future and consider more possibilities. Until this stage of development, adolescents have a great deal of difficulty prioritizing and goal setting. Following these changes, they start learn how to plan and organize multiple tasks. Their ability to reflect on their life situation begins to develop.
Brain changes and formative assessment
The knowledge of these facts can help us look for and provide “learning moments“ that can help adolescents strengthen skills such as reasoning, planning and goal setting. Different forms of formative assessment might foster their self-development. With these facts in mind, we can devise forms of formative assessment that can help teenagers to not only make progress in the educational process but also to obtain/acquire skills for their future lives, even if they are not yet mature enough to make plans, predictions and decisions for their distant future.
Assessment and lifelong learning skills
Assessment is a process that should be present in all stages and parts of learning. Without assessment, neither teachers nor students know whether real learning has occurred. There are many ways that assessment can be carried out on a daily, or regular basis in order to check whether students are making progress in different language skills. Such methods are well-known, and most language teachers are familiar with and know how to use them.
As teachers, what we often forget is how to develop our students’ lifelong learning skills. We often suppose that adolescents have already found their own ways of learning and that they have already developed strong learning habits. But very often this is far from the truth.
That is why, in addition to practising language skills, I try to help my students to develop their own effective ways of learning in general. In my daily assessment, as well as in end-of-term assessment, I try to consider the relevant factors about a teenage brain, and use them to make assessment more appropriate and effective. Before, as well as after working on a task, we occasionally discuss the order and importance of sub-tasks, different ways of planning their work, and we look for the ways of planning and checking that work best for them.
Feedforward – eliciting the future from the present
With regard to what was said about the specifics of an adolescent brain, it might be difficult for teenage students to develop their skills which help them set up long-term goals, plan their work and/or keep their internal motivation for a longer period.
One possible way of how to show them connections between their present activities and their future is by using elements of the Solution Focused Approach. This psychotherapeutic movement started in the 1970s and has been successfully implemented into pedagogical strategies by Insoo Kim Berg. It offers many advantages for work with adolescents, as it gives a clear view of how to work on strategies for future because it is:
- solution oriented - instead of detailed analysis of problems, it concentrates on building up solutions
- future oriented - it helps to create a picture of the future and not get stuck in the past
- resource oriented - it is built on qualities that students already have, and those that help them move forward.
The Solution Focused Approach (SFA) focuses on taking small steps which students are not afraid of; these help them learn how to plan work and think realistically about their present abilities. The basic principles of this approach are quite simple and easy to remember. So, if well introduced, they can quickly become a part of the adolescents’ work habits, in spite of the limitations of their, still developing, cognitive skills.
The key principles of SFA are:
- If something works, do more of it.
- If it does not work, do not fix it; look for something new.
- Change is constant and certain.
- Solutions are not always connected with problems.
- Small changes can bring huge outcomes.
- Make small steps.
When and how to assess learning skills
Some teachers analyse their students’ learning skills just as a part of “crisis management” when they see that students are really struggling with learning. Regular monitoring of and feedback on students’ present situation are much more effective.
When I start working with a new class, I usually monitor students’ views on learning; what they think works for them and what strategies they prefer. This can be done in discussions, as well as through a questionnaire. The content should be more general, aimed at eliciting good learning practices that students have already come across. I usually ask my students about the ways they learn:
- what helps them to stay motivated and focussed,
- how they work with feedback,
- what learning resources they know, use, and prefer,
- whether they have any good experience with some time management tips,
- which specific skills they want to develop in our class, etc.
The specific formulation of the questions depends on each class – the less they have been working with learning skills, the more specific the questions should be. All the information gathered from their responses helps me and my students with planning and setting goals. Moreover, in many cases, this self-assessing process might also serve as a starting point for some students to realize that it is they who are responsible for their own progress.
After a few weeks of working together, I usually ask my students to reflect on our work in class so far. This feedback should be aimed mainly at my work as a teacher, and it reveals what has been working best for my students to date and whether they are happy with the pedagogic strategies I use in the class.
A few weeks before the end of a term, before I start work on the students’ final assessment, I ask my students for their last self-assessment. Again, it includes not only questions about language development, but they also evaluate their study skills. It is usually a valuable source of information which can reveal facts about students that I may not have noticed during lessons. This might help me identify “feedforward tips” – tips for further development which are always a part of my final assessment. These tips become our starting point when we start work next school year.
Lure them out of their comfort zones
Adolescent students have usually been learning a foreign language for several years. They have reached a certain level and very often they get stuck there. For some of them, it is difficult to overcome this ‘plateau’ and continue developing their language to the next level. This is exactly the moment when self- assessment of their learning skills and habits can show where the problems may lie. Students very often do things just because they are used to doing them; they do not think about whether their current strategies are still effective and they do not know any others.
Sometimes they are afraid to try something new. It is my role then, as a teacher, to show them other ways and possibilities, and to encourage them to move from their comfort zone by trying out new ways of learning..
A good way of spotting students’ weak points is to occasionally let them choose from a variety of activities or tasks. When, after some time, I go through their portfolios, I can see that students with slower progress tend to choose the same types of activities; usually those aimed at lower cognitive skills. They lack the courage and skills to tackle more ambitious tasks. These students need our supportive guidance, well thought out and simple tips on how to get a bit further away from their comfort zones. Such changes should be done gradually - in small steps. Of course, we should look for solutions in co-operation with the students; not only point to their problems.
Formative assessment of teenagers in secondary language education provides an opportunity to overcome many pedagogical obstacles that this challenging period in life places in our way. To use it effectively, teachers must take into account both the physiological and psychological factors related to the development of adolescents, and help the young learners to not only identify their problems but also to look for best possible solutions.
Berg, I., Szabó,P. (2005) Brief Coaching for Lasting Solutions. New York: W.W.Norton
William, D. (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment.Bloomington: Solution Tree Press
Dweck, C. (2016) Mindset. New York: Random House
Jensen,F., Nutt,E. (2015) The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. New York: Harper
Inside the Teenage Brain. Interview Jay Giedd. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/interviews/giedd.html
Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.
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