Formative Assessment Pt. 2: Eliciting Evidence of Achievement

This the second post of a series  considering  Dylan Wiliam’s ideas on embedded formative assessment in EFL  classes at high schools in Japan. Mr. Wiliam is a proponent of assessment for learning, a system where teachers work closely with learners to guide them to better learning. In the previous post, I looked at learning intentions, picking up some of his recommendations and describing how they might fit in EFL classes.  To learn more about Dylan Wiliam, you can visit his website, or read this article from The Guardian, or read his latest book about why and how to make greater use of formative assessment, Embedded Formative Assessment. A BBC documentary of his initiatives called The Classroom Experiment is also available on YouTube (Part 1 and Part 2). Some of the ideas in this post are observable in the TV program and I encourage you to watch it. The book is much richer than the program and I encourage you to get and read it.

In Chapter 4 of his book, Dylan Wiliam illustrates a problem with a nice story. Ask small children what causes wind and they might say it’s trees. They are not being stupid, they are using their observations and creatively making sense of what they see. But it’s a classic confusion of correlation and causation. Your own students would never do such a thing, would they? Oh, yes, they would. They misunderstand, misinterpret, overgeneralize, oversimplify, etc. etc.  probably more often than you think; and it’s your job as a teacher to catch them when they do. By eliciting evidence of learning (or lack of learning), we make it easier for learners to stay on the path of learning. It is important–crucial–that learners and teachers know if learners are on that path, or are veering into the trees (as it were). Very often students manage to achieve the correct answer without really understanding why. But by cleverly using questions and other techniques and attentively listening to learners, we (and they) can get a better idea of how they are progressing. Teachers, aware of some of the common problems learners regularly experience, should give learners the opportunity to make those common errors. This garden path/trap technique is unfair on a test, but is a useful tool in assessment where the goal is to make error salient to  the learner, his peers, and the teacher.

At present, too few of the questions teachers ask in class help to do this. In research cited by Mr. Wiliam for an elementary school class, 57% of teacher questions were related to classroom management, 35% was used for rehearsing things students already know, and only 8% required students to analyze, make inferences, or to generalize–in a word, to really think. For Mr. Wiliam, this represents a good place to make some changes and he suggests things that we do two things at the same time: promote thinking (to see if it’s happening), and increase engagement in that thinking by a larger percentage of the class. These things, unsurprisingly, have “a significant impact on student achievement.”

So how can things be done in language classrooms? Looking at the chapter, it seems that most of this applies to science, history, and math courses, the ponder and wonder courses. Language courses, especially if we have a strong skill focus element as I pushed for last post, seem to require a different kind of learning. But all disciplines are a combination of skills and knowledge. And the techniques Mr. Wiliam describes can be adjusted for different parts of different courses. I will use the terms question and answer when illustrating the techniques, but they could be used for knowledge questions of usage or application of strategies or skill demonstrations of listening or reading comprehension or pronunciation, etc. So let’s get to them. Once again, I am selecting the techniques I think best match high school EFL courses. This is not a comprehensive list and the examples are mostly illustrated by how I imagine they could be used here in Japan. Here we go.

1) The No Questions By Role Rule (my variation of the No Hands Up Rule). Fortunately in Japan we are not oppressed by that small clique of students in every class who seem to raise their hands to venture answers or provide extra comments for almost every question and statement that comes out of a teacher’s mouth. I’ve probably had fewer hands up to answer questions in my 25 years of teaching here than the average North American teacher experiences on a Monday morning. In order to prevent that small clique from monopolizing class (and learning) time, Mr. Wiliam came up with his No Hands Up rule. In Japan, teachers typically go down the role list or go up and down rows picking the students to answer questions. It’s more democratic, yes, but there are similar problems. I’ve regularly observed students counting the questions and students so they can focus on getting their answer to their question right, completely disregarding every other question. What we need is for all students to be engaged in answering all questions. So instead of the roles or the hands, Mr. Wiliam recommends a pot of popsicle sticks, each with the name of one of the students written on it. The teacher asks a question and then pulls a stick from the pot and asks that student to answer it. It forces all students to pay attention and try to come up with an answer since they don’t know when their name will be called.  Of course, variations on this can make it better for your class (see the video for some of these). Adding more than one stick for some special  students is one way, and putting a student in charge of pulling names is another. Another technique is the Pose-Pause-Pounce-Bounce, which can be used along with the sticks. Ask the question, and give everyone a bit of time to think; then choose a student to answer; then ask another student to evaluate the first student’s answer.

Some of you are already shaking your heads. Too many students will answer with “I don’t know.” It’ll be stick after stick after stick of “I don’t know.” What’ll you do then, huh? Well, Mr. Wiliam offers a few suggestions for that, too, because it is essential that all students be brought into the ring of engagement. Get more students to answer and then ask the I-don’t-knower to choose the best answer. Or gamify things a little. Use game techniques like “Phone a Friend“, or give the student two choices and let him or her gamble on the answer. The key point is: keep them engaged and thinking, no matter what it takes, for as long as it takes. Don’t let them slip into drowsy disengagement in the warm sunlight in the back corner of the class. Sleeping students are a real problem in Japan. Sleeping should not be allowed. A policy of zero tolerance for disengagement should be embraced. It’s not easy and it might negatively impact the brighter, more motivated learners for a while, but in the end it is a better approach, Mr. Wiliam argues. Watch the video of  The Classroom Experiment to see some blowback, though.

2) Hot Seat and Waiting Time. In the Hot Seat technique, one student is chosen to answer several teacher questions. Another student is then chosen to summarize or report on what the first student answered. The teacher then gives his or her evaluation. The reason for this is to give learners enough waiting time to process and evaluate in their own heads the answers of their peers before the teacher provides the “correct” answer. Without that waiting time, learners just listen and wait for the right answer from the teacher rather than develop the habit of evaluating ideas themselves. This, of course, can be done with any questions. Be sure to allow enough time for everyone to hear, process, and assess an answer before you,as the teacher, pronounce judgement on it.

3) Multiple Choice Questions For Thinking. Give the learners a set of three, four, or five sentences and ask them to answer a question about them. Which are grammatically correct? Which are academic and which are more casual? Which grammar rules are true? How are the items related? Which one doesn’t belong in the set? Etc. These are all questions that can stimulate pair, group, or whole-class discussions.

4) Variations for No. 3. There are many ways of making use of questions or multiple choice questions or statements for evaluation mentioned in the book. Giving learners cards (A,B,C,D, for example) that everyone can hold up to display their choices can be a nice way of getting the whole class involved in answering. Exit passes are another variation. Each student must write and submit an answer or an opinion on a paper before leaving the class. This forces all students to participate and gives the teacher something concrete in his/her hands.

Many of these techniques are second nature to many teachers, but it is amazing how many do not ever dip their toes in the waters of achievement checking until they are slashing stokes on the the final tests. Making thinking visible has been a buzzy concept for the last few years. One book promotes many ideas for doing so, one of which fits right in with what Mr. Wiliam is suggesting. When eliciting student responses, ask a follow-up question: What makes you say that? This is something I’ve tried successfully in my own classes. It makes students think more deeply and justify their ideas more. Ideas like this are not only effective in L1 content courses. Ideas and approaches like Mr. Wiliam’s  could work very nicely in EFL classrooms in Japan. At present there is a strong tendency for the teacher to just teach, imparting (or so he/she believes) knowledge to learners. Learners are asked to “study.” But aside from memorizing words, or memorizing the text, they usually don’t know what to do. Next year, the Ministry of Education is pushing for all teachers to teach English in English. Mr. Wiliam’s techniques can fit really nicely with that. The techniques listed above could allow for more meaningful use of English in the classroom, more engagement by all learners, and very possibly more learning.

Next: Part 3, Moving right along.

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