Formative Assessment Pt. 5: Owning Learning

This is the final post considering the implementation of Dylan Wiliam’s ideas on formative assessment in EFL classrooms in Japan. The ideas come mostly from his wonderful 2011 book titled Embedded Formative Assessment. You can learn more about Mr. Wiliam from his website or from a BBC documentary titled The Classroom Experiment (available on YouTube: Part 1 and Part 2). Earlier posts covered these topics: 1) Raising Awareness of Learning Intentions, 2) Eliciting Evidence of Achievement, 3) Feedback from the Teacher, and 4) Peer Feedback and Cooperative Learning. This post will look at how to make learners more autonomous. This does not necessarily mean getting learners to do more outside of the classroom (though it can). Often it means just having the learners clearly signal when learning is not happening, and reaching out for resources that can rectify that.

As a parent, I know that the most efficient way of getting my kids to clean up the family room is to do it myself. It’s faster, I can be sure the job is done well, and best of all, no time or energy has to be used for the messy business of requesting, cajoling, demanding, and inevitably, getting angry and/or disappointed. But, as my wife so correctly points out, that’s just bad parenting. It’s also a bad way of going about teaching. Ultimately, it is the learners who have to learn. And they need to learn how they learn and how they can improve that. But it ain’t easy.

One of the themes of Embedded Formative Assessment is to focus on the the cognitive, the task, the goal, and learning,  and take the focus off the emotional, the immediate sense of well-being, and “get the egos of the students out of the learning situation.” For improved autonomy, this entails dealing with issues of metacognition and motivation and Mr. Wiliam does another nice job of laying out the research context. What goes on in a learner’s head is tricky because so many things are at play–and the cognitive/motivational landscape is,  like any good offer you manage to find, subject to change without notice. As Mr. Wiliam summarizes it, it depends on the learner’s “perception of the task and its context, [the learner’s] knowledge about the task and what it will take to be successful, and [the learner’s] motivational beliefs, including their interest and whether they think they know enough to succeed.” Greatly affecting  this is the notion of self-efficacy, the belief that success comes from effort and is attainable. That needs to be nurtured, as I have mentioned before. But Mr. Wiliam is suggesting a wider approach. Everything he has talked about in the previous chapters helps to promote autonomy, by encouraging the learner to focus on growth. Encouraging the transfer of executive control from the teacher to the learner is just another part of it, and if the focus of the course and  the focus of the class  is on learning, on giving and getting feedback that moves the learning forward, then it is easier for the learner to see that as one of her own jobs, too. There are, of course, no “quick fixes.” But Mr. Wiliam provides a few practical ideas for encouraging learners to move toward owning learning. One of the  keys is establishing channels of communication and then promoting their use.

Colored Cards or disks, or cups for reacting to difficult topics.  Mr. Wiliam suggests a few ideas of how to use traffic light cards or cups or disks or marks to signal to the teacher if learning or understanding has happened or not. Creating an environment where learners can use the signals is essential for their success. Part of that involves responding in a way that takes the teacher’s ego out of the equation as well. The teacher needs to react responsibly when learners signal a failure of learning. One idea Mr. Wiliam suggests, illustrates how this can be done to promote autonomy. Let’s say the teacher has just finished explaining a particularly gnarly grammar item like the difference between perfect and simple past tenses. The students signal their understanding using cups/cards/disks. After students hold up red, yellow, or green cards, the teacher instructs  the green card students to help the yellow card students while she gathers the red card students together for further teaching or help. Everyone wins here. The students feel the teacher is responsive. The good learners get a chance to cognitively elaborate, the weak learners get some rephrasing/reinforcement, and the weakest learners get the second chance they need.

Learning Portfolios. For productive skills, have the learners keep samples of their writing or presentations or conversations in a portfolio. This can be done digitally, though that will require some tech savvy on the part of the teacher. The idea is to have a few samples that can allow the learner to see the trajectory of his or her improvement. That sends two very important messages: change is happening (possible); and you make it happen. I’ve done something similar in writing class effectively. I had learners keep their’ first assignments after asking them how long it took them to complete them. Then at the end of term, I asked them to compare their first assignment to their most recent assignment in terms of sentence variety, sentence word length, and time for assignment completion. The results  always showed improvement and caused learners to feel proud of their achievement. I used to look forward to that class every year.

“Reflecting critically on one’s own learning is emotionally charged, which is why developing such skills takes time, especially with students who are accustomed to failure,” Mr. Wiliam says. He is talking about all but a few of the English language learners at high schools in Japan, I’m afraid, where average exam scores are in the 40s or 50s or 60s. Success is usually passing a test and not accomplishing a communicative act, or understanding or performing with confidence. Mr. Wiliam’s techniques can help make classrooms less of a teacher-controlled one-way info barrage. That would be a step in the right direction.



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