Formative Assessment Pt. 4: Getting Other Learners Involved

This is the fourth 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). The first posting in this series looked at learning intentions. The second looked at eliciting evidence of achievement. The third looked at how and when teachers can best provide feedback to learners. This post will look at cooperative learning and peer involvement in learning. Mr. Wiliam’s point is that when learners are working together and helping each other, they are naturally giving and getting formative feedback.

Real cooperative learning is a little like real communism. It’s a nice idea but in actual practice, too many people just game the system for their own benefit to get maximum reward for minimum effort. Teachers have serious–and well-founded–concerns about the amount and quality of participation that is brought to the group table by all members. Mr. Wiliam’s comparatively short  chapter on activating students as instructional resources for one another approaches the topic with a tone that makes you think he shares at least some of that sense of trepidation. The research is clearly positive, and Mr. Wiliam presents the profound effects that have been found for cooperative learning, if it is done right (which it usually isn’t). Mr. Wiliam explains how it works (motivation, social cohesion, personalization, and cognitive elaboration) and what two elements are crucial (group goals and individual accountability) before ending the the first part of the chapter with a discussion on how many teachers have a problem with pure, uncut cooperative learning (holding everyone accountable by giving everyone in a group the same score as the lowest-scoring member) and then citing stats that show how few teachers are actually making use of real cooperative learning in their classrooms (very, very few). And on that mixed note of confidence, he begins listing his techniques. I’ll get to the techniques I think might work in Japanese high school EFL classes in a moment, but first an educational culture point needs to be addressed.

There seems to be a strong sense that Japanese classrooms are naturally more cooperative because, well, Japanese group culture makes it easier. Mr. Wiliam states the same thing in his book, listing as “proof” the contrasting proverbs of the squeaky wheel gets the grease (US) and the nail that sticks out will get hammered down (Japan). In addition to the book containing  a mistake with the Japanese version of the proverb, I think this generalization is more than a little stereotypical. Anyone who has seen Japanese students “unmotivated” in regular classes come together in a club activity or festival project knows that  group power and individual accountability are impressive but cannot be taken for granted; and anyone who has seen PTA mothers–dedicated, concerned parents all–trying to avoid being elected for positions that require work knows that Japanese, like anyone else I imagine, can go to pretty great lengths to remain uninvolved, despite being a members of a nation known for being responsible and group-oriented. But I don’t want to get on Mr. Wiliam’s back because his main point is sound: we want to get everyone more involved with helping each other because there are great benefits when that happens; and it really matters how you do it.

One idea that any school can use is the “Secret Student.” You can see it in practice in the BBC video. It is a devious bit of peer pressure judo teachers can use to promote better behavior in the classroom and I think it would work brilliantly in Japan. Each day one student is chosen at random as the secret student and his/her behavior is monitored by the teacher(s). If the student’s behavior/participation is good, his/her identity is revealed to the class at the end of the lesson or day. And the whole class gets a point that goes toward some reward (a trip to an amusement park in the video!). If the behavior/participation of the student is unsatisfactory, the identity is not revealed and the class is informed that they did not get a point for that day. This would almost certainly help to improve participation and reduce disruptive behavior (two really big problems in most high school English classrooms). The only problem is what reward can be offered. It would have to be something possible yet motivating.

One technique to get started with cooperative learning is “Two Stars and a Wish.” Students give feedback on other students’ work  by stating two things they like and one thing that they think could be improved. Mr. William suggests using sticky notes for this feedback. He also suggests picking up some of the feedback comments from time to time to teach students how to give better feedback. This last point is important because it is precisely the generally poor quality of student or peer feedback that makes many teachers to unenthusiastic about peer feedback. There are many times in a language course when students are just out and out unable to provide good feedback. But learning how to give feedback well when it is possible to do so is a real learning opportunity that can benefit the giver and (eventually) the receiver. This technique could be used well for anything students write, translate, present, or any time students produce anything in the target language.

One activity that he suggests, “Error Classification,” probably wouldn’t work in a language classroom as he suggests. This activity requires learners to pour over writing examples to classify the errors made. It sounds nice, but it is unlikely the learners would be able to do this at all but the most proficient of classes. And even if they could, spending so much time on superficial mechanical errors  may not be a good idea. Another activity, “Preflight Checklist,” might be much better for student writing assignments. For this activity, students are given a list of requirements for the writing assignment (things like proper format, clear topic sentence, logical organization, subject-verb agreement, or whatever the teacher is focusing on at the time). Another student is responsible for checking the writing and signing off, meaning certifying that the first student’s writing meets all the requirements.

And a final activity that I think would work well in EFL classes is providing a little time at the end of a lesson or section for pairs or groups to discuss and report on what they have learned. This can be a nice student-led review, and a chance for teachers to see what has and has not been grasped well.

To really get the benefit of cooperative learning, teachers need get learners to have group goals and accept the idea of shared responsibility and accountability. This may be problematic in many situations for many reasons, depending on the year, the course, and the proficiency and motivation differences of learners. I have recently observed a class where the teacher was making extensive use of group cooperative learning. Out of six groups, it was working for three but not really working for the other three. For it to work, it seems that some training, some acceptance of the approach, some accountability, and a fair bit of time are all necessary. When it comes to cooperative learning in Japan, perhaps introducing more chances for learners to see, formatively assess, and then communicate that assessment might be the best way to start. Real cooperative learning is hard, takes a serious commitment, and can all be for naught if not done (and embraced) well.

Next: Part 5, Encouraging greater autonomy and ownership of learning.