". . . assessment is at the heart of the educational process."
From time to time most teachers probably wonder what their students have learned at the end of their lessons. A vast literature has been written about various ways to assess student learning. One text that I refer to often is Brown and Yamashita's Language Testing in Japan (1995). Though many aspects of student evaluation are arcane, assessment is at the heart of the educational process. Without finding out what has been learned, how can we accurately know what we might have taught?
There are many ways to asses classroom performance. Many teachers seem to confuse assessment with testing. Whereas testing is oriented towards grading, assessment is more directly concerned with confirming student attitudes and understandings. One example of an assessment activity is asking students whether they have any questions about a lesson. Since many Asian students are reticent when speaking English, it's often more effective to ask for specific guided written feedback. A common testing activity in many oral communication classes is assigning extra bonus points for any questions asked about a lesson. Whenever the focus is on grading rather than learning or simply non-evaluative confirmation, an activity can be considered a test.
Language learning is a complex process and I am constantly reminded of how many aspects of language proficiency are usually never measured. For example, most assessment activities make no attempt to measure strategic competence - the ability of students to "negotiate" a conversation. In most university classes, a combination of large class size, limited time, and administrative imperatives to assign grades often change the to classroom focus from meaningful assessment to easily administered written testing. The pressure to churn out mid-term and final grades already takes a substantial chunk of classroom time. Focussing on meaningful classroom assessment can take an even larger slice of the time available. As a consequence, teachers are often forced to "guess in the dark" when presenting new classroom lesson materials, quite such how much of it students have mastered.
Since assessment, testing, and teaching are entirely different processes teachers need to learn how to skillfully balance these often conflicting processes during their class. Too much focus on formal testing will tend to create a rigid, stressful atmosphere. Too much focus on informal assessment is apt to create "feel y-touchy" atmosphere with insufficient content. And too much focus on formal content can be likened to marching forward on a long journey in the dark.
"If you are not learning lots of meaningful things from your students, chances are they are learning little from you."
Finally, it's worth reflecting on is what were learning from our students. Is it fair to think of learning as a one-way process in which students are viewed as empty containers? I prefer to consider learning as sort of a mutual exchange. If you feel chagrined at what students are learning, ask yourself, "What am I learning from them?" If you are not learning lots of meaningful things from your students, chances are they are learning little from you.
Brown, J. D. & Yamashita. S. (1995). Language testing in Japan. Tokyo: JALT.
Stevick, E. (1976). Memory, meaning, and method. New York: Prentice Hall.