Continuous Assessment

Continuous assessment | Mike McDonald | May 21st, 2004

I've been ruminating about my student assessment methods and would welcome your comments.

When I was a lad, we got assessed on our end-of-term exam result and that was it. If you had a fever on the exam day, tough luck. In fact, many of my colleagues at the university where I teach in Tokyo assess their (computer science) students the same way.

In keeping with what I take to be the prevailing trends, I assess mystudents continuously on a fairly wide range of criteria; for example, my first-year English Communication students get assessed on their English journal (15%), weekly quizzes (15%), non-use of L1 (15%), attendance (15%), show-and-tell (15%), vocabulary test (10%), and oral exam (15%). However, since I have about 200 students, this involves an incredible amount of marking, commenting, and data inputting. Especially now that I'm doing the Aston course, I resent the time and effort I spend on all this evaluation.   On the other hand, I feel that If I don't give them a numerical and written assessment for, say, their show-and-tell performance, they won't put any effort into it. Even as it is, some of them obviously don't prepare.

Everything I've read emphasizes the importance of feedback, but I sometimes feel so worn-down by the effort of it all, I just wonder whether it's worth it, especially since the wide range of grading criteria doesn't make all that much difference to the final ranking. If it were to take the exam results alone, they would look fairly similar.

On top of that, I wonder whether so much assessment is healthy for the students. I suppose some of them aren't particularly bothered, but I know that some of them feel quite a lot of pressure to perform. I know that continuous assessment is supposed to relieve the pressure of exams, but for some students it replaces that one-time pressure with continuous pressure. University regulations require teachers to grade their students every term, but don't specify how the grading should be done. The easy option for me would be to just grade them on one or two criteria. On the other hand, I would still have to consider how much feedback I wanted to provide; perhaps in the end I wouldn't save an enormous amount of time if I continued to comment on their various tasks.

One of the reasons I've got to thinking about this is because, when I returned the assessment sheets to my students this week for their show-and-tell presentations, the first thing they did was to compare their scores. In one group, one student got 15/15 while another got 6/15. I felt very sorry for the latter. I suppose I could return the assessment sheets individually, but that would be just another demand on my time.

Can anyone suggest a way forward?

Mike McDonald

Re: Continuous assessment | Jerry Talandis Jr. | May 21st, 2004

Hello Mike,

Seems to me that you are working too hard. I know the feeling. Why not just give them one big test or project to evaluate them on? Kind of like an Aston assignment- a task that would demonstrate to you that the students learned what you wanted them to learn. If the students don't prepare or do it, then that's their choice. Why should you be responsible for pushing them? Why should you get all stressed out just because some students are not putting much energy into their education? Just make one project or test and base their entire grade on that. Keep your life as stress free as possible. If you say you "resent" the time you're putting into over-evaluating, then how is that going to help your work? I personally like the Aston system of one assignment, one grade. I can read or not read anything I like. I'm free to make my own decisions about my education. I'm treated like an adult, and I appreciate it.

Just a few thoughts.

Less is more.


Re: Continuous assessment | Andy Boon | May 21st, 2004

This is an interesting debate. In a way, I prefer continuous assessment as it seems to be fairer than a one-off test but it does make a lot of work for the teacher. In one of the courses I have started this year, the coursebook came with a set of unit tests that are proving to be excellent. I have told the students they will be graded on attendance (10%), classroom performance (10%), an end of semester test (50%) but also I will take the best 3 scores they achieve in end of unit mini tests (which are scored out of 10) and that will contribute to another 30% of their score to make a total of 100%.    This means that if I do a total of 6 unit tests during the semester and students under perform in a test or happen to miss that class, it won't be disastrous for their grades.

Andy Boon

Re: Continuous assessment | Jerry Talandis Jr. | May 21st, 2004

Yeah, actually, to clarify my earlier post, I'm not against continuous assessment per se; I'm in favor of using precious energy wisely. From what Mike was saying, he was all stressed out and filled with resentment at this unwieldy system he was stuck in. In another situation, where the teacher doesn't mind putting in the extra work, then I'd say go for it. Each time a teacher puts out energy to do something for his/her students, I think it's important to make sure that they get a good return on their investment. In other words, if you spend an hour making flash cards for a game that will last 5 minutes, then I'd question if that was time and energy well spent (it might be- depends on the situation). I'm not advocating laziness- just efficiency and organization.


Re: Continuous assessment | Tisa | May 22nd, 2004


Mike, I read your latest message with great interest.   My current research into 'washback' - the effect of an exam on teaching and learning - seems to relate to what you're saying.   I'm taking an exam here to mean a type of assessment.   In investigating the way talk about a specific exam (CAE) figures in the classroom interaction of one of my classes, it's become clear that the exam exerts an extraordinary influence on how the learners evaluate the activities they do, not to mention the course as a whole.   Moreover, I've come to realise how 'indoctrinated' I've become in terms of choosing activities and assessing their value to the students.

I've begun questioning this phenomenon of washback, not because I think it's all bad and I want to get rid of it (impossible in an exam class, anyway), but because its seemingly overbearing presence in my class clashes with some of my fundamental values and beliefs about helping people to learn (like encouraging them to appreciate the journey and to embrace a bit of the chaos and lack of structure that exists in learning a language, especially one with so many synonyms and phrasal verbs, for instance).

Anyway, I feel there is a definite danger in students being overly assessed, if only because your 'assessment' can end up being the primary (only?) way they evaluate their learning and your teaching of the course.

My question is how far do I want to go with this?   Do I want to engage the students in a dialogue about what I've noticed?   Will doing so compromise my professionalism and make the class think I've given up on attempting to present them with something concrete to grasp onto?

Perhaps all this seems far from what you've brought up.   I just felt there was a link somewhere, since we're both questioning the value of so much assessment in our classes.

By the way, would you consider having your students evaluate each other? This may be a way of divesting yourself of some control as well as lessening a hefty workload.   It could also lead to some interesting insights into how your students perceive themselves and their linguistic performances.

Better leave it here.   I'd love to contribute more- that thread on data etc was cool - but I just can't keep up with you Pinkies.

Take care,

who despite having a magnificent view on the Alps and the Jura from her apartment in Lausanne, Switzerland, still misses the Pacific Ocean and Coastal Mountains of her native Vancouver, Canada!

Re: Continuous assessment | Rober Haines | May 22nd, 2004

Mike, and everyone,

I don't think I'd label this discussion a debate, and the semantics are important in this case, Andy. I'm not picking on you, I just think it's wise to avoid the idea of opposite corners in order to focus on our mutual interests if we are to move forward. Maybe there's been a washback effect from Julian's FND.

Well... Tisa's message has just come in after I typed those words about washback effect. Is that cyber-synchronicity or what? And Tisa is there in Jung's homeland just to make it all the more interconnected (in my mind).

Anyway, I agree with what Tisa has said about the possible negative effects of assessment en masse and echo her ideas on peer assessment, which I think works with the interlanguage and social dynamic of the class in a way that promotes negotiation of meaning. As the teacher, you might exploit such instances as an opportunity to move students beyond their ZPD. It seems more like learning and less like grading for the sake of it.

The intrinsic motivation of working on a project like the one Gerry mentions is preferable to the extrinsic motivation of performing under the pressure of a grade given by a teacher, especially if that grade is based on a coursebook that has been written by people who've never met your students. Process over product, as they say.

I think feedback and peer review/assessment followed by plenary discussion can replace continuous assessment as you've described it, Mike, in a more learner-centered and facilitative manner. This should relieve that nagging stress and promote language learning in a meaningful context.

Furthermore, if the students do want to be tested, which happens, why not have them design tests for each other? That way they will be tested on what they know instead of what they do not.

Hope this helps.


Re: Continuous assessment | Mike McDonald | May 22nd, 2004

Thanks for all the responses to my whinge about assessment.   There are lots of useful ideas there, such as group/pair evaluation (which I do a bit of), peer evaluation (which I haven't tried), one-shot evaluation, portfolio evaluation, and more. I think nobody mentioned self-evaluation - has anyone tried that?

Tisa, I can see the connection between the washback phenomenon you mention and the blizzard of assessments some of us seem to feel obliged to do. In my case, I'm not really teaching for the final exam (which is often not written until a couple of weeks beforehand), but I sometimes feel that assessing everything takes the spontaneity out of it and makes it a task rather than an opportunity, besides denying the students a chance to take responsibility for their own learning.

I'll continue thinking about the best way to proceed. Any further ideas are welcome.

Mike McDonald

Self-evaluation | Robert Haines | May 23rd, 2004

Mike, you ask: "I think nobody mentioned self-evaluation - has anyone tried that?"

I have tried self-evaluation. It has been successful for the most part. I began not giving grades until my students expressed an interest. I started asking them to track their completion of homework assignments, quiz scores and their treatment of the other people in the class, e.g. not butting in or showing up on time for presentations. The assessments are usually accurate and fair. Sometimes I provide feedback on them as I look them over.


Re: Continuous assessment | Catherine Buhler | May 22nd, 2004

Hello Mike

Just a short note about self-evaluation. At our local primary school the children do not receive marks (grades) until they reach the fifth class, i.e. just before moving on to a secondary school. The whole system is based on self-evaluation and twice a year children, parents and the teacher sit together and look at how the child has evaluated him/herself. They are usually very accurate in knowing what they are good at and what not.

Homework is often corrected by the teacher putting up the answers on an OHP and the child correcting his/her own work. Obviously the biggest drawback of that is that if they have made a mistake, they know that their answer was wrong, but not necessarily why it was wrong. This means that they have to ask the teacher individually. As the teacher hasn't seen all the answers of each child, he/she is unable to find a common point to teach until several children have all asked the same question.

I think the same would apply to adults, too - and let's face it, a lot of students are ashamed to admit that they have got all their answers wrong and may not even go and ask the teacher, which means that when you move on to the next point, not all students move on with you.

I'd be interested to know if anyone else has had any experience with self-evaluation.

Have a good weekend.


Re: Continuous assessment | Mike McDonald | May 23rd, 2004

Thanks for your feedback on self-evaluation.

Catherine, you mention two points: self-evaluation and self-correction. I use the latter but not the former. I'm amazed that primary school children have the maturity to evaluate themselves accurately. Is self-evaluation commonly used in primary schools? I would imagine not.

Rob, you don't mention what context you work in, or how you use the results of the self-evaluation. Would it be possible to use them in a university context, do you think, where the students' future may be affected by their grades?

Mike McDonald

Re: Continuous assessment | Colin | May 24th, 2004

Hi Mike, and other interested parties

Rob, you don't mention what context you work in, or how you use the results of the self-evaluation. Would it be possible to use them in a university context, do you think, where the students' future may be affected by their grades?

About 4 (5?) years ago I went to a presentation given by Alan McKenzie who talked about his experience of doing exactly this.   He wrote a paper about it, published within his university, and I may be able to dig it out later.   The essence of the scheme was that his course was entirely self-assessed.   Students chose 3 or 4 factors that they wanted to assess themselves on, (pronunciation, non-use of Japanese, punctuality, attendance, etc.) and gave each a weighted percentage.   Part of the assessment process was that they had to justify the weightings and provide evidence for the grade they gave themselves in each of the areas.   Evidence could/should include peer-evaluations, attendance records, self-assessment forms etc.   The final grade was decided by the weighted averaging of the factors that the student had chosen for themselves.  

For example, course-end justified grades of:

Pronunciation 25%   A

Attendance     50%   B

Presentations 15%   A

Non-use of Jp 10%   C

Would be (40%A + 50%B + 10%C) maybe an overall B+.   It sounds a bit complex but it seemed very easy to work in practice with the type of large classes found in universities.   Alan had the right to veto final grades but he said that he'd never had to do so in the two or three years during which the system had been operating.   Personally I'm all in favour of pushing assessment onto (adult) learners as much as possible, provided that the tools for assessment are understandable, operable and reasonable.   Basically, as adults, we are likely to be our own worst critics (if we are taking the learning seriously) and I know I always have additional targets or goals I have set for myself - despite what an examiner or teacher may have given in a formal assessment - which colour my view of the assessment I am given.



Re: Continuous assessment | Mike McDonald | May 25th, 2004

Thanks, Colin. It would be interesting to see the paper if you could lay hands on it without going to too much trouble. I can imagine all sorts of problems with the scheme (students not submitting their assessments on time, misunderstanding the procedures, using the wrong data, falsifying the data, etc., etc.), but I'm prepared to believe it might work in certain circumstances. As you say, the students who take their learning most seriously are likely to be the hardest on themselves, and might end up with a lower grade than they would get if I were doing the evaluating.

Hope to see you again before too long.



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