BlendKit2015 – Answering the question, “Can they do it?”

After reading Chapter 3 of the BlendKit Reader, “Blended Assessments of Learning,” I realized, even more so than before, how different I operate my classroom and, therefore, how I deal with assessments. I teach ESL to adult learners, using a task-based approach. In a task-based approach, learners are practicing and developing their language skills through the application of these skills to complete specific tasks. These tasks are determined by analyzing how native English speakers use the language. The requisite foundational steps are laid, and the learners are guided, prompted, directed, and pushed to using their language skills in the same way as any native English speaker, albeit with many more mistakes and learning opportunities.

By using a task-based approach, I eliminate the many problems faced by other faculty in traditional post-secondary settings. There’s no need on my part to explain to the students how their learning relates to their “real life” situations. They see that they are using the language authentically. They learn how to write an email in the classroom, and they show that they have learned this skill by actually doing that very task in the online activities (ie: write me an email describing how they practiced their English that week). Their learning is transferred from the classroom (both the F-2-F and the online classroom) to practical application because the language skills taught in class reflect the language skills they require in their lives.

My students don’t ask, “How are we ever going to use this stuff?” Rather, I experience a much different challenge. They ask, “When are we going to learn grammar? And spelling?,” not realizing that they are learning grammar and spelling through the tasks they are completing. They are familiar with learning the “traditional way,” through worksheets and textbooks. I challenge their comfort levels by directing them to learn holistically and authentically. I teach them simple future and past by discussing goals and action plans (reflection: what do you want to do in the future? analysis: what did you do to work on your goals?). I teach them simple present by having them share resources, watch another classmate’s suggested video, and give opinions on the helpfulness of the suggested resource. I teach them how to write compliments by having them comment on each other’s blog posts regarding the actions they took over the past week, providing encouragement for each other.

Assessments do not take the form of quizzes or tests. Instead, an assessment after learning about adverbs of frequency would be for the students to write a paragraph describing their daily routines. A unit on prepositions and adjectives leads to an assessment where students have to write paragraphs describing their neighbourhoods. A unit on basic computer skills is followed by students describing to each other what specific parts of the computer are called and the functions. Occasionally, I provide students with something comfortable and familiar: a worksheet on adverbs or prepositions. But I do not use those activities as assessment. They are skill building, not language using. They have their place, but do not provide any information as to what the students can actually do with the language.

And that is my criteria when developing assessments: does this assessment show me what the student can actually do with the language? Do the mistakes in grammar and spelling interfere with the meaning? Does the student write in an organized format (paragraph versus individual, disconnected sentences)? Can the student explain a simple computer task to the class or does the pronunciation get in the way of understanding? Can the students understand my written directions and do they complete the assignment as required? Or do they need my oral instructions as well before they are able to complete the task?

To determine their level of abilities, I use rubrics with a scale of four: they can not do the task, they are developing the task, they can do the task to a satisfactory level, or they excel at the task. This scale is applied to different areas of the task: grammar usage (related to the specific grammar concept that was taught), format (based on criteria covered in class), content (appropriateness to the task), and level of ability to get their meaning across (with little or no help). An assessment that results in most of the class getting 1’s (cannot do the task) shows me that I need to do more teaching. An assessment that results in most of the class getting 3’s (successfully completed the task) means I can move onto the next level of skills. It’s a way to provide individual feedback that clearly shows the students’ language abilities at any given moment in their learning.

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