Tests as Tools for Learning

Aned Muñiz Gracia offers examples to show how teachers can use simple tests to improve learning experiences

For those who are not trained in research methods or who would like a little refreshing, Mohammad Ali Salmani-Nodoushan, of the University of Zanjan in Iran provides a succinct overview of language classroom-centered research, methods and the theories supporting them. The article can be found in translation online as “Research in the Language Classroom: State of the Art,” currently available at http://www.translationdirectory.com/article894.htm

For many people, assessment is associated with a dominant, and often misguided, faculty evaluation strategy involving a large dose of high-stakes tests and mandated by external accountability processes. But the fundamentals of good assessment, or assessment for learning, as it has often been called, are a part of the learning process, not just a means of documenting or judging that learning. When grounded in the core elements of effective instructional practice, the development and measuring of student learning outcomes are an effective tool for educators to gain a greater awareness of what works well in their classrooms, and therefore continue to improve their teaching.

In addition, the gathering and dissemination of scientific data about our classrooms can validate the theories that countless educators have formed after years of observations. By bridging the distance from informal observations and ideas to scientifically produced data, we will be in a better position to promote effective teaching techniques. In other words, moving from the anecdotal, or voir dire, to facts gives more authority to our voices.

Recognizing that my audience is comprised almost entirely of college educated individuals with a background in education and knowledge of the science of learning, I will skip the theoretical framework (which, for those who would like to refresh it, can be easily retrieved online or from printed sources) and offer a few examples of how some of my colleagues have profited from conducting assessment in their language classrooms. I hope they can help motivate a new batch of classroom researchers or, at the very least, illustrate the value of assessment for educators.

Dr. Paolo Torresan is a prime example of how the use of classroom research can help us all become better educators while, at the same time, resulting in additional professional recognition. Dr. Torresan has conducted numerous research studies among his language students and became an internationally renowned methodologist. Besides publishing his research results regularly, he is known for documenting the benefits of a ludic environment in language classrooms in his native Italy and abroad, including learners of all ages.

In addition, Dr. Paolo Torresan’s curriculum vitae is truly impressive, and more so when you consider that he is not yet 40 years old. His scholarly publication list is several pages long, and includes journals from more than ten countries and in a few languages. Moreover, he is always working on a new study as he teaches. His experiences teaching abroad always present opportunities for new classroom research, and he recently took advantage of a year as a visiting professor in Rio de Janeiro to conduct and publish new studies about topics such as the challenges and joys of writing in Italian as perceived by Brazilian students, and the perception among Brazilian instructors about the applicability of diverse language comprehension techniques. These studies measured various aspects of classroom effectiveness and the first used embedded assessment.

But most notably, Dr. Torresan’s work in the field of ludic pedagogy, which is based on his classroom experiences, is the basis for resource books authored by him such as Giochi senza Frontiere, or “Games without Borders,” a collection of engaging activities designed to make the study of Italian a fun learning experience.

Barbara Gramegna, a German Teacher in Bolzano, Italy, and PhD student at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Italy, conducted an informal assessment of a group’s physical reactions in order to maximize its attention curve. Hers is an example of how anyone can use simple techniques to provide short-term feedback about the day-to-day learning and teaching process at a time when it is still possible to make mid-course corrections.

First, she monitored facial expressions while presenting her initial activity plan, paying particular attention to eye movement and body language. Based on those reactions, she decided to substitute one activity right away, and felt that participants immediately adopted a good disposition towards her.

In the end, what had been conceived by the administration as mostly a lecturing session with little participation from the information recipients was transformed into a more participatory course, including several high-attention curve activities such as couples’ interviews, participant presentations, and asking the group to analyze (to improve metacognition) the next proposed activity. In the end, integrating participant feedback almost instantly transformed a routine session into a valuable exercise for all participants.
My own classroom observations led me to probe further into phenomena such as music as a mnemonic and didactic device, the use of social media, the particular challenges experienced by daily border crossers from Mexico studying Italian at a college in the U.S., and the use of sports to support language acquisition, among others. While intellectual curiosity and the desire to improve my students’ learning experience were behind these efforts, several later evolved to become articles, conference presentations, and even my Master’s thesis. Therefore, action research and assessment for learning not only have the potential to benefit everyone involved, but also to add another dimension to a teaching career.

The more you know about what and how students are learning, the better you can plan learning activities to structure your teaching. Therefore, assessment for learning primarily aims to improve course effectiveness, but it can also serve institutional purposes. Mini research studies or embedded assessment can be used for measuring student learning outcomes and inform program change but can also result in valuable data for colleagues or the development of more efficient teaching approaches or materials. After all, teaching is a formative process that evolves and improves over time with feedback. Keep in mind that not all groups or students are equal, and what works well with one group might not be ideal for another. Simple techniques, including formative assessment, can help us increase our awareness about these differences and tailor our teaching accordingly, benefitting both the instructor and the students.

Dr. Aned Muñiz Gracia, a Fulbright recipient and author of Music and a Mnemonic and Didactic Device for Language Instruction, is a Modern Languages professor at Santa Monica College and worked at the University of San Diego's Office of Assessment. She has also served as a language consultant for companies such as Bar Charts, Inc., the U.S. Navy, textbook publishers, and her constructivist teaching style has earned several excellence in teaching and leadership recognitions. Dr. Muñiz is also a newspaper columnist on education-related topics and a presenter at national and international conferences.