Image courtesy of Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M

I admit it. I am one of those who actually likes writing tests. I hate marking them, but as a student, I actually looked forward to exams. Why? For the most part, I was able to coast through most of my high school classes and then cram at the end of the term for the final. I could remember most of the thing I needed to get a high enough mark to complete the class. Not the best way of working and that eventually changed in university, but it illustrates a few problems with testing as it is primarily implemented in schools.

I teach adults which is different than teaching children or young adults. For the most part, there is a motivational shift, so what I am about to propose probably wouldn’t transfer as well into the K-12 system. Also, I teach English language students which is different than teaching science or math. Lastly, most of my students were raised in cultures where education is approached differently than in Canada where I teach. Those are my caveats.

I was thinking today about the upcoming term and how I use assessment in my classroom. For the most part, I don’t have a lot of control of what happens since I work for a university and there are some things that need to be done to meet the institutional guidelines for the course. There is some flexibility in what I do beyond the two biggest tests (ie. midterm and final exams), but I can make changes in how I assess beyond that. To this point, I have tried and number of approaches with varying success. All of these assessment types have been set by me according to what I have felt is best for assessing how my students are progressing. Then today, I came across this tweet from the Cambridge University Press ELT department:

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It got me thinking about using student-directed assessment. My mind doesn’t always process things linearly, so I will try to break it down for you:

  • Do students know how to create a good test?
  • Would this actually help the students creating it? What about the students taking it?
  • Why do most students hate tests?
  • What is wrong with the way we are doing tests?
  • Could this work on a larger scale? What if we taught students about what assessment is, had them critically analyze the methods, and then create a model for what assessment should look like for their class?
  • Would doing all of this help the students develop language skills in the process? What would it look like?
  • Would this make the students less resistant to assessment? Would it alleviate some of the anxiety (us versus them)?
  • In the end, would they be better off with the teacher doing it all, possibly with some student input, or does this accomplish more than just assessing the students?
In the end, I decided that this type of project at least has some merit and was worth exploring a bit more. So, I consulted the book I always start with in regards to assessment, Language Testing in Practice by Bachman and Palmer (1996) and looked for something that might spark some ideas. It didn’t take long for something to emerge. Chapter two of the book is about test usefulness and in it, the authors explain their notion of what usefulness means in regards to assessment. Here is how they break it down:

Usefulness = Reliability + Construct Validity + Authenticity + Interactiveness + Impact + Practicality

To explain it further, here is my somewhat limited summary of each of those terms (I realize that there is more to each of these than what I am giving, but I would give away the ending of the book):

Reliability Does the test provide consistent results when used in similar situations, but with some variables changed?
Construct Validity Are the interpretations of the results (data) justifiable (ie. does it measure what we want it to measure)?
Authenticity Are we testing in a way that reflects some use of the language in ‘real life’ (ie. not just for the test)?
Interactiveness Are the test questions accessing the student’s language to complete the task (ie. using the language in an appropriate way)?
Impact Who does this test impact? How much does it make an impact?
Practicality How easy or difficult is this test to develop, run, and complete?

I think there is a way that this could be explained to the students first and then give them some example tests and situations and have them evaluate them based on these criteria. Some types of assessment include (not exhaustive):

  • Exams
    • Multiple-choice
    • Short answer
    • Fill-in-the-blank
    • Essay
    • Matching
    • True-False
    • Problem-based
  • Portfolios
  • Oral
    • Individual
    • Conversation
  • Rubrics
  • Projects
  • Presentations
  • Essays (separate from exams)
  • Self-assessment
  • Peer-assessment
  • Recordings
  • Observations
  • Interviews
  • Journals
Once students have looked over the different types and evaluated them in different situations, give them a copy of the goals and objectives for the course and ask them to brainstorm some ideas of what could be done in your own classroom. Give them a list of the marking criteria and ask them to evaluate the way that they are going to assessed (things that can’t be changed). Ask them what they would do differently and give their reasons.

Once that is done, work together to build those assessment tools into the classroom schedule and even start to develop things they have talked about (eg. student-built rubrics, framework for presentations, etc.). Put as much of it into use as possible.


My hypothesis is that this will help students to become more aware of what they are being assessed and will also help them see why some things are done the way they are. Adult students need reasons for doing something, not just told to do it. This also develops critical thinking skills and introduces them to language used for evaluation, giving opinions, questioning, and so on. Lastly, the students will feel like they are a part of the process, not just an observer. I also think it would cause us as teachers to think more about the tasks and tests we give students and make us aware of where we fail to think things through. There are so many things we do in the classroom that we don’t even think about any more. We do them because we have always done it and that is the way we were taught. We rarely stop and think about the materials we use in class. We find something online or in a book and we just copy and get our students to do it, never thinking about how this affects the learning process.

I haven’t worked this all out in my head yet, but I thought I would turn to all of you for guidance and input. Maybe we could flesh this out some more and have something that is really useful for all of us. It could also be that this is a crazy idea that won’t work and could eat up valuable time in the classroom. It is also likely that this isn’t really that new an idea and someone has already taken care of the heavy lifting. So, now it’s your turn.


Bachman, Lyle F. and Palmer, Adrian S. (1996). Language testing in use. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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