Tag Archives: grading

Is it okay for language learners to make mistakes?

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

“It’s okay to make mistakes.”

That’s what many English language teachers tell their students at the start of a course. It’s a reassurance designed to address the anxiety of students who are reticent about speaking or writing because they are used to teachers emphasizing accuracy in language use: accuracy in grammar and vocabulary in particular. And it’s a recognition that taking risks is a means to improvement.  

In spite of the merits of the ‘it’s okay to make mistakes’ advice though, grading practices of many teachers, programs, or institutions contradict it. In fact, grading systems often implicitly communicate to students that it is emphatically not okay to make mistakes. 

Here’s how the contradiction happens. Most schools still give grades, and most students want to get a good grade. Final grades are most often arrived at by combining the results of work done during the term or session – assignments, quizzes, and the like, known as formative assessment – and an evaluation of the extent to which a student has met the goal(s) of the course, or summative assessment. Teachers’ gradebooks and the gradebooks of online learning management systems combine these grades in some way to arrive at the final grade. 

The problem is that formative assessment is done while the students are still learning, when they haven’t yet mastered the course outcomes, when they are bound to make mistakes – those mistakes that their teachers tell them it is “okay to make.” But if a student does poorly on some of those formative assessments, and the grade from those assessments factors into the student’s final grade, then even if the student eventually succeeds in meeting the course goals, her final grade is brought down by the low grades she received while she was learning and making mistakes. If she cared about her final grade, then it was certainly not okay for her to make mistakes, contrary to what her teacher told her at the start. 

If we truly want students not to worry about making mistakes as they progress in their learning, then formative assessment shouldn’t figure into the final course grade. Instead, we would determine whether and to what extent the student had met the course learning goals. Students could follow their own route to achievement without fear of mistakes along the way bringing their final grade down. 

Shifting the burden of the final grade onto final summative assessments brings its own problems, however. In particular, it is stressful for students if their entire grade for a course hinges on how well they do in a final, summative assessment. How to deal with that is another discussion…

Inputs and outcomes – how we wound up with two systems for grading students in english language programs

row-students-doing-examAssigning final grades to students has been done in various ways over the years. In some contexts, everything rested on a final exam – this was the case with the O-level and A-level exams I took in a British high school ‘back in the day.’ Then ‘continuous assessment’ became popular, making the final grade a composite of grades for assignments completed during the course, either with our without a final exam.  This approach became popular in U.S. intensive English programs, where the final grade might be made up of homework assignments, projects, tests and quizzes, and the usually ill-defined ‘participation’ by the student. 

But English language programs, like all other schools in the U.S., became caught up in larger forces that had an enormous impact on how students were evaluated. Following the successful launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s, there was much nail-biting over the quality of American education, culminating in the ‘A Nation at Risk’ report in 1983, which painted an anxiety-inducing picture of failing U.S. public schools. 

In the years following the publication of the report, the means of defining quality in education were questioned. The focus of quality tended to be on inputs – number of hours in class (this is where the ‘credit-hours’ system came from), teacher qualifications, teaching methods, and so on. Many schools in competitive environments still make such inputs the basis of their quality claims – “highly qualified teachers!” “innovative teaching methods!” 

But those raising the red flag about school quality were less concerned with inputs and more concerned with what the students came out of their education with – that is the outcomes, or as they have come to be known, student learning outcomes, or SLOs. No matter how great the inputs, if students were not learning useful knowledge and skills for the job market, the education they were receiving was not valuable. The solution was to turn the traditional curriculum planning process around and start at the end by first defining the desired outcomes, and having course design lead to student achievement of outcomes. 

This enabled education bureaucracies to hold schools and teachers accountable: school and teacher quality could be judged not by the quality of the teachers or the hours spent in class, but by the extent to which students were meeting the defined learning outcomes. In the public schools, those outcomes were assessed by standardized tests, and schools were judged and ranked by how well students scored on those tests. (The downside of all this was that quality aspects of school such as adequate breaks between classes and time for the arts, music and sports suffered as schools honed in on efforts to increase standardized test scores in math, science, and English.)

Back to grading. ESL teachers have for many years been used to giving final grades based on a combination of test and quizzes, homework assignments, projects, participation, and final exams. But with a shift toward accreditation of English language programs – mandatory in many cases, voluntary in others – teachers in those programs are now required to fall in with the requirement to define learning outcomes at the outset, and assess and evaluate students with sole reference to the students’ achievement of the outcomes. This has to be done at the school level, and it results in a greater standardization of curricula, syllabi, and assessments in schools. Schools are required to record and analyze the data arising from the assessment of SLO achievement. Decisions about whether a student may progress to the next level of study or complete the program successfully must be made solely on the basis of whether the student achieved the learning outcomes. 

The result is that schools have to take a mixed approach to grading students. Schools may still assign a traditional grade based on continuous assessment and participation, but they must also maintain a system that isolates achievement of the student learning outcomes and makes promotion and completion decisions based on that. What’s certain is that choosing one or the other of these two systems is not possible – both are needed. Yes, we can agree that it’s important for students and their sponsors to understand what the expected outcome of a course or program was and whether the student achieved it. This kind of accountability is needed when many are questioning the dollar value of their education. But as educators we also want to know whether students engaged with the educational process – collaborated with peers, challenged themselves on difficult projects or assignments, sought help and advice and gave them to others in turn. How the students got there is important to us, and still largely defines the benefit of studying at one school rather than another. 

And so we ended up with two types of student assessment and evaluation, one based on inputs into the process and ongoing or continuous assessment, the other on outcomes. Both systems are here to stay, and educators need to be familiar with the rationale and procedures for each of them. 

Background photo created by pressfoto – www.freepik.com