Teaching English online has many challenges. Chiefly among these challenges is how to measure a student’s overall performance. While in the traditional classroom setting, the prevailing technique has been to give quizzes and exams, doing this online is quite challenging. First of all, a traditional paper quiz or exam is not workable for the logistics of an online class. Would the students fill this quiz in and take a picture and upload it? When would the students take their assessments? Traditionally these assessments were given during class time, but when teaching online, classroom time is more precious than ever.

If the students are allowed to fill in the quiz or exam outside of class, how do we know they aren’t cheating? While there are a few exam platforms available such as Examsoft, such tools are expensive and require students to install cumbersome software on their computers in order to detect cheating. Furthermore, such tools lack flexibility in that they are focussed on multiple-choice questions, fill in the blanks and essay questions. No real opportunity for students to demonstrate their skills in listening and speaking are provided.

In this short series of posts, I would like to explore ideas of how online student’s aptitudes can be sufficiently assessed. Learning English is like building a pyramid, and there are different levels as laid out by the CEFR system. Level A students are learning how to build the foundation and use the building blocks acquired by them to begin to build further grammar and lexical structures. Level B students focus on the further refinement and application of these structures while level C students hash out the finer details and nuances of these structures. Each level has its own set of challenges and capabilities, and figuring out how to assess each level while eschewing the traditional examination and quiz framework presents us with the opportunity to explore project-based assessment.

Project-based assessment is much more open-ended than traditional assessments. While in traditional assessments, there is usually one correct answer and any deviation from that answer shows underachievement, projects allow students to tap into their own creative potential to apply the skills they’ve acquired to solve real-world problems rather than pass exams. There is a tradeoff: exams carry a relatively low burden of work for the teacher in grading them. Most of the work in an examination is up-front in the design stage, while at the back end where results are evaluated, the level of work required is low to moderate and often repetitive. Grading is easier because there are a set number of questions, and either the student gets them right or wrong, and a percentage is quickly derived from this. In project-based assessments, however, this process is reversed. Less work goes into the front-end design phase. The teacher paints the framework with broad strokes, making sure that Key Performance Indicators (PKI) are met.It is when evaluating the student’s work from such an assessment that the teacher is required to work a bit harder. Since the students are given infinite ways to meet PKIs, the teacher must be adept at determining whether or not a student meets them. Assessing such a project ceases to be a binary right or wrong evaluation, but rather a place on a scale of continuum. This can present a major challenge to the teacher’s ability to make objective decisions in determining the student’s final grade.

Furthermore, there is the temporality of project-based assessments. In an exam situation, this is quite straight-forward: the student shows up for class on the exam date and regurgitates the required answers in the time specified. In a project based assessment, the final resulting project is built over time in stages throughout the course. At the end of the course, the various pieces of the project are collected and assembled into a final portfolio. This has several advantages, namely that the student can work at their own pace, and that the student is divorced from cramming for an exam at the last minute, only to immediately forget everything they supposedly learned. Students over the course of the lesson period can review the various pieces of the portfolio they are assembling and see their progression. They gain real-life experience in how to apply the grammar and lexical building blocks of English that they are acquiring and are able to use this experience to self-correct and improve upon their work.

Project-based assessment is a great tool for measuring student’s performance in an online setting. Indeed, one of the advantages of online classes is that students are able to work through the asynchronous content at their own respective paces. The main draw-back to this approach is that possible lack of self-discipline will sabotage such efforts. However, even in the traditional classroom setting, this is also the case. I feel strongly that project-based assessment is a great way to measure performance as well as to help students meet their personal language acquisition goals in a more meaningful way. Therefore, this type of assessment ought to be used in the traditional classroom as well.

In this short series, we will go into more detail about how each level can be adequately assessed. Each level in the CEFR pyramid has different capabilities and requirements and therefore a specifically tailored rubric needs to be created for each of these levels. The following posts will contain proposals on how to assess these levels. Please feel free to use them in your classrooms. Adapt them to your students’ needs. Furthermore feel free to make comments about your experiences in using project-based assessment in your classrooms and please offer suggestions on how to refine these assessment tools.

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