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“I got an 'A' on the WhatsApp Quiz”: Assessment and Digital tools

“I got an 'A' on the WhatsApp Quiz”: Assessment and Digital tools

Many of the posts I have written recently (and that I will continue to write) deal with using digital tools in the foreign language classroom. In them, I typically have focused on one or a group of related tools that seemed contain a particular quality that afforded language educators with certain advantages in the classroom. In this vein, we see digital tools as ways that help us enhance students’ learning experiences, inspire real-world connection and communication, and engage students in classroom activities. But what about using digital tools not only for classroom practice, but also for classroom assessment?

In writing about assessment in the foreign language classroom, discussions have centered largely on the concepts of task-based learning and dynamic assessment (DA). In shifting to a “language use and language meaning orientation” model, department curricula and classroom models have implemented task-based learning, which learning focuses on the authentic use of language and on asking students to complete meaningful tasks in the target language (Byrnes 2002). In mirroring this shift to task-based learning, assessment practices have also become more task-based to reflect classroom practices. It has been theorized that one assessment practice, dynamic assessment (DA), provides a particular advantage in this atmosphere, since it is “not an explicit evaluation goal,” but contains the goal of “assess[ing] while simultaneously supporting learner growth” (Compernolle & Williams 278). In this constellation, assessment and instruction “exist in dialectical relation [to one another] as a provision of mediation” (Lantolf & Poehner 13). Rather than one being a product of the other, they become “two forms of interaction [that] can be integrated into classroom pedagogy for different purposes and in complementary ways” (Compernolle & Williams 280). When this approach to assessment is combined with the goal of developing language speakers with “multi-competencies,” it becomes possible to see the ways in which digital tools could help us in achieving these intertwined goals of assessment and supporting learner growth through completing meaningful tasks.

In understanding what constitutes meaningful tasks in the digital age, we must turn to the things that students are already using in everyday communication in their native languages. Importantly, students are not just communicating through their native tongues, they are also communicating through another medium native to them: the digital. They use their smart phones to write emails, set their schedules, check the weather, chat with friends, and to shop online. It therefore seems that integrating these tools into the classroom, not only as bases for meaningful activities but also as vehicles for assessment, is a logical next step and provides precisely the kind of holistic environs that dynamic assessment seeks to create.

In integrating these modes of digital assessment into the classroom, it seems that it would be wise to look at each digital tool and to determine 1) what the goal of the assessment is and how this fits together with the tool, and 2) what role the assessment will play (is it low-stakes, medium stakes, high-stakes, etc). Different tools would be integrated in different ways and might correspond to various output expectations. For example, Whatsapp and other chat apps might provide good way to evaluate results of activities like setting up a meeting, talking about your day, or describing a restaurant, provided the evaluation is low to medium stakes. For longer assignments in which students must work longer, Facebook or WordPress provide the opportunity to engage in meaningful, longer-term activities like messaging, reviewing. The more stable the information on these pages is (i.e. that it is easily retrievable, in contrast to Whatsapp or Snapchat), the more evaluation-friendly it becomes. Advantages of these approaches include simulations of very real-world abilities to communicate meaningful information through digital mediums (which is something they are already doing) and a high level of familiarity with these technologies on the part of students.

It is important to note that these digital tools are probably unsuitable for high-stakes activities (major exam, etc), unless they are designed for these kinds of evaluations. Blackboard, for example, allows course administrators to upload and digitalize exams and will grade the exams automatically. The administrator still has the ability to override and grade writing sections manually. Yet it is worth noting that students are not as familiar with this testing function of Blackboard and sometimes have trouble with it. Still, it can be very useful and could be explored more for its potential. In the end, though, it is most likely better to stick to low and medium stakes activities when experimenting with assessment practices through digital tools.

What do you think about using digital tools for assessment in the foreign language classroom? Have you done this before or are you thinking about it? Please share your thoughts – I would love to hear them!

Links to sources used:

Heide Byrnes. “The role of task and task-based assessment in a content-oriented collegiate foreign language curriculum"

Remi A. van Compernolle & Lawrence Williams. “Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Pedgogy”

Kirstin Davin. “Integration of Dynamic Assessment and Instructional Conversations to Improve Assessment in the Language Classroom”

James P. Lantolf & Matthew E. Poehner. “Dynamic Assessment in the Foreign Language Classroom”



1 comment

As you describe it, dynamic assessment sounds like a kind of formative assessment, to use another term from the literature on teaching and learning. Formative assessment is often contrasted with summative assessment, the assessment performed at the end of a learning experience for evaluative (thumbs up, thumbs down) purposes. Formative assessment is assessment done along the way, during the learning process, to provide information about student learning to both student and instructor.

When formative assessment is performed in the classroom in ways that inform and shape teacher choices, I like to call this "agile teaching," a term I picked up from the physics education research community. They contrast it, somewhat humorously, with "ballistic teaching." That's a lesson plan that, after "launch," follows a predetermined path from beginning to end--like a ballistic projectile!

As you note, one of the ways that technology can be used to support and enhance teaching and learning is to enable formative assessment and the agile teaching that it can lead to. My favorite technology for in-class formative assessment is a classroom response system. Whether students respond with "clickers" to multiple-choice questions or they use their phones with a system like Poll Everywhere to repsond to open-ended questions, these systems provide opportunities for students to practice what they're learning and they provide instructors with insight into student learning they can leverage in "agile" ways.

I blogged about the use of clickers in a Spanish classroom at Georgetown University back in 2010. Given the limitation of clickers to multiple-choice questions, they're primarily useful for formative assessment of students' reading and listening skills. For language production, a "bring your own device" system like Poll Everywhere is more useful, as it allows students to respond to open-ended (writing) questions using their phones or laptops. I would certainly be interested in hearing about creative ways language instructors have used classroom response systems for formative assessment and agile teaching!