Too often we teachers spend hours carefully correcting student tests and essays, painstakingly editing away, fixing muddled verb endings, correcting accent marks that are either missing or pointing in the wrong direction, and double or triple underlining that adjective ending that keeps getting botched, all in the hopes that our students will finally remember what we’ve taught them and get it right! And then, our neat stack of papers is returned the following day to students who (at best) give them a quick scan and promptly shove them in their backpacks, toss them in the trash can, or let them slip sad and forgotten onto the floor. I remember picking up one such essay off my classroom floor a few years ago. It had by then been stepped on a few times, so had a lovely shoe print on it that felt like a big fat stamp of rejection. Why didn’t they care? Couldn’t they see how hard I was trying? How much I cared about them getting it right? That this would help them learn?

Before we give up on this new generation that doesn’t seem to value Rimbaud or Goya or Voltaire as much as we do, and doesn’t have the work ethic we think we had as students, let’s consider a few things about what we’re asking our students to do, and whether we are in fact actually helping them learn.

Consider the following essay prompt: “Write a short letter to your penpal about what you like and don’t like in your own culture or country. Write at least five sentences using which,that which, for whom, and who as a conjunction.” I’d like you to take a few minutes and actually try to do this. And as you do, think about this: When would someone ever actually ask you this? Can you think of a scenario in real-life when someone would walk up to you on the street while you’re abroad in France and ask you to tell them a few things you like about your own culture using specific grammatical terms? Would your real-life pen pal actually require you to use these conjunctions in what you wrote to them?
Here’s another prompt you’re likely come across in a traditional language textbook: “Tell about five events in the life of somebody you know or somebody imaginary. Use at least one expression of necessity, emotion or desire in your description.” Say what? Who am I talking about? Why am I doing this? What is the point? When would someone ever ask you this in real-life? If they did, you’d probably call up the local looney bin because this person is just nutso. Yeah sure, let me tell you all about my imaginary friend’s emotions and desires!

Students would never encounter these prompts in real-life, and they know it. Their first reaction would most likely be a big sigh and a discreet eye roll. Wait a minute, you say, my students respond to these types of assignments all the time and they’re doing fine! It’s important to consider whether your students might actually be what are called “compliant learners.” These are students who “simply follow directions and finish the necessary paperwork on time,” functioning “like low-level bureaucrats…[who] complete each allocated task to make space for an endless litany of new tasks until the day they quit or get promoted” (Zmuda, 2008, p. 38). Rather than accept compliant, let’s get our students engaged and motivated through meaningful and authentic assessments!
Here’s another speaking prompt. As you read it, think about how it compares to the two samples above: “It’s almost the end of your first week studying abroad in Paris! You’ve met a few people in your classes from different countries, but you haven’t made a lot of friends yet. It’s Friday, and you’re not sure what you’re going to do this weekend. One of the program coordinators gave you a weekend guide with some great ideas, but you don’t really want to go out alone. Before everyone leaves for the weekend, you turn to another student in your class to see if you can make plans with them. Hopefully, you will have some common interests and can invite them to do something with you so you don’t spend the weekend by yourself!” Notice anything different? This prompt is couched in a real-world situation where our students can imagine themselves actually using their language skills. Furthermore, there are no grammatical restrictions that will inhibit communication or make the conversation feel forced. We want to see what students can do with their language skills. Welcome to a performance assessment!

MaFLA’s 2015 Keynote Speaker, Greg Duncan, notes the power of performance assessments in transforming instruction and motivating students: “When teachers use performance-based assessments, they find that, rather than injecting a ‘testing’ element of fear and dread, assessment becomes an energizing addition that provides focus, clarity, and purpose” (2014, p. 19). By developing performance assessments that are embedded in real-world, authentic tasks, teachers can harness student motivation and increase engagement.

When I think back to my old chapter tests and quizzes and essay prompts riddled with grammatical requirements, I wince at what I must have put my students through. While I always tried to focus on communicative activities in class, my assessments didn’t match my instruction, and every test, quiz, and essay was a powerful punch of demotivation to my students.

Since transitioning to performance assessments that are meaningful, engaging, and focus on real-world situations where students can imagine themselves actually using their language skills, I’ve seen a higher level of student motivation to do well. More students areasking me for feedback so that they can do better, rather than the other way around. And there has definitely been a decrease in crumpled up papers littering my floor!

Duncan, G. (February, 2014). Embracing the paradigm shift in learning and assessment. The Language Educator. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, p. 18-19.

Zmuda, A. (November, 2008). Spring into active learning. Educational Leadership. Association for Superivision and Curriculum Design, p. 38-42.

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