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Measuring progress (again)

May 07, 2009

Hello again,

A recurring issue in language teaching and learning is how to measure students’ progress. Here, I am making a distinction between assessing or evaluating knowledge and providing an indication of what has been achieved after a course of study. It might sound like...

... hair-splitting but I think it is an important distinction. If, for example, I test a student on arrival and then on departure, I might be able to show that a higher score was attained. But the extra points, although they might make a student feel a sense of achievement, don’t necessarily show where progress has been made. And it is entirely possible for no extra marks to be gained, but that would not necessarily mean no progress had been made.

A similar problem occurs if levels are assigned on arrival. How long will it take a student to reach the next level? As each learner is different, the answer to that question is ‘how long is a piece of string?’ And what of advanced students who are already near the top of the scale? Levels and benchmarks are useful for offering a broad view of a learner’s position on a scale but they are not sensitive enough to measure progress.

The school’s dilemma is that learners and their sponsors need to feel that the investment of time and money in training is worthwhile, so progress must be demonstrated. I don’t think this measurement can be done in a simply objective manner. It requires the collaboration of the learner with teachers. Take the student who gets a disappointing exit test result, for example. It would be dispiriting for that learner to go away feeling that no progress had been made. But a test cannot measure many of the affective and cognitive aspects of learning. The student may feel much more confident in tackling certain tasks, even if errors are still made. The student may understand why s/he makes certain errors even if the errors are still there. Perhaps the students have devised new learning strategies that will allow them to continue with self-study after the course. Maybe they simply less hesitant. I remember a student who had a good grasp of English but never completed a sentence without asking for reassurance that what he was saying was correct. Helping him break that habit was a breakthrough. But these aspects of learning are not easy to test.

With levels, it might not be possible to take a step up. But the learners may have really consolidated what they already knew so that they have a firmer foundation. Also it is not uncommon to reach a learning plateau, where you just seem to tread water for a while, although on a subconscious level a lot may be happening.

I suggest that learners need to discuss their objectives with their teachers at the beginning of the course to arrive at a set of targets that are both realisable and tangible. Teachers can make suggestions at that point for areas such as confidence or learning techniques that the students might not have thought about. I often use the Johari window to explain how the student may have some hidden objectives. Questionnaires can also be used to asses the level of confidence a student feels in each of the skills.
It is then helpful if the learner keeps a diary and notes on a daily basis which targets have been achieved. The teacher too should give post-lesson feedback. At the end of the course, the progress can be measured through a series of statements that a learner completes, e.g.

I have learnt --% of the new vocabulary I needed.
I understand why I have been making all/most/some of my errors.
I am much more/ more/slightly more confident in the carrying out the following tasks in English…..

I think the statements could be supplemented by a list of new learning targets for future study.

This kind of approach clearly treats each student as an individual learner with very personal needs. But it also involves students in the self-reflection, which in itself helps them become more effective learners.

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  1. Ryan Says:

    I find that after each unit of teaching giving a review excercise that includes a small checklist saing what the student can do now is really useful. For example, now i can talk about personalities, or if the unit was about the ´past tenses,now i can tell stories and report events. Giving a situtational context really helps because I find thats how studetns judge their own progress. I can get groceries, or I can go to a restauraunt etc.

    Sorry for multiple spelling errors.

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