Rania K. Jabr, American University in Cairo, Egypt
Jabr, R.K. (2011). Introducing the skills of self-assessment and peer feedback. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2 (1). 26-31.
The object of our teaching should not simply be to introduce our students to a foreign language, but it should be to enable them to perform well when we teachers are no longer there to support them. This means we need to teach them to be autonomous, and one way to succeed in this challenging task is to train them in the “skill” of self-assessment (Harris, 1997) and how to benefit from peer interaction.
Teachers, whether teaching beginners or advanced level students, may share some of the following common concerns about their students. Do any of the following seem familiar? The students do not listen or follow instructions. They are totally dependent and want to be spoon-fed. They are fixated on grades and want their work graded immediately. They complain when they are instructed to do tasks and even resort to using L1. Worst of all, they can be rather lazy and copy each other’s work in the hope of getting a better grade.
What is learner autonomy? Is it a list of behaviors? Is it a list of beliefs? It is both. Every student needs to recognize his or her own potential and to take responsibility for his/her own learning (Holec, 1981). Only then can we say this is autonomous learning. But can we influence learner autonomy or a student’s ability to self-assess? We need to find practical ways to do so to positively impact the learning situation in general. Self-assessment refers to the process of collecting systematic information about one’s performance to affect one’s progress.
In a number of learning theories, (Cooper, 2006) the goal is to encourage autonomy (Holec, 1981). One such theory is Brain Friendly Learning (Jensen, 2000) which includes self-assessment as an integral component. Teachers focus on real life problems, encouraging students to also learn outside the classroom. One technique associated with Brain Friendly Learning is where the teacher is encouraged to explain the learning objectives to students from day one, focusing on what they are going to cover and why they are going to cover specific content/material. The teacher is also encouraged to reduce any stress both criteria inside and outside class. Another technique is to set a task clearly and explain to students what is expected of them to successfully complete it so that students are put on the right track. This means that students need to be taught to know if and when they get “it”. This can be only achieved by explaining the big picture and linking tasks backwards and forwards. A third technique would be strategy training, giving students techniques or tools in how to tackle tasks in specific skills, like reading or writing (Sousa, 2006).
Another approach which supports the development of learner autonomy is inquiry-based learning, which focuses on how students learn best. Students are encouraged to discover for themselves and the teacher guides them. There is no correct or wrong answer, and teaching is not explicit (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006). Inquiry-based learning relies on three main goals, encouraging involvement, ownership, and investment.
Students often naturally listen and watch in class, yet “doing” is what we want them to engage in and excel at. Over time their “doing” will transform into “discovery” (Kohonen, 1992). This experiential learning concept refers to the process of learning from direct experience. It is learning by doing or going through real-life tasks which include a number of specific steps: planning, preparation, experience, reflection, and finally review. However, the often ignored variable in the journey of self-discovery is selecting and creating carefully thought out tasks by us teachers. Remember we are teaching our students “how” to learn to enable them to self-assess and reflect in order to maximize their chances to achieve autonomy.
Figure 1: The role of tasks in the discovery process
Students in my context often complain; here are some of their typical comments (notice the accusatory tone): “I do not deserve this grade,” “my ideas in the essay are sufficient, or “my vocabulary is wide enough.” The list of complaints goes on. So what should we do? The teacher has to do some type of psychological “weaning” to enable the student to assume responsibility for his/her own learning and growth. This is because an integral part of autonomous learning is acquiring the skills of analysis, problem solving, and critical thinking (Marshall & Rowland, 1993).
In the following section, I will suggest some ways of encouraging peer-support and self-assessment in the skills of reading and writing. However, these ideas can be easily adapted to suit all levels and can be extended to other skill areas. These ideas can be introduced in class or as workshops for self-access centre users.
Peer-support in reading
Ask students to form groups of their choice. They choose who they want to work with and must attempt to make it work for the benefit of the group. Give all groups a list of themes to choose from. After consultation among group members, each group decides on its theme. Each member of a group is to read a different article on the agreed upon theme. (The teacher/facilitator can provide the articles or, for more advanced levels, allow students to select their own articles from the Internet).
The goal of the task is to share reading experiences in the form of peer conferences. After completing their reading of the article (outside class), each student in a group is given five minutes to present to his colleagues in the group the main points of the article, what most attracted his attention, and most important of all whether he recommends that they read the article or not, stating his reasons for his opinion. A brief question/answer session follows where other students in the group are allowed to discuss the ideas presented.
Peer-feedback in writing
This activity helps learners to see that they can give and receive valuable feedback from their peers outside the classroom. Divide the students into groups of five students with mixed abilities. Type up different student essays without names. Each group is assigned one essay, but each student within a group is responsible for only one component: a) content b) organization c) vocabulary d) grammar e) spelling & punctuation. Give students the rubric you use of grading their essays. Students read the essay for their assignment component and report to their group about it. The final and most important step is to produce a written group feedback to the original writer of the essay.
Self-assessment for all skill areas
Using portfolios is a very practical way to encourage students to self-assess. These can be used for all skill areas, as they are mainly a systematic compilation of materials. Portfolios, if used correctly, will encourage a purposeful reflection by learners on their own development and progress over time, as they attempt to document any feedback they receive in the form of assessment from their teacher, and as they also attempt to showcase their work by including samples to evaluate their performance. Complied by the student, it forces him/her to be proactive, to self-reflect, and self-assess. What can be a better way to reach the goal of autonomy?
Provide your students with numerous self-access resources, whether online or in hard copies, and encourage them to use technology to review their written work. Using spell check and grammar check for example is a first step. How about online dictionaries? These simple technological tools can help students submit better rewrites or even a successful redo of an unsuccessful assignment. On the macro-level, give your syllabus at the end of each month and allow your students to choose what needs revision or practice. This could even be a simple checklist of themes covered or specific teaching points depending on what you are teaching. Provide options for follow-up in a self-access centre, in class or online. You could also allow students to choose the time of continuous assessment tasks, obviously not formal tests.
The above mentioned tasks attempt to encourage both peer and self-assessment. We need both to facilitate learner autonomy. We need to encourage our students to learn from one another, listen to suggestions from their peers, and be open to and willing to make changes. This is in my opinion a necessary step forward to encourage students to self-reflect and hence self-assess, an often difficult task which requires the learner to develop the ability to listen to his inner voice.
Test scores may not reveal whether our teaching has been effective or not, but what our students are able to do when we are no longer there for them is the real measure of our abilities as teachers. Student autonomy should be a goal both teachers and students aspire to, yet it can best be reached when we create the opportunity for our students to self-assess, for only then will we have succeeded in our mission to create successful language learners.
Notes on the contributor
Rania Jabr, Senior Instructor at the American University in Cairo, is a materials writer and teacher trainer. She has contributed a number of articles to various EFL/ESL publications, has presented at numerous international conferences, and is Chair of NileTesol 2012. Her main interests include teaching reading and writing, skill integration, and learner autonomy.
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Harris, M. (1997). Self-assessment of language learning in formal settings. English Language Teaching Journal, 51 (1), 12-20.
Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy in foreign language learning. Oxford: Pergamon.
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Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., and Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41 (2), 75–86.
Marshall, L. ,& Rowland, F. (1993). A Guide to learning independently. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
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