Assessment, feedback and technology

In a new open access book from the Bloomsbury Learning Environment, Sarah Sherman and Leo Havemann look at the role of technology in educational assessment and what looks set to change.

Assessment lies at the heart of formal learning, and therefore at the heart of our work as educational technology practitioners. For our students in higher education institutions throughout Bloomsbury and the wider sector, undertaking coursework typically involves the use of online services and software to research and produce digital documents which are then submitted via a virtual learning environment (in our case, Moodle). Increasingly, marking and feedback also takes place online. These changes to assessment practices have been brought about through dialogue, collaboration and investment of precious time by academics, administrative staff and learning technologists, and by and large, the results appear to be welcomed by both students and staff. Yet this is not the full story of the role technology already and potentially plays in assessment. Online submission and marking of digital documents represents a digitisation of offline practices, which brings various new affordances (and of course removes others), but is not necessarily transformative.

Student attainment and satisfaction are sector-wide concerns, leading to calls from influential agencies such as the HEA and Jisc to enhance and transform assessment practices. The Bloomsbury Learning Environment (BLE) agreed in 2014 to focus the consortium’s shared activities on the ways in which learning technologies can enhance and support assessment and feedback. We wanted to gain an overview of current practices throughout Bloomsbury, and at the same time uncover and share examples of people making use of learning technologies in ways which go beyond the norm of digitised offline practice. Over the two subsequent academic years, we organised a programme of online and face-to-face events, conducted research, and collected case studies highlighting good practice.

In our experience, teaching staff often do not have much opportunity to find out what their peers are doing. Therefore, we have now published the written outputs of our enhancement theme as a freely available, open access ebook entitled Assessment, Feedback and Technology: Contexts and Case Studies in Bloomsbury. The ebook contains three research papers, which capture macro-level snapshots of current practice across the BLE partner institutions, as well as a wide range of pedagogic and technical case studies. These chapters have been contributed by academics, learning technologists, administrators and consultants, bringing a variety of perspectives to the topic. In developing this collection, our aim is therefore to offer an overview of current assessment practices, and hopefully some inspiration and ideas for making better use of technology.

The research presented in the first three chapters of the book include specific examples of practice at the BLE partner institutions from which broad recommendations have been drawn to help inform wider practice. These papers focus on:

  1. The use of technology across the assessment lifecycle
  2. The roles played by administrative staff in assessment processes
  3. Technology-supported assessment in distance learning

The first chapter introduces the assessment lifecycle model, developed by Manchester Metropolitan University and Jisc, which helps to contextualise the Bloomsbury landscape. The chapter was prompted by a wide-ranging survey conducted by each partner member to gauge how assessment practices were delivered and supported with technology. The second chapter offers administrative perspectives of the processes involved in assessment, and the research provides insight into how course administrators manage their responsibility in the workflow. We explore their pain points and consider improvements. Finally, the third chapter describes the assessment and feedback practices in the Bloomsbury programmes which offer distance learning (DL). Although it specifically considered DL, the findings and recommendations in this chapter are applicable for all teaching models.

The subsequent chapters are case studies of digital assessment and feedback practices, which operate at the micro-level of specific modules, offering an understanding of the pedagogy underlying the adoption of particular tools, and the associated benefits and challenges. The practice described does not simply replicate standard offline practices in a digital way, but extends the role of assessment and feedback. The case studies are categorised into five themes:

  • Alternative Tasks and Formats
  • Students Feeding Back
  • Assessing at Scale
  • Multimedia Approaches
  • Technical Developments

The final section contains three case studies of technical developments, which have been undertaken locally to support or enhance aspects of practice. The book acknowledges the inspiring work of our colleagues but also contributes to the wider discussion in the education community regarding improvements to assessment and feedback. Most of all, we hope this collection will be of interest to academics throughout Bloomsbury and beyond who are curious to learn about and develop new assessment approaches.

Further information:

Sarah Sherman, BLE Service Manager, Bloomsbury Learning Environment @BLE1
Leo Havemann, Learning Technologist, Birkbeck, University of London @leohavemann

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Why “younger” is not always “better” in foreign language learning

TProfessor Jean-Marc Dewaelehis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

Politicians can be forgiven for not having much time to read the fine print when asking advisers to translate research findings into workable policies. Or does it work the other way round? Do politicians decide on policies first and subsequently ask advisers for appropriate research findings to back up the policy?  This seems the case when considering the wide consensus across the world about the benefits of early introduction of foreign languages (FLs) in pupils’ school curriculum. The expression “younger is better” in education sounds perfectly plausible, is simple and convincing, and must be a vote winner.

In the UK, FLs used to be introduced in secondary education. Estelle Morris, then Secretary of State for Education, changed this policy in 2002, scrapping compulsory modern FLs for 14- to 16-year-olds, and introducing them in primary schools. She claimed in 2006 that: “Starting at a much younger age is the best way of making sure we get more pupils taking exams and, more importantly, more of them enjoying and feeling confident about speaking a language other than their own”.

In other countries, FL teaching has even been introduced in nursery schools.  There seems to be a universal consensus among politicians that an early start in FLs will lead to a smoother, quasi-effortless learning process leading to high levels of proficiency in the FLs. Is this a myth?!

Spanish ClassCounter-intuitively, research suggests that adolescents and adults progress more quickly than children when learning FLs in a school context (so-called “instructed FL learning”). Many researchers have serious doubts about age of onset being the most important variable in successful FL learning. Indeed, research shows quite clearly that starting age is only one of many independent variables in very complex question.

A crucial distinction exists between so-called naturalistic and instructed FL learning.  Research on naturalistic learners, typically immigrants, shows that younger children are indeed more likely to become undistinguishable from native speakers of the FL compared to their parents and older siblings. However, the picture is not so clear in research on instructed FL learning, a crucial distinction that is commonly overlooked.

A large-scale project on Age of Onset of Acquisition (AoA) in formal foreign language teaching, the Barcelona Age Factor project has looked at effects of starting age and the comparisons were always of groups with same amount of instruction hours (200, 400, 700, and 800 hours of instruction). Earlier exposure (ages eight to nine) to English (as a third language) in a classroom did not result in better performance. Learners who started English at age 11 and those who had started at age 14 were found to progress more quickly than early learners but, after a similar number of hours of exposure, the differences between the groups were limited, with older starters still having a slight advantage. In another study with young adult learners who had 2500 hours of instruction, AoA was not found to have an effect but amount and type of exposure had a positive effect. In other words, input seems more important than AoA.

A Swiss study (Pfenninger, in press) found no advantages of an early start among Swiss learners of English even after five years of instruction. The writing skills of late starters caught up with those of the early starters within six months.  One possible explanation is that older learners have greater metalinguistic, metacognitive and strategic skills.

Munoz points out that from the observations that younger immigrants and immersion students in naturalistic settings seem to outperform older peers “an inferential leap is made in the assumption that learning age will have the same effect on students of a foreign language, when they are exposed to only one speaker of that language (the teacher, who is not usually a native speaker) in only one setting (the classroom) and only during very limited amounts of time”.

This does not mean that there are no age effects at all in learning and later use of the FLs.  Indeed, younger children seem to be more motivated in learning FLs. In my own research on language choice and self-perceived proficiency among more than 1500 adult bi- and multilinguals, I found that early starters in a FL felt more proficient in speaking, comprehending, reading and writing their FLs. They were also more likely to choose the FL for the expression of anger and feelings, for inner speech and mental calculation.  Interestingly, the effect of mode of instruction was even stronger than age of onset: participants who had acquired the FL naturalistically or in mixed mode (formal instruction combined with authentic use) outperformed participants who had learned the FL through classroom instruction only.

In their excellent overview of the literature on age and the teaching of FLs, Lambelet and Berthele point out that more research is needed on improving age-appropriate teaching techniques in order to boost motivation levels and metalinguistic awareness of FL learners of all ages. Moreover, extra thought needs to be given to the primary school teachers who are suddenly expected to teach a FL and who may lack in confidence and competence. In other words, those arguing for an early introduction of FLs at school need to take the nuanced research findings into account and avoid promising miracles.

At what age did you start learning a foreign language? How do you think this affected your fluency and confidence in the language? Please leave your comments below.

Further reading

  • Dewaele, J. M. (2009). Age effects on self-perceived communicative competence and language choice among adult multilinguals. Eurosla Yearbook, 9, 245–268.
  • Enever, J. (2011). ELLiE. Early Language Learning in Europe. London: British Council.
  • Lambelet, A. & Berthele, R. (2014). Âge et apprentissage des langues à l’école. Revue de literature. Fribourg: Research Centre on Multilingualism.
  • Pfenninger, S. (in press).The literacy factor in the optimal age debate: a 5-year longitudinal study. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.
  • Muñoz, C. (2011). Input and long-term effects of starting age in foreign language learning. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 49, 113–133.

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

Other blogs about linguistics:

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