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b y W i l l y C. C a r d o s o

LEARNER AUTONOMY AND SELF-ASSESSMENT: INDISPENSABLE TOOLS FOR SUCCESSFUL LEARNING
BACKGROUND Two years ago, I realized that my students had never had a real chance to assess their own learning. They were taken very good care of by the school, who always called them to check if they were satisfied; and by their teachers, who sent them monthly reports on performance, among other things. However, they were not being guided and given opportunities to lead an equal role in determining the rate of their success in learning a language. Active learners taking initiative learn more things and learn better than do people who sit at the feet of their teachers. Knowles (1975:14) The quote above was the first thing I came across while researching self-assessment, which then led me to the relatively new field of Learner Autonomy (capacity to take charge of one’s own learning). It’s a concept of which I have been an advocate since then and on which I have based my teaching practice and my initiatives as an academic manager and teacher-trainer. Autonomy is essentially a matter of the learner’s psychological relation to the process and content of learning – a capacity of detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action. Little (1991:4) With such a concept in mind, I was able to develop a learner’s selfassessment questionnaire that would ameliorate the conditions CRITIQUE Teachers are constantly assessing their learners, either formally, through tests; or informally, through some practice followed by error correction, for instance. It is the teacher who usually has the last word in determining success or failure. As preached and marketed, we have been moving towards more learner-centered programs, in which approaches and materials are certainly more interesting than they were 20 or 30 years ago. But it seems to me that in terms of assessment, mainstream curricula are still very far from being learner-centered. Therefore, learners are unlikely to have the responsibility we expect from them. The accountability then usually weighs a lot more on the side of the teacher. I believe many of you reading this article have already faced something like: if the learner succeeds, it’s her/his merit; if she/he doesn’t, the teacher is to blame. If this sounds like nails on a chalkboard, take a look at the two quotes below. I leave the conclusion up to you: It is mainly in formal instruction (where the focus is on learning about the language rather than interacting in the language) that I mentioned, allow learners to reflect on their involvement, achievement and barriers, and state their aims more formally and objectively. The next step was to collect and design classroom activities that would aid this practice and that could be adaptable to fit into any language program.

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b y W i l l y C. C a r d o s o

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intellectual ability (aptitude) seems to matter. Willis (1996) Individualization (‘individualised learning’,

(…) Research

shows that high-quality teaching can nullify aptitude differences. ‘individualised

How was my: interest, involvement, interaction with other students, attention/focus, contribution (with materials; bringing doubts; helping colleagues).

instruction’) is, historically at least, linked with programmed learning and based on a thoroughly behaviouristic psychology. As it is generally practised, it leaves very little freedom of choice to the individual learner. Rather it is the teacher who tries to adapt his methodology and materials to the learner, like a doctor writing out a prescription. That is, the majority of the relevant decisions are made for the learner, not by him. It is in fact individualised TEACHING: it aims at the most efficient use of the teacher and at the most effective result, but in terms of what the teacher wants the learner to achieve. Riley (1986:32) ACTION To develop the questionnaires and classroom activities that will promote what was said above, I made use of Brown’s five categories of self-assessment suggested in Language Assessment (2001): direct assessment of performance, indirect assessment of performance, metacognitive assessment, assessment of socioaffective factors, and student self-generated tests. I will give an overview of them and propose some ideas. 1. Assessment of [a specific] performance This is carried out right after learners complete a task. A very useful tool here is recording spoken activities. E.g. after they make a presentation or discuss a problem, they listen to the recording and evaluate their own pronunciation, fluency, grammatical accuracy, and so on. Possible questions are: Did I make any mistakes that I don’t normally make in writing? Did I make any slips in pronunciation? And to follow up: What can I do to improve? 2. Indirect assessment of [general] competence The purpose of this evaluation is to disregard small occasional flaws that are maybe caused by tiredness or anxiety. This assessment comprises a book unit, a group of units, or even a whole module.
LEARNING PREFERENCES (Choose as many options as needed) I learn better through: a. television/video/films b. radio broadcast/podcast c. music d. print material e. White board f. images/pictures/ photographs/ I learn better by: a. memorizing b. solving problems c. figuring information out by yourself d. listening e. reading f. copying stuff from the whiteboard g. listening and taking notes h. reading and taking notes i. repeating what I listen I have ______ hours a week available for extra-class activities? I will use this time to: a. Prepare for the next class. b. Revise the content of previous classes. c. Do something related to my personal or professional interests. For example, _______________

3.

Metacognitive assessment [for setting goals] It is absolutely necessary to have short, medium and longterm goals to learn any skill, needless to say, an on-going check-up of these goals is desired.

4.

Socioaffective assessment Here we leave language aside for a moment to take care of something as important: learning styles and preferences. The process of learning how to learn plays as a lead role as the process of learning the subject matter. Hence, it is essential to evaluate both processes.

Has my English gotten better since_____? (last unit; two months ago…) If so, how did I make it happen? If not, what happened? What could have been different? After studying ______ (this unit; for two months), how is my… Speaking Listening Reading Writing Which skill is more challenging? What can I do to improve? After studying ______ (this unit; for two months), how is my… Grammar Vocabulary Which grammar items do I need to revise? Which vocabulary area do I need to revise?

I prefer when the teacher: a. explains grammar using rules and terminologies b. guides me to discover how to use the grammar through examples and situations

5.

Student-generated tests (self- and peer-assessment)

One of the main purposes of giving a test is, prior to it, to stimulate review; and after it, to make learners aware of the areas they need to improve. Student-generated tests are of great value in light of the above. They foster intrinsic motivation, and give them a chance to select content that is more relevant to them. After all, they will be the ones using the language. Two nice example of this are: a) in a reading activity, students devise the comprehension questions on their own and then test each other, they will also be responsible

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by Willy C Cardoso

for grading it. b) learners keep tab of words, grammatical structures, expressions and any content that they consider important through a certain period; they will use that to review and the teacher will design the tests based on these lists. To see more sample questionnaires and activities, as well as, guidelines to develop your own material, visit the post SelfAssessment on http://authenticteaching.worpress.com CONCLUSION In conclusion, the purpose of having learners assess themselves throughout the course is to give them more control over their learning, it is to make them think for themselves whether the effort they are putting in is paying off (or when there is a lack of it), for them to clearly see the consequences with their own eyes, and based on that to set realistic goals for learning. Moreover, selfassessment encourages an enhancement of one’s self-knowledge,

self-esteem and self-consciousness, which play important roles in the learning process. Teachers and learners will hopefully share responsibility for either success or failure, and take the wheel of the course hand-in-hand. “The greatest sign of success for a teacher... is to be able to say, “The children are now working as if I did not exist.” Maria Montessori REFERENCE Benson, P. (2001) Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning, Pearson Brown, H.D. (2004) Language Assessment: principles and classroom practices, Pearson Nunan, D. (1988) The Learner-Centred Curriculum, Cambridge Scharle, Á. and Szabó, A. (2000) Learner Autonomy, Cambridge Willis, J. (1996) A Framework for Task-Based Learning, Longman

The author
Willy C. Cardoso has been in ELT for 10 years. He is a consultant for English in the Office and Super Teacher (SP). At the moment, he is taking a Masters in Education in the UK. You can find him blogging on http://authenticteaching.wordpress.com and on twitter (@willycard). willybanze@yahoo.com.br www.englishintheoffice.com.br

D.E.L.E
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NOVIEMBRE: 19-20 de noviembre Inscripciones: del 1 de septiembre al 15 de octubre Niveles: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 Informaciones: Instituto Cervantes de São Paulo: (11) 3897 - 9600 informasao@cervantes.es; censao@cervantes.es ; recepcao@cervantes-brasil.com.br

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