The purpose of this article is
threefold. First, we will briefly define what is meant by a learner-centered approach.
Second, we will provide a rationale for infusing learner-centered techniques in a
classroom assessment. Third, we will suggest a framework and specific activities for
incorporating learner-centered classroom assessment techniques.
To date, the idea of
learner-centered approaches to assessment, particularly in the area of listening
comprehension, has not been fully explored. Although the notion of learner-centeredness
has been applied successfully to teaching practice (Campbell and Kryszewska 1992; Deller
1989), methodology (Nunan 1988; Tudor 1997), curriculum development (Nunan 1988), and
learner training (Wenden 1986; Wenden and Rubin 1987; Oxford 1990), little mention has
been made of the possibility of applying learner-centered techniques in assessment. This
is especially true in the area of listening assessment, where the testing process itself
may not reflect learner needs (Rost 1990) but where assessment serves as a key source of
motivation for many learners.
Learner control vs. quality control
The lack of response from testing specialists with regard to applying learner-centered
techniques to the assessment of language skills, like listening, is not surprising given
the natural tension between learner control and quality control in language testing. While
advocates of learner-centered approaches propose giving learners control over various
aspects of language learning, testing specialists maintain that assessment practices
should be guided by the cornerstones of good testing, that is, validity, reliability,
practicality, and washback (Alderson, Clapham, and Wall 1996), and not by individual
ELT practitioners can accommodate both increased learner involvement in skill area
testing and still maintain high testing standards. Classroom assessment offers an ideal
environment for piloting and implementing learner-centered assessment techniques. Unlike
national or standardized exam situations, in classroom testing situations teachers often
have control over exam development and administration. The classroom assessment
environment provides opportunities to hand over decision-making duties and creative tasks
A learner-centered approach
A learner-centered approach in language instruction is founded on the concept that the
learner is central in the learning process. Learners learn primarily because of what they
bring to their classroom experience in terms of their perceived needs, motivations, past
experiences, background knowledge, interests, and creative skills. Learners are active as
opposed to passive recipients of knowledge. They may assume a decision-making role in the
classroom, often deciding what is to be learned, through which activities, and at what
pace. Learners can also produce materials and provide realia for the classroom. Teachers,
on the other hand, are seen as facilitators, helpers, and resources (Campbell and
Kryszewska 1992), with a decentralized role.
Rationale for learner-centered assessment
Advocates of learner-centered teaching methodologies and curricula argue that involving
learners enhances motivation, which in turn heightens achievement. Learner-centered
approaches offer additional benefits for the classroom teacher including constant needs
analysis, reduced prep time through the use of student-generated materials, peer-teaching
and correcting, increased group solidarity, a decentralized teacher role, increased
understanding of student concerns and problems, learner-training benefits, and finally,
increased maturity and responsibility among students.
Classroom teachers can expect similar benefits from adopting assessment practices that
utilize learner-centered techniques. Classroom teachers who involve their students in test
development, administration, and marking may find their students becoming more motivated
Learner involvement in classroom assessment can also raise both teacher and learner
awareness of learning and test- taking strategies. Involvement will additionally help
students to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. Finally, a learner-centered
approach to assessment will promote student autonomy and independent learning skills.
Testing the listening skill
Listening has been frequently identified as a skill area that is often tested but
rarely taught (Tauroza 1997). Even in nonassessment situations, most classroom listening
activities center around some prelistening task followed by listening to a monologue or
conversation and answering some form of comprehension questions that are then evaluated.
Feedback consists of students comparing their answers with a "correct" answer.
Many proponents of communicative language teaching advise, however, that language
teachers shift from an orientation of "we will teach only what we can test" to
finding ways to evaluate those skills that are important for learners (Savignon 1985). A
learner-centered approach to listening comprehension assessment would provide classroom
teachers with an excellent opportunity to discover what learners value in listening.
Steps to incorporate learner-centered techniques in listening assessment
Incorporating a learner-centered approach to listening assessment entails three
necessary steps. First, classroom teachers should evaluate the learner-centeredness of
their present assessment practices. Second, teachers need to identify the areas in
listening assessment (i.e., test development, administration, marking) in which learners
can be actively involved without compromising standards or upsetting local educational
practices. Finally, teachers need to develop, pilot, and include learner-centered
listening assessment activities into normal classroom routine.
The checklist (see Figure 1) is a tool that
teachers can use to evaluate the learner-centeredness of their current listening
assessment practices. After teachers have evaluated the learner-centeredness of their
current assessment practice, they need to identify specific areas in listening assessment
in which their students could be actively involved.
The classroom assessment process is usually divided into three major phases: test
content and development, administration, and marking. In the test content and development
phase, teachers identify skill or sub-skill areas to be tested, choose topics or themes,
and select and write test questions and instructions. In the test administration phase,
teachers make decisions regarding when to give the test, how to arrange student seating,
what equipment and media are needed (audiotape, videotape, live reader), and what
interaction and extra materials are allowed. This is the phase in which all administrative
testing policies and procedures are addressed.
Once tests have been administered, they need to be scored. Important areas such as
developing marking criteria, deciding who marks the test, and checking and recording
scores need to be considered.
Although classroom teachers usually assume full responsibility for all aspects of the
testing process, each phase in the assessment process offers valuable opportunities to
involve learners. The teachers role should be to decide which area(s) are
appropriate for student involvement as well as to design and monitor activities in which
students take responsibility for certain aspects of the listening assessment process.
The following sample activities involve students in deciding what is to be tested,
selecting or producing appropriate materials, writing test questions, administering
listening tests, and scoring such tests. All of these activities can be adapted for
different skill areas in addition to listening.
Students design and produce listening tests which they later administer and score.
Typically, student-generated exams are produced in groups and given to other groups of
students. Student-generated exams provide teachers with interesting insights into what
information and skills students value.
Test committee activities.
Different groups of students are given different test-related responsibilities. Such
responsibilities can be rotated over time, so all students have opportunities to be
involved in various aspects of the test.
Students are given certain decision-making powers regarding their tests. Such powers might
include agenda-setting, voting on various aspects of test content, administration, and
Producing an answer key.
Students work in groups or as a class with a written transcript of the listening passage
they heard in order to produce a key that will be used to mark their tests.
Students are responsible for accurately marking and scoring each others tests.
Students are responsible for accurately marking and scoring their own tests.
When identifying target phases in the assessment process and selecting and planning
specific activities, teachers should consider several important issues:
Classroom context. How will class size, grouping (ESL/EFL),
seating arrangement, and available equipment affect the expected outcome?
Student population. How will student-related factors such as
age, maturity level, student conduct, proficiency level, range of abilities, or gender
affect their ability to participate successfully in selected learner-centered activities?
Test weight. How important is the test?
How much or how little will the anticipated student involvement hinder or expedite the
Although a good testing practice seems to be at odds with a learner-centered approach,
we believe that not only is it possible to have aspects of learner-centeredness in the
listening assessment process, but that classroom teachers should be actively pursuing this
goal. Proponents of learner-centered approaches maintain that increased learner
involvement in aspects of the learning experience is highly beneficial. We believe that
the benefits of learner involvement should be further extended into classroom assessment
practices. Involving learners in their own listening assessment would be motivating for
students and would help teachers gain insights into what their students really value.
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