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by Marta Mangan-Lev
Valley Opportunity Council, Chicopee, MA
Valley Opportunity Council, Chicopee, MA
Assessment. Evaluation. The words conjure images of tests: sharp #2 pencils, rows of bubbles to be darkened-in, quiet rooms with perspiring test-takers and only the sound of rustling paper. I'm learning, along with my learners, to replace these dated images with a reality that conforms more with my values about teaching and learning. We're learning to use authentic, learner-centered tools which integrate assessment into the cycle of teaching/learning. We're learning to use assessment as a tool for self understanding and instructional planning.
There are other, equally-dated images I can conjure from my educational experiences: straight rows of wooden desks, one behind the other; a teacher's desk facing the rows of students; a teacher, talking, talking, and writing on the broad expanse of a blackboard, occasionally calling upon a student to supply an answer, with luck the correct one.
My classroom doesn't look like this. We start out seated around a horseshoe of tables, each learner facing the others. We often work in cooperative groups, for which learners pull chairs into small clusters to work together. My position is not at the front of the room lecturing (well, maybe once in a while), but usually circulating among learners engaged in using language, engaged in learning. We're learning to create and work in a learning environment in which learners work together cooperatively to achieve shared goals.
Cooperative learning in the adult education classroom offers some valuable opportunities for authentic assessment. In my work with cooperative groups and authentic assessment I have learned there are many parallels between the two.
This has made it easier to integrate them.
To see this more clearly we will first look at some principles of cooperative learning.
The Structure of Cooperative Learning
If you were to survey teachers of adult education about their use of groupwork, nearly all would probably respond that they often have people working in groups. In my ESOL classes learners may work in groups formed using a number of random techniques: counting off by 3s or 4s; distributing three or four different pictures and then forming a group with those who have the same picture, choosing a topic (for example, a kind of music or food) and then grouping those who made the same choice. While learners work together in these groups for conversation or to complete a task, they are not explicitly cooperative. Cooperative groupwork is distinct from work in small groups:
- learners work in positive interdependence,
- each participant has a clear and specific role,
- the process of working together is an important focus,
- participants reflect upon and analyze their work together.
A cooperative model of groupwork is structured in these specific ways. The role of the teacher is to set up those structures by considering these questions: What will learners do? What role will each learner play? How will they reflect upon their work together? Equally important, the teacher considers the personality, skills, and learning style of each learner to form groups that can work together effectively. Next, she/he facilitates the formation of the group and observes them in action. Finally, the teacher provides learners with a means to reflect upon and evaluate their group's work; that is, she incorporates assessment tools.
About now, you may be thinking, "Yikes, I've got 30 minutes to plan tomorrow's class. Let's just count off by 3s and talk about the weekend. We can work cooperatively sometime when I've got a day or two to plan!"
It's true that the most extensive work of the teacher is in planning cooperative interactions, in setting up just those conditions outlined above. It's equally true that there's a learning curve in developing and honing our skills as facilitators of cooperative learning; the initial time investment is significant. As we become more adept at the process, it takes less time.
We find the same is true of using authentic assessment. We can opt to use `quick and dirty' standardized tests, or can invest the time to develop authentic assessment tools that also collect information about learners' skills, learning styles and personalities.
The payoff for investing in these two approaches is significant. Teaching and learning are enhanced as learners acquire the habits of reflecting upon their learning and working with others. Our teaching, by integrating on-going feedback from learners, also becomes more relevant and meaningful in learners' lives.
One way to simplify the planning of cooperative groupwork is to think of it as three sets of variables to be sorted and matched: 1) the content and process of the task to be carried out, 2) the attributes of the learners to be grouped together, and 3) the assessment component: the tools learners will use to reflect upon their experience.
Content/process of the task
This is a starting point for any lesson planning. What exactly will learners do together? What skills will they learn/practice? What are the goals of their work? What roles can group members fill in order to achieve the goals? With the possible exception of the last, these questions underlie any lesson planning. In this sense, the planning is the same, although the task will be tailored to the structure of a group working cooperatively. While appropriate roles will vary according to the nature of the activity, there are a number of frequently relevant roles which can also be customized to the particular activity. The level of support for each role--checklists or other ways to clearly specify what the learner will do in that role--can be adapted to suit the level(s) of the learners.
Possible roles to assign may include an observer, a questioner, a timekeeper, and a summarizer and facilitator.
Observer: watches the work of the group, often equipped with a checklist of specific behaviors to look for (e.g., does everyone speak? Are all ideas treated with respect?).
Questioner: asks questions of one or more participants. This learner could also be provided a list (e.g., of question words [who, what, etc.], or of specific questions).
Timekeeper: keeps the group within time limits set or agreed upon.
Summarizer: may sum up the work of the group herself, or may present a group-developed summary to the class.
Facilitator: helps the group accomplish its agreed-upon tasks.
Grouping Learners: Attributes of Learners to be Grouped Together
The next piece of the puzzle is learner attributes. As I get to know my learners, I pay attention to their individual differences in an on-going process of assessment through observation. I use this information to mix and match qualities to increase a group's success. Learner Skills are one set of attributes: language, leadership, facilitation, etc. Another variable is the consistency of attendance, which will be particularly relevant for groups working on a project over time.
Native language should be taken into consideration: would the task be best accomplished in a group as heterogeneous in language as possible, such that more interaction would take place in the target language? Or would learners benefit from the ability to perform parts of their task in a shared native language?
Learning style in general will be an important factor in group interactions, and particularly an individual's preference for working independently or with others. Finally, but not least importantly, the mix of personalities in a group will affect its success. A group in which each member tends to be quiet and shy may have trouble getting going.
A group from my Level One class is a wonderfully-varied and complex group of learners. Su, from Korea, has very good listening, speaking, and reading skills, though her pronunciation is sometimes difficult for others to understand. She engages enthusiastically in all tasks and attempts to involve others. Panay, from Laos, is very quiet and reluctant to speak. She has a good sense of humor and understands most of the classroom talk. Jay, from the Philippines, is the youngest member of the class. He also has very good language skills, but is easily distracted from a task. The fourth member of the group, Dorota, a very new speaker of English, tends to be quiet. She has little confidence in her skills but is determined to learn English.
The configuration of this group meant that English is their only common language and they sometimes struggle to communicate. Su often takes leadership in getting their work started, but Dorota also pays attention to keeping them on task. Panay sometimes shyly teases Jay, who enjoys the playful interactions. The group works well together.
Authentic Assessment in Cooperative Group Work
So, okay, you've worked out some group tasks, figured out roles that you hope will work to accomplish them, and made some initial groupings of learners. What about assessment? What information have you already gathered? What will you now assess? How?
Through the structure and process of cooperative learning learners use a wide range of skills. These skills include:
- language/content skills used to accomplish the group's goals, both in what students do and how they do it,
- taking/following leadership, to participate in any of the various roles, and to together move a group to achieve its goals,
- negotiating with each other when different ideas are being considered,
- problem solving: clarifying ideas, elaborating the ideas suggested by others, or seeing the consequences of particular solutions,
- reaching consensus, a specific and not widely familiar decision-making process that honors the opinions of all involved to come to an agreed-upon outcome,
- synthesizing/summarizing in order to present the group's work, or to facilitate its on-going work,
- observation/analysis, identifying what is to be observed and how to understand what one is seeing, and
- giving feedback to other learners or to the instructor about the group's process, the task, and other aspects of the groupwork.
Not only are these skills critical to effective groupwork, they will also enhance success beyond the classroom, in the workplace, and in the community. Those skills more related to process, to how we work with others, are seldom explicitly elicited in classroom work and are even less often evaluated by `traditional' assessment. By developing tools to use in the cooperative classroom, learners can get feedback on their skills in these areas as well as develop them.
Authentic Assessment Tools
So you've got some groups that are, with support from you, working together well. You're helping learners identify and develop skills, such as those listed above, in the course of their cooperative efforts.
What tools can you and they use to reflect upon and evaluate their work? Here are some suggestions.
- learner questionnaires (see box below). In their simplest form, these ask learners to choose a response. For more advanced learners, questionnaires may also ask for more extensive responses.
- teacher or learner observation. The observer may use a checklist and record the frequency of particular events or may watch for specific behaviors.
- checklists.Completed by teacher and/or learners, they may include specific content skills in the task or specific cooperative skills.
- reports/presentations to the class. In a variety of forms (charts, skits, talks, etc.), these provide a concrete work product.
- evaluation of groupwork products. What did the group make/present/etc.? How does it compare with their goals?
- learning contracts.These provide goal-based evaluation of personal, group, or content goals.
How did your group work together tonight?
Name: _____________________ Date: _______________
What did your group do today?
I feel good or not good about my group today.
I talked a lot or a little in my group.
Other people talked a lot or a little in my group.
My group helped me learn a lot or a little today.
My group got a lot or a little work done today.
A variety of these tools can and should be used over time. Different tools will appeal to different learners and elicit a range of perspectives on the process and/or the product of the work. This assessment should include both learner and teacher input. A growing desire for me is to support learners in developing tools for reflection and evaluation of groupwork.
As is usually true of authentic assessment, what teachers and learners learn from these tools can be translated into content for subsequent groupwork. If an issue is identified as a particular strength or weakness, groupwork can be designed to address this. For example, if one of the roles is that of `summarizer' and groups report difficulty in carrying this out, class instruction can increase learner understanding and skill in subsequent groupwork. As teachers and learners become more adept in the process, the cycle of groupwork to reflection to instruction to groupwork becomes increasingly meaningful and on target.
Cooperative groupwork provides an opportunity for learners to express and build a range of social and intellectual skills. The principles of authentic assessment--
- that it be learner-centered and help learners achieve their goals,
- that it be part of the learning experience,
- that it use a variety of procedures,
- that it provide feedback that will lead to better instruction