April 22, 2005

Assessing learner autonomy

A sudden spurt of activity on the AUTO-L list, on the subject of assessing learner autonomy (a subject dear to many hearts, I know):
I can imagine some groups being more autonomous than others, taking more control of their learning than other groups do.

One approach to assessing autonomy would be a portfolio system that included learning journals, self-assessment, and self-evaluation. For more on this, see The Learning Record Online

The Learning Record Online is an online version of, erm, something called the Learning Record (who'da guessed, eh?), but I couldn't get the links to that original one to work, perhaps you have to be a member or something? The page did have this interesting quote form the Prez of the University of Californye-ay:
The President of the University of California has recently criticized standardized testing as a destructive force in education and has sought to end the use of the SAT test in UC college admissions (NY Times, Feb. 17, 2001, page 1). He argues that standardized tests are "not compatible with the American view on how merit should be defined and opportunities distributed." After observing classrooms where 12-year-olds were being drilled on analogies in preparation for the SAT's, he wrote, "The time involved was not aimed at developing the students' reading and writing abilities but rather their test-taking skills. What I saw was disturbing and prompted me to spend time taking sample SAT tests and reviewing the literature. I concluded what many others have concluded—that America's overemphasis on the SAT is compromisng our educational system." He recommended that the university move away from admission processes that use quantitative formulas and instead adopt evaluative procedures that look at applicants in a comprehensive, holistic way.

We applaud President Atkinson's leadership in taking this bold initiative.

Hmmm. Wonder what my colleague will make of that? He's often lamented the Japanese emphasis on knowledge tests and compared them unfavourably with his native country's SATs, because they (supposedly) test aptitude and he feels that is what universities should be testing: not what students know but whether they are likely to be good students.

A second AUTO-L-er had this to say on the subject of assessment:
I think the area of self-assessment has an affinity with learner autonomy. Learners could be required to develop an assessment program in an abstract or concrete way, for themselves or others, and if all they propose is the taking of a standardized test, we give them a low score.

We give them a high score if it appears they are thinking about their own development as a language learner. And a higher score for originality or if they do a good job of describing their own learning.

Of course, there will be students who bluff their way through this exercise without really thinking about their own language learning.

I don't know what attitude to take to those students.
In any case, I think it is easier to draw on one's own experience than do the research need to fool the instructor.

Debriefing is another time where self-assessment comes naturally.

In my writing class with reluctant readers, I get them to rate each others' essays, and if the average grade they give to an essay matches the grade I give that essay, I give their group an extra classwork point.

This touches on a touchy subject where my colleague and I often disagree (and we often change our positions on this matter, too), namely to what extent to pander (or yield) to students' desire (or ingrained habit) for passing grades and good scores on tests over actually learning anything. What we have done, because it has proven so difficult to wean students away from what I call "the game of school", is to compromise by giving students a list of activities they can do, each activity has a score next to it, the number of points they can get if they do the activity, with the overall condition that to pass the class they must accumulate 60 points or more. Now I don't really like this: it seems to completely compromise our intention, which is to develop autonomous students, students who can take charge of their own learning, and how can they do that if they are still extrinsically motivated by grades and scores and points? We need to be helping them (I feel) develop instrinsic motivation, and this giving them the "list of points" seems to me to completley undermine that.

One solution, perhaps, might be suggested by a third contributor to the AUTO-L discussion who contributed this contribution (great style, eh?):
I haven't been following the discussion well, but wonder if a distinction is useful between 'assessing' learner autonomy (i.e., giving it a grade in an institutional setting) and 'evaluating' (i.e. investigating) its development as interested teachers/researchers? Sorry if the same point's been made before here. Personally, I find the first notion of 'assessing' autonomy (as defined above) slightly ominous . . .

An earlier AUTO-L posting a contributor wrote of:
the ironic contradiction between "forcing" students to do something, such as focussing on autonomy, and the philosophy of autonomy.

I would say there are all sorts of human beings, those who like and need structure and order (including language learners who feel terrified with loose acquisition approaches and cleave to their patterns and rules and vocab lists) through to those who wing it, go with the flow, let their subconscious do the walking. Also, people can be very good at some aspects of language learning, slower at others. And people are people, they get tired, they feel lazy, they have personalities, they are not motivated by the same materials or story or whatever that someone else finds a real buzz. Some students are so obsessed with the marks, results, GPA, that all else is subsumed to that. Talking of the personal and intercultural benefits of language learning gets a glazed eye reaction. "Ho hum, can we get on with what will get me the highest mark possible and look good on my CV?" The massive diversity of students is matched by the massive diversity of their teachers, too.

So, I would say whatever "solution" you come up with, it will work with some, not so well with others. We need solutions plural, and we need to be constantly adapting them. And part of the mission of any institute of higher learning is not just to accept the kind of learning that could go on out there on the streets. We are supposed to value add, by teaching and stimulating deeper thinking, analysis and understanding, including of oursleves as students and teachers of languages. I don't think we need be ashamed of demanding certain tasks be addressed, of setting standards of performance and saying: "Look, I sympathise with your struggles and will support you all I can. And here are the targets we are trying to reach. And part of my duty is to assess your progress, including your learning skills, which include autonomous effort."

The way you treat/relate to/assist any one particular student may be quite different to another, depending on their needs and styles. Uniformity of standards and assessment techniques may be fair; uniformity of course experience makes as much sense as uniformity of life experience.

He ended with this gem of a quote from the Monty Python movie "The Life of Brian":
Brian: You're all individuals.
Crowd (altogether): We're all individuals!
Lone tiny voice: I'm not.

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