As a result of policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, “high-stake examinations and assessments” are often used to evaluate a student’s knowledge and are frequently used as a basis to make decisions, Matthew Poehner said.
Some of these decisions can include admittance to a university, the awarding of a scholarship and even the granting of citizenship. Poehner, assistant professor of world languages and applied linguistics, and James Lantolf, Greer professor of language acquisition and applied linguistics and director for language acquisition, are conducting a research study that not only recognizes the importance of these “high-stake examinations,” but also argues for a different approach to assessment.
Poehner and Lantolf both believe that there’s a large disconnect between assessment and teaching and learning within the classroom.
“There’s a traditional widespread form of assessment, in which a student is given a piece of paper and pencil and answers questions by themselves,” Poehner said. “We’re arguing for a way of assessment that’s closer to what actually happens in teaching and learning within the classroom.”
Poehner and Lantolf both cite this type of assessment as “dynamic assessment.”
“Dynamic assessment is an interactive approach to assessment, in which support is provided to complete the assessment,” Poehner said. “The support itself may take the form of prompts, hints, leading questions, models and feedback.”
At face value, providing leading questions such as “Are you sure about that?” to students during examinations may seem like cheating, he said. But, Poehner argues that if a student is able to respond to the feedback, the student has demonstrated that he or she knows the material with guided support.
“Providing these resources and feedback in the classroom is helpful for teaching and learning, but how students respond to it can give you important assessment information,” Poehner said.
Therefore, when diagnosing and differentiating the capabilities and knowledge of a student, instructors are provided with more nuanced information, rather than having two types of students: those who understand it, and those who don’t, he said.
“Much of what we do in the classroom is through partnerships and in teams, and how we are assessed alone negates what we learned in class,” said Paolo Infante (graduate-curriculum and instruction), who has worked on Poehner’s study.
Poehner has taken the idea of dynamic assessment and has combined his research with Lantolf’s expertise in applied linguistics, in order to challenge English language assessment.
“There is this belief that language proficiency is a hierarchal process in which you move through stages to get to the optimal stage of a native educated speaker,” Lantolf said. “What we’re trying to do is to make an equal playing field to not shut out any students who actually know the material, but just need that support.”
Lantolf and Poehner have decided to expand their research efforts to the global stage by joining the World Universities Network, which includes six other international Universities — Bristol University, ZheJiang University, University of Auckland, City University of Hong Kong, University of Sydney and Western Australia University.
Poehner and Lantolf said they would like to see their research expand internationally and hopefully have an impact on the educational field in the future.