Kathleen M. Bailey’s article on washback spawned a lively discussion at the ELT Springboard meeting in Bern last Thursday.
The term washback refers to any effects, be they beneficial, harmful or neutral, a test has on the teaching and learning which happens in a language class and outside the classroom. Even though there has not been much research into the issue so far, and therefore hardly any evidence, it is generally acknowledged that teachers and learners adapt their strategies and activities to the demands of a prospective test. This implies that a test should always be in line with the teaching methodology.
From a teacher’s perspective it may be helpful to distinguish between two ideal types of tests: those prescribed by an external authority which decides on content, length, standards for marking, test schedule etc., and internal tests set by the teacher, possibly together with the learners. It emerged from the discussion that teachers and learners have to take external tests as they are. They will inevitably tailor their teaching and learning to them. One could even say it is their job to do so. On top of this, exam preparation courses are organised by schools and publishers offer materials for such courses. So, external tests will usually produce a great deal of washback.
By contrast, internal tests and evaluation may be used by teachers to motivate learners, to show them their progress or to give the course a structure. In this way, assessment becomes an integral part of the teaching (and learning).
One of the ideas that came up during the discussion was that the teacher can record learners at the beginning of a course – when they introduce themselves or say something about a topic they are interested in – and play it back to them later in the course, or she can ask them to write a text, collect the texts and give them back later. While it is not exactly washback, this is a simple means to give learners an opportunity to assess their progress themselves and therefore enhance learner autonomy.
Thanks a ton to Markus for hosting and writing this follow-up!
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