Open book tests in the English language classroom


Photo courtesy of Tory Byrne

There is a good deal of debate over the use of tests in education and while I don’t agree with everything that is being discussed, I do believe there is a need for an overhaul in how to approach testing and assessment in the classroom. One of the major problems is how tests are used and what they are assessing. I am an English language teacher and what I am assessing is quite different from what someone in mathematics or geography are measuring. To make a blanket statement regarding all subject areas is as misguided and dangerous as the standardized testing that many are fighting against. I am lucky in that I have more autonomy in how I assess my students. I have chosen to continue using tests as a small part of my assessment of their proficiency, partly due to what the students want and also what is needed to properly evaluate their progress.

One of the ways in which I use tests in my classroom is to have students write open-book tests. This looks different in each subject area and has taken me a few tries to make it work the way that is good for both the student and myself. Here is how I approach it:

  1. Give students plenty of notice: My class changes every four weeks, so on the first day, I clearly lay out how they are going to be assessed and the important dates to know regarding when they will be writing quizzes, handing in assignments, and so forth.
  2. Explain how open book tests work: On that first day, I tell them how the open book quizzes will work and even give them example questions. I explain that these tests are NOT looking for how well they know the structure of the grammar, but it will be testing their ability to choose the proper grammar in a given situation. These are open answer type of questions and are always based on real-life situations (ex. read a newspaper article and comment on it based on a set of criteria).
  3. Give them respect and trust: I let my students know they are able to use whatever materials they would like as long as they do it on their own (ie. no calling/texting friends, talking with other students) and they do it within the time frame given. I do give them more time if a majority of the class is still working on it as we approach the deadline. I tell them that I trust them to do what is best for them and I try to give them latitude in regards to leaving the room, etc. One of the main things I stress in the classroom is that they are adults and I will treat them with the respect they deserve and I ask them to give each other as well as me the respect we deserve by not cheating, going on Facebook during class, and so on.
  4. Make it a low-stakes test: The open book tests I use are only worth a fraction of their overall mark. I make sure this is clearly spelled out for them. I explain that this test will help me know where the class is at and where we can spend more time on review. I also let them know that the test helps me and them to find areas they need to target for more practice. Part of their formative assessment is to see how they progress from one quiz and project to the next. If they are making clear progress, no matter how low the quiz mark, the higher percentage of their overall mark will come from their ability to build on the areas that they are weakest. That means, a student who scores low on the first quiz and then makes strides to work on the areas they had problems with will improve their overall grade more than a students who does well on the first test, but doesn’t make any effort to improve on the areas they are weakest.
  5. Give oral feedback on the test: One of the best ways to encourage students and to help them notice areas that need improvement is to make an audio recording based on their quiz results. When I mark the tests, I only make a small mark, such as an underline, to designate areas that need work or are well done. I then make an audio recording for the student which I post on our closed class webpage that they can access on their own. I talk about the problems and how they can fix them. I also stress the areas they did well and also on the content of their writing. I have had students tell incredibly personal stories and I don’t want to just focus on the English. I also want to treat them as people by acknowledging what they have written.
  6. Follow up: I give a lot of followup to make sure students understand where they can make improvements and where their strengths are. I do this by giving specific work for each student and also class work based on areas the whole class needs work.

I understand that there are going to be people who disagree with using tests as part of assessing a students ability in a subject area, but I believe that this can be done with care and support that encourages the student and helps them focus their attention on areas they need work. It is great to allow students the flexibility to take control of their learning, but it is the instructors job to guide them towards the areas they could be missing.

How do you feel about tests? Have you used open book tests before? How well did it work for you and the student? Add you comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the form on the contact page of this website. Thank you.


Bits and pieces: various quotes on the use of technology in the language classroom


Photo courtesy of Katia Grimmer-Laversanne

I have been doing a good deal of reading lately on the use of technology in the language classroom and I have found a few quotes I thought I would pass along. Feel free to add your comments below, send me Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact page on this website.

“(U)sing technology is a challenge that language professionals must squarely face and to which they must endeavor to find pedagogically principled responses.”

– Blake, Robert. (2008). Brave new digital classroom: Technology and foreign language learning. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. (p. 22).

“New forms of interaction and expression are leading to the emergence of what has been referred to as the culture of interactivity. This fact challenges the typical communication processes of the traditional classroom, calling for more innovative learning materials that combine pedagogical effectiveness with easy-to-use mechanisms supporting interaction between learners, tutors and other peer groups.”

– Evans, Michael. (2009). Digital technology and language learning: a review of policy and research evidence. In Michael J. Evans (Ed.) Foreign-language learning with digital technology. London: Continuum International Publishing Group. (p. 17)

“Along with the pace of technological change and the ubiquitous presence of technology it would seem that there is a need for regular re-evaluation, experimentation and investigation into classroom practices with regard to the means by which computers are deployed to support language learning. As we grow in familiarity with the technologies available to us, it seems that boundaries are there to be pushed back, with newly identified needs emerging that would have been previously undreamed of, and are subsequently characterized by improvements in ICT design.”

– Hamilton, Miranda. (2009). Teacher and student perceptions of e-learning in EFL. In Michael J. Evans (Ed.) Foreign-language learning with digital technology. London: Continuum International Publishing Group. (p. 150)

“(T)he ability to analyse critical incidents in teaching and to understand them in relation to relevant theory can be seen as a core competence of a teacher as a reflective practitioner. Using educational portfolios helps to initiate and guide such processes of informed reflective practice. To make the most of reflection on action, it is important to base reflections in a portfolio on more than just subjective data from self-observation. The integration of video and feedback from a mentor or peer can help to base reflections on a more complete and objective database. Furthermore, the use of standards to guide the reflective process makes sure that professional development is consistent with the requirements of the given educational context.”

– Raith, Thomas and Hegelheimer, Volker. (2010). Teacher development, TBLT, and technology. In Michael Thomas and Hayo Reinders Task-based language learning and teaching with technology. London: Continuum International Publishing Group. (p. 156)

Testing, assessment, examinations, and the value of marks


Photo courtesy of arroclint

Tests are not evil. Exams are not the enemy. Despite all that you have heard and read, it just isn’t true. Tests really are a part of our normal everyday life despite what others want to make you think. The problem with testing and other forms of assessment isn’t that tests themselves are bad, it is how they are used and society’s warped view of value based on numbers.

Before I was an English language teacher, I worked for many years in a retail business environment. I started off in sales and eventually worked my way up to upper management and some time in purchasing. Every single day, whether is was on the sales floor or in the office, I was tested on my ability to recall information and process data on the fly. Yes, there were times I had to stop and look things up, but if I did that on a regular basis, people would lose faith in my ability to work in a fast-paced environment which would inevitably hurt my business. Haven’t you ever questioned someone’s ability to help you find the answer you are looking for when they are off looking for answers? Maybe it is in a hotel while checking in. It could be when you are buying a car or depositing money at the bank. One of the most important things we look for in those who are helping us is trust. We are putting our faith in people to help us make the proper decision. We don’t mind if they don’t have all the answers, but when someone is constantly looking for answers on their own, we often lose trust in that person and often walk away.

Testing is very much like that. We are fine if you don’t know all the answers, but in that controlled environment, we are looking to see if you have a foundational understanding that enables us to trust that you can move on to the next task or level. The problem is that tests are often used as a means to an end, not a step on the journey. We often use marks or grades as a punishment or reward system, making it into a test on that person’s character. A person shouldn’t be seen as bad or good based on marks, but these markers should be a measuring tool to find out if they are able to move on to the next rung of the learning ladder.

Everyone needs goals or targets in order to tell if they are actually learning anything. Setting goals should be a negotiated process and not something arbitrarily decided on by someone who has no stake in that student’s progress. This leads us to standardized testing. How can we use a test to measure everyone the same when everyone is different? Each person has different needs, goals, and abilities. What may seem like a walk in the park for one student may seem like a torrid pace for another. Allowing students to set goals and then achieve them teaches them more than giving a grade that in a sense is worthless. Tests can certainly be a part of that, just not one designed by someone completely separated from the situation.

As a language teacher, I am interested in linguistics and the historical basis of the language. There are a number of words related testing that I would like to examine a bit more closely (pun is completely intentional). All of these definitions are based on the information found in the Online Etymology Dictionary (a super resource for higher-level English language learners):

  • Test: The origin of the word comes from the melting pot that was used to determine the quality of metals. In this way, tests put us in a high-pressure situations to determine our knowledge of a subject. We can say we know something, but when push comes to shove, can we actually use this information.
  • Examination: It is a word based on the verb to examine which has it’s origin from exact. We are weighing out the facts to see if they are accurate or not.
  • Assessment: Comes from the verb to assess which comes from the ability to figure out the value of something. It actually was first used for tax purposes (ie. setting property value to calculate tax amounts), but has since been used as a judgement on anything of value.
  • Formative: This is based on the noun form which means the shape of something. Formative refers to the instructions or productions in the creation of something.
  • Summative: It has the origin in the word summation which means to total or add up. It started as a reference to finances, but switched to the total of anything later on.

After looking at each of these words, we can see that many of these words first started in the area of finance or business and were eventually adopted for educational purposes. It shows the value we put on education and on the measuring of our progress. We need to be careful not to take this metaphor too far, but it certainly is helpful in visualizing how testing and assessment should be used. How can we test what metal it is if we first don’t find out the properties of that metal? How can we weigh out the facts if we don’t know what we are weighing? How can be using what we have learned if we don’t find value in it? How can we know what to form if we don’t draw things out first? And how can we know know if something adds up if we don’t know what we are counting first?

The debate on whether we should use tests or not is actually the wrong fight to be picking. The real battle should be on how they are being used. Setting clearly defined tasks and goals should be a collaborative effort between the teacher and the student. This shouldn’t be a blanket decision for all students, nor should the direction be top-down, but should be more lateral. Even the concept of top-down and bottom-up brings in a level of superiority and submission. This should be a learning journey, not a judgement. Testing should reflect that. I often use open-book tests with a set time to complete the test. The questions are more open-ended and the answers are more negotiable. I feel this is a fairer way of measuring the students ability to use the knowledge they have been acquiring. Of course, this is completely negotiable. Just ask my students.

The Transformational Power of E-learning

Great quote from the introduction of D. R. Garrison and Terry Anderson’s book E-learning in the 21st Century:

The essential feature of e-learning extends beyond its access to information and builds on its communicative and interactive features. The goal of quality e-learning is to blend diversity and cohesiveness into a dynamic and intellectually challenging ‘learning ecology.’ This interactivity goes far beyond the one-way transmission of content and extends our thinking regarding communications among human beings engaged in the educational process. Not long ago, the provision of increased learner independence in terms of space and time meant a corresponding loss of collaboration and increased isolation. Independence and collaboration seemed contradictions. More of one inherently meant the loss of the other. The transformational power of e-learning goes to the heart of this issue. We now can provide freedom and control within a vibrant community of inquiry. E-learning recognizes and integrates the personal and public aspects of an educational experience.”

Garrison and Anderson (2003) p. 3. Bold and italics added.

It made me think about how Socrates developed the elenctic method where the teacher became the facilitator and encouraged the students to discover things on their own. Debating and questioning were central to the creation and ownership of thought at that time. It appears to me that this is what teachers and educators are striving to (re)create in the current classroom with technology. It is not, as Garrison and Anderson put it, simply used to access information, but to build upon it. That should be the goal of anyone integrating technology into the educational process. This can be in the classroom or might, and likely should, extend beyond those boundries into the students’ lives.

To the invisible ones… Thank you


To the person who answers the phone at my school each and every day with a pleasant “Hello” and deals with each person with respect: Thank you.

To the person who comes in every night to clean and puts everything back in order after we have left it in disarray: Thank you.

To the school administrators who have to do all of the paperwork and deal with problem the arise: Thank you.

To the accountants who makes sure all of the school finances are in order so that I can get paid: Thank you.

To the IT staff who fight endlessly with the computers to make sure that they are working and that we have internet access: Thank you.

To the building maintenance staff who make sure the AC or heating is doing what it should and that the photocopier is working properly: Thank you.

To my fellow teachers who put up with my bad jokes and messy desk: Thank you.

Without each of these people in our schools, how would we ever get our job done? Would I then have to answer the phones, sweep and mop my classroom floors, deal with the reams of paperwork, balance the books, make sure the computers are working, and deal with cranky heating systems? How would I ever get prepared for class? These are the unsung heroes.

There are plenty of awards for teachers with possibilities of becoming somewhat of a minor celebrity on occasion. But when was the last time a school custodian was able to meet the President of the United States? When are the school IT award banquets? Yet, without them, we are in deep trouble. They do their job so we can do ours. That award you won last year? Part of it goes out to the people listed above. So I think they deserve a pat on the back, a box of chocolates, or simply a hug and thank you for a job well done.

Steps to Start Integrating Technology into the English Language Classroom


Photo by Alx Sanchez. Used by permission.

When I was nine years old, my brother and I ordered our very first computer. Our brand new slim and sleek little Sinclair ZX-80 took quite a while to make its way over to us from the UK, but it was worth every penny of the $299 we paid for it (plus taxes and shipping, of course). I had used an Apple II in our classroom at school and I wanted to have a computer so badly at home. Our little gem of a device had a whopping 1KB of RAM, had to be hooked up to our black and white TV, and took about an hour to load programs off of the cassettes that came with it. But don’t be fooled, this was the beginning of what would be a lifelong obsession with computers.

Even then, I could envision the role computers would play in the future of my education. Whether it was with that machine or the many different makes and models of desktops and laptops I would possess after that, I found new and fun ways to learn about music, mathematics, science, and pretty much any other subject I was interested in that moment.

Fast-forward a number of years, and I am still obsessing over computers. I have had the privilege to give a few conference sessions on the use of technology in the language classroom and I see myself growing in my role of facilitator and supporter of classroom technologies. I love helping other teachers grow in their knowledge of educational technologies and that is the very reason I started this blog. I wanted to share some of those things online so others around the world could learn along with me.

So where does that lead to today? Why am I writing this blog post? Well, mostly I wanted to give some advice to teachers on how to get started or how to continue moving forward in using technology in the classroom. So without further delay, here is my list of tips:

  1. Start small. Don’t become overwhelmed by it all and get discouraged in the process. Find one thing that you think could be done online or by using computers or cell phones or whatever device you have available to you and use it for one lesson. Don’t be afraid to give it a try and see how it works. Of course it goes without saying that you should try it yourself before using in the classroom, but don’t be afraid to see how it works with your students. They just might surprise you on where they end up taking it. You could try using a collaborative writing tool such as TitanPad or maybe a voice recording site such as RecordMP3.
  2. Be consistent. Find something that works for you, such as a favourite website or online tool that you can re-use in multiple situations. I have a favourite writing website that I like to use and when we go to the computer lab, my students know how to use it and they don’t have to ask me where to post something or how I would like something done. This saves so much time and it takes the anxiety off of both you and the students.
  3. Don’t try to do too much in one activity. It might seem cool to take from one tool and add another item and then connect it to this or that site and… well, you get the picture. Too much at once is asking for trouble. Keep it simple. I tend to plan my lessons in the same way I always have, but then I look back and see if there are places I can add technology in order to enhance the learning. It shouldn’t simply be a substitution. It might be that the technology saves paper or simplifies the process. It might also be something that we couldn’t do before such as talk with another class or go on a virtual tour. The biggest single thing that I feel technology adds to the lesson is the ability to turn over much of the learning process over to the student. They are able to find things on their own and share it with their fellow classmates. Collaboration is another big plus to technology. Students can work together much more easily than with a simple piece of paper.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask the students for help and advice. One of the things I like to do is have students share things that they use online that help them with their language learning. I have even had them type up and post instructions on how to use these online tools and how they are helpful to them so that others in the class can use them. They love sharing. Just look at how much they like to share on Facebook and Twitter. This is in their blood. I have learned quite a few new websites from my students, some of which I continue to use.
  5. Ask for help. There are lots of places to get help with getting started. There are a number of excellent resources online including blogs such as Larry Ferlazzo or RIchard Byrne. Twitter is an invaluable source of information for me, but I understand can be a little overwhelming at first. You don’t even have to sign-up to use Twitter. You can search for things or follow people by using the Twitter search. In the past, I have used these questions from people to create blog posts that have gone on to help others in the same situation.

I hope that this helps you. Remember, you can always ask me for help. Just post a comment below, find me on Twitter @nathanghall, or send me an email using the contact form.

The Big Picture: Eportfolios as assessment and showcase

At the beginning of May, I had the opportunity to speak at the BC TEAL annual conference in North Vancouver, BC. I had a wonderful time meeting and connecting with a number of great people and I received a lot of great feedback from some of them. Shortly after that, I was asked to write an article for the spring newsletter for the technology section. The subject was The Big Picture and so I decided to write about eportfolios and their use as ongoing assessment and as a showcase of the students’ final work. Yesterday, the online version of the newsletter was posted and so I have posted a copy of my article here and would appreciate any feedback you might have. You can post comments below or can tweet me at @nathanghall: