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Add Some Drama to your Assessment
by Mitzi Geffen


Using dramatic alternatives to assessment

You have completed a unit in your textbook with your students and you want to know how much of what was presented in the unit has actually been absorbed. Can the student use the grammar structures correctly? Does he know the new vocabulary? Can he use the new reading comprehension skills effectively?

It's time for a test. An unseen? A fill-in-the-blank vocabulary and/or grammar exercise? Write a composition? All of the above? These are all legitimate ways of checking to see how much the student has retained - or at least how much he can remember from an evening of serious studying for your exam. I would like to suggest a dramatic alternative.

Many of our textbooks suggest role-play and creative writing as activities to reinforce and practice what has been learned. However, these activities can also easily be used to demonstrate what has been learned. Instead of telling the students that they will be tested on the vocabulary in the boxes on page x and y, as well as the grammar points in the "language" sections of the unit, create a role-play assignment: it will naturally include using the new grammar structures and you can require that a certain number of new vocabulary items be included in the role-play. In addition, require that the content of the skit be based on one of the passages of the unit.

The nature of this kind of assignment greatly depends on the genre of texts in the unit. Skits, dialogues, and 2 or 3 minute speeches by supposed experts in the field are all possible frameworks for this alternative assessment technique.

Examples of end-of-unit activites
For example, in one unit in an 8th grade textbook, there are passages about an orienteering competition, a letterboxing game and a story about sailors on a journey having great difficulties navigating. The language focus is the differentiation between the present simple and present progressive. You assign your students to prepare one of the following:

  1. A 2-minute TV live news report of one of the events described in the passages - during the event.

  2. A 2-minute conversation between two people who were involved in one of the events. The conversation takes place during the event.

In both assignments, students must include at least 10 new vocabulary items in their presentation. All writing must be done in class. One lesson is devoted to writing, one to practicing and one or two lessons (as needed) to the presentations.

Students are provided with a checklist and an assessment rubric before writing their task. They may choose to work with a partner or alone (for the news report only).

Checklist and Rubric

An example of a checklist might be:

1 I have re-read the passage to make sure that my skit is really based on what happened in the passage
2 I have used at least 10 vocabulary words
3 I have underlined the vocabulary words in my script
4 I have checked all of my verbs to make sure that they are in the correct form

Here's a sample rubric for assessing the presentation, including suggested points. (You may choose to divide the points differently-perhaps you may choose to devote some of the points to the process of preparing the skit, and not only to the presentation. The important thing is that you and the students know in advance how the points for the work are divided.)

You followed the directions of the task - based the skit on the passage (logical content)

You included at least 10 vocabulary words

Your presentation was at least 2 minutes long

part of skit was not relevant to the passage

fewer than 10 vocabulary words

Your presentation was less than 2 minutes

most or all of the skit was not relevant to the passage

fewer than 5 vocabulary words

Your presentation was less than 1 minute

20 10-15 0-9
You used vocabulary words correctly - hardly any errors 3-5 vocabulary mistakes (incorrect context, incorrect preposition or adjective, etc.) more than 5 vocabulary mistakes
30 15-20 0-14
You used present simple and present progressive correctly -hardly any errors many mistakes using present simple and present progressive most verbs in the incorrect form
30 15-20 0-14
You spoke clearly - it was easy to understand you It was sometimes difficult to understand you It was very difficult to understand you
5 3 1-2
You spoke loud enough to be heard easily It was sometimes difficult to hear you It was very difficult to hear you
5 3 1-2
You spoke with enough expression to show that you understood what you were saying It wasn't always clear that you understood what you were saying You spoke with very little expression
10 5-9 1-4

Student (Peer) assessment:
Before the presentations, all of the students prepare the following grid: (with enough rows for all of the presentations.

Name word 1 word 2 word 3 word 4 word 5 word 6 word 7 word 8 word 9 word 10

During the presentations, the students in the audience fill in their grids with the name of each presenter and the vocabulary words they hear the presenter use.

Teacher grading: Prepare enough copies of the rubric for each presenter, and circle the appropriate number of points in each category.

How does this type of assessment compare with a traditional paper and pencil test?

  • Student Preparation:
    In the past, I have occasionally given my students time during the lesson to study for an exam so that I could observe what they actually do in order to prepare for a test. Usually, if I have told them that new vocabulary will be included in the test, they use much of the time quizzing each other on the words. One says the word and the other translates or vise-versa. They may also spend some of the time reading the pages in the unit which explain the new grammar structure. They generally do not write sentences or paragraphs in the process of "studying" for an exam.

    When they are given a task, such as the one described above, they first, generally, re-read the passage and then look over the vocabulary list with a partner to see which words they can put into their presentation. They argue a bit about the content of the presentation. They start writing, correcting each other, asking another team or me to decide who is right. They read their creation over and over, timing themselves to make sure it is long enough. When they are satisfied with what they have written, they start practicing. They tell each other to speak louder or slower or to pronounce the word differently. There is a lot of laughing and clowning around. In the process, the vocabulary and grammar structures are repeated in context dozens of times.

  • Teacher preparation:
    When I prepare a "paper" test, I think carefully about what I want to assess and how the exercises on the test can best show mastery. Sometimes I use the "packaged" tests, or at least sections of them that come with some of the textbooks I use. One of my concerns is that some of the words I use as sentence starters or alternate choices for a multiple-choice question may confuse the students. This might make it difficult for me to see whether the reason for their lack of success is due to the fact that they haven't learned the material of the unit or because the question is not clear or contains unfamiliar vocabulary.

    When I choose to use a dramatic presentation to assess mastery, my biggest challenge is to create a task which requires the use of language structures I have taught. Once that challenge is met, I know that I will be able to tell whether the students have understood the passage and whether they have mastered the new vocabulary by their creations.

  • During the "test":
    During a written test, the room is quiet. There is a good deal of tension. As a teacher, I am on the alert to catch cheaters. It is difficult for most students to resist the temptation to glance at the nearest test paper when a question seems difficult. None of us has a very good time.

    During the presentations, students are alert, focused and a little nervous until they've had their turn. Still, they seem to like the challenge of listening for the vocabulary words and they try to out-do each other with entertaining skits. Cheating is not an issue. There is a lot of laughing and clapping.

  • Retention of the material after the test:
    It is difficult to accurately evaluate whether it is the preparation for the test or the nature of the teaching that preceded the test that causes the student to retain the material for the long run. It's nearly impossible to create a reliable research situation since the students are exposed to so much English in and out of school. However, it seems to me that practicing the new language structures and vocabulary items in context and negotiating the construction of sentences and story lines with other students is a much more effective way of ensuring retention than memorizing lists of words and grammar rules.

  • Drawbacks to assessment through drama:
    In addition to all of the objections teachers may raise about using drama in general (see the first issue of the ETNI Rag), teachers tell me that assessing in this way takes too much time and it is a less accurate way of evaluating the students.

    It is true that this process is more time consuming than a paper test, but only by two or three lessons. Since I believe that the students get so much more out of the experience, I don't mind the extra time spent.

    It is also true that evaluating a dramatic presentation is not always clear cut. The teacher may worry about being consistent when awarding points. This is also the case, however, when evaluating compositions and full answers to questions on a test. The solution is clear rubrics in both cases.

Assessing through drama has advantages and disadvantages just as traditional tests do. I mix types of evaluation during the school year and certainly don't advocate using this type of assessment exclusively. However, three factors make this method extremely attractive to me:

  1. I feel it is a wonderful learning tool
  2. The "test" itself is great fun for the students and for me as well
  3. When the test is over, I feel that I have a very good sense of what my students have learned and as an added bonus, I have no papers to take home to mark!
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