Assessment for Learning in Times of Online Teaching

by Mario Herrera

Current English Language Teaching calls for a process that must include three pillars: 21st Century Skills, CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) and AFL (Assessment for Learning.) All three strengthen the well-known and longstanding principles of cognitivism, learner centered teaching, critical thinking and student self-awareness of the learning process. The question this article ponders is if these pillars, particularly AFL, can be taught correctly in the times we are living of online teaching due to the closing of school buildings in procurement of social distancing, and if so, how?

What is Assessment for Learning?

As opposed to traditional, summative assessment tools that measure what is known or what has been learned (Assessment OF Learning), Assessment FOR Learning is based on three main principles: having students participate in setting goals (therefore being aware of them), in performing ongoing assessment, and helping students learn how to set goals and self-assess.

  • We make sure each student has a clear understanding from the very beginning of each unit of what exactly the learning target is and what the expected outcomes are.
  • Students informally and frequently assess where they are on the path to achieving such outcomes, usually during the course of a lesson, through their individual participation and the guidance and support of their teachers.
  • Students understand where the gaps are between what they have learned and the expected outcomes, so they can address whatever areas are still lacking to achieve their goals through specific class activities designed for that purpose.

What does Assessment for Learning look like in a regular classroom setting and how can we apply it when teaching online? 

AFL Teaching Stage:

Classroom setting:

Online teaching:

1.Involve: Make sure students know what the lesson objectives are, so they feel ownership of their own learning.

This is when we introduce the new language and carry out the presentation/teaching part of a lesson. The teacher must act motivated and make sure that all students are understanding and participating. There should be references to the objective pursued so students can focus on the targeted language and outcome expected. Reproduction and Production abilities must always be present in the activities.

The fact that students are not participating live with the teacher in their familiar classrooms presents certain limitations that must be addressed. Teachers’ motivation must come across from the distance. It can be done by modulating their voices to a slightly more theatrical tone. We must remember that when we teach online, both teachers’ and students’ senses can be hindered and reduced in the perception of their intensity, meaning and intent. Therefore we must compensate by elevating the presence of those senses that are more likely to come across. Voice and gestures on a screen can make up for lack of 3D physical presence and eye contact. Students’ attention must be kept strong with a change of voice tone, by frequently showing or pointing at different things and by asking them to respond orally, physically and emotionally to stimuli conveyed electronically. We must constantly follow up on the new content by repeating it, asking for reactions to its use and keeping visual track of its progression in our presentations. Students need to see to understand and must have a visual idea of their progression.

2.Monitor: We assess how well the students are learning the material and try to define what gaps there are. It helps students learn how to assess their own learning, too.

This is when the teacher leaves the comfort of standing in front of the classroom and mingles with students as they participate and respond to the teacher’s requests and inquiries regarding their understanding of what was presented in the previous stage. The idea is to identify the gap between what was meant for them to learn, and what was actually accomplished. Identifying the gap is crucial so the teacher can later address it in a way that best suits the students’ learning styles.

When asking questions, students must know how to respond both orally and physically. Although writing also has its benefits, when teaching online, it could have many limitations specially because it can be very time consuming, both to produce and later to check it. Having learners connect language meaning to tactile, visual situations can help the teacher assess better how well they have understood the new language. If you are monitoring comprehension by asking questions, you can ask them to hold different things in their hands that can be associated with their intended responses, such as a green paper in one hand and a red paper in the other when responding yes or no. They can use body language to accompany any answer they may provide as a way of reinforcing their intended meaning. Because the students are not surrounded by classmates, this will not affect intention nor cause meaningless copying of what other students intend to say or do. When not using Q/A as a way of monitoring but perhaps and activity for  recognition, students can hold up their books and point (not just to pictures of vocabulary, but for specific information, as well). The use of crayons, markers and other highlighting devices can help for easier identification by the teacher during the class. This can also help well as a cumulative way of having students’ selected content visually easy to review class activities on their own, either for practice and/or for future evaluations and testing. Teachers must devise concrete, measurable ways (for themselves and their students) to define the understanding and the knowledge of the new language. They can prepare a checklist of showable achievement and go over it with their students before moving on. It should not list strict rubrics but rather as a more relaxed overview.

3Assist: Once teachers determine where the gaps are, they present the material again in another context or modality, so students can approach their learning from a different angle and close the identified gap.

After teachers have covered the two previous stages and identified the learners’ shortcomings, they are now in the position of defining teaching interventions to close the gaps found. It is not about “reteaching” therefore they mustn’t follow the same pathway but rather choose an alternate option to pursue the outstanding objectives yet to be attained by some students. Our knowledge of multiple intelligences (Gardner) allows us to understand that because we teach heterogeneously skilled classes, not every student will be able to cross the objective threshold the first time around, and for some, it will be necessary to approach the same objective with different class interventions. If the first time we read, the next time we might speak, write, or listen.

The most delicate stage in AFL when done online is Assisting given the fact that the students not meeting the threshold expected could feel a bit isolated. They might feel the absence of direct contact with their teacher. Therefore, it’s important that the teacher acts fast and involves those students detected as having the widest gap in fresh, lively different activities. The idea is to have them be actively involved in the assisting process. Each time, the teacher can address a different shortcoming identified during the monitoring stage, directing his/her attention to those students whom, based on his/her observation, most need it. The rest of the class should be put in a practice mode, asking them to confirm or correct what the assisted students are producing. This way everybody is busy and there is no sense of interruption in the process set out to cater to those in more need. These activities should rather be a refreshing moment of reflection over what has already been covered. If the teacher notices that some students seem to not have closed their individual gaps even after the assisting period, he/she should take a minute to directly go over the issue in turn making it easier for the students to catch up. Sometimes, if time permits teachers can even ask a student or two to login at a later time to go over some specific content or assign them a special worksheet designed for that purpose.

4. Challenge: Once the class is leveled in terms of their understanding and use of the new language, it’s time to internalize the material by personalizing it, applying it to new contexts, analyzing it critically, etc.

It’s time to transfer the new language onto the students’ real lives. In Big English we tend to do it with the Think Big sections but there are plenty more class activities for that purpose. We call it challenge because when we have a cognitive approach to teaching, we want to make sure our students can use the language in an independent, personal way. In a classroom setting this is relatively easy to set up because students are sitting next to each other, so it’s easier for them to engage other students and exchange ideas, opinions and findings, and later discuss them. The fact that they have access to their teacher to ask questions, both related to the lack of specific vocabulary as well as of intent and applicability to the scenario being presented, truly helps them feel confident. The presence of the teacher is very important as a safety net for reassurance of being doing the right thing in the right way. This gives students a tremendous emotional support that is crucial in learning.


Challenges online must become more anecdotal and tangible at the same time. Although we must go through the planned process of asking students to transfer the new language to their personal scenarios, me must remember that our students are sitting at home, alone. They have little contact with someone they can directly share their insights, and it is particularly difficult and time consuming to listen to each and everyone’s opinion or proposal regarding the given situation in the lesson’s challenge. The teacher must allow for a few minutes of class talk, even if not everybody can be decently heard. If need-be he/she can block some microphones in order to avoid an audio chaos. What’s important is that some get to share, a few get to react to their classmates’ interventions, but ALL OF THEM are asked to produce physical evidence of their ideas and where they stand on the issue at hand. Digital Portfolios should be used so students can “file” their responses and contributions both for classmates to see and teachers to use as part of the assessment OF learning process. The class can have an online site where students can post their work and check out their classmates’ work. It is important that everybody is held accountable for producing something and that they all see their work is viewed and taken into account. Those digital portfolios can be collected in hardcopies as a physical portfolio, along with projects and other 3D assignments and later presented to parents and family members. Hopefully they can be kept as reference and in the foreseeable future, be taken to school.

5. Involve (revisited): An added stage to develop awareness connected to learning benchmarks and levels associated with GSE (Global Scale of English)

Because of the emotional element vested in the satisfaction of knowing that one has accomplished something successfully, it is important that at the end of each lesson we revisit its objective and discuss having achieved it using “Now I can…” statements which could also be phrased in past tense such as “I learned to describe my house and the furniture we have.”

Revisiting the lesson objective online can be made easy by having the teacher read the objective and ask the students to raise their hand each time they hear something they did learn during the lesson presentation. The teacher can ask them to play a game by rapidly saying an example of the language learned, or by giving them a bit of time to write something related and at the count of three showing it on their screens. It’s important that the students don’t lose sight of the objective itself, so it’s a good idea to have them use a crayon or marker to highlight the objective on top of their lesson page on the book, once they feel they have attained it, and mentally associate it with practices and products done in class and on their own. Seeing those objectives highlighted and increasing more and more each month, will help them stay motivated. Teachers should encourage them to go back every week or two and reread the objectives and immediately practice their mastery, therefore proving they still have them under their belt. It can be loads of fun!

Mario Herrera has taught English at all levels, and has focused his research and methodology development on young learners. He has taught English from pre-school to post-graduate programs and has been involved in teacher training for 30 years. As a speaker, he has directed seminars and workshops throughout Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as in North America.

Mr. Herrera is an International Educational Consultant for Pearson and its ELT author. He travels extensively to participate in ELT conferences and academic symposiums, where his presentations are highly regarded for their level of participant involvement and creativity. He is the recipient of academic presentation awards from various countries.

He has authored or co-authored several bestselling ELT programs worldwide, including Balloons,  Pockets  and Big Fun for pre-school, Parade, Backpack, and Big English for primary school, and Big  Teens for secondary schools.