Squaring off in oral tests

(Thank you Tyson Seburn for the nudge of encouragement to blog this. This post is about affect and oral assessment.)

These are issues I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of years and the concrete result of all this theory is my recent shift in methodology: letting my students design their own oral assessment rubrics, which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. So this is perhaps the egg of the chicken but who knows whether the theory or the fruit it bears should be read first 🙂

Three perspectives that interest me:


Two useful definitions: Dulay, Burt and Krashen’s “fit” between an action, situation or experience with one’s perceived needs (1982) and Jane Arnold’s definition of “aspects of emotion, feeling, mood or attitude which condition behaviour” (1999:1). Arnold also describes affect as reaching “beyond language teaching and even beyond what has traditionally been considered the academic realm” (1999:2). So, I define affect as the attitudes and emotions of how one’s perceived needs fit with the surrounding stimuli.

Ego Boundaries:

Ernest Hartmann (2011:9) defines ego boundaries as being thick or solid on the one hand and thin or permeable on the other. They’re not “absolute separations”. It would be more useful to think about them on a continuum and we move from thick to thin depending on the context. Madeline Ehrman brings this to the sphere of language learning with descriptions of prototypes that embody thick or thin boundaries in language learning situations. At the thick end of the continuum are ‘naval officers’, people who are “meticulous, orderly.. (and) may not be receptive to new information” and at the other end of the continuum are ‘art students’ “who let everything in – almost as if they had no skin” (1996:108-109).

Tolerance of Ambiguity

Ehrman attempts to structure the “fuzzy-edged” nature of our teaching matter by casting our classroom personalities in terms of tolerance of ambiguity. I like fuzzy edges. A recent entry in the journal I keep on our textbook project (my students are designing their own textbooks) is a student saying “why do language textbooks always make language look so technical, it’s not, it’s just everywhere and you can make it whatever you want”, but that’s an entirely separate blog post 🙂

Tolerance of ambiguity has three levels; the first involves admitting information into one’s mind, where thick boundaries would cause more interference. Ehrman refers to this process as “intake”. The second is tolerance of ambiguity proper where the learner is “challenged with contradictions and incomplete information…. people with thick boundaries may become overwhelmed at this point” The third and final stage is accommodation where “making distinctions, setting priorities, restructuring cognitive schemata” (1996: 119) takes place.

Three questions that I’m interested in:

  1. Do our boundaries as teachers thicken when we morph from teachers into oral examiners? Does this role of assessor make us more rigid than we would normally be with students? How and why is this useful towards assessment?
  2. Do our boundaries thicken differently when we examine students we have a teacher-student relationship with than students we don’t know? Does the bias lie in knowing the student we’re examining or in the simple fact that we have the halo of the examiner?
  3. How does this inflated role of the assessor deflate the role of the student and thus affect their performance in an oral test?

These are big questions, and I would love to hear what you think.

Here is a little bit of what I think:

(and how I decided to let my students to take on a more pedagogical role in their own assessment)

Earl Stevick described affect as a source of clutter (1995 in Arnold, 1999) that participates in learning by interfering with it, be it with positive or negative learning outcomes. I think we all agree that our dynamic emotional functioning has a huge impact on how we teach, how we are taught and how we learn.

Emotional responses are part of the ebb and flow of teacher-student interaction. I believe that there is an interactional space between a teacher/examiner’s affect and a student/candidate’s affect. This space is also, naturally, influenced by a number of variables; the task, its setting, group dynamics, institutional values and so forth. However this space also hosts an emotional exchange that is almost exclusive to each assessor- student relationship. The affective experiences of Student A’s in a test will never be identical to those of Student B. The experience is always a negotiated one: a squaring off between the respective reactions of the teacher and student.

How does it square off if at the level of “intake” there is already several levels of superiority for a student to deal with? These levels of superiority are for example, our own examiner persona and the nebulous ‘rubrics’ that we ‘judge’ performance by (one of my students saw the CEFR grid for the first time and blurted out “do teachers actually remember this stuff when they listen to us speak in an exam?”). How is this intake assimilated and accommodated? What becomes of the priorities, distinctions and schemata that would have perhaps been activated differently in a non-exam context or in the real-world context of the target language?

Tolerance of ambiguity involves learner being required “to cope with information gaps, unexpected language and situations, new cultural norms and substantial uncertainty. It is highly interpersonal, which is in itself fraught with ambiguities and unpredictability” (Ehrman, 1996: 74). Hartmann’s boundaries idea leads me to conclude that the those with thinner boundaries would survive a ‘fraught’ environment with much greater ease, they would be less subject to the worries of mismatch between performance   (what happens in the test) and expectation (the rubrics).

I also believe that we can create less fraught assessment environments in class that remove our own halos of empowered assessors which I feel have biases of their own.  This thinning of boundaries is my rationale in working against the polarisation of examiner-superior and candidate-inferior in normal classroom settings as I fail to see why this is necessary or why this provides a more useful assessment of language level.

I would love to collaboratively fine-tune these ideas if any of you reading this would be interested in joining me in getting students more involved in their assessment and hopefully create contexts that are richer in local identities, where students embrace as  less procedural and more relevant and beneficial to their learning.


Arnold, J. (1999) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Dulay, C. Burt, M.K. and Krashen, S. (1982) Language two. Oxford University Press. New York.

Ehrman, M.E. (1996) Understanding Second Language Learning Difficulties. SAGE. London.

Hartmann, E. (2011) Boundaries: A New Way to Look at the World. Everpress. California.

One thought on “Squaring off in oral tests

  1. My students are really terrified of IELTS speaking exams. I tell them that they should just relax and imagine that the examiner is just their friend. I tell that they should just be themselves and act naturally. As much as possible I don’t score them but just give them both positive and constructive feedback so that they don’t feel nervous.


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