Autonomy in assessment: Bridging the gap between rhetoric and reality in a distance language learning context

Murphy, Linda (2015). Autonomy in assessment: Bridging the gap between rhetoric and reality in a distance language learning context. In: Everhard, Carol J. and Murphy, Linda eds. Assessment and Autonomy in Language Learning. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 143–166.

Abstract

Much attention has been focused on language learner autonomy in recent years resulting in contested definitions and debates over terminology, such as whether autonomy is a capacity or an innate characteristic, exercised individually or collaboratively, and how it may best be developed in language learning. Nevertheless, in many countries, institutions and teachers are expected to foster learner autonomy.
Amid the definitions and debates, it is possible to identify two key concepts that are closely associated with autonomy and seen as essential if learners are to take control: critical reflection and decision-making. However, although learners may be encouraged to reflect, set goals, make choices about their study and evaluate their progress, assessment practices may not be aligned with this approach. A lack of what Biggs (1999: 11) terms ‘constructive alignment’ between teaching and assessment can seriously undermine efforts to develop or foster learner autonomy.
Taking the example of part-time, distance language programmes offered by the Open University (UK), this chapter explores the scope for valuing critical reflection and decision-making in a closely controlled, mass assessment system. It will outline an intervention designed to encourage learners to exercise these skills and take control of their assessment within such constraints and report on learner reactions. Relevance to other learning settings with similar constraints will be considered.

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