Using Self-Appraisal to Assess a Disparate Group of Learners

Tim Greer, Hokkaido University

Quick Guide

Key Words: self-evaluation, pre-testing, mixed ability groups
Learner English Level: any
Learner Maturity Level: high school to adults
Preparation Time: 10-15 minutes
Activity Time: 20 minutes
Materials: Self evaluation sheets (see below), colored stickers, nametags

I was recently asked to conduct a 2-day intensive seminar in spoken English for the University of the Air. The students' ages ranged from 19 to 68 and their English proficiency ran the gamut from functionally fluent to virtually zero. What's more, they didn't know each other and I had never met them either. With only 10 hours to teach them a little of something I know, there was no time to waste on giving them a pre-test, yet I still needed to have some idea of their level. So I opted for a self-evaluation.


Step 1. Before the class, devise a simple one-page criteria-based reference scheme, which the students can complete for themselves (see figure 1). I grouped the questions according to the colors of a traffic signal—green, yellow, or red—which conveniently doubled as a reminder of their ability levels. The descriptions here are relevant to my target group, but they can be adapted to suit the experiences of any age group. The important thing is to word them so that even false beginners can understand them.

Figure 1: Self-appraisal reference sheet for disparate classes.
How's your English?

Green Yes No
I have lived overseas.    
I can understand some movies without reading the subtitles.    
I have studied at a conversation school for more than a year.    
I listen to NHK radio English programs.    
I regularly talk to native English speakers.    
I enjoy using English when I go abroad.    
Yellow Yes No
I like English, but I'm not very good at it.    
I understand basic English if you speak slowly.    
I have studied at a conversation school for less than one year.    
I know some English grammar, but I'm not confident using it.    
I have made a start at English, but I need to get better.    
I enjoy speaking English if I can understand the other person.    
Red Yes No
I can read a little bit of English, but I can't speak it.    
I often feel scared talking to foreigners.    
I have never studied English conversation before now.    
To tell the truth, I don't really like English.    
I have never been overseas.    
I’m not very good at English so I want to get better.    


Step 2. During the first class spend 10 minutes getting the students to fill out the self appraisal by checking either Yes or No. At this stage I walked around the room explaining any items that were unclear and getting to know the students a little better.

Step 3. When students are finished, ask them to assign themselves a color according to the group in which they had checked the most "yes" boxes. For my class, however, I did not make this prescriptive and students were to free to choose the level that they determined suited them best. I explained the traffic signal analogy at this stage and made it clear that the three colors represented ability levels, not in order to be competitive but just so that everyone could recognize the learners' needs.

Step 4. Finally I called the role and handed out some nametags, asking all the usual getting-to-know-you questions as I went. Since we were only together for two days, I had little chance of remembering all 35 of their names. At the same time I asked each student which color they had assigned themselves and gave them a sticker of that color to attach to their nametag. I used those simple dot stickers that can be bought in sheets.


This turned out to be the most efficient method of determining an approximate level of a large group of learners in a short amount of time. Had I given each a 2-minute conversation test it would have taken at least an hour and left the majority of the group idle while I conducted one-on-one interviews. I found that the students' own assessment of their language ability was sufficiently accurate for my purposes and the concrete descriptions in the reference scheme meant that we all had a relatively similar understanding of what someone at that level was capable of doing.

By placing the colored sticker on their nametags, I was able to quickly determine the students' level during later activities in a way that I probably wouldn't have remembered otherwise. What's more, I found that the students themselves used the color code when choosing partners for speaking, pairwork, or getting into small groups for conversation. At other times I was able to have a red dot pair up with a yellow or green dot for some peer tutoring. The dots also became a talking point and people of similar backgrounds were able to identify each other easily. As it turned out, those with red dots formed the vast majority so I was quickly aware of where to pitch my lesson, and the students seemed relieved to know that there were others in the group at a beginning level. I recommend this approach to anyone who has to teach a mixed group of students for a short period of time.