• Daniel Ednie-Lockett

How many assessments should a course have?

Schools always seek to balance formative and summative assessments in their curriculum. If there aren’t enough summative assessments, then the course may not have enough information to justify a student’s progress from level to level, and from the ELICOS provider to a VET or Higher Education provider as a pathway.

In general, schools are best off covering all four of the macro skills (Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing) as well as grammar and vocabulary across the full suite of their assessments. That doesn’t mean that students necessarily need to have six formative and six summative tests.

Ideally, assessments will integrate a number of skills. You can mark grammar and vocabulary with the marking criteria for an essay or a presentation. Students could potentially take weekly formative reading and listening tasks that have a numerical score, and their summative mark could be the average of those scores.

Washback in Assessment

It is well understood that assessments influence both the students and teachers attitudes to the curriculum and the class. For example, if students are studying for a language test that only includes reading, listening and writing, then teachers will struggle to motivate students to work on their speaking.

This phenomenon of “washback” in assessment has been observed to have both negative and positive influences on students. Shohamy (1993a p.4) defines washback as “the impact that tests have on teaching and learning.” The answers from these tests are reviewed and treated as an additional learning tool rather than purely a test. By encouraging students to see formative tests as an opportunity to develop and grow, courses can seek to maximise “positive washback”.


It is very easy for a course to over test. From an auditor’s point of view, it’s hard to punish a school for having more, rather than less, testing. However, it’s important to give students enough time to learning and develop, while there is some positive washback in some testing, testing can often be criticised for unnecessarily interrupting the learning process.

Depending on the course and the students level, schools can reasonably include more or less testing overall. In a General English course, assessments should be shorter and more regular with an emphasis on positive washback through formative assessments and framing any score as a learning opportunity. For higher level EAP students, a single essay developed over a number of weeks can be main focus of assessment with minor less intensive formative assessments taken weekly.

For more information about learning outcomes and how to apply them to English language courses (ELICOS), please email


Shohamy, E. (1993a). The power of tests: The impact of language tests on teaching and learning. NFLC Occasional Paper. Washington, DC: National Foreign Language Center.