Mark Johnstone: Competency-based assessment in second language learning and teaching

Tags: competency-based assessment, language assessment, assessment models, second language acquisition, SLA, English Second Language, ESL, Saudi Arabia, Arab world, Middle East

My Situation


I teach English in an academic bridge program in Saudi Arabia. A majority of students in our program were successful learners in high school but are highly reliant on memorization and repetition. Poor learning is typically compensated for by good student behaviours like coming to class, doing work on time, and performing well on standardized tests of content mastery. While these assessments often do not measure competency or skill, they tend to be regarded by all as reliable predictors of future academic success.

A popular view of successful education as an ability to faithfully recall information as demonstrated in summative examinations remains major barrier to implementation of competency-based assessment. Most stakeholders believe that examinations are the only legitimate measure of learning and regard formative assessment as an avenue to “grade inflation”.

This problem is not confined to the Middle East but endemic in both skills and content based instruction. It is a holdover from nineteenth century views of knowledge and its mastery, views that have great cultural currency.


The Saudi Ministry of Higher Education publishes guidelines for public universities that include assessment. While universities are free to apply these guidelines as they see fit, they usually follow them closely.

Marks in a typical undergraduate course are typically distributed as follows: 10% for attendance; 20 % for two midterm exams administered at weeks six and twelve in an 18 week semester; 50% for the final examination administered during a two week exam period following week 18.

It is usual for a lecturer to have up to 300 students, and all grades need to be registered within 3 days of the examination, so exams are typically multiple choice or short answer format.

While ministry guidelines are not mandatory, they reinforce deeply entrenched, traditional assessment practices that continue to find widespread social acceptance.


What do you hope to achieve?

I hope to define an easy to understand, easy to apply “continuous assessment” system that supports the incremental and reiterative nature of language learning.

The system will 1) make a clear distinction between formative and summative assessments; 2) include a “fail safe” mechanism that allows people who need more time to reach benchmarks to have more time to do that; 3) distinguish between performance (ability to do tasks directly related to the skill) and behavior (things such as punctuality, organization, and persistence, that are not directly related to the skill being learned) 4) easily align with core standards and other curricular demands.

What would be different if you succeed?

By making assessment part of instruction I hope to leverage assessment systems not only to award marks but to support students’ learning processes by helping students understand their own learning processes and then marshalling those processes in ways that lead them to more efficient and successful learning inside and outside the classroom.

I believe that this can benefit all stakeholders by helping to refocus our activities on learning and placing measurement of learning into a positive perspective.


Where I work, the current assessment practice is exam focused. Students are cherry picked: they have almost all been “successful” in high school, which means that they are very good at exam focused learning.

While many students can memorize quickly and effectively, fewer are able to apply what they know or to relate it to something outside the context in which they learned it.

This deficiency shows up clearly in writing instruction.

This undermines instruction, prevents development of higher order and critical thinking skills, and supports the notion that knowledge is an objective truth largely circumscribed by human experience.

How you might go about bringing that change

What is your pedagogical approach? Which technologies will you use to implement it, and how?