Assessment with Storytelling Part 1

A college language student studying for a big test or trying to find Pepe Silvia or something.

Course Content and Outcomes

Everything starts with the outcomes we want for our students. What do we want students to get out of the course? What do we want them to be able to do by the end of the term? If you can answer this question, you can begin to plan accordingly.

Here is the excerpt from my syllabus that outlines content and outcomes for Spanish 101 (Note: I don’t know who wrote these. They’ve been the outcomes in my department since before I started teaching at this college in summer 2013):


Course Content

A. greetings and farewell expression
B. weather descriptions
C. direct object nouns & pronouns
D. daily routines (present tense & present progressive)
E. vocabulary related to academic life, family & pastimes
F. numbers, time, and date expressions



Student Outcomes

1. Comprehend speech samples providing information pertaining to course content
2. Comprehend written language samples providing information pertaining to course content.
3. Construct basic sentences and paragraphs appropriately.
4. Vary basic information appropriately with modifiers (adjectival and adverbial).
5. Request and provide information pertaining to course content in writing.
6. Request and provide information pertaining to course content orally.
7. Distinguish and demonstrate appropriate forms of address.
8. Apply and comprehend case, person, number, gender, and tense appropriately within the scope of the content of this course as indicated in other outcomes.

I’m not going to say these are the perfect outcomes or that they are inherently flawed. That’s irrelevant for this discussion. These are the outcomes that my department defined and, therefore, they are the target I’m going to aim for.

What to Assess

My goal for assessment is to evaluate students on the course outcomes. In this way they will be prepared for the next course in the sequence regardless of whether or not their next professor uses storytelling.

Your course outcomes will depend on the context in which you find yourself, and you should adjust your assessment accordingly. Perhaps you have a common grammar test students need to pass at the end of the course. On the other hand, maybe you have some flexibility in terms of what you teach and where you want your students to end up.

Storytelling can get you to your course outcomes, regardless of what they are, due to its inherent flexibility. That is, you can make stories use whatever grammar, vocabulary, syntax, etc. you need to present to students.

In my ideal situation, I wouldn’t assess students on grammar in any introductory course. That may sound controversial, but it shouldn’t be. I don’t test my son on whether or not he uses each irregular verb properly (He doesn’t, by the way. But that doesn’t stop him from getting better at English and Spanish every single day).

However, some of us (myself included) are in a context that doesn’t allow us to shun grammar entirely. That’s okay, though. The storyteller doesn’t relegate grammar to the textbook. Instead we help learners build a functional “mental representation” of the language through comprehensible input and ample opportunities for students to negotiate meaning through communicative acts.

One of my course outcomes is for students to be able to understand and use the present tense in class. That means that in Spanish I we will be using almost exclusively present tense, and students will only be expected to produce in the present tense. That means I will select stories and other activities that focus primarily on the present tense.

Knowing where I’m going (i.e. knowing the outcomes I want for students) lets me make a roadmap to get there.

Backwards Planning

Backwards planning is the key to making assessment of storytelling-taught-classes work properly.

When we plan an assessment in advance, we know what’s on it. We know that students must complete certain tasks on the assessment by a certain date. This isn’t a surprise—we put it on the calendar. Backwards planning begs the question “What tools do our students need to complete the tasks on the assessment successfully?”

For instance, let’s say that students must complete a grammar test by the end of the quarter. Now that we know what the goal is, we can start to plan how arm students with the necessary tools to complete the task at hand. What are the tools they need in this scenario?

  1. They need to acquire the vocabulary that will appear on the test.
  2. They need to acquire the forms that appear on the test.
  3. They need to be able to read and comprehend the questions asked of them.
  4. They need to be able to respond to those questions appropriately.
  5. They need to be able to connect their ideas in fluidly.
  6. Maybe some other things I haven’t thought of yet.

How does the storyteller make this knowledge accessible to students? We plan it out, way in advance. Each story I select builds on the previous one so that we recycle all the elements on the test in different communicative contexts.

We’ve seen the vocabulary and the grammar, we’ve discussed the questions, and we’ve heard numerous people express their ideas in a logical, coherent way in the language.

By encapsulating vocabulary, grammar, etc. in a story, students hear and see the language in a natural context that we humans have been using for thousands of years. In my experience, this leads most students to perform better on both formal and informal assessments.

My Assessments for Fall 2018

The first thing I do when designing my courses is to write out a list of all the assignments and assessments that my students will complete. Instead of a percentage-based grade, I tend to favor an overall point system. It’s still broken down by percentage, but I find points easier for students to understand and I field fewer questions about grades as a result. Below is a list of the assignments and assessments for my Spanish I courses:

Interpersonal Communication – 250pts

Online Homework (VHL Central) – 100pts

Listening Quizzes – 8 quizzes x 6pts each – lowest score = 42pts

Timed Writes – 8 timed writes x 25pts – lowest score = 175pts

Pretests – 4 pretests x 25pts = 100 pts

Final Grammar Test – 100pts

Final Vocabulary Test – 50pts

Written Story/Essay Assignment – 100pts

Oral Story Test – 100pts

Total Points: 1017

The first three items on the list (Interpersonal Communication, Online Homework, and Listening Quizzes) are what I consider to be “formative assessments”, and they make up roughly 40% of the total points in the course.

The rest of the assignments on the list (timed writes, pretests, final grammar test, final vocabulary test, written story/essay assignment, oral story test) are what I consider to be “summative assessments”, and they make up roughly 60% of the total points available in the course.

I have a lot to talk about here, so I have decided to break each one of these down in greater detail in separate posts.

When do we need students to demonstrate results?

It would be great for students to show me that they’ve mastered all the vocabulary and grammar from chapter 2 at the time of the test, but we humans acquire languages asynchronously. That is, different people pick up languages at different rates.

Furthermore, some people acquire a certain vocabulary and structures while other people acquire different vocabulary and structures. Yes, we all follow the general order of acquisition, but every learner does so at a pace unique to the individual.

What does this mean for the purpose of assessment? Personally, this means that I care most about what students can produce at the end of the quarter. The mid-term results are a nice barometer for me, but they are useless if the student can’t demonstrate the expected degree of fluency at the end of the quarter.

Backloading Assessments

Putting a Consider the last four assessments in my Spanish I course:


Final Grammar Test – 100pts

Final Vocabulary Test – 50pts

Written Story/Essay Assignment – 100pts

Oral Story Test – 100pts

These four assessments take place during the last five days of my course, and they constitute roughly one-third of all the points. After a quarter of delivering high-quality CI via highly personalized and engaging stories, it’s time for the students to show me that they’ve reached the expected level of fluency.

To me, this is the perfect level of balance. Two-thirds of the total points are spread out over the rest of the quarter, which allows me to reward the daily effort required to learn a new language. That leaves one third of the total points at the backend of the course. This allows me to assess proficiency when it matters most: at the end of the course.

Spreading 350 points over four assessments takes the pressure off students and, hopefully, lowers their affective filter.

Q: What if I bomb the Oral Story test?
A: Well that wouldn’t exactly be good for your grade, but it also wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Students always perform better when their affective filter is lowered.

What Do My Assessments Look Like?

In the coming days and weeks I will be delineating all the assignments and assessments in my syllabus. I will make a post about each, the rationale behind them, and how they fit in with storytelling.


Preparing for the Start of the Quarter

I can’t wait to get back in the classroom. After a long summer I’m starting to get the itch to teach.

Start with a Checklist

I know many of you have already started, but for me the quarter begins in a little over a month. I’m excited, but also concentrated on getting ready. Nothing feels better as an instructor than to be organized and prepared on the first day. That means that you can focus on teaching, and not on what you need to get done beforehand.

Teaching with storytelling is a highly thought-intensive process. It taxes your working memory, especially at the beginning of the quarter.  If you’re going to implement storytelling, having all the other “to do” items checked off takes a huge weight off your shoulders. You know what I mean. Updating your old syllabus, setting up your Canvas (or other LMS) for your class, planning a calendar, highlighting important school information, etc. We all have a slightly different set of to dos, but they all need done before we start.

With this in mind, I have a little checklist going of things I need to get done before the start of the year. Here’s mine as of right now:

Re-write syllabus

  • It’s been two quarters (Spring, Summer) since I taught at the college, so I need to proofread, revise and format my syllabus. This includes things like making sure my contact information is correct, the classroom and meeting times are updated, etc.
  • This quarter (like every quarter), I’m messing with my point system. I try to make it based on a fixed number of points, rather than on percentages. It’s easier for students to understand and makes learning a bit more like a game. I will write a separate post about this when I check it off my list.
  • Hire a proofreader – I hate finding my own typos and inconsistencies. This will be money well spent.
  • Send syllabus to the print shop (In the past I’ve distributed only a digital version of the syllabus, but this quarter I think I want it on paper).
  • Submit syllabus to the college before the end of the first week of class

Complete Canvas (LMS) Setup

  • I really like Canvas. I use it as my main communication tool with students. I upload documents here, send messages, keep track and communicate grades, and even have additional reading homework for students. I will make this a separate post when I get it all organized the way I like it.

Set up the textbook homework

  • My department requires a traditional textbook (more on this in a separate post), and it comes with an online homework component. I will need to set up four separate sections and assign the homework for the quarter.  If you have used online homework systems before, you know that this is quite the process. But the effort is front loaded, so it pays dividends later in the quarter when I don’t have to do much with this system.

Make a Course Calendar

  • Backwards plan from the end of the quarter and schedule tests, quizzes, homework, etc. I’ll do a separate post on this as well. This is one of the key gears to make storytelling work in a college classroom.
  • This is a big one for me. It takes forever. I need to make sure the homework aligns with what we’re talking in class  as much as possible. Since my department requires a textbook, this is particularly challenging for me.
  • Storytelling covers everything in the textbook, but it does so in a different order. This is one of the only complaints I ever hear from students: the homework doesn’t perfectly match what we do in class. I will be experimenting with this this quarter, and I’ll do separate posts on the process, the results, and my reflections on these.

Once all these items are checked off, I’ll be ready to return most of my attention to teaching with storytelling. This is the goal, and completing all these administrative tasks will allow me to pursue this more fully.

5 Things Your College Storytelling Classroom Needs

1. Giant Sticky Notes for Easel 

This is by far the most useful thing you can get for your classroom.

Whenever my students and I co-create a story, I like to have a classroom artist draw out what we make up. This student is a volunteer, and I usually give them extra credit. When we are finished telling a story, I save the artwork for the next day to review.

I used to have students draw on a piece of notebook paper and use the document camera, but last school year there was an easel and giant sticky notes in my classroom.

What a glorious happenstance. Behold some pristine examples:

These peel off the pad (they are literally giant sticky notes) and you can post them to any wall in the classroom. Reviewing the story just got way more engaging! Extra highly comprehensible and engaging repetitions!

Even if your department won’t order these up for you, it still might be worth your while to pick some up. Some of my best comprehensible input has come from students making art on these stickies and us reviewing stories as a class. This original artwork is one of my favorite vehicles for more discussion and mental processing.

You might want to pick up some colored sharpies to go with these stickies to avoid using your dry erase markers.

2. Double-Sided, Dual-Color, Dry Erase Markers (adjectives)

Speaking of dry erase markers, I got tired of wielding two of them just to use two colors to separate Spanish and English/different parts of the sentence. These nifty markers let you get the benefit of two markers while only having to carry one. Now where did I put the cap…

3. Laser Pointer/Presentation Clicker Combo

This is an inexpensive, versatile clicker/laser pointer. It lets you stay with your class and avoid the trip back to the laptop to change slides.

4. Giant World Map

Your room probably already has a big map, but if it doesn’t you probably need one. It’s great for walking over and pointing out countries (Which one is Paraguay again?) during class. I like to think my students leave my class knowing a little more about geography because of how often I walk over to the map. I prefer this laminated style because I can draw on it with whiteboard markers.

5. These Desk/Chairs “Node Chairs”

At a community college I’ve worked at in the past I discovered these chairs. You’re more likely to get them in your classroom if your school is getting a new  building, but hey, you never know. I guess it doesn’t hurt to ask. Think of the possibilities!

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