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Dr Elaine Schmidt from Cambridge Assessment English gives a glimpse into Cambridge’s new master’s degree in English language assessment, which is starting in January next year.
Designing good language tests and critically evaluating existing ones are key skills for professionals in many areas of education. Perhaps they are English language teachers, course designers or curriculum managers, or perhaps they are already working in an assessment agency or as advisers in government departments where language assessment is a big part of what they are already doing. Whatever their background, it’s essential that they are fully equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to successfully fulfil these important roles, and this is one of the driving forces behind the new two-year part-time Master of Studies (MSt) in English Language Assessment from the University of Cambridge.
The course is split into assessment-related, linguistics and research modules. If we take the linguistics modules for example, we will look at how we learn languages in terms of their sounds, sentence structure and vocabulary. The assessment modules, on the other hand, consider questions such as: How do we test? How do we design a good test? And in the research methods modules students will learn how we do good statistical analysis of what we’re testing.
Students taking part in the course will gain both theoretical and practical knowledge of language assessment. This includes the skills and principles they need to design their own tests covering different components such as listening, speaking writing and so forth. They will also learn how to evaluate whether a test is a good test. These skills are particularly useful if they work in a job where they must make a choice between different language tests, and our course will give them the skills and confidence to say whether a test is appropriate for their needs.
In Cambridge we believe in the communicative approach in language assessment, so for us it’s about how tests can be designed so they are authentic. We also cover the statistical skills you need if you design your own tests or studies. Crucially, the course also looks at how you can ensure tests measure the right outcome in line with the Common European Framework of Reference for languages.
We feel the programme is a very good fit for us as we’re able to bring to the table lots of in-house expertise in test design, language learning knowledge and new technologies such as automated assessment and computer-adaptive testing. The course has been developed in collaboration with the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge Assessment English, the Cambridge Language Sciences Interdisciplinary Research Centre with the input of ALTA.
On a personal level my expertise is very relevant. I moved into Cambridge Assessment two years ago because I wanted to make sure that my research didn’t stay theoretical and that it can be applied. So, I’m delighted to be teaching some of the modules on the course. I’m a psycholinguist and I looked at language acquisition for my PhD and then moved into second language acquisition. I specifically look at cognitive processes, so how learners acquire their second language, how they read for example using things like eye tracking technology to look at processes that are normally quite difficult to measure.
We want applicants to have some work experience already, whether in language teaching, assessment or another field. We do ask for samples of their written work and we will assess all candidates fairly against each other - we want to see their interests in language assessment, in what they’ve done before and not necessarily what they did at university twenty years ago. We will also consider people who have relevant qualifications such as a CELTA or DELTA.
With a master’s from Cambridge students will be equipped to fulfil these roles and do well in them and improve the projects they are working on. Students will also automatically become members of ALTE the Association for Language Testers in Europe – so they will have connections that might open doors in different countries. The two-year part-time programme is also very flexible, and we’ve designed it so that students can continue their work with some aspects taught online, so it fits very flexibly around their time. There are also two residential periods each year which are two weeks long. These will be in Cambridge1 providing that Covid allows, and they will be a great experience. They are relatively intense, since a lot of the teaching will be during this period. We want the students to make the most of this time, they can talk to supervisors and research topics of interest.
And lastly, I think it’s worth considering this course because it’s one of the few Masters’ degrees that gives you a well-rounded insight into language assessment. If you only focus on testing, you’re missing a big part of what assessment can do, you’re missing the language learning insight that brings our profession forward and vice versa. Also, if you don’t look at the technology aspect, you’re stuck in language assessment from the 1990s and assessment is such a fast-evolving field. If you look at all the technologies that come into it, this course brings them all together to make sure you’re really well equipped to enter the field, to progress professionally – and to make a positive difference.
For more information about the course please visit: https://www.ice.cam.ac.uk/mst-ela
1 We plan to deliver our Master's qualifications in-person in the academic year 2021-22. Please note that this will be reviewed in line with the latest public health guidance available at the time. If required, to ensure the health and safety of students, we may look to need to use alternative teaching formats and will contact students if we expect changes to the course delivery.