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Secondary modern language students and assessment: Conceptions, metacognition and emotions

Written by: Simon Baron
6 min read
Simon Baron,Teacher of Languages, Parkside Community College (Cambridge), UK

In the English secondary school context, the focus on the measurement of educational outcomes promotes a conception of assessment as a tool for accountability, revealing a reductionist view of the aims of education (see, for example, Biesta, 2010; Siegel, 2004). Formative assessment theory provides an alternative view of assessment, which encourages students to become self-regulated learners and take ownership of their learning (Wiliam, 2017). Amid these conflicting conceptions of assessment, how do students understand the purpose of assessment? And how does this affect the extent to which they benefit from assessment opportunities? In this qualitative multiple case study, I seek answers to these questions by exploring Key Stage 4 students’ conceptions of assessment opportunities in their modern language studies.

Conceptions, metacognition and emotions

Students’ engagement with formative assessment is influenced by their perception of assessment tasks. To make the most of assessment opportunities, therefore, it is necessary to understand how students conceive and feel about assessment. As Boekaerts’ (2011) model of self-regulation shows, if a student appraises a learning task as aligned with their personal goals and ambitions, they are likely to experience positive emotions and expand their knowledge and competence, whereas if a task is perceived as threatening to their wellbeing, the student is more likely to use strategies protecting them from threat or harm such as avoiding the task, giving up or finding distraction. Therefore, knowing more about how students conceive and feel about different forms of assessment can help to understand why certain students engage or fail to engage well with various assessment opportunities.

The learning outcomes of assessment are also influenced by how students prepare for and react to assessment and feedback. In this study, I focus on students’ use of supervisory metacognitive strategies to measure this. Supervisory metacognitive strategies are used to plan, monitor and assess or evaluate learning (Griffiths, 2018). Examples of supervisory metacognitive strategies include setting oneself a ‘SMART’ learning target, keeping a log of common mistakes when receiving feedback or using self-quizzing to monitor individual progress.

The way in which these key concepts interact with each other is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Conceptual model

Students’ conceptions of assessment, their use of supervisory metacognitive strategies and their emotions are all part of the overarching concept of self-regulated learning. They are all interrelated and influence each other, as shown by double arrows connecting them. These factors influence the way in which students engage with assessment opportunities, which in turn influences the learning outcomes of each assessment experience. Engagement with assessment opportunities also influences students’ conceptions of assessment, use of supervisory metacognitive strategies and emotions, since self-regulated learning is a cyclical process; there are therefore double arrows connecting them.

Figure 1 showing students’ conceptions of assessment.

A qualitative multiple case study

All the participants belonged to the same mixed-attainment French class in a non-selective state secondary school. Fifteen participants answered open questions about different forms of assessment, which I used to select four students of contrasting profiles to interview. I used thematic analysis to identify codes and themes in the qualitative data collected. Given the complexity of the area of focus and the scope of this project, the aim was not to try to establish statistically significant correlations between the different factors influencing engagement with assessment, but rather to acquire a holistic understanding of what assessment means to specific individuals. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the students’ identities.

Four cases
  1. Lucy

Lucy is a student with a high target grade but little intrinsic interest in learning languages. She conceives assessment as a monitoring and checking tool, and therefore focuses on formal assessments while dismissing informal forms of assessment. She is concerned with her results, but she lacks awareness of the steps that she needs to take to make progress in French. Thus, Lucy’s conceptions of assessment prevent her from learning through formative forms of assessment as much as she could.

  1. Mary

Mary enjoys language studies and unequivocally ranks teacher feedback as the most valuable form of assessment in her opinion; she learns from it by keeping a log of common mistakes, which she regularly reviews, showing excellent metacognitive awareness. However, Mary is also frustrated at most other forms of assessment, especially peer-assessment, and therefore dismisses them as being of little use. These limiting conceptions of certain forms of assessment potentially cause Mary to miss opportunities to learn from some assessment tasks. For example, if she valued peer-assessment tasks more, Mary could improve her critical analysis skills by giving feedback to her peers.

  1. Yara

Yara started studying languages later than her peers, but her understanding of formative assessments and her rigorous use of metacognitive strategies allowed her to make rapid progress. Yara articulates clearly how she uses assessment tasks as opportunities to identify gaps in her knowledge and complete consolidation work, which is what enabled her to catch up with her peers. However, the pressure associated with formal assessments prevents Yara from doing her best in summative assessments, which she says is preventing her from learning as much as she could from them.

  1. Max

Max changed his mind about assessments as a result of the conversation we had during our interview. He initially self-reported using very few metacognitive strategies to learn from assessment opportunities, but after some prompting, he was able to recall some learning activities that he had undertaken after receiving feedback from assessments. Thus, he understood how assessment could help him to make progress in the future. Max is also anxious about formal assessments, but he associates this anxiety with external factors such as family pressure or personal issues.

Cross-case analysis

From studying these four cases in depth, it is possible to make the following assertions about students’ conceptions and use of assessment across the cases, following Stake’s (2017) methodology:

  1. Students’ conceptions of assessment in their language learning are personal and complex, since they take root in a wide range of influences, both internal and external to their language classroom
  2. Students’ conceptions of different forms of assessment both allow for and prevent learning opportunities, as students value or dismiss the ways in which assessment opportunities can guide further learning
  3. Students’ conceptions of assessment are not fixed, and engaging in conversations about assessment can provide a platform for students to evaluate and perhaps challenge their conceptions and use of assessment.


Given these findings, my key recommendation is for teachers to open empathetic conversations about the meaning and purpose of assessment with their students, to give them opportunities to challenge hindering preconceptions about assessments and understand how assessments can help them to progress and take ownership of their learning.

It is important to acknowledge the structural challenges limiting teachers’ ability to openly discuss assessment with students, such as time pressures and internal school assessment deadlines. Nevertheless, pockets of agency can be found even within these structures. For example, I do not argue that summative assessments are never useful to students; I argue that they are only useful insofar as students know how to use them to make progress. Openly discussing a summative assessment can take the form of helping students to organise revision and explaining how feedback from the assessment should be used to inform subsequent learning (supervisory metacognitive strategies); it can also mean listening to students’ potential concerns about underperforming and teaching them stress-management strategies (emotion regulation strategies).

The aim, however, should remain to challenge the conception of assessment as a mere tool for accountability at all levels, rather than to simply soften the blow to students. The impact of the pandemic on schools has opened opportunities to challenge models of national examinations. For the benefit of our students, it is key to influence national policies by promoting formative, rather than normative, conceptions of assessment that emphasise learning, not ranking.


Biesta GJJ (2010) What is education for? In: Good Education in an Age of Measurement. London: Routledge, pp. 10–27.

Boekaerts M (2011) Emotions, emotion regulation, and self-regulation of learning. In: Zimmerman BJ and Schunk DH (eds) Handbook of Self-Regulation of Learning and Performance. London: Routledge, pp. 408–425.

Griffiths C (2018) The Strategy Factor in Successful Language Learning: The Tornado Effect. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Siegel H (2004) High stakes testing, educational aims and ideals, and responsible assessment. Theory and Research in Education 2: 219–233. DOI: 10.1177/1477878504046515.

Stake RE (2017) Multiple Case Study Analysis. New York: Guilford Publications.

Wiliam D (2017) Embedded Formative Assessment: Strategies for Classroom Assessment that Drives Student Engagement and Learning. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree.

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