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Washback effect: from assessment theory to teaching and learning practice

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The idea that testing holds a major role in language teaching and learning practices is nothing but knew. It can be traced back to the 1990s (Beikmahdavi, 2016) and since then, many terms have been employed to describe the aforementioned relationship (ibid.). Shohamy (as cited in Amini & González, 2012) narrows the number of the proposed terms down to four: 1. washback effect with reference to the impact that tests have on teaching and learning, 2. measurement driven instruction related to the concept that tests should drive instruction, 3. curriculum alignment indicating the connection between testing and syllabus and 4. systematic validity implying that tests can improve learning. Despite these variations in terminology, washback or backwash as alternatively proposed by Hughes (2003) are the terms which are widely used to refer to the relationship between testing, teaching and learning (ibid.).


By By Vassiliki Lismani, EFL Teacher, Bed., MA in Special Education, CELTA, TESOL Greece Board Member


Apparently, teaching, learning and assessment are interrelated. Assessment (both summative and formative) is an integral part of language teaching and learning so it is obvious that testing is under great consideration when we plan teaching practices and evaluate their effectiveness. As a matter of fact, the more demanding a test is, the more its effect on teaching is expected to be assuming that teachers opt for test driven practices that they would not otherwise employ (Amini & González, 2012) and which “either promote or hinder language teaching (Messick cited Beikmahdavi, 2016, p. 130). Hughes (2003) stresses the potential danger that test preparation can dominate teaching and learning with the effects being even more detrimental if test content and testing techniques are not in the same line with the course objectives. Along similar lines, the data gathered by Anderson and Hamp – Lyons (Brown, 1997) in their study about TOEFL offer ample evidence of the worst scenario talking about “unnatural teaching” and “students being taught TOEFLese” (p.7) just to name a few. The aforementioned findings lend support to the claim that undesirable washback effect is mainly associated with high – stakes standardized tests and teachers preparing their students / examinees for high test scoring with little interest in promoting life - long language skills (Hedgecock & Ferris, 2009).


In the bright side of testing and teaching relationship, when a test has a positive washback, there is no mismatch between teaching the curriculum and teaching for the test as “test tasks should require the same authentic, interactive language use promoted in the classroom so that there is a match” (Baley, 2006, slide 12). Since curriculum content is in perfect harmony with what is tested, there is no reason for teachers to abandon the former to the benefit of high test performance. Moreover, “good examinations can be designed and applied as effective teaching-learning tasks and activities in order to encouraging a positive teaching-learning process” Beikmahdavi, 2016, p. 132). Under these circumstances, positive washback means that there is no use of discriminating between general language classes and examination preparation courses and language teachers do not end up serving as examination coaches but maintain their educational role. 


More recently, another term, Learning Oriented Assessment (LOA), has been used to describe the relationship between assessment and teaching / learning. According to Cambridge Assessment English (2019), LOA aims “to carve out a place for a form of assessment with different priorities and values from those of traditional assessment” and “proposes a form of assessment whose primary purpose is to promote learning” (ibid.). As Carless (2007) indicates, tasks should not target end – of – the - unit assessment or “the memorising of material which is soon forgotten” (ibid., p. 59). He excels the importance of students’ involvement in the assessment process and constructive feedback as a source of reference for learners’ future work. (ibid.).



It might be wrongly asserted that testing mainly involves students and educators because they are in the core of teaching and learning process. However, Bailey (2006) indicates that washback is determined by its impact on classroom pedagogy, curriculum development, even educational policy, in other words both on the social macro – levels and the classroom micro - levels (Cheng & Curtis, 2013). Positive washback also reflects on a variety of factors related to “test design”, “test content”, “logistics” and “interpretation and analysis” (Brown, 1997, p. 38).


This brief review of the washback effect illustrates its multifaceted and complicated nature. Nonetheless, despite its complexity, it is of paramount importance to work towards its positive aspect in order to enrich teaching with meaningful practices to promote efficient language learners and users and not merely test - takers.



Amini, M., González, I. N. (2012). The washback effect of cloze and multiple-choice tests on vocabulary acquisition. Language in India, 12 (7), 1-23. Retrieved from  https://www.academia.edu/21206923/The_Washback_Effect_of_Cloze_and_Multiple-Choice_Tests_on_Vocabulary_Acquisition

Bailey, M. K. (2006). Teaching and testing: Promoting positive feedback [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://testingforum.hau.gr/docs/C.Bailey-OK.pdf

Beikmahdavi, N. (2016). Washback in language testing: Review of related literature first. International Journal of Modern Language Teaching and Learning,1 (4), 130-136. Retrieved from http://ijmltl.com/fulltext/paper-17092016170302.pdf

Brown, J. D. (1997). The washback effect of language test. University of Havai'i Working Papers in ESL, 16 (1), 27 – 45. Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/reader/77238833

Cambridge Assessment English (2019). Learning oriented assessment. Retrieved from https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/research-and-validation/fitness-for-purpose/loa/

Carless, D. (2007). Learning – oriented assessment: Conceptual bases and practical implications. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44(1), 57 – 66. Doi: 10.1080/14703290601081332

Cheng, L., Curtis, A. (2013). Test impact and washback: Implications for teaching and learning In C. Coombe, P. Davidson, O’Sullivan B & S. Stoynoff (Eds.), The Cambridge guide to second language assessment, pp. 89 – 95.Cambridge University Press.

Hedgecock, S. J., Ferris D. (2009). Teaching readers of English. Students, texts, and contexts. New York: Routledge.

Hughes, A. (2003). Testing for language teachers. Second edition. Cambridge University Press