Wednesday, June 25, 2008


D. asked me about this term yesterday, and I had never heard of it before, perhaps because I haven't taught many courses where tests were involved. As I now understand it (freshly, sketchily), washback describes pedagogical revision, the on-the-fly adjustments teachers make after they have evaluated a set of exams. The test, depending largely upon how well it is designed, should report general strengths and weaknesses among the group; washback is how the future lessons and activities are adapted in light of the patterns indicated by the test.

I don't know whether I will get much use out of the term, but it did get me thinking about similar phenomena in writing courses. There is a kind of going back over things--something like washback--that sometimes happens depending on how a sequence of assignments is envisioned. It reminded me of a mild tension in my MA program between those who thought a complete course of study--including all writing assignments, prompts, and activities--ought to be laid out from the outset and those who thought a course of study should be designed to allow for those inevitable contingencies. To the extremes: the first type is top-down, water-tight and risks being inflexible; the second type is like taking to the air without a flight plan: improvisatory and roomy. The first regards the contextual peculiarities (and surprises!) very little; the second sets out with the proposition, "How can I devise the second unit of the course until I know what happened with the first?". One values teaching everything as if it is channeling toward week fifteen; the other lives and teaches for today and wants not to overdetermine the what's-to-come.

I am, at times, drawn to each of these extreme positions; they appeal to me for different reasons. What I have come to understand is that, in moderate forms, both are simultaneously possible, and good teachers understand--and perform--them--a balancing act of managed flexibility. By now I have wandered away from washback as it relates directly to tests and measurements, but I only wanted to generalize it to the scenes of teaching I know best.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at June 25, 2008 10:30 PM to Dry Ogre Chalking