Testing Language Skills using Computer Assisted Assessment (CAA)

Assessment, E-Learning, Literacy & Writing skills


Dr Sharon Ruston
English Department
University of Wales, Bangor
Gwynedd LL57 2DG


I am the convenor of a compulsory first-year module called ‘Introduction to Textual Analysis’, which teaches close reading skills to students in the first semester of their first year. We teach using texts selected across a range of historical periods, spending three weeks consecutively on prose, poetry and drama. We ask the student in class and in assessment to pay particular attention to the language of the piece studied, in the process ensuring that they understand the parts of speech, including recognising verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and nouns, the importance of punctuation, syntax. We hope that along the way this will help the students’ own writing too. In order to assist with the teaching of this specific aspect of the module, I designed a series of multiple choice tests on sentences, commas, semi-colons and apostrophes, which are accessed by the student in Blackboard (the virtual learning environment at Bangor).

Background/ Context

We were particularly concerned by the lack of literacy skills shown by the first years coming into our department, which affected their written work throughout the degree. We also wanted to teach close reading skills, which again would help them in all three years and which were not being taught explicitly elsewhere in our degree, nor, it seemed, at school. Thirdly, we had taken a decision to accept students with English Language A-level as well as those with English Literature A-level and thought they might need this kind of help to bring them up to speed with others. In actual fact, many of the English Language students were more comfortable with this aspect of the module. I was aware of the English Subject Centre’s interest in literacy skills (I attended the Literacy and Literature event on 22/4/02) and in computer marked testing. I encourage the students to use the CMT test that was offered on the Subject Centre site (no longer available- Ed).

This module is assessed by three assignments, one on prose, one on poetry and one on both a drama extract and a comparison between extracts in two different genres. If you visit the Blackboard pages (see below for guest access) full details of the module and how it is assessed are contained in ‘Course Documents’.

Activities/ Practice

In each test, I give a rule to follow, some examples, the exceptions to the rule, and, then, the student can take the test. When the student takes the test, they are offered multiple choice options and are asked to choose the correct one. Feedback is given on all of the choices they make, either telling them why it was the correct option or why it was not.

There are tests on sentences, commas, semi-colons and colons, and apostrophes. The tests run in a particular order, explaining what a subject is, a verb, how to tell whether something should be a sentence, and these terms are used again in later tests.

To give an example, after explaining what sentences and commas are there is a test ‘Commas (2)’. The instructions are as follows:

Lots of people use commas when they should be using full stops. You know if you need a full stop because the clauses you are looking at have everything needed for a sentence. (This is when you need other punctuation marks: e.g. semi-colons, colons, full stops.)

E.g. Harriet enjoyed line dancing she was good at it.

If you look carefully at this, it needs punctuation and a comma won’t do.

Harriet [subject] enjoyed [verb] line dancing [could be a complete sentence] she [subject] was [verb] good at it [could be a complete sentence].

You have two main clauses here, which cannot be separated by a comma. Commas can only be used to separate main from subordinate clauses.

Click on the underlined title Commas (2) to take this test.

When the student take this test, they are asked to decide whether they need a comma or full stop in sentences given. For example:

How have you been, where were you the other day?

They are offered ‘True’ or ‘False’ as options. If, in this instance, they choose ‘True’, this message appears:

I’m afraid this is incorrect. It should be:
How have you been? Where were you the other day?

(A question mark has the same function in a sentence as a full stop.) You can’t use a comma because each of the two parts of the sentence could be sentences themselves:

How have [verb] you [subject] been? [makes complete sense] where were [verb] you [subject] the other day? [makes complete sense] Try again.

If, in this same instance, the student chooses ‘False’, this message appears:

That’s right. It should be:
How have you been? Where were you the other day?
(A question mark has the same function in a sentence as a full stop.) You can’t use a comma because each of the two parts of the sentence could be sentences themselves:
How have [verb] you [subject] been? [makes complete sense] where were [verb] you [subject] the other day? [makes complete sense] Well done!

In other tests, students are offered multiple choices and asked to choose which they think is correct. For example in the case of ‘Commas (1)’, students are asked to choose which sentence is correctly punctuated. In some cases more than one answer could be correct, though this is not the case for the following example:

Where should the comma go in the following sentence?

  • As soon as you see him, hide.
  • As soon as you, see him hide.
  • As soon, as you see him, hide.
  • As soon, as you see him hide.

The test is very easy to use; students only need to tick boxes. They can take the tests as many times as they wish.


The success of the tests depends on the students using them, and I have not to date tracked whether they have been extensively used or not. Questionnaires filled in by students at the end of the module only ask a broader question about how useful they find ‘Blackboard resources’ rather than specifically asking them about the tests. (In 2003 students rated Blackboard resources 3.1 out of a possible 5.) I only teach one or two of the seminars on this course usually, which is team taught, and while I urge my students to try the tests I am not able to ensure that the tests are well publicised by other staff, some of whom do not use Blackboard and therefore are not likely to encourage students to use the Blackboard pages for the module. Because the tests are not directly linked to assessment on the module there is less incentive for students to take the tests. I am teaching this module again in semester one of the academic year 2005–06, the Blackboard pages of which can be accessed externally using the username and password given above. This semester, in order to get some idea of how many students use the tests, and how useful they find them, I have attached a questionnaire beneath the tests asking students to agree or disagree with a number of statements, some of which concern the content and some the method of delivering the tests, such as: ‘I feel more confident about what a sentence is after taking these tests’ and ‘Multiple choice tests such as these are a good way to teach language skills’. The results of this questionnaire will be available to students and external visitors to the pages.

I feel as though the tests could offer help to students throughout their degree. They can return to them throughout their three years at Bangor because they can always access the Blackboard pages of the modules they have been registered on. Such tests as these could be attached to any module, though they are particularly relevant to this one, which requires knowledge of the parts of speech for example. They could be used as a virtual Writing Centre to help students with the most common problems found in written work.


There is a list of other tests on language skills in the ‘External Links’ section of the Blackboard pages for the module.

March 2006