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Where Am I? Checking Progress with Adult Learners

By Coquina Restrepo

Any goal you have you have to work on each everyday in order to see an improvement. That takes habit building, changing the way you normally do things in order to do something in the future. If there’s something you want to change or do but you can only do it if you work really hard everyday for a very long time: You’re not going to do it. Or at least, you’re not going to KEEP this new habit if it becomes inconvenient or uncomfortable. That’s the process of learning any new language or improving your literacy skills: hard, long and generally uncomfortable.

Think of learning like dieting, it seems simple at first but it’s easy to lose your motivation after a few days. Doing small simple things like eating healthy food (reading an article a day), replacing sugar (learn a new word every day) and exercising everyday (practicing your speaking skills) seems simple but are actually hard to change if you’ve been doing one thing all the time.

This is all related to perceived progress. When we start changing our habits to work towards a goal, we want to see results immediately or at least evidence that there’s been a change. But just like weight loss and muscle building, learning takes time and constant effort. Language learning and literacy building require life style changes, and they both show slow progress to the learner. It’s frustrating and can lead to people feeling like they either aren’t good enough or smart enough to reach their learning goals in the long run.

This is why we use Progress Checks. When we give our students progress checks and progress outlines, we’re giving them evidence of their improvement and that they’re work has made an impact. Whether it’s by ticking off vocabulary words they’ve memorized off of a list or showing them a picture collage of how hard they’ve worked every class, progress checks show that their work is being documented for their benefit.

A progress check in school is what we use to measure if we’ve mastered the materials we’ve been given. Actual progress is something that cannot be determined next to mastery, it’s something that shows we’re continuing to master it. Instead of focusing on “mastering this skill” we want to show learners that they are improving.

Improvement is central to staying motivated, if we know we have been making smaller successes we’ve more likely to keep up the momentum. Since change is invisible to most learners and difficult to show with literacy skills, it’s up to tutors to find creative ways to demonstrate how their learner is improving.

Bellow, we have laid out the reasons why progress checks work, how often they should happen and what you and your learner can do to make them a fun and informative exercise in your lessons!

Progression Plan: Diet and Exercise

A progress check is like a weigh in for your learning journey, it helps your learner feel motivated when they notice a change and it helps the tutor by showing what areas they’ve already mastered. The skills we test in progress checks relate to our critical thinking skills and demonstrate how your tutoring sessions are changing your learners’ mindset.

Skills in progress checks:

-Reflection: Being able to remember information and summarize it.

-Back-end solution thinking: Looking at a problem and working backwards from a solution in order to resolve it.

-Positive thinking: Maintaining a healthy mindset and supporting healthy habits by imagining a positive goal outcome.

Regular Intervals: Should Progress Checks Happen Often?

Progress Checks are stressful, but reviewing shouldn’t be. When we’re told we’re being tested our minds automatically become stressed, it’s a natural process our bodies use to make us more alert. BUT, that same process makes us too focused on the present so it’s harder for us to remember the different skills and information we’ve learned before the test.

Instead of making a progress check set like a test, turn them into interactive review sessions that you and your learner can plan for. When you both work together to set a schedule, it empowers your learner and makes the issue less stressful. Everyone performs better mentally when they’re less stressed and feel more in control with the situation.

What to do before a progress check.

There are two simple things you need to do before you start a progress check:

  1. Think about what your learn does and does not know.

  2. Keep track of each key terms/lesson points by writing a short bullet list of what they should have learned

This helps keep your lessons fresh in your own mind and also reflects on the goal outcome of each lesson. If you’re able to remember what your learner could do before you started working together then you already have a good idea about the progress they’ve made so far.

Progress Planning: Observation and Participation

If you’re making progress during every lesson in your teaching journal, there are simple things you can do to accurately note how well your learner is doing before the actual progress check.

  1. Observe and take notes during your lessons, keep track in your teaching notebook for any changes you see. Progress checks should be for YOUR benefit as well.

2. Have your learner take quick notes that summarize what they’ve done before ending the class and leaving it with you. This helps them summarize their experience and also give you direct feedback which helps you improve your future lessons.


Exit tickets: At the end of every lesson, have your learner write down one thing they learned or practiced during the lesson. Have them give it back to you and keep it in a separate file. This will serve as your feedback from the lesson and can be used later to show your learner later that they’ve been actively involved in their own progress.

Scales of Progress Checking: Pop-Up games , Review Games and Puzzle Statements

Progress Checks do not have to be formal tests, most testing situations causes stress and can hurt learner performance. Instead, a progress check should be something fun and challenging enough to make the learner

Circle Map: In this game, you draw a circle and divide into into 3-6 different subjects. You give your learner one to two minutes to fill in that section with as many words or examples as they can think of that correlates to the subject. It’s a visual exercise that makes you think back and reflect on your experience. Testing your memory in short bursts is a great way to review a whole section of lessons or subjects that can seem unrelated until you’ve written it all down! This is great for vocabulary reviews and for summarizing lessons in short sentences and also demonstrates how much they can remember from a particular class!

Where is my mistake?: One technique we need to use in progress checks is checking to see understanding of the material, which means having your learner pick up and point out mistakes. Set up either a written question or record yourself speaking and have your learner try to find the mistake. You can personalize these progress check by determining if you’re focusing on vocabulary, grammar or even pronunciation, which forces your learn to critically reflect on what language and skills you’ve been using in class. This is great to use for short progress checks since you can use it once or twice in the same lesson.

Puzzle Statements: Think of a game of ‘Clue’ where you’re given all of the evidence and you have to use that to find the culprit in lesson than 10 minutes. You can use this method to test learners progress by having them review a short story or lesson and asking them a difficult question about it. It can be a small detail like who they were talking to in the story or an image. To make it easier, you write down the hints on three separate flashcards (it can be a word, a piece of dialogue or a sentence) and give them five minutes to try and think of the right answer. This is a great tool to use for medium-high level learners who are interested in improving their reading-writing skills!

Progress Community: Build Your Motivational Support Team!

The best way to help demonstrate progress is by making it a social activity. Whether you’re working one-on-one with your learner or you’re working in a small group, having team support will keep everyone motivated and on-track towards their goals. There are little things you can do to make your progress checks more interactive and get your learner directly involved so they stay motivated to keep practicing.

1.Social Media Learning Journeys.

If your learner is shy or has a niche interest, encourage them to share their experiences online. Using simple apps like Instagram and Twitter help learners summarize their classes and also gain support from a wider community of learners who can help share tips and encourage their progress!

Tip: Have your learner make an account separate from their primary account. They can use this one as a self-motivation feed while also protecting their privacy on their main feed.

2. Progress maps, charts and pictures.

Make a space in your room dedicated to your learning journey. This can be a small white board where you create word charts or the side of your refrigerator where you put up riddles and story quotes. Making your learning journey visual is the best way to keep it directly involved in your life. If you can also add to it or change it, it makes your progress even more obvious.

Tip: Take a photo at the end of every class of your learner writing down a word, a sentence or idea they can practiced. This visual proof shows them that they’ve been reflecting on the main lesson skills throughout the class and can be used in a photo collage to show how their skills improved over a long period of time!

3. Shared learning journals.

Whether it’s shared between learner and tutor or between learner and learner, a shared journal is a great way to review and interact through a personal object. You can create simple charts and graphs together and pose questions to help make your learning journey more fun and personal. The longer you have it and actively use it, the more obvious the progress will be.

Tip: If your student is keeping a journal, show them how they can use multiple materials inside of it to note progress. You can have them keep a vocabulary list in the back that they can use for reflection, check off the words they’ve memorized and add new ones to show that they’ve increased their vocabulary. You can also keep charts and graphs that can mark improvements in speaking time and conversational topics, showing that their practical skills have been improving as well!

About the author:

Coquina is an educator in Shanghai, China and Roanoke local who grew up speaking two languages with her family. She currently works as an early childhood educator and reading specialist as well as a freelance writer. Her current clients are design firms and education organizations such as Bright Design Studio, Bright Minds, ESL Passport and Compass Review. When she’s not writing, she draws comics and organizes events for the teacher community in Shanghai through her own organization Good Thoughts.


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