Voula Kanistra

We approached Voula, Associate Director and Senior Researcher – English Language to discuss the assessments industry and how Trinity has evolved over the years.

Can you tell us a little more about your career background?

I studied English literature at the American College of Greece (Deree) and during the last semester of my studies, in the summer of 1993, I started working as an English teacher at a private English Language school. I continued teaching English as a foreign language until 2015 when I relocated to the UK. During my teaching career, I taught a range of courses (general English, examination preparation courses and English for specific purposes) to learners of all ages ranging from young learners to adolescents and adults.

My career assessment started in 1998 when I started working as a responsible officer for administering the TOEFL (paper-based) and Edexcel examinations, as an essay rater for the Panhellenic Association of Language School Owners (PALSO) and as an oral examiner for the University of Michigan language assessments. In 2002 I started my career in English Language Testing (ELT) as an item writer and a test developer. I was a core member of a very small test development team at the institution I worked for at the time which was responsible for developing and managing the entire assessment cycle of two English language qualifications, a B1 and C1 CEFR qualification. My activities, as part of the core team, ranged from developing test specifications, creating items, and training other items writers, and examiners/raters to creating support materials and designing market outreach initiatives to support the marketing of the new exams from an academic perspective. I also co-authored four practice examination books for four different English language examinations and other teacher guides which instructed teachers how to use practice tests from an ‘assessment as learning’ perspective.

In 2005 I started transitioning from teaching to education management roles and I held positions such as Academic Assistant to the Director of the English language programme and Academic Coordinator for the young learners and adolescents’ programme. I think I need to explain here that the setup of the institution I worked for was completely different to the one of Trinity so the role of the Academic Coordinator would be similar to a “Head” role, though with a slightly different and more diverse responsibilities such as adding more courses to the programme, refreshing the course syllabus as well as working with the marketing and registration teams to attract more students etc.

In 2008 I started my Masters in Language Testing (distance) at Lancaster University. My MA dissertation, was a validation study of the Skills for Life (SfL) Entry 3, writing task 2. As soon as I completed my MA I started working for Trinity as an independent consultant mostly analysing its pretesting data. At the same time, I undertook several online Rasch courses to build up my quantitative skills. In 2015 I joined Trinity as a full-time permanent employee.

You are another long-serving member of staff, joining Trinity back in 2015. What are some of the biggest changes that you have experienced whilst being here?

Trinity has definitely changed a lot since I joined. I’d say the first big change I experienced while working as a permanent employee was between 2015 and 2017 when Trinity reviewed its awarding processes and started building an even more robust awarding system around its qualifications. I think that we are currently undergoing the second biggest by far systemic change in Trinity’s more modern history which affects all the different departments, IT, Operations, Marketing, Product and Academic and People and Culture. The company is currently transforming from a ‘process-driven company’ to a ‘systems-driven’ one whereby all different teams are equipped with the appropriate systems and tools whilst at the same time protecting our core principles and values. To give you a more concrete example, the Technical Content team is moving away from traditional human-based item development to AI-driven item development which will allow our subject matter experts (SMEs) to use their expertise in more creative albeit less laborious intense ways. I’m sure other departments can also give many other examples clearly illustrating the breadth and depth of change Trinity is currently undergoing.

You recently went and spoke at an industry conference in Vienna. Can you tell me more about that? What do you think the future of academic assessments will look like?

Yes, I co-presented at the European Association of Test Publishers (e-ATP) conference in Vienna in September with the Lead AI Scientist and Principal Measurement Scientist of Finetune, the company that built the AI item development tool for us. We presented our principled approach to both designing an AI tool and implementing it in the test development process. The presentation was well-received and sparked a lot of interesting and stimulating discussions. More importantly, it made Trinity stand out from the rest of the awarding organisations including Duolingo because I presented our approach to critically evaluating the AI-generated content not only from a psychometrical and financial perspective but also from a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion point of view (JEDI).

I think assessments will change quite rapidly in the future. For example, in medical and other vocational qualifications the use of augmented virtual reality has significantly reduced the assessment time from days to hours. Test developers do not need to hire actors to simulate the different ‘patient-doctor scenarios’ and prospective surgeons can even be assessed on their ability to operate by using a virtual reality simulator. Similarly, the use of AI in these disciplines has shifted the focus of the assessments from assessing recall of important information to assessing higher-order skills such as a prospective doctor’s ability to synthesise information from different sources (ie information gathered from patients, information retrieved from some AI diagnostic tool etc.) to evaluate the patient’s symptoms and prescribe the right treatment.

Narrowing it down to my field, I believe that language testing will not remain unaffected. In various conferences, we have already started discussing the impact of technology on language testing and how technology-mediated assessments can expand the underlying construct. Our English Language exams already include features of this expanded construct. For example, for the speaking component of our EL examinations test-takers need to prepare their own topic which enables them to synthesise language learning by practising their presentation and delivery skills among other things. In our newly launched Digital ISE examination, test takers are assessed on higher-order reading, listening, and writing skills which require them to synthesise, evaluate and, depending on the skill, adapt the information from various sources to accomplish the task at hand. These are important 21st-century skills that equip our candidates with skills that extend beyond the learning of a foreign language.

You recently became an Associate Director this year. What has that meant to you and the impact for your career?

Trinity has always been incredibly supportive and a testament to this is that for both my MA dissertation and PhD thesis I used Trinity qualifications and data. So there will always be a strong link between Trinity and myself. My recent promotion to an Associate Director/Senior Researcher signals a new milestone in my career. I always try to present at various academic conferences and having a higher role at the company you work for also plays a role in how other professionals view me and also adds an additional gravitas to your research

Outside of work, what are some of your interests that connects you to Trinity?

Until recently, my time outside work was spent on my postgraduate studies. However, now that I have successfully defended my PhD, I am planning to start learning how to play the guitar. I’ve always been fascinated by the sound of the guitar, and I’ve always liked songs that included a good metal guitar riff. I hope to get my Grade 1 certificate by next Christmas!

What is the best part about working for Trinity?

I’ve always had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and my motto has always been “Γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλά διδασκόμενος” (a quote from Solon the Athenian which means I’m getting older but I am learning a lot of things). That’s why I enjoy working in the assessment field so much because assessment is so complex and so multi-faceted. At Trinity one always gets the opportunity to learn from colleagues in other departments as well as from colleagues in the other two subject areas, Music and Drama. The coexistence of different disciplines under the same ‘assessment roof’ makes it a really intriguing and rewarding experience at the same time.


“At Trinity one always gets the opportunity to learn from colleagues in other departments as well as from colleagues in the other two subject areas, Music and Drama. The coexistence of different disciplines under the same ‘assessment roof’ makes it a really intriguing and rewarding experience at the same time.”

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