Tag Archives: language learning

supporting learners through assessment & feedback

Dr Kerry Mullan is lecturer and coordinator of French studies at RMIT University in Melbourne. She is also coordinator of the Parlez-Vous français? peer mentoring program. Kerry won a 2011 ALTC Citation for “awakening a love of French language and culture in students and for proving that learning grammar can be fun!”

Travel brochure by Megan Condie, French student

Years of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) and French as a Foreign Language have shown me that for students to be successful, they must enjoy their learning experience. Learning a language is intimidating, as the student’s ability to communicate is effectively removed, thereby reducing students’ confidence levels. (It is reported that at least 50% of all language learners suffer from unusually high levels of anxiety (Lanir 2010:70).) However, the following ideas for assessment and student feedback will apply to all learners, not just language learners.

Since we have languages as electives, our students come from a variety of disciplines across the university and are at different stages of study. Some students have no prior experience of learning another language and can quickly become frustrated and disheartened at the slow progress. It is therefore particularly important to keep students’ different learning styles in mind, and to include activities which motivate and which accommodate the needs of all learners. This variety of activities keeps classes interesting and aids learning. Making the classroom experience enjoyable in this way fosters a love of learning the language and culture, and motivates the students.

Assessment

Provided this is aligned with the learning objectives of the course, assessment should cater for all learning styles. For this reason, a variety of formative and summative assessment are included: regular in-class tests on grammar, vocabulary, listening and speaking (role plays, presentations, interviews), reflective journals and blogs, take home assignments, open book in-class assignments, and final exams.

Choice of assessment
For one piece of assessment, Intermediate French students have the chance to work together in pairs on projects creating magazines, recipe books, tourist brochures, photo stories etc., or on individual essays for those who prefer to work alone. See blog photo for an example of this. By allowing students the choice to find a topic and method of assessment which appeals to them, they respond by producing their best work. The aim is to foster a love of French language and culture in the students by encouraging them to be creative, and by not being prescriptive with all the assessment tasks. This has the added advantage of minimizing the potential for plagiarism, and of encouraging learner autonomy.

Creative collaborative tasks
The major assessment for our advanced students this year was to work in small groups of three or four to script, act in, and film a scene (all in French) based on the film they had studied during the semester. Using their knowledge of the context of the film, the characters, and the film itself, their scene was to be an additional one which could fit coherently somewhere in the film. The final class of semester was dedicated to screening each group’s scene, and the results were generally excellent. This task allowed for creativity, collaborative and peer learning, while assessing targeted oral and written skills in the target language. As you can imagine the process of learning their lines for the scene was also invaluable ….

Authorised collusion
By encouraging collaboration and support around assessment, students are motivated to do their best. For this reason, beginner students are invited to discuss their answers to take home assignments before they hand them in for marking; students are offered the opportunity to alter their answers based on the advice of a peer. Students sometimes amend their answers to an incorrect answer based on a peer’s advice, but this is a chance they must take! This encourages real discussion and collaboration in the classroom.

Peer and self assessment
On occasion, students mark their own or each other’s short answer tests in class (in the latter case, the work is made anonymous). We go through the correct answers together and how to calculate the marks; this generates useful discussion as to the weight of the errors and focuses the students’ attention on specific areas. I accept the mark the student calculates – they generally take great care with this part, knowing that another student is calculating their mark! Students invariably say how useful they find this exercise, as it is a valuable learning experience for them; they discover a lot about their own level and that of a peer, as well as the process of marking.

Reviewing drafts
Students are also offered the chance to have a draft of their assessable work (such as an essay) reviewed prior to submission; this gives students the confidence to challenge themselves, knowing that they will be guided towards areas requiring revision before the final version is marked. I simply point out areas which need to be corrected, without indicating the exact problem. This has also been successful in discouraging plagiarism and/or the use of online translating tools, as students feel sufficiently supported, and do not feel the need to resort to other measures to improve the standard of their work. The lack of explicit correction means that the students are required to work harder themselves, and thus benefit further from the revisions. Corrections on returned work are not as effective a learning tool, as students are not always as attentive of feedback at that stage.

Mid-semester informal feedback

As well as feeling supported in the classroom, students should also feel valued. In week 6 of semester, all language students are asked to respond anonymously to the following questions on a sheet of paper:

1. What works well for you in class?
2. What doesn’t work well for you in class?
3. What would you like to change?

Comments are collected and the students are given feedback on their responses in the following class. This is an extremely useful way of finding out what is or isn’t working for students, and what may need to be amended. If changes are not possible, we take this opportunity to talk to the students about their learning, and the benefits of certain teaching methods and activities. The students respond well to this, since they understand it is a sign of our respect for their opinions, and a desire to improve their learning experiences during the semester, instead of only collecting feedback at the end of the course when it is too late to implement changes. This encourages the students to be involved in their learning and to take some responsibility for the course.

Warning: there is a real possibility that implementing one or more of these simple activities will result in more motivated, successful learners and increased student survey scores!

References:
Lanir, L. 2010. Foreign language learning difficulties. Modern English Teacher, 19, 3.

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