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.


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!

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

learning takes time & mastery even longer

Post & photo by Kylie Budge.

There’s nothing quite like being a student again, if only briefly. It’s a good thing to do from time to time. For example, it helps us get perspective and reminds us of what it feels like to be a learner. It also helps us remember what it feels like to know very little about something and the immense frustration that can accompany trying to learn something that isn’t quite making sense. It can also remind us of how students’ expectations can impact on their learning experience.

I was a student briefly for a week recently when I participated in a weaving trip to a remote indigenous community in North-East Arnhem Land (in the Northern Territory, Australia). It should be noted that I was a complete novice – I had no background or experience in weaving at all prior to this trip. Yet, as an adult, I had expectations about what I could learn in such a short time and what I hoped I could produce. In hindsight these expectations were unrealistic and reflect the kind of learner I am – big picture, grand expectations, and someone who wants to learn and master an area quickly (and hopefully painlessly).

In short, I hoped to be able to produce a beautifully woven bag/basket by the end of the week (and if I’m honest I hoped to make two – both exquisitely beautiful of course!). Quite ridiculous expectations when you remember I entered the week with no previous weaving experience.

And so while I loved sitting, watching, learning and weaving each day with the local weavers, who are masters of their art, I experienced frustration as a learner because I wanted it all fast. I didn’t want to be making clumsy (and ugly) beginner pieces. I wanted to skip ahead and produce the kind of wonderful end products that the master weavers in the community were making. At the time I was so focussed on the final product that this stopped me from being able to learn.

On the flight home I thought about my week as a learner and what this might mean for teaching.

1. students often come to our courses with big, sometimes very skewed expectations about what they can achieve in a short period of time. We need to remind them of the time it takes to master an area and (in most cases) the extensive practice and experience required before they can work at a quality level. And that learning can be frustrating.

2. it sounds clichéd, but the learning journey is life-long. Our students need to know this and we need to find ways to communicate this in a compassionate way.

3. hanging onto unrealistic expectations might mean that students miss out on other stuff that’s important to learning. We can be so blinded by what it is we want, or what is it we want to be able to do that we miss opportunities to learn and to see things from a different perspective. In that learning blind spot there is often something really interesting waiting to be discovered.

What ultimately helped me through the week was the patience and compassion of the weaving teachers, women who have developed their skill and expertise from many, many hours of practice and effort. They patiently watched me fumble awkwardly through my beginning weaving moments and provided support and advice on how to approach the work in different ways. They didn’t expect me to be an expert in a week and they were able to communicate this with subtle words and gestures. Through this interaction I could see their compassion for the novice that I am. Their good humour also helped to lighten my mood and thankfully, towards the end of the week I was able to get some perspective. This, coupled with the supportive atmosphere generated by my fellow weaving students really worked in helping me see that a week is a very short time to master a skill which others have spent a lifetime practicing and perfecting. Sometimes, just being a student again for a brief time can help to remind us of how things like expectations can impact on the learning experience of our students. As an adult it’s also a humbling act to be a student again. And sometimes we all need a reminder of what if feels like to not know very much about something.

Encouraging student engagement – Think, Pair, Share

Post by: Shannon Sidaway
Shannon Sidaway is an associate lecturer in the School of Accounting. She commenced her academic career at RMIT University in January 2011. Prior to this, Shannon worked for a mid-tier accounting firm where she qualified as a Chartered Accountant. Highlights from Shannon’s first semester at RMIT University include presenting at a national research conference and a short teaching visit to Singapore.

Image courtesy ofHackNY

What is TPS?

Hint: It is not like GPS but if used correctly can provide some direction.

An awkward silence fills the room and student heads hang low in an attempt to avoid eye contact with me at all costs. I have put myself in quite the predicament once again and as a result, I am left “hanging”. It is my Wednesday afternoon tutorial class and I am trying to do all the right things. You see, this is my first semester as an accounting academic and part of what I have learnt so far is that it is important to gauge the class’ understanding of important concepts and that one should encourage an interactive learning environment. So this is why I asked the class “can anybody tell me the basic accounting equation?” and this is why an awkward silence has filled the room and this is why student heads are hanging low in an attempt to avoid eye contact with me at all costs.

Unsure how to remove myself from this predicament, I see two main exits, both flawed:

1. I answer the question myself and it goes something like “The basic accounting equation is that your assets equal your liabilities plus your owner’s equity”. Unfortunately, I have not gauged the class’ understanding of this important concept because I sense that the non-response from students was likely not due to a lack of understanding but more so a lack of desire to respond to the question.

2. I single out a student, prompt them to raise their head, look at me and ask them directly. With any luck their answer could go something like “ um well, ya know, like you got your assets right, well they are kinda like equal to ya liabilities plus ya owners equity”. On the other hand, their answer could go something like “…um…ah…I’m not really sure…I don’t know…sorry” and be accompanied by a nervous stutter, red cheeks and a wave of embarrassment.

I soon realise that I need a way to avoid this predicament while still gauging understanding and encouraging student interaction. As a new academic, I am currently completing my Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching and Learning, so I decided to discuss my dilemma with my teacher and class mates in the hope that they may be able to assist. From this discussion, I was introduced to a teaching tool called ‘Think, Pair, Share’ (TPS) and I wonder how in those early weeks of teaching I managed to get by without it.

There are a number of variations of TPS but generally it works like this:

Students are first given a problem or a series of questions and are asked to attempt the task on their own.
I have found that sometimes when students are immediately paired or grouped up, they tend to talk socially and not give sufficient consideration to the task. Asking students to first consider and attempt the task individually helps to overcome this.

Students are then asked to pair up with the person next to them to compare and discuss their answers.
By this stage, the student has already engaged with the task and is often keen to find out how their answer compares with their class mates. I have found that students use this time to actually discuss the task, rather than socially chat.
I usually use this time to roam around the room and see how students are progressing and provide assistance where necessary.

We discuss the task as a class and each pair is required to contribute something to the discussion.
I essentially break the task up into small pieces and go around the room asking each pair to contribute the next piece. Before doing this, I always let the class know that if they don’t know the answer then that is ok and that they have three choices; they can pass, they can guess, or if they think they know part of the answer, then they can share the part that they know.

I have found that very rarely do the students choose to ‘pass’ even with the tricky questions. I believe that this is for a number of reasons:

– The students feel more confident with their responses because they have discussed it with their class mates and so they are not alone.
– The classroom has become an interactive environment and students are happier to contribute when everyone else is.
– They have been told that it is OK if they do not know the answer so there is less pressure to get it right.
– If they are really unsure of the answer, they have had an opportunity during the ‘pair’ phase to seek assistance from me.

TPS can be used in so many ways to suit a variety of situations. In fact, I think sometimes we use TPS in our everyday lives without even realising it. Consider the approach I used to solve my teaching dilemma. Think: I first thought about the problem on my own and realised that I needed a way to avoid my predicament while still gauging understanding and encouraging interaction. Pair: I then discussed the problem with a small group of classmates to come up with a solution. Share: I am now using this blog as a means by which to share my experience with you all so if you ever find yourself in a classroom with an awkward silence and student heads hung low, you might consider using Think, Pair, Share.

engaging students with video

Post by Thembi Mason.

A little while ago I ran a workshop which was entitled ‘The learning of online learning’! Faced with such a large topic, I decided to ask everyone what they would like to focus on. It was amazing, I received a response via email from almost every participant – this was an enthusiastic group!

Responses were varied:

 What’s in it for the teacher?
 How can we find out if learning takes place in this [online] space?
 What are the pros and cons of the various online learning tools?
 What’s a simple and efficient way to get started with online learning to complement my face to face teaching?
 How can you use audio feedback on assessments?
 How do you create quiz/tests online and use the grade book?
 What is “best practice” for using blogs and wikis?
 How can you use Eluminate and YouTube/audio feedback and other ways to effectively teach online?
 Can I engage students in a “live” way where I can interact with students with some immediacy?

Obviously there was a lot to get through. We started looking at some of these questions but again, as always, when I showed this group how they might use video in their courses, that is when they came to life!

Why is video so engaging? Have you embedded video into your curriculum? It is so easy to do and it does seem to breathe life into a course for both teachers and students. It doesn’t really matter what your discipline is, you are bound to find a video you can embed from youTube/vimeo/Google videos etc into your course, and one that might even offer students a different perspective on a subject to yours. If you are worried that the information in the video is misleading, then you can capitalise on that too. Ask students if they have concerns about the approach or information conveyed in the video and to respond with how they might do it differently.

I explained to this group that videos are a valuable tool in learning and teaching. Rather than describing an industrial printing press, you can show students a video of someone walking around one, difficult theories or concepts can be connected to visuals in video and rather than asking students to respond to oftentimes dense journal articles or book chapters, asking them to respond to a video can sometimes elicit more responses. Indeed as entry points to these more difficult articles, videos can give students the prior knowledge to be able to connect to them. Students find videos engaging. Perhaps it is the visual, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook world they have grown up with but I must admit, I find video much more accessible than reading reports.

You can create your own videos too. You could use your phone or camera to do this or there is Desktop Personal Capture which allows you to record little snippets of video from your personal computer which you can top and tail and then send through to your course (basically a vlog)(via the Lectopia link). This is brilliant! You can catch key concepts or processes that students perhaps find difficult to understand on video and then students can watch them over and over to perfect a process or until they understand an idea.

But the best thing about video is that students can also search for them and author them too! Ask your students to find examples of videos on a particular issue, embed them into a blog or a wiki and share with the class. Ask students to comment on each other’s videos. Or set an assessment where a student needs to record a process, explain a concept or role play an activity. Most students have phones with video capabilities, and if not, student loans could be organised through your uni or school’s audiovisual team. Students can then upload the video to YouTube to process and reduce the file size. They can even create a private area on YouTube if they don’t want the rest of the world to access them. And then again, embedding them in a wiki or a blog allows them to share their video with you, their group or the whole class.

If you find the idea of using video in your teaching exciting, but are daunted by the “how to” – speak to you local IT or audiovisual staff – they can often show you the most efficient away to use new technology – as opposed to the time consuming trial and error method.

Below are some sample of the types of video readily available from YouTube that could enhance different classes:

Teaching strategy – Learning jigsaw
Statistics: Sample & Population
Organisational culture

RMIT University specific support:
For more information on how to embed a YouTube video in your myRMIT (Blackboard) course watch this.
Contact your College Academic Development team.
Try the audiovisual team in Building 8, level 7.
ITS workshops you can attend to learn more about myRMIT Studies (Blackboard).

Diving into the blogging pool – helping your students stay afloat

Guest post by Claire Beale.

Claire Beale teaches in the BA Textile Design program at RMIT, Melbourne. Claire’s not shy in using technology with her design students, so we asked her to write a post for the tomtom about what teachers should consider when trialling technology such as blogs in their teaching.

Thinking about using blogging or e-portfolios with your students? Feeling a bit unsure about taking the technological plunge? Wondering if it’s worth unleashing yet another outpouring of effusiveness onto an unsuspecting online world?

From my relatively recent experience with introducing e-portfolios and blogs into the BA Textile Design curriculum, I have come up with the following ‘words to the wise’ regarding the use of blogging, online learning and engagement with all the lovely things we aspire to in higher education – scaffolding, self directed, lifelong and creative thinking.

Online learning can be both exhilarating and exhausting, this is the stuff they don’t tell you:

It CAN be:
• a secure online environment for students to experiment – a sandpit
• dynamic, exciting, interactive and…. exhausting if you don’t set some guidelines and boundaries

but it ISN’T:
• a replacement for the learning management system or other static web 1.0 style info repositories
• time-saving – working with online environments such as blogging requires regular maintenance and attention

Before you leap in, it’s always good to test the waters. So, ask yourself the following questions:

• is this meaningful? – students must be able to engage with the process and see it as a meaningful activity linked to their professional development
• is it relevant to the practice of the discipline? – what do those in your discipline use blogs etc for? Are they used? Figure out how they may be used to enhance / advance your practice, and model that within your learning environment
• should they be embedded within, rather than bolted on? – like the preceding questions, this is really about ensuring you have thought about the use of online environments in a holistic manner. It’s not about adding a shiny new toy for its own sake (or because someone is ‘making you do it’), it’s about thinking of how and where these things fit within your overall curriculum structure.

OK, once you’ve covered that area, what next? Time to put on your floaties and take to the shallow end of the pool… like every new skill, it takes time to get it right.

It goes something like this:

1. introduce the tool and the thinking behind it to students in a supported, scaffolded manner – this may mean operating in a closed environment to allow for mistakes and other ‘exciting’ developments along the way, or by looking at case studies (e.g. blogs by others) to get a feel for how it is used and for what purpose.

2. encourage creative play – remember to allow space for students to drive discussion, experiment and explore the potential directions of the activity (you may be surprised where it leads to).

3. support the learning both within the traditional classroom and the online environment through a combination of learning activities – self directed and guided.

And if all else fails it’s amazing what you can find on the internet! But seriously, I can’t say that these notes are a failsafe, but they just may help you navigate your way into the bigger pond, and even enjoy the journey. And after all, isn’t that the whole reason why we do it?

Textile Design blogs of note (of course we have to plug our friends!):

Find our blog here.

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowksy, 2006

Clog – Craft Victoria’s blog

Beci Orpin

The Design Files

Cloth Fabric