How do we assess English language competence?

Posted by: Barbara Morgan, Manager, Academic Literacies & Maths, Discipline Services, Study and Learning Centre, RMIT University.

Click on the image to open a new window to RMIT's Study and Learning Centre.

Click on the image to open a new window to RMIT’s Study and Learning Centre.

Lecturers often ask us what they can do to help their students improve their English. They face a growing number of students in their classes from a range of language and cultural backgrounds, prior education experiences and academic abilities who all want to succeed in their studies. It is not just in the classroom that lecturers articulate their fears as there is increasing concern about English proficiency across the sector in response to the recent inclusion of English language in the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) threshold standards.

At RMIT English language development is an important aspect of the ‘Work Ready’ graduate attribute.

The issue is how do we ensure that these crucial skills are developed over the course of a degree?  It seems that with increasing diversity we need to be even more explicit about what is expected and how to  go about it. The challenge for all tertiary institutions is that English language is developmental and context specific; university learning is a kind of apprenticeship into a discipline. This takes time.

So how do we overcome this barrier and teach this? One useful way is through the feedback we provide to students. Writing effective English language feedback for students can be challenging. Of interest to us all is that English language feedback is useful for all students and helps them to develop the capabilities required in their program.

For this purpose the Study and Learning Centre has developed a series of user friendly English language rubrics (for essays, reports, reflective journals, and oral presentations) to assist teachers to give practical feedback to their students on their English language and academic skills.

The rubrics aim to explicitly verbalise the implicit language and literacy requirements of assignment tasks. They do this through clear and simple explanations of the linguistic features of assignments and links to models on the Learning Lab. Staff can use the feedback provided in the rubrics to give students the specific advice they need to improve their language and literacy. Students highly value feedback from their teachers so we expect that use of the rubric could support positive GTS scores. Staff from the Study and Learning Centre are also available to directly work with you to customise the rubrics to suit your needs.

You can find the rubrics on the webpage English Language Development Project in the Teaching resources area of the RMIT staff webpage.  Please contact the Barbara Morgan at the Study and Learning Centre for more information (

Share your thoughts on the nature of feedback or English language competence in the comments section!

Global in outlook and competence?

Posted by: Meredith Seaman, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Meredith interviewed Dr Jose Roberto (Robbie) Guevara from the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies about his long experience running study tours with students from a range of disciplines and found a positive story about collaboration and deep learning.

RMIT has a commitment to offering students a ‘global passport’ seeking to develop in our students the necessary skills and knowledge to work around the globe. The

Dr Roberto Guevara. Click on the image to navigate to Robbie's staff page at RMIT.

Dr Roberto Guevara. Click to navigate to Robbie’s staff profile page at RMIT.

potential benefits of student study tours in this context might seem self-explanatory: they can broaden student outlook; enhance employment opportunities; and tie in powerfully with the RMIT Graduate Attribute of ‘Global in outlook and competence’. In order to understand a bit more though, I decided to interview a colleague with long experience running study tours. What I found was that overseas tours can also be an opportunity for students to own their own assessment and develop life-long learning skills.


The most recent tour Robbie led was to the Philippines in 2012 that was conducted together with partner institution Miriam College, to research and reflect on the links between women, migrant workers, and intenational justice issues. The 2012 tour was designed to coincide with the 2012 World Social Forum on Migration in Manila. Robbie has been involved in a number of study tours, taking Melbourne RMIT undergraduate and postgraduate students from a range of disciplines (including International Studies, International Development, Criminal Justice Administration, Social Work, and Environment and Urban Planning) to the Philippines. The tours also involve collaboration with staff members from this wide range of disciplines within the School, and in 2009 with the Ngarara Willim Centre. The 2009 tour included homestays with a local indigineous community; effectively ‘immersions’ in local culture and issues linked to community development.

Miriam College and RMIT students during their collaborative Study Tour in 2012.

Miriam College and RMIT students during their collaborative Study Tour in 2012.

Over time Robbie has developed a few key themes or principles in designing tours like this one. Given the financial and workload challenges in setting up a study tour (teaching can’t always neatly fit into 12 credit points) he mitigates this with what you might call a ‘bang for your buck’ approach. He looks for opportunities to collaborate with other disciplines areas working with existing university partner institutions to form staff-student partnerships that can begin well before the students leave for the tour and that can endure or develop after their return.

The underlying principle is that of reciprocity, where both institutions achieve positive long-term outcomes, such as when the collaborations foster benefits beyond the immediate tour. This might manifest as a stronger student exchange program or a cross-discipline research partnership.

However, in Robbie’s experience study tours can be more than just about achieving student learning goals or strengthening institutional partnerships. Given the focus on international community development issues, often there are other benefits that happen spontaneously. Past tours have resulted in direct benefits to overseas community groups. In 2009 students helped to establish a scholarship program to support teacher training development for the local indigenous community. This was the need identified by the students.

Student experience

During the study tour, students are encouraged to reflect on the links between the concepts studied and the lived experiences of the people they meet. The 2012 tour, provided the students with numerous opportunities to critically reflect on the experiences of the Filipino migrant women they met at the Forum and how these micro-experiences helped deepen their understanding of the concepts and drivers of mobility and displacement.  This balanced the more academic process of writing analytically on the subject. Hearing migration stories first hand, being exposed to their personal resilience, added complexity and depth to their thinking and writing. Given the nature of cross-cultural challenges (in personal and academic space), Robbie encourages students to read extensively and think about their preconceptions as part of the preparation before the study tour. Ongoing support is provided, but these real life challenges are better preparing students to develop in that dimension of a ‘global outlook’. Feedback from students highlights a confidence and willingness to work in cross-cultural settings upon completion of their degrees.


Students are actively involved in the assessment design and supported to develop their own personalised learning goals. This takes some courage on the part of both students and staff. Tasks include identifying a learning objective or research question informed by the literature but linked to their personal and/or disciplinary background. For example an undergraduate student in Social Work who is also a recent migrant to Australia would frame her learning objective differently to a postgraduate student in International Development with a background in accounting.  These personalised learning goals (with the students gathered into learning groups that are set up before the study tour) provide fertile opportunities for cross-disciplinary and context-based learning. This makes it necessary for students to keep a regular reflective journal that does not merely describe but critically reflects on their experiences. In 2012, each of the student groups conducted a formal presentation to staff and students of Miriam College, this provided an achievable and tangible outcome at the end of the study tour. The final piece of assessment involved a synthesis report that weaved the literature and the experiences of the student framed by their personal learning focus.

For Robbie, the depth of the assessment pieces submitted is striking because no two submissions are ever alike. In 2012, students prepared a portfolio of all their submissions (the learning focus question based on the literature, their journal entries and their synthesis report) to help them see their peers’ and their own learning journeys. Often students say that their learning focus questions have changed. By asking them to reflect and explain why their questions have changed, students are able to identify for themselves how the experiences have contributed to new ideas and have resulted in more relevant and focused questions. It’s a way for them to identify what new questions have come up by the end of the study tour which they then have to find answers to after a substantial time for reflection and additional research. This whole process is underpinned by ongoing discussions with the students at different stages of the study tour. The process highlights student ownership of the outcomes and over what they have learned.

Study tours may not have a place in every program or course, but for me this is a strong example of the assessment principle championed by David Boud, that ‘students themselves need to develop the capacity to make judgements about both their own work and that of others in order to become effective continuing learners and practitioners’.  It’s clear to me from my conversations with Robbie that it’s in these rich, self-directed scenarios that students really match  and usually exceed  what we as course designers and facilitators have designed for them.
Useful links:
Information on current Tours, Student Exchanges and Study Abroad opportunities at RMIT can be found here:
David Boud’s principles on Assessment Design, Assessment 2020: Seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education can be found through the OLT site here. :
Share your thoughts on the value of exchanges, study tours and student-derived learning outcomes in the comments below!


Clapping erasers in a digital age

Posted by: Jon Hurford, Senior Advisor, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

This week, instead of a post, let’s save time with a quick four question quiz on the Basics of Blackboard (or any LMS) that you can take in your head. Ready?

Too late! The F-shape of my text means you’ve already scanned the word ‘quiz’ and who can resist a quiz?

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A full copy of this handy matrix showing Bb tools against their pedagogical use and Bloom’s Taxonomy can be found in the resources section of RMIT’s Blackboard Interactive Tutorials.

Blackboard Basics Quiz

1) Do you use Blackboard to store and distribute course content? 

If you feel comfortable creating an item in Blackboard that holds course content (PowerPoint presentations, eReserve material, links to web resources, YouTube videos and e-books) you don’t have to read this week’s post as long as you answer the next three questions in the affirmative. This is like using Blackboard as a file cabinet.

2) Do you use Blackboard to communicate with students and enable them to communicate with each other? 

If you know how to use Blackboard to make announcements to all of the students enrolled in your course (or to groups within your course) and how to set up a discussion board where students can participate with you and with their peers about what they’re learning, you don’t have to read this week’s post as long as you answer the next two questions in the affirmative. This is like using Blackboard as a noticeboard.

3) Do you use Blackboard for any part of your assessment? 

If you use Blackboard for quizzes or the Turnitin function for e-submission of assignments you don’t have to read this week’s post as long as you answer the next question in the affirmative. This is like using Blackboard as a drop-box.

4) Do you manage the ‘look and feel’ of your shell and review your shell each time you run your course?

If you can alter the look of your shell and export items and content over to other shells and you answered in the affirmative to the three questions above you don’t have to read any further. You might like to visit RMIT’s Teaching with Technology page that I recommend at the end of the post though. This is like using Blackboard as your own online space or portal. 

For those of you who routinely do the four things above, you’ll probably be at the stage where you’re wrestling with some of Blackboard’s more advanced functions and you’re probably moving towards the model of a flipped classroom or wholly online delivery. Or you at least know how you could go down those paths.

The skills in the list above are what I think we could call a minimum set for RMIT teachers and trainers. If you’re still reading this and don’t have these skills I want to assure you that you could gain them from scratch in just a few hours. RMIT staff could start with the DevelopMe training (Blackboard Essentials) and in the College of Design and Social Context your Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching would be able to assist you with the basics and help you with implementing the right tool for what you want to achieve. The great thing about the DevelopMe training sessions is that you can bring along your own content and build your shell with the materials you will use in your course.

If you’d prefer to figure this sort of thing out by yourself has an in-depth tutorial, Blackboard 9.x Essential Training for Instructorswhich is divided into subheadings and fully captioned and RMIT has Interactive Tutorials on Blackboard. These are screencasts that show you exactly what, for instance, embedding a YouTube video looks like in the myRMIT environment. You are asked to point and click along with the video so that you’re doing exactly what you would be doing in your own shell.

It’s always a risk in talking about educational technology that we overlook the rationale behind the use of these tools. So for the remainder of the post I want to concentrate on each of those four metaphorical functions (file cabinetnoticeboarddrop-boxportal). I want to explain the benefits that they offer to students and staff in boosting student engagement with your course or in simply saving you time.

File cabinet

Uploading your course materials online does involve time and preparation but it’s a clear winner in terms of what it provides both you and your students. A course logically arranged can put an end to handouts and printed materials for starters. You can have texts that students can access at any time, often in a format of their choice. Students can go through materials (or support/extension materials) at their own pace (or multiple times) and can get an idea of the scope of your course. You can see how the metaphor of the file cabinet begins to strain as a Blackboard shell might have a huge amount of resources (documents, images, links to resources). So as well as orientation materials and Frequently Asked Questions about a course that a late enrolled student can access, you might also have a documentary (that in the past would have been put on closed reserve or shown in class) which is viewed by students outside of class or e-books that students can read on their tablets.


In Blackboard you can email announcements to the entire enrolled set of students that are then posted to the homepage of the course.  Simple, but effective. You can put links in your announcements that take students straight to the content you want them to interact with. For instance, you might remind them of the upcoming assignment and link to a recording where you have gone through what the task requirements are or a video where you discuss a model answer. Blackboard’s discussion boards also make peer-to-peer communication possible. It’s likely that you’ll have to lead the way for a while in these discussions, and Blackboard gives you a lot of options regarding the moderation of posts, but many lecturers have reported genuine ‘social learning’ taking place in their courses using discussion boards and some assess that participation.


The advantages of using the Turnitin function in Blackboard (which comes with a full coversheet and generates a student preview and receipt) is something I’ve seen a quite few lecturers really embrace. As well as taking the load off professional staff and closing some of the ‘leaks’ of paper submission, the electronic submission in Blackboard is as simple as addressing an email for the students and provides a lot of benefits to the tutors and lecturers who grade and give feedback on these submissions.


This last one really ties most of the points above together. It’s interesting that the word portal goes back to the French and Latin words for gate and that we also think of portals connecting us to other lands or dimensions. In a sense, the ‘open web’  is that other land— it looms in all of our lives in the form of social networks, MOOCS, or whatever the web generates that seems more compelling than the window we have open at the moment.

For our students (as for all of us) this is only ever a click away. The challenge is to make a space on the web for your course that has that kind of life. It will be difficult to foster that life if you’re not an active participant in your own discussion boards or if you haven’t welcomed your students to your course or if you haven’t put contact details on your page.

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Click here to open a new window to the Teaching with Technology pages at RMIT

There are many tools that are easier and slicker than Blackboard. Take a look at for examples of how the start of the year at RMIT looks through the lens of a tool like Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram. You should get some ideas about how you could use these tools with your class.

But none of these are as powerful as Blackboard. A Blackboard shell can really be your curated space on the web. Yes, it is constrained to a set of enrolled users and therefore quite unlike the ‘open web’ or social media platforms, but there are advantages in those constraints — a point I’ll take up in a future post on the use of Facebook and other applications.

I can assure you that the skills you learn in dealing with Blackboard are valuable in themselves and are transferable to other platforms. Your skill at managing this particular ‘gated space’ can also make you think more deeply about the structure of your course; about what you offer your students in terms of resources.  It should make you think about how you communicate with your students and how you can encourage them to communicate with each other. In short, these are some of the new core of skills for the 21st century educator. Ideally they can extend our reach and enhance our proficiency to facilitate learning.

I’ve only touched on a small part of Blackboard’s functionality. I’ve avoided entirely the metaphor of ‘the blackboard’ itself: the tools in Blackboard which allow you to present material — that too will have to wait for another post. My title is also misleading. I needed a blackboard reference. But I will hint that just like physical blackboards, there are fiddly little administrative tasks that simply can’t be avoided and that trial runs are a must for most of Blackboard’s advanced features. ‘Blackboard’s chalk dust’ could be a whole other post.

In closing I will mention the great resources on RMIT’s Teaching with Technology page which provides good practice guides to the many supported tools in place here at RMIT.

Share your thoughts on Blackboard! We’d love to hear them in the comments section below!