FAB – Formative Assessment Benchmarking for Foreign Language Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
13 April 2017
Report on peer observations in Pécs, Hungary, in March 2017
Sari Loppela-Rauha & Ann-Katrin Tyni-Nummelin, Turku University of Applied Sciences
A week of opportunities for peer observation of language teaching was organized by the University of Pécs, Hungary, from March 20 to March 24, 2017 as part of the FAB project (Formative Assessment Benchmarking for Foreign Language Learning & Teaching in Higher Education). Teachers from Lithuania, Poland and Finland participated in the observations.
In the Hungarian system, general language teaching in higher education is not supported by the government. The assumption is that students have acquired a high level of mastery (B2) in a foreign language by the time they leave secondary school; this is because the number of hours spent studying languages during the public education years is quite high. Thus, only languages for specific purposes are taught at universities, and students are expected to take an accredited test to show possession of level B2 skills in a foreign language before they can take a degree. This in turn has resulted in a situation where numerous students are left without a degree because, contrary to expectations, they are unable to reach level B2. Against this background, it is understandable that language testing seems to play a fairly significant role in the system, much more so than in Finland. The topic of testing came up several times in discussions with the individual teachers, and during some of the lessons observed, the teacher stressed certain points to the students with the motivation that it was something they needed to remember for their test.
The learning environment & classes observed
The university campuses are scattered around the city but commuting by bus or on foot in Pécs is quite easy. The Finnish observers took part in classes arranged in the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Engineering, and additionally, at the International Studies Centre. Most of the lessons (8) we observed were English at levels B1 to C1; in addition, one B2 French class and one B2 German class were observed. The rooms used for teaching were mainly quite small and not furnished in a very flexible manner, i.e. the desks and chairs were either stationarily installed or else just too heavy to move around, which probably partly explains why we saw no use made of pedagogical methods where students change pairs or group formations during the lesson. Little use was made of computers in class but we did learn that several teachers had some type of materials on online platforms (e.g., Viber, Quizlet, Facebook) and that the students knew how to access them. One of the classrooms seen was equipped with laptops for students but they were not used during the lesson observed. Nor did we see many students working with their own mobile devices in class – our guess is that they not considered good conduct by some teachers.
The following general observations were made about teaching and learning:
- all the observed teachers were highly skilled language enthusiasts
- all student groups were well behaved and seemed quite motivated to learn
- compared to Finnish circumstances, most groups were quite small, which would seem to provide a really good opportunity to develop communicative mastery
- the atmosphere was generally quite friendly; however, the most informal and relaxed atmosphere – the most humour – was perhaps observed in the international groups with students from varied backgrounds
- languages are taught skill by skill, i.e., classes are either about speaking or about reading and writing (this makes sense from the testing preparation point of view but we are not sure it promotes communicative competence in the best possible manner)
- the teachers work very hard since most of the work in the classroom is teacher-led, meaning that the teacher talks a lot while students mainly just participate when asked a question by the teacher
- a lot of printing or photocopying is done by many teachers; during one lesson, as many as six different handouts were provided, most of them several pages long
- the board was not used much by any of the teachers observed, which left us wondering whether all the students really could catch all the spoken answers and whether they all were good at spelling
- the pedagogical approaches observed leaned quite heavily on traditional textbooks or textbook-like tasks – fill-in-the-gaps was quite a popular form of exercise, and
- lexical mastery was heavily stressed, which may of course be partly due to the language for specific purposes approach.
The best teaching practices observed included
- encouraging students to contribute with what they know form their own cultures (international group), e.g. How is healthcare arranged in Nigeria/China/…? Language learning is efficient when students get to speak about content they are familiar with and where some emotions come into play, too.
- in the writing class, tasks concerning the possible concluding sentence/topic sentence of a paragraph were useful as such tasks make the students think, and thinking equals learning
- asking students to formulate definitions
- using Edraw or similar program to visualise the content of a short story/novel/some other text for the students (Maybe the teacher could even ask the students to do the drawing, instead of doing all the work herself?)
- debate; encouraging students to formulate their own sentences instead of putting words in their mouths; to express an opinion is to really use language, and not just imitate or repeat; thinking is key
- in a terminology class, using the terminology studied to give a presentation or the like, instead of just filling in gaps
- using word fields when discussing terminology
- picture talks, “tell a story about the photograph”
- discussing phrases, idioms, Redewendungen and thereby expanding the students’ understanding of the non-literal meaning; many cultural issues and historical facts are related to the phrases, too; and
- humour, always important.
All the observed teachers gave instant positive feedback for correct answers (Ja, sehr gut, genau; Brilliant, excellent; Voilà, très bien; etc). There was little focus on mistakes, which we felt was positive; one teacher was especially skilled at rephrasing and clarifying slightly erroneous answers without stressing the fact that there was a mistake somewhere. Peer student feedback was not exploited during the lessons we observed but it was not possible to get a grasp of, e.g., what the students do online. A couple of the teachers observed kept giving feedback that was motivated by how the student would fare in the impending test if he or she did or did not remember something. This, we feel, does perhaps not foster communicative mastery in the best possible manner.
All in all, we found the week in Pécs most illuminating as regards the Hungarian system of language teaching. Many highly skilled teachers were observed, and it was realized that many of the differences in language teaching practices are due to historical reasons and constraints built into the education system in the country. In general, we feel that the Finnish language teaching approach focuses more on student/student interaction while the Hungarian system stands on pillars formed by teacher/student interaction, and Finns stress communicative aspects while Hungarians like to be precise with their terminology. In an ideal world, a mix of both would perhaps be applied.
Also, it needs to be said the university city of Pécs is well worth a visit for all its beauty and cultural and historical sights. The Hungarian team is much appreciated for their hospitality.