FAB – Formative Assessment Benchmarking for Foreign Language Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
Peer observation in Kaunas, Lithuania 2017
I was one of the teachers from Pécs University, Hungary) observing classes at the university in Kaunas (Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas Kaune, Lietuvoje). My visit took place from 20th to 25th February in 2017.
The idea of formative assessment, which is in the focus of Formative Assessment Benchmarking project (FAB), was completely new to me. During my teacher training studies rather the method of language teaching was the core idea of foreign language teaching. Now as we might see from the questions FAB project rises there might have been a shift toward the role of assessment n language teaching.
Prior to my visit in Lithuania I was curious about two particular fields: 1) what alternations in the classroom activities in the context of higher education we may experience as a result of the above change in assessment practice (from former rather summative to formative evaluation) 2) as I teach Hungarian as a foreign language which has an exceptionally extensive morphology I intended to see the way grammar is put forward and practised in Kaunas, and how teaching of foreign languages’ grammar is related to formative assessment.
In Kaunas I could observe classes of the following languages:
- Latin (for beginners)
- English (at level B1, B2 and C1)
- German (at level A2, B1)
- Russian (at level B2).
Language teachers in universities and colleges are all familiar with the problem how hard it is to facilitate adult learners’ oral performance. Adults, even young adults compared to younger learners might be less willing to make an attempt to speak in fear of producing inadequate utterances. Not to mention the burden of speaking a dead language such as Latin. But even in the case of English certain unwillingness may be the case. Especially if some of the luckier students in a group could pick up English elsewhere other than the classroom (as it was in a couple of B2 or C1 level English classes in Kaunas), and their proficient oral performance was challenging for other learners less talkative. Given these circumstances the way of assessment of the individual performances, how learners’ individual achievement was treated was a key question.
In the foreign language classes I visited the instructors were trying to apply activities that enhance willingness of students’ to speak in the target language, also along some techniques of formative assessment. The majority of the teachers recognized the value of less frontal, less instructor-centred activities such as group work or pair work as potentially effective ways to motivate learners in terms of individual speech and facilitate their overall oral skills. When learners were introduced some new material or they were expected to familiarise themselves with new patterns, learners were expected to participate in activities in which they had to play a role, perform a dialogue, discuss a problem, carry out a situation with their partners in groups or pairs. However, to my utter surprise despite teachers’ effort in most cases feedback on students’ oral performance was either missing or the assessment still remained fairly frontal and less personalized than it should have been. I could realize in Kaunas that higher education academic practices still steadily rely on past traditions. Unfortunately frontal assessment seemed to be too general and vague, and thus less elaborated and less efficient.
I guess in order to make the assessment meet students’ individual differences, teachers should go around in the classroom (yes, stand up and go around), eavesdrop pair work and group activities, listen to how the activity is carried out, how fluent each performance was, how sufficient, progressive the task realization could become, what was really positive in each individual performance (and finally, of course, what typical mistakes were made.). If formative assessment is a sort of pioneering way of evaluation for teachers, so is it for the learners.
What is really tough, teachers ought to have instructed peers to help one another, encourage them to observe and learn useful phrases used by the partner (which might as well be pinpointed at by the teacher for the sake of progress), copy proper intonation or pronunciation from their companions. This role of the teacher is a real must in groups where there are huge differences in learners’ foreign language competences as it was in Kaunas in some English classes. Otherwise we cannot be sure that the learners are doing what they are expected to do. If pair work or group work is applied, first and foremost students have to be able to learn from their partners during the class. It is not an intrinsic knowledge of students to be able to get rid their less efficient formulation, and acquire the partner’s more proficient performance. The instructor’s role is to make them aware of what to copy, how to opt for previously heard good examples of individual performance. On the other hand, these observations made by the instructor while walking around in the classroom may help the teacher, too, provide a detailed and fundamentally personalized and relevant feedback for the learners in order to improve their performance. I am convinced that for an effective, formative feedback even the teacher’s positive opinion should be elaborated: in what sense was something really good and what needs improvement. This may develop self-confidence in learners. I think directly negative remarks should be avoided, and even inadequate utterances or mistakes should be treated as sources of further clarifications, explanations as I could see nice, bright examples of it in the German classes in Kaunas.
The major aim during communication classes is to make students use the target language through well-designed, clearly introduced tasks, supportive and improving comments by the teacher. No classroom work is acceptable without controlling and promoting the learners’ performance just because pair work or group work was applied during the class.
As for teaching grammar, I could see a real so called good practice in Kaunas university. Teachers in Kaunas are offered a a Moodle-day (Wednesday) when they have no classes but work on developing and checking blended learning material with the Moodle software. As one of the teachers noted “In the beginning it was hard to picture us having such a technical commitment that Moodle requires from foreign language teachers. Now we cannot picture ourselves working without Moodle.”
Drills exercises, tasks (let it be grammar or vocabulary building) are either integrated into classroom activities or meant to be homework to facilitate learners’ individual progress. Due to the information technology background offered by this software the instructor can assist the students in acquiring structures, vocabulary items, skills, strategies through practising the targeted linguistic areas. Meanwhile (s)he can also check and control the learners’ progress, problems as it is displayed by the software: how well, quickly, efficiently the student reached the goal of the task. Both the teacher and the student has a possibility to work on the problem in an individuated way, as the assessment is individuated and personalized as well. It may take a lot of time for the teacher to work on the learners competence (grammatical, lexical etc.) on these manifold channels of Moodle, but the Moodle-day without contact classes ensures the time for the teacher to elaborate on personal mistakes, fossilized error to accelerate the student’s progress.
I consider this practise a fascinating and effective way of language teaching, and I would welcome it as a promising change in the Hungarian higher education too. Not to mention all the IT equipment needed to use Moodle in each and every classroom. I guess the application of Moodle worth the time and money, a good investment in our digital age.