FAB – Formative Assessment Benchmarking for Foreign Language Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
From February 19 to February 25, 2017 – during the third series of peer observations organized within the FAB project (Formative Assessment Benchmarking for Foreign Language Learning & Teaching in Higher Education) – Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania hosted a visit of foreign language teachers form Finland, Hungary and Poland.
We observed 12 foreign language classes, including lessons of English, German, Russian, Norwegian, Italian, Spanish, Korean and Japanese ranging from A1 to C1/C2 CEFR level.
On Wednesday, being at VMU the day without foreign language classes, the authorities of the Centre for Foreign Language Teaching at VMU organized a seminar for the foreign observers, at which Vilma Bijeikienė, Ph.D and Professor Nemira Mačianskienė elaborated on the foreign language provision policy at VMU, the structure and functioning of the Centre for Foreign Language Teaching as well as the offer of foreign language classes. Moreover, the presenters provided an overview of the Centre‘s history, focusing on the changes in its structure and activities, as well as the challenges that the Centre‘s auhorities are currently confonted with. Furthermore, some plans for the coming future, including publishing of a scientific journal, organizing a conference in May 2017 as well as participating in peer observations in Pecz and the FAB Conference in Warsaw were discussed. The guests asked questions concerning foreign language testing and factors influencing the offer of foreign languages at VMU as well as the position of the Centre for Foreign Language Teaching in the University‘s structure.
The VMU’s foreign language provision policy is cohesive and transparent. The Centre’s authorities have a clear vision of its development, much emphasis has been put on quality assurance, modern and attractive offer of foreign languages.
Foreign language classes are usually held before noon, which is taken into account by the VMU’s authorities when timetables at different faculties are arranged. The classes in question last only 45 minutes and are therefore intensive, interesting and dynamic. On average, there are not many students in the language groups (5-10 persons), however in some cases more than 20 students are enrolled on the course. Teachers start and finish their classes on time, and every single minute of the lesson is used for effective foreign language learning and teaching. At the end of each class students are given detailed information about homework assignments.
Foreign language classes provided by the Centre for Foreign Language Teaching at VMU are held in a few buildings, in close proximity to one another, located in the city centre. Most of them are brand new or renovated and the classrooms are equipped with computers, multimedia projectors and screens. In the most modern building, located at Putvinskio Street, there are interactive boards in the classrooms. On a regular basis teachers use electronic devices and wireless internet connection. Both teachers and students access Moodle platform where materials covered in class, homework assignments and additional tasks can be found. At the seminar, the Centre’s authorities and teachers emphasized that they cannot imagine effective teaching and learning without resorting to Moodle.
The teachers show much enthusiasm and commitment to their work, which translates into students’ satisfaction and active participation in the classes. Furthermore, the teachers assume a creative approach towards teaching, they are always student-oriented and act as participants of the didactic process, rendering assistance if necessary as facilitators and mentors. Lithuanian, being the mother tongue, is practically non-existent in the classes. It is either the taught language or English. The latter is used as the language of instruction due to the significant number of foreign students studying at VMU and learning different foreign languages. The topics tackled in class are up-to-date and activities/tasks performed by the students resemble those undertaken in real life.
Formative assessment in the classroom
Formative assessment techniques were used spontaneously several times in the observed classes. It is noteworthy that presentation of lesson plan and objectives was an obligatory part of all observed classes. Even though they lasted only 45 minutes, the teachers never skipped that lesson part. Most emphasis was put on speaking skills. The students were encouraged to practise speaking, language mistakes were treated as part and parcel of the learning process, students felt motivated and not inhibited to express their opinions verbally in a foreign language. A very friendly atmosphere prevailed in all the classes.
Examples of good practice
- Consistent presentation of lesson plan and objectives
- self-assessment (English language lesson, C1 CEFR, Daiva Pundziuviene) – the following three statements were written on board:
- I understand the skill and can explain it to others
- I understand the skill with some help
- I do not understand the skill yet
When leaving the classroom, students were required to put a tick next to the statement that best described their level of familiarity with the covered material.
- pair-assessment and self-assessment (lesson of Norwegian, A2, Jolita Ančlauskaite) – a short test on saying dates, once it was marked in pairs, those who gained more than 50% of the correct answers made a thumbs-up gesture whereas those having less than half of the correct answers made a thumbs-down gesture.
- using Kahoot! learning platform when teaching new vocabulary (lesson of English, B2, Ausra Jankauskaite). Students used their smartphones to do an interactive quiz that checked vocabulary related to public transportation.
- Describing a family using either family photos or drawings made by students (lesson of Japanese, A1, Simona Vasilevskyte). This well-known activity is emotionally involving and bears much resemblance to authentic, real-life situations.
- Feedback – (lesson of English, B1, teacher Lina Zutkiene) students were required to read at home a book in English. In class, they tell their classmates about the book. The teacher listens to students’ stories and
- Creating a friendly atmosphere:
- lesson of Spanish (Rima Sabaliauskiene) – Spanish music is played during lesson breaks; lesson of Italian (Stefano Lanza); the teacher plays the piano and sings Italian songs during the break preceding the class, the students accompany him. It is an intro into the lesson itself, which not immerses students in the Italian culture, but also puts them at ease and disperses good mood.
- the arrangement of desks/lecture chairs facilitates group/pairwork and enables teachers to easily approach students in order to monitor their work.
Foreign language lessons at VMU in Kaunas are conducted in a modern, effective and professional manner. The teachers apply modern techniques, including those based on formative assessment. The teachers are allowed a lot of leeway in terms of syllabus design, selection of teaching aids and methods. Most emphasis has been put on improving speaking skills, even at initial levels. The relationship between students and teachers is respectful and friendly. The atmosphere in the classrooms is relaxed, both teachers and students are committed to teaching and learning.
University of Warsaw