The second stage of peer observations carried out within the FAB Project (Formative Assessment Benchmarking for Foreign Languages Learning & Teaching in Higher Education) took place at Turku University of Applied Sciences between December 27 and December 3, 2016. During this stage we visited ten classes (altogether – 22 hours of foreign language teaching and learning). We observed lessons of English, Swedish, German and Russian taught at levels A1 – B2, predominantly for specific (professional) purposes.
Foreign language classes at TUAS are taught in four campuses located in various areas of the city. The learning and teaching conditions are very good – the classrooms are spacious and equipped with the latest teaching aids.
The atmosphere in the classes which we observed was friendly. The teachers had a positive attitude toward students. They respected and fostered students’ autonomy. The students were conscientious, they willingly carried out tasks and diligently worked throughout the lesson. There was a general feeling of friendliness, without any signs of coercion or pressure. Students were not afraid to ask questions or ask for explanation. However, it was the teacher who played the central role in the classroom – through moderating the lesson, asking questions or reading instructions. Sometimes, failing to give students enough time, the teacher answered the questions himself/herself or read out assignments completed by students.
In our view, the week during which we were observing the classes had been selected rather inopportunely. It was the penultimate week of the semester, devoted to revision and end-of-the-semester assignments. To obtain course credits, students usually had to give individual or group presentations displayed through an OP. Sometimes they presented newspaper articles. This allowed us to observe the extent to which students had mastered the language. We were also able to have a closer look at the Finnish system of evaluation and obtaining credits. On the other hand, we did not get the opportunity (with some small exceptions) to observe typical foreign language classes with their natural dynamics, eg. the teacher-students interaction, work with various teaching materials (both original, and prepared) and with other teaching aids.
Examples of good practice
As for FA tools, we were mostly impressed by the quality of feedback. It was given in a natural and free manner and was consistent with all assumptions of formative approach. It was always detailed and focused on positive aspects of students’ oral performance. It emphasized everything that was positive in students’ speech and which was worth the praise. Not only did the teachers focus on language skills but also on metalinguistic aspects, such as enthusiasm, tone of voice, posture, etc. They also praised the technical side of students’ presentations – eg. interesting graphics or the overall visual effect. At the end of each appraisal session, the teacher drew attention to those areas of students’ performance which required improvement. This part of the appraisal was supported with specific details and examples noted down by the teacher when the presentations were being delivered. To make feedback even more effective, the teachers sometimes used Finnish (not English), depending on students’ proficiency. Other teachers sent detailed feedback via email or posted it on the Optima platform, used by all TUAS students and members of the staff. Sometimes teachers used an OP to display feedback comments and tips. The purpose was to prepare students for public speeches and to presentations given before larger audiences.
The students were encouraged to use peer assessment, to express their opinion after each presentation (they did this reluctantly, though), or to fill in special assessment sheets prepared by the teacher.
Another thing worth mentioning and disseminating was the practice of acquainting students with lesson- and semester plans. At the beginning of almost each class such schedules or plans were displayed on a screen along with teacher’s comments. This way students were regularly reminded of what they would be learning and what short- and long-term goals had been set by the teacher. With universal access to the Optima platform, students could follow the teaching and learning progress also outside the classroom and they could check what needed to be done for the subsequent class.
Another aspect worth noting was the role of the teacher in the classroom. The teachers were primarily moderators and facilitators, not mentors. ‘Getting out from behind the desk’ was taken seriously. More often than not, the teacher sat with students in the same bench and from there he/she facilitated learning. Instead of lecturing ex cathedra, the teacher made himself/herself a fellow participant, which fully corresponds with modern language teaching guidelines.
One of the most distinct things about TUAS was the great freedom and autonomy enjoyed by Finnish students. This did not, however, undermine the authority of the teacher. Students and teachers were respectful toward one another. Students were attentive to teacher’s instruction and willingly participated in activities. Similarly, presentations of other students were heard in full concentration and in an atmosphere of mutual kindness. The classroom culture was characterized by unforced discipline.
A big surprise for us was the dominant role of the mother tongue or the second language in the classroom. Out of all the lessons we observed there were only two which were (almost) fully conducted in the target language (ie. English classes taught at B2 level). In other cases mother tongue was used throughout 50-80% of the classroom time. From what we observed, the emphasis was on improving the comprehension of written and spoken language and on speaking skills – more on prepared presentations than on spontaneous speech. The lessons often lacked natural T-S or S-S interaction. Some speaking-related activities such as reading out the instructions or the text from the board were performed by the teacher, while oral participation of students was often reduced to simple utterances and single-sentence responses.
Teachers rarely wrote on the board. Most information – such as lesson- and semester plans or sentences to be translated or completed – was displayed through an OP. Students were not encouraged to write down at least some of this information. We are fully aware that in our modern world handwriting is on the wane. However, according to sensory integration theory, the use of handwriting in teaching can have some bearing on the speed and quality of language acquisition and therefore shouldn’t be completely abandoned.
In our view there was not enough emphasis on the consolidation of the presented material. A disproportionately large part of the classroom time was devoted to presentation of new material, to the detriment of reflection or production. This was probably due to the fact that students met quite rarely (as rarely as four times per semester) and the classes were quite long (lasting up to three hours). In such circumstances, if the teacher wants to achieve certain teaching outcomes, he/she has to relinquish certain forms of work with the student, eg. by shifting the emphasis from classroom work to individual work at home. In some cases the textbook was used as a source of individual work assigned to be done at home.
Our one-week stay at the University of Technology in Turku was undoubtedly a useful opportunity to exchange examples of good practice and to observe differences in the approach to teaching and to the student. These differences must have had cultural background but sometimes they probably arose from time constraints and other pedagogical challenges.
In a summary report one cannot avoid simplifications. Nevertheless, we would like to stress the fact that we were greatly impressed by the Finnish teachers. They were always enthusiastic, smiling and respectful toward the students. They recognized and shaped student independence and autonomy and were ready for the challenges of the ever-changing reality. We were equally impressed by the students, who were respectful toward themselves and their teachers, reliable, conscientious, hard-working, and had a mature attitude toward learning.
Language courses at TUAS are clearly geared toward learner needs. They focus on those areas of language which are needed in professional life (eg. language for business purposes, language courses for physiotherapists or engineers). The presentations that we observed so often in the course of our visit are an important part of language teaching for academic purposes. Their aim was to prepare course participants for taking up studies in a foreign language and for future careers in multilingual environments.
Prepared by Anna Sworowska and Magdalena Ziółek–Wojnar
Centre for Foreign Language Teaching, University of Warsaw