FAB – Formative Assessment Benchmarking for Foreign Language Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
The FAB observation week reported on in the present document was organised as part of the Erasmus + Strategic Partnership Project, focusing on Formative Assessment Benchmarking for Foreign Language Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.
The context of observation
The observation took place at Turku University (Finland) on three campuses: Lemminkäisenkatu, Sepänkatu and Joukahaisenkatu between 28 November-3 December 2016. The lessons observed were frequently followed up by professional discussions between the observed teachers and the observers, or among observers themselves.
I observed altogether 15 English as a Foreign Language (EFL), all focusing on developing students’ foreign language communication skills in general, and their professional language skills (e.g., nursing, information technology, business meetings) in particular.
Student target groups observed were generally on B2 level, with obvious variation in terms of individual differences such as motivation, background knowledge and personality traits, but also in terms of language proficiency when it came to fluency, pronunciation and communicative skills.
I observed eight EFL teachers, thus getting insights into a wide variety of practices and occasionally, beliefs about teaching and learning.
I found the observation project valuable for my own, and most probably for all the other observers’ professional development partly because the lessons we observed provided examples of good practice and opportunities to reflect on our own teaching in similar contexts. On the other hand, the FAB observation week spent in Turku gave us the chance to engage in a professional discourse and to develop a basis for long-term networking.
In order to illustrate the benefits of the project I provide concrete examples from the observation data. The examples that follow aim to give insights into classroom processes, in particular teaching strategies, as well as into the observed teachers’ implicit and expressed beliefs about teaching and learning.
Examples of good practice: Teaching techniques and strategies worth disseminating
Integrating Content and Language (CLIL)
Partly due to the context of observation (i.e. technical university, where students studied subjects other than English as their main area of study), but surely also due to teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning, students’ language development was always embedded into meaningful contexts related to their professional backgrounds (e.g., business communication, nursing, information technology). Integrating language and content had the benefit of providing a meaningful frame even for students whose English needed more scaffolding; besides, it focused on students’ developing professional language in their areas of study.
I also need to point out here that some of the teachers relied on authentic materials in their classes and that most of them encouraged students to rely on authentic sources in developing their content and language knowledge.
Providing appropriate pedagogical and language scaffolding
Teachers were often observed to link new language and skill development with students’ background knowledge. Personal examples were provided and students were challenged to make these links themselves (e.g. in Poppy Skarli’s lessons), as well as to extend their newly gained language and content knowledge (e.g., in the area of business meetings: compiling minutes) to authentic contexts. A similar example was encountered in Pirjo Kavender’s lesson when students were invited to carry on a business conversation on their mobile phones in different parts of the university building, thus, without seeing each other. This task approximated an authentic communicative situation, while it offered appropriate pedagogical scaffolding. The students were also asked to reflect on their experiences, which is a crucial step in creating awareness and responsibility for learning (as discussed below).
Another frequently observed scaffolding technique referred to the way treated students’ language mistakes. Teachers were found to apply indirect error correction, extending students’ statements and providing correct meaningful input rather than correcting them in explicit ways. This was a clearly observable pattern in the way teachers applied formative assessment in their classes (e.g., by Marjo Joshi, Helli Söderlund).
Learner autonomy and responsibility
Creating opportunities for developing learner autonomy is crucial in developing conscious and life-long learners. The observed teachers made obvious efforts to make their students aware of their short- and long-term aims with the tasks they were involved in. I observed four important and repeatedly used teaching strategies in this sense.
(1)First, teachers clearly set the agenda at the beginning of each session: students were explicitly told about the aims of the lesson and the tasks they were going to do in that particular lesson.
(2)The second teaching strategy was students’ frequent involvement in group work where, as observed, they completed the tasks while using English.
(3) Another consciously applied strategy that aimed to develop learners’ autonomy in the long run related to teachers’ questioning skills (e.g., in Marjatta Rannali’s case). Some of the teachers observed asked genuine content-related questions which, if systematically used, are sure to develop students’ critical thinking.
(4)The fourth teaching strategy meant to develop learner autonomy was students’ ongoing involvement in reflection on classroom processes. Students were asked to comment on various aspects of classroom processes, e.g. benefits and difficulties of the tasks they had carried out, task management, and language-related issues. I particularly liked some of the observed teachers’ focus on the process, rather than on the product of learning. I have found teachers’ formative perspective, their focus on assessment for learning crucial for scaffolding learner development in the long run. Linked to this issue, some of the teachers were found to provide learner training tips when it came to using cognitive, metacognitive, social and affective strategies.
The role of feedback
It was good to see that all the teachers provided feedback to students in a positive frame: they praised whatever could be praised and then turned to areas to develop. Most of them also gave detailed and specific feedback to students’ presentation and student talk in general. Good examples in this sense were techniques observed in Sari Loppela-Rauha’s lessons, whose feedback was both positively framed, yet critical and opening up spaces for learning. I found this important, as providing specific and personalised feedback is identified as crucial by the literature when it comes to developing students’ proficiency in language as well as in other skills.
All in all, the FAB observation week in Turku was a genuine professional and personal experience. It allowed me insights into classroom processes that developed students’ content and language knowledge alike. It also gave me the opportunity to revise some of my own ideas about teaching and learning, which are obviously rooted in a different educational landscape, and which, despite ongoing reflection, tend to change only very slowly. Finally, during this week I got to know motivated professionals who were ready to share not only their professional expertise, but also their beliefs and challenges in connection with their own profession and teaching context.
Réka Lugossy, PhD
Associate Professor, University of Pécs, Hungary, Department of English Applied Linguistics
ERASMUS+ STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP
FAB – FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT BENCHMARKING FOR FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING&TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION, 2015-1-PL01-KA203-016474
Report on the peer observations in Turku
The observations took place between 28th November and 3rd December 2016. There were two teachers from the University of Pécs, Dr. Réka Lugossy, Assistant Professor, Department of English Applied Linguistics, and myself, Robert Märcz teacher of history and English, test developer for ECL Examinations.
I observed fifteen 90-minute classes during the week. They were, without exception, English language classes on level B2.
Different emphasis in language teaching
There is a basic difference regarding the emphasis placed on language education – and on education, in general – in Finland and in Hungary. In the framework of Hungarian state education one may receive about 980 language lessons throughout his primary and secondary school studies. As a result only those may enter higher education who passes an externally validated language exam on level B2 – or passes the language exam component (also B2 level) of the school leaving examination at the end of secondary school. Possessing a language certificate is also required to be able to graduate at any Hungarian institute of higher education. However, once someone has a successful language exam, she does not really use the language any more. According to Eurobarometer, Hungary has one of the lowest percentage of people being able to speak foreign languages.
In Finland having a language certificate is only required in the case of the Swedish language and only if someone becomes a public servant. It is not a necessary requirement to get a degree in a higher education institution. At the same time, however, 47% of the population speak at least one foreign language.
It seems that there is an obvious difference in emphasis: in Hungary the certificate has priority, while in Finland it is the ability to use the language which seems more important.
As a consequence of the diverging emphasis described above Finish language education is more hands-on, it is more practical, and the methodology applied by the teachers also serves this purpose. The lessons I observed had a more liberal atmosphere and it was obvious that students were used to working and studying this way. The teacher often acted more as a coach than a teacher, setting the tasks, creating the framework for studying and letting students work on their own. Obviously in such a context there is more room to use the tools of formative assessment: pair work and group work, peer assessment, students taking responsibility for their studies. This phenomenon was strengthened by the use of the OPTIMA platform which every student had the access to. The problem, though, with such an learning/teaching methodology is that there is a fine line between being productive and being laissez-faire.
On the basis of the above I cannot single out any particular best practices. The best practice to me was that visible difference in the approach to teaching that I observed in Turku. Students were placed into a situation where they had to take responsibility for their studies. The peer-assessment and self-assessment activities form an integral part of the curriculum they use. The general context – both in education and pubic life – surrounding them encourages students (to want) to use the language. Although all of the classes I visited were on level B2, there were considerable differences regarding the level of knowledge of the students in the different courses. In courses like Intercultural Communication for Global Work student had a higher command of English than students taking part in an English for specific purposes course, which reflects the practical approach of this kind of language education.
University of Pécs, Hungary
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