Sian Wells (BA French and Italian) and Sophia Acton (BA Italian and Spanish)
During the Spring and Summer term of 2019, we participated in a project within the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies (MLES, now Department of Languages and Cultures) with the aim of redesigning the marking schemes used for oral and written pieces of work. This was a follow-up to a 2016 project by Rita Balestrini, which aimed to improve the process of assessing foreign language skills within the department. As we had both taken part in the focus groups in our second year, we were asked to take part in the follow-up project and work alongside Rita Balestrini and her colleague Elisabeth Koenigshofer to improve the rubrics currently used in the department.
This project was influenced by Complexity Theory in the context of Second Language Development. Before the project started, we as students were not aware of research into Second Language Learning and research into the effectiveness of marking schemes. At the beginning of the project we were provided with reading material to gain a better understanding of the science and theory behind the project. We did find the reading quite difficult initially but it became clearer how second language development is a complex process which involves a number of interacting factors. Diane Larson-Freeman, a leading researcher into Complexity Theory defines the process as ‘a complex nonlinear system’ (1997), by which language learners do not simply master one item and then move on to another. Instead, they acquire the second language at different rates: some grammatical structures will be consolidated early on whilst others will take longer to master, and “mistakes” will still occur at all levels (Larson-Freeman, 1997). Thus, feedback becomes an integral part of the learning process. Effective feedback will eventually help learners to reach a high level of proficiency. There are many aspects involved in the process of Second Language Learning, for example the source language and the target language with their respective components (eg. phonology, morphology, lexicon, syntax, semantics and pragmatics); the amount and type of input, interaction, and of feedback (Larson-Freeman, 1997). This complexity raises the question of how to effectively evaluate Second Language Learning. Some research has found that rubrics are not very useful for measuring and evaluating objectively complex processes like Second Language Development. They do not acknowledge setbacks which are part of the learning process and cannot account for the effort put in by the student. This is a problem which also emerged from the analysis of focus group discussions.
Working with our lecturers was a very positive experience because we were able to contribute ideas to the project. We came up with examples of new descriptors and we hope our collaborative effort has produced new rubrics which will support better the process of language learning in the DLC. Being students, it meant that we could provide a unique insight because we have used the marking schemes throughout our four years of studying in the department. We could use our own experience to improve the experience of future students. We also realised how difficult it is to effectively evaluate the learning of a language from the perspective of a lecturer, as there are so many components that go into one single piece of work and also because language tasks can vary enormously, from writing a recipe to writing an essay. The difficulties of creating a marking scheme, which adequately evaluate the level of a student in all pieces of work, became apparent to us. One of the hardest parts of the project was coming up with new descriptors for each grade boundary. Based on the analysis of focus group discussions and on research on the use of rubrics, descriptors should avoid evaluative language and be encouraging for students, both, for those getting lower grades and needing to improve, and those achieving higher grades and wanting to continue to improve. Firstly, Sophia and I were given time to come up with our own new descriptors which we then shared with Rita and Elisabeth. Our lecturers used our ideas to come up with a proposal of what a new marking scheme would look like and which criteria and descriptors could be used. This was a really good way of working because it allowed equal input from both, us students, and lecturers, and meant that we could fully contribute to the project and have our ideas incorporated into the final marking and feedback schemes.
Overall, it was a really positive experience as we valued the expertise of our lecturers regarding the theory surrounding the project and could share the difficulties in evaluating pieces of work. Our lecturers in turn valued our experience as second-language learners who had used the rubrics as students and could provide ideas of how to improve them. We felt that our ideas and input were really appreciated and we hope to have helped create more effective marking schemes which will improve how students are assessed in the department.
Links to related posts
The report about the the follow-up project can be found here:
The first stages of this ongoing project to enhance the process of assessing writing and speaking skills in the Department of Languages and Cultures (DLC, previously MLES) are described in the following blog entries: