Informal Assessment, Disruption & Repair: Making change happen.

This entry is part 32 of 48 in the series Teaching Transparently

March 20, 2009: Midterm assessment time.

The College wants to know whether students are in peril of failing. No surprise: no one is failing. How -well- they pass remains to be seen.

But something is not gelling…something seems a bit off. Something needs to be fixed. The time has come for disruption, and hopefully some much needed repair.

Let me explain:

Outside of class, the students have been working on their blogs, trying to articulate realistic, reachable goals to be accomplished (mostly) by the end of the term. We meet once a week to talk about

There’s been a bit of juggling going on during class time, and I don’t feel as if I am handling it as well as I should. I had originally intended (in the published course description) for my students to anticipate a weekly tech drop in help session to try and handle questions that might emerge about the tools we use in class. The best I could do was tell them it would be expected, and highly encouraged, but I could not mandate it. I tried finding a common time when everyone could meet using “When is Good”. Nothing meshed. And yet it would have been irresponsible of me to -assume- that everyone could negotiate the blog tool, that everyone would know how to use the Mixxer site, or Skype, or be able to get themselves out of Orientation Island in Second Life without needing to be tele-ported to safety.

I’m torn and it shows. This class isn’t about the technology. It is about how the technology can help make connections outside of the classroom conversation. They need to know the basics of each item, and make them work for their purposes. I have been struggling to keep them informed, to answer their questions in a timely and efficient way, and yet doing so without using up class time.

I had thought about dedicating a class to doing tech training, in the lab, and doing it entirely in Spanish, but then it dawned on me that this, again, would shift the focus from the learning that could happen via to tools to the tools themselves. They would have to know special words for the tools, and that in the end could make the technology seem more distant, more unapproachable.

Despite the hand outs, the info pages on the blog, etc…they were struggling with getting things to work. I had never presumed that it would be -easy- for them to adopt the blog (much less Second life or even Skype) but I also did not anticipate it would take so long for them to become acclimated once they started. So, alas, I did use class time in the lab to review the tools, answer questions, troubleshoot. I did not like doing it…and as my informal, anonymous mid term assessments revealed, my students did not like it either.

I forget, and then quickly remember, that blogging is hard work. Expressing one’s thoughts and opinions is hard to do in one’s L2…much harder, I belive, than learning the formulas for writing a report in an objective, academic, disinterested voice in one’s L2.

Blogging asks its writers to write to an invisible audience that might read what you have to say, but you may not ever know what they think or feel. That is really hard for students, especially when as an academic community are used to getting prompt feedback, and when the majority of their writing online for other classes is behind a password and a closed CMS (and where they are read by people they can identify vs people they may never know)…

It is hard for me too. I forget how much longer it takes me to blog in Spanish vs in English. There’s a reason this blog (LLU) sometimes goes silent when I am teaching…it is because it takes me more time to write in Spanish -and- because I am concerned about English interference (word order, false cognates etc) when I am doing the two languages together. It’s hard for me, and I have spoken Spanish for 25+ years longer than my students, so I acknowledge and appreciate how hard this is for them as well. And yes, it is humbling when some of them take off and start writing in torrents. It is as if they have connected with something and they need to express it, no matter what the obstacles, no matter what the audience may (or may not) say. They have thoughts, and they are ready to defend them. In my mind, those are the students that will go far in the Real World…they are intrepid, they are passionate, they do whatever it takes to learn, and they put their thoughts out there and hope for feedback.

I am a big believer in short, informal, anonymous assessments. Even when you think things are going swimmingly, there is always something in the class that can be improved, tweaked, reconsidered. There are always people in the class who have an opinion and want it to be heard… and this is how it an happen. I believe that these informal assessments are a highly effective and powerful means of giving students a voice in the organization and pace of the class, as well as an invaluable window into what your students might not be willing to tell you in the open about how the class is gelling thus far. In these assessments –which have 4 questions, take 5 minutes to complete, and are handed out at the end of class– I asked my students to be honest, and I promised them that if there were a majority asking for change in one area, I would work it make happen. I also knew that this would be seen as a test. Would I –really– disrupt my lesson plan if enough of them felt something had to change? hmmm.

The questions are simple:

1) What do you want to do more of in this class?
2) What do you want to do less of in this class?
3) What can -the teacher- do to help you meet your goals in this class?
4) What can you do to make sure you meet your goals?
5) Additional comments.

Not knowing what would emerge from this survey, but feeling a little out of sorts myself about the class, I waited to see the results. And here they were:

As I expected, 80% chafed at the lab/class sessions that were in English and about the technology (exclusively). Duly noted.

The students wanted more opportunities to work in small groups, especially before a full class discussion of a topic. They wanted to talk about movies (movies in Spanish with Spanish subtitles if possible). I agree. Would that I could find relevant films in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. English? no problem? Spanish..not so much. And oy, the remote for the DVD player: one piece of technology that totally befuddles me. Consistently. But yes, point well taken.

They asked games that would enforce vocabulary and make them use the language in context. Seeping through here in their comments was the idea that community building did not have to be a serious enterprise, and the games could have a purpose, a focus. The stduents recognized they not be just idle entertainment. It was becoming quite clear that they wanted to have fun, they did not want anyone to waste their time, and content-focused games would be a welcome infusion of fun & challenge for the class.

One student wanted the class to review grammar. Sigh. That is -so- not what this class is about.

My favorite: “Talk less about what we are going to do…and just do it” Amen. And here we go:

Above is the calendar, the syllabus for the upcoming 4 weeks of the class. I knew I had to travel (China!) and I wanted to make sure they were in contact with the language, and that they were covering material that (according to their responses) made sense to them. There were opportunities created for both student led discussions (something they liked after a recent series of conversations led by students re: the elections in El Salvador) and large group discussions.

They expressed their opinions, I compiled them, I reviewed them with the class, they accepted them, and I responded.

Up next: the effects of these changes.

Series Navigation<< Midterm assessment: My turnWhat’s under the hood: letting the outside in >>

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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  1. Dispersemos · May 6, 2009 Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing an experience that I believe all conscientious teachers must have. And I completely agree that short, informal assessments/feedback goes a long way to helping our students learn content and accomplish agreed upon learning goals. Frequent, low-stakes assessment — definitely the way to go.

    Today I asked my conversation students to come to class prepared to deliver the first two minutes of their final oral presentation. We video recorded the practice session, and each group received a short feedback sheet from the rest of the audience. Between the feedback comments and watching themselves on video, I believe this was an hour well spent in getting them ready for their presentations. A quick poll of the class suggested that the students appreciated the opportunity to practice in class and get feedback.

    My inspiration for this kind of informal assessment came from Jim Lang’s blog “On Course”. The entry is here.

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