Category: Professional practice
|Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]|
European Languages and Studies (French Studies)
The University of Western Australia
In 2003 the Arts Faculty at the University of Western Australia underwent a major restructure involving the move from 8 point units to 6 point or 12 point units. For the discipline group of European Languages and Studies, this redistribution of points resulted in the creation of a new series of elective units based on literature or cultural studies. In French Studies, students must take at least 2 of these units over 2 years in order to complete a major in French. A distinguishing feature of these electives is that they are mixed level and may include students who have only completed one year of French (ex-beginners) and others who are native speakers. The vast disparity in students' command of French has provided challenges both for the lecturers and for the students. This paper aims at identifying strategies for supporting ex-beginners' French students in these heterogeneous cultural classes and indeed at promoting active and authentic learning among all students. A significant part of this project is the trial of a new web-based application entitled IdeaNet which allows students to create comprehensive conceptual groupings of references, and notes about those references. The flexibility of IdeaNet ensures that students can further their knowledge by providing and consulting with an array of online notes on references relevant to the unit. IdeaNet also offers the possibility of a computer-based dialogue between students, and between students and the lecturer, and therefore promotes the notion of a collaborative learning environment.
The problem of mixed level classes is common in many disciplines, although it can be particularly significant when learning a foreign language. Antonio Rubino, a lecturer in Italian at the University of Sydney, argues that two principal considerations are necessary when dealing with different abilities within the same classroom. The first is the necessity to create a learning environment where students feel safe to take linguistic risks without feeling afraid or embarrassed in front of their peers. The second is an emphasis on flexible learning that caters for "the variety of learners' interests and ability levels." (Rubino 2004). While the term "flexible learning" can be somewhat ambiguous and is often equated with distance education or e-learning, Betty Collis and Jef Moonen assert that it can also be thought of "in a broad way, with the key idea being learner choice in different aspects of the learner experience." (Collis & Moonen 2001: 9). In the context of this paper, flexible learning will draw on these different elements, placing the students as directors of their learning and drawing on technological advances to enhance the learning experience. A flexible approach towards teaching techniques and assessment methods constitutes an integral part of creating a positive and cooperative learning environment that fosters students' experience of learning. Such strategies are vitally important in the heterogeneous classes that are the subject of this inquiry, in which one class contains at least five different language levels.
A significant aspect of flexible learning explored in this paper is the trial of a new web-based application entitled IdeaNet which allows students to create comprehensive conceptual groupings of references, and notes about those references. The flexibility of IdeaNet ensures that students can further their knowledge by providing and consulting with an array of online notes on references relevant to the unit. This application has been specifically adapted to suit the needs of upper level French electives and centres around the three novels studied in the unit and a select number of secondary resources. Students write notes about each of the different novels and provide summaries of critical references that enhance their understanding of the primary texts. The students' collective responses posted on the Web provide other learners with the opportunity to deepen their comprehension of key themes in the novels and direct them to useful further readings. These principles can later be applied to extended essays requiring critical reflection and deep analysis.
IdeaNet also offers the possibility of a computer-based dialogue between students, and between students and the lecturer, and therefore promotes the notion of a collaborative learning environment. As many researchers have pointed out, a "collaborative environment can reduce anxiety, foster self-esteem and encourage positive attitudes towards the learning environment and learner involvement." (Rubino 2004). In posting, reading and responding to each other's messages, students have the feeling of being in a larger educational framework. Knowledge is not seen as something to withhold from others, but, rather, as something to share. Students are able to monitor their own learning and if they feel they need greater exposure to the written language, or extra time spent understanding a particular novel, the messages posted on IdeaNet provide an instant source of support. More importantly, students are able to benefit their peers directly by providing commentary on their colleagues' work and breaking down the barriers between the different levels. IdeaNet helps to achieve a collaborative, cooperative learning experience. This approach is consistent with the need to support students who have had less exposure to the language, but maintain the deep learning required by all students.
IdeaNet was trialed for the first time in an upper level French elective unit in second semester 2005 at UWA. In order to gauge the effectiveness of IdeaNet and the different perceptions students had of this mixed level unit, students were approached individually by email. A few simple questions were asked in the email - "What did you think of IdeaNet?", "Do you feel there was too much/not enough French spoken in class?", "Were there any techniques you found particularly helpful or unhelpful in your understanding of the unit?" and "Is there anything else you think might be relevant?" However, the questions were left deliberately open-ended so students would feel free to respond according to their own thoughts and feelings. Ten students representing all the different levels in the group were approached and all responded with thoughtful and detailed answers.
The introduction of IdeaNet into this already established unit meant a reworking of the previous assessment model which focused on essay writing and an end-of-semester exam. There was no previous evaluation of oral skills and no collaboration between students. In the current version of the course a substantial weighting (30%) was given to student responses posted on the Web as part of the IdeaNet program. Robert Blake asserts that such use of technology can "provide additional opportunities for negotiated language use with instructors and classmates alike" and that "the electronic classroom challenges the teacher to take advantage of new materials and tools to increase interconnections and language enrichment." (Blake 1998: 210). IdeaNet is designed for students to think critically about the material they have learnt in class and thereby increase the opportunities for deep learning through "the refinement and assimilation of understanding" (McNaught 2000: 246).
In order to work with IdeaNet, students were divided into two groups: the 'green group' (groupe vert) made up of ex-beginners' students (French 204/French 206/French 306) and the 'red group' (groupe rouge) comprised of post-TEE students and native speakers (French 308/French 312). The two groups were given separate tasks, but were also required to work interactively and respond to each other's messages. For example, the green group had to answer questions in French based on the three texts (provided in advance by the lecturer) and the red group then had to provide constructive criticism on their form and content. Such responses required critical evaluation and reflective thinking. The red group had to post critical summaries of two secondary sources and the green group had to provide comments on the summaries. The green group had to perform ten different tasks (answer four questions relating to the set texts, respond to two red group summaries, and respond briefly to the red group's comment of their tutorial questions). By contrast, the red group had to perform three different tasks (write two critical commentaries on secondary sources and respond to a green group's response).
In this same unit the use of a native speaker as a moderator for the green group's tutorial responses was also trialed. Members of the green group were invited to submit a draft of their work to an experienced native speaker and he highlighted mistakes in their work. While he did not make any corrections, he indicated the kind of error that was made, for example gender, tense or word order, so students could then rethink their work before submitting it for public viewing. This approach encouraged a thorough reviewing of skills learned in class and was a highly beneficial pedagogical exercise.
A disappointing outcome of the system is that most students did not take up the help of the moderator. For those who did submit their work to the native speaker prior to publication on the net, they discovered a highly beneficial learning experience. It was a unique opportunity for lower level students to receive guidance from a native speaker, but without the work being done for them. Unfortunately students getting outside help from French speakers is becoming increasingly common and offers no benefits to their learning when their work is simply corrected without comment. The moderator in this unit gave guidance rather than answers and encouraged the students to remedy their own mistakes. The role of the moderator should be greatly promoted for future use as it provides an exciting opportunity for students to learn by doing.
For the lecturer, IdeaNet is a lot of work. Students post messages almost every week and it is important to monitor the different tasks and ensure that students are working collaboratively. In the elective trialed this semester, the lecturer printed out and corrected all responses on paper, in addition to following the dialogue between students. In hindsight this approach represented a "doubling up" of the workload as students provided comments on each other's work anyway. There is the possibility to assess responses online - either in a way that only the student can see or in a way that everyone can see - although for linguistic correction this technique may not work so well. There are certainly possibilities for increased collaboration between the whole group with the lecturer providing commentaries online. The assessment tasks also need to be revised for future use, particularly for the green group, which had an extraordinarily complicated weighting of ten different tasks. A careful reassessment of the learning objectives and outcomes would further capitalise on the benefits of IdeaNet.
Student feedback indicates that they generally felt that the presence of different levels in the classroom could be beneficial to their learning. While some found it difficult to express themselves in French and follow quickly spoken French in the classroom, particularly when spoken by red group members who do not speak as slowly and clearly as the lecturer, they were happy to keep the main classroom language in French and use English only to clarify and paraphrase important points when necessary. One student remarked that "overall I think it was a good idea for the lower-level students to be put in classes with those of a higher level because it encouraged us to aim higher, and we could learn things from the other students." This positive declaration underlines the benefits of collaborative learning and foregrounds the possibilities of mentoring relationships between students. As Neil Entwistle argues, "mentoring, when well facilitated, can be very motivating both for mentors and mentees. The learning payoff of explaining something to a less experienced student is at least as great for the mentor as for the student on the receiving end." (Race 1998: 55) Mentoring and cooperative learning also increases the incidence of intrinsic motivation, or learning for the love of the learning, (Entwistle 1998: 16-17) which is frequently cited as a desired outcome of university study.
Students learn languages above all to communicate and indeed, communication and understanding are the backbones of a wide variety of disciplines. While the vastly different language levels in UWA's upper level elective units provide real challenges to the lecturer and students, they also offer the opportunity to be creative and flexible. The introduction of IdeaNet injected new life into a well-established unit and forced a rethinking of aims and outcomes, thereby posing a fundamental pedagogical question for the lecturer: "What effect am I having on students and their learning? (Brookfield 1990: 19) The program's success depends on a sensitive reworking of approach, but offers great possibilities for an enhanced experience of learning. To borrow from a chapter title by Susan Savage, IdeaNet is about "Using the Web to Create a Community of Learners in Cooperative Education". It may hold the key to a better learning experience for all.
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|Author: Bonnie Thomas completed her PhD in contemporary French Caribbean literature at the University of Western Australia in 2003. After a year teaching French at Macquarie University in Sydney in 2003, she returned to UWA in 2004 to take up a teaching and research position in European Languages and Studies. In 2005 she won a UWA Teaching Fellowship to research strategies for supporting ex-beginners' language students in mixed level electives.
Dr Bonnie Thomas, European Languages and Studies (French Studies), The University of Western Australia, M203, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Thomas, B. (2006). Improving the experience of learning: Supporting ex-beginners' language students in mixed level classes. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/thomas-b.html
Copyright 2006 Bonnie Thomas. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.