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Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]
Improving the experience of learning: Supporting ex-beginners' language students in mixed level classes

Bonnie Thomas
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.


Introduction

In 2003 the Arts Faculty at the University of Western Australia underwent a major restructure involving the move from eight point units to six point or twelve 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 two of these units over two 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, furthermore, at promoting active and authentic learning among all students. All of these techniques aim to emphasise flexible teaching and learning and strive to cater for the diversity of students' needs. The focus is on the consolidation and reinforcement of students' literacy, research and oral skills, which will then enable them to gain a greater mastery of the discipline. The strategies identified would have an application across the School of Humanities and the Faculty of Arts, as well as in the more specific context of French Studies.

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.

Methodology

In their article on the shift from a Teaching Paradigm to a Learning Paradigm in undergraduate eduction, Robert Barr and John Tagg argue that universities must create environments where students "discover and construct knowledge for themselves" and make them "members of communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems". (Barr & Tagg: 4) The Learning Paradigm places the student at the centre of the learning process and emphasises the need for cooperative, collaborative and supportive environments. (Barr & Tagg: 9-10). IdeaNet links into these pedagogical principles, requiring certain choices to be made by the learners and also the need to engage collaboratively with their peers. Moreover, it demands that students "think outside the box" and develop their analytical skills. In responding to their colleagues' messages, students must critically assess material learnt in class and form their own opinions and interpretations. This knowledge must then be linked back to the content explored in lectures and tutorials and reproduced in a more thoughtful fashion in essays and short answers.

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.

Case study: A mixed level elective on francophone literature

In semester two 2005, an elective unit on francophone African literature was selected as a focus unit for issues relating to mixed level learning groups. Twenty-two students enrolled in the unit and it included second and third ex-beginners' students (with one and a half years and two and a half years of French respectively), second and third year post-TEE students (with six and a half years and seven and a half years of French respectively) and native speakers (from both France and Mauritius). The course comprised a weekly lecture in French and a weekly tutorial conducted primarily in French, but with English where necessary. Students were given an introduction to the history of francophone Africa and its literature and were required to read three novels in French during the semester: one from a Guinean author, one from a Senegalese author and one from a Cameroonian author residing in Paris. The assessment included an extended essay on one of the three books (30%), a short tutorial presentation (20%), an in-class test on all three texts (15%), tutorial attendance (5%) and tutorial responses relating to all three texts (30%).

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.

Feedback

The students' email and informal oral comments on the elective were generally positive and were surprisingly uncritical of the vast disparity of students' levels in the group. However, as the diversity of learners testifies, attitudes to IdeaNet varied widely. The following responses relating to IdeaNet have been organised according to the two groups, green and red, and have also been linked with the different levels within the group.

Green Group (Groupe Vert)

French 204 (second year ex-beginners - one and a half years of French) French 206 (second year post-TEE - six and a half years of French) French 306 (third year ex-beginners - two and a half years of French)

Red Group (Groupe Rouge)

French 308 (third year post-TEE - seven and a half years of French)

Discussion

One of the clearest patterns to emerge from this student feedback is the wide variety of students and their different learning needs. As Carmel McNaught urges us, we "must take seriously the need to cater for a diversity of students with differing learning styles and approaches, for example by offering a variety of learning activities and a variety of assessment strategies." (McNaught 2000: 247) It seems that overall the students found IdeaNet beneficial for their learning, although the above comments illustrate that this opinion was not shared by all. Part of the problem of this particular trial was that there was limited preparation time for the lecturer and it was not possible to anticipate all the assessment implications before putting them into practice. An obstacle experienced by students and lecturer alike was the confusing interface of IdeaNet where students post all their messages as "new notes" rather than responding directly to each other. A possible strategy for avoiding this confusion is to pair students up at the beginning of the course. This early organisation would make it much easier for students to find who they are responding to and who is responding to them, as well as solving the problem of uneven numbers between the two groups. It is likely that the red group would have more than one green student to respond to, but that would provide the former with the opportunity to further apply their understanding of the French language. Pairing students would also be a useful technique for breaking the ice between red and green group members. It is quite likely a collaborative relationship might grow between the two members in which they meet and help each other outside of the classroom setting.

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.

Conclusion

Recent research into foreign language learning emphasises the importance of teaching students about different kinds of communication - including oral, written and gestural - and drawing on a broad range of materials to achieve those goals (VanPatten 2002: 106).

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.

References

Blake, Robert J. (1998). "The Role of Technology in Second Language Learning" in Byrnes, Heidi (ed.), Learning Foreign and Second Languages: Perspectives in Research and Scholarship. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, pp. 209-237.

Brookfield, S.D. (1990). The Skilful Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Burr, Robert B. & Tagg, John, "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education". [viewed 12 Aug 2005] http://critical.tamucc.edu/~blalock/readings/tch2learn.htm

Collis, Betty & Moonen, Jef, (2001). Flexible Learning in a Digital World: Experiences and Expectations. London: Kogan Page Ltd.

Entwistle, Noel (1998). "Motivation and Approaches to Learning: Motivating and Conceptions of Teaching" in Brown, Sally, Armstrong, Steve & Thompson, Gail (eds.), Motivating Students. London: Kogan Page Ltd., pp. 15-23,

McNaught, Carmel, (2000). "Flexibility: Focus, Fears and Fantasy" in Hermann, Allan & Kulski, Martijntje (eds.), Flexible Futures in University Teaching, Perth: Centre for Educational Advancement, Curtin University of Technology. http://www.catl.uwa.edu.au/__data/page/75738/flexfut.pdf

Race, Phil, (1998). "Teaching: Creating a Thirst for Learning?" in Brown, Sally, Armstrong, Steve & Thompson, Gail (eds.), Motivating Students. London: Kogan Page Ltd., pp. 47-57.

Rubino, Antonia, (2004). "Teaching Mixed-Ability Groups at Tertiary Level: The Case of Italian". Flinders University Language Group Online Review, 2(1), 2004. [viewed 30 Sep 2005] http://ehlt.flinders.edu.au/deptlang/fulgor/volume2i1/PAPERS/fulgor_v2i1_rubino.htm

Savage, Susan, (2000). "Using the Web to Create a Community of Learners in Cooperative Education: An Example from Architecture". In Hermann, Allan & Kulski, Martijntje (eds.), Flexible Futures in University Teaching. Perth: Centre for Educational Advancement, Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/savage.html

Van Patten, Bill, (2002). "Communicative Classrooms, Processing Instruction, and Pedagogical Norms" in Gass, Susan, Bardovi-Harlig, Kathleen, Magnan, Sally Sieloff & Walz, Joel (eds.), Pedagogical Norms for Second and Foreign Language Learning and Teaching. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 105-118.

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: bonnieth@cyllene.uwa.edu.au

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.


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