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Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Student participation in developing outcomes: A survey of students majoring in European Languages

Barbara Pauk
Social and Cultural Studies and Humanities
The University of Western Australia

Outcomes-based education aims to position students at the centre of all learning and teaching activities and to give them an active and responsible role in their learning. In tertiary education various strategies have been put in place to allow students to organise their learning independently and according to their needs. They are also given opportunities to influence content and delivery through feedback. Yet student participation in the elaboration of outcomes is not current practice and is not advocated in outcomes literature. This study proposes the implication of students in the elaboration of outcomes. Therefore its focus is on the question: What do students think they should be able to do when they graduate? To investigate this question, a survey of students majoring in European Languages was conducted. Students had to indicate how important they consider a certain number of specific outcomes to be. The survey presented three major results: Firstly, the students considered a high level of language competency as by far the most important outcome of their studies. The understanding of societies and cultures where the language is used was given less importance, but was considered an important part of language learning. Secondly, interpretation and translation had a high priority for students. Finally, research skills were considered least important. These results do not correspond to current outcomes and to the University's mission statement. Thus, this investigation raises not only important questions about desirable outcomes in European Languages but demonstrates the importance of students' participation in the elaboration of outcomes.

Five years ago, in 2001, the Academic Council of the University of Western Australia decided to introduce outcomes-based education (Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, University of Western Australia, 2006a). Outcomes-based education can be implemented in different ways. The model, which is described as "following back" principle in literature on outcomes-based education, follows from top of the hierarchy downwards, defining first the mission statement of the institution, then the outcomes of the faculty, the course, the unit and finally the lesson (Dalziell & Gourvenec, 2003, p.4). While some faculties of the University of Western Australia introduced outcomes-based education in this way, the Faculty of Arts adopted a unit-first approach (Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, University of Western Australia, 2006b). In a first step, the different teachers were encouraged to formulate outcomes for their units. Then, the discipline groups were asked to define outcomes for majors in their disciplines, based on the unit outcomes. In spite of this approach, which seems to be a conscious choice of a less hierarchical and linear way of proceeding, participation of students was not considered, although students are usually asked to give their opinion on delivery and content of different units.

In the numerous publications about outcomes-based education in recent years, there is very little discussion on the actual process of developing outcomes at tertiary level. Often, it is mentioned in a few sentences as for instance by Coates who states: "In general, the selection of outcomes is a complex activity that can be highly value laden" (Coates, 2005, p.7). This complexity might be the reason for the scarcity of studies about it. Spady, an educational theorist who has significantly influenced outcomes philosophy, states in an article on 'Choosing Outcomes of Significance':

The overriding issue affecting the development and implementation of outcomes today is significance. Do the outcomes we expect students to demonstrate matter in the long run - in life after formal schooling? (Spady, 1994, p.18)
To realise this idea, the University education of each student should be considered as a whole and its outcomes defined consequently. However, the university is a segmented and largely hierarchically-structured organisation and a student is likely to choose units offered by different disciplines which may be located in different schools or faculties, each of these units defining their outcomes. Consequently, teaching and learning processes involve not only the teacher and the learners but a certain number of teachers. For this reason, Tucker (2004, p.4) states that establishing outcomes is seen as a collaborative process. Dalziell and Gourvenec take this a step further (Dalziell & Gourvenec, 2003). They argue that in outcomes-based education at tertiary level, there should not only be the uncontested partnership between teachers and students, but also between teachers and teachers and administration and teachers in order to ensure that learning at the University is student-centred. The authors contend that the conflict between the hierarchical structure of the University on one hand, which creates different power relationships, and the student focus and participatory principles of outcomes philosophy on the other hand, can be solved by partnerships.

Given this focus on partnerships, it seems incongruous not to include students in the process of developing outcomes. The exclusion of students is also at odds with what is commonly praised as one of the major advantages of outcomes-based education: the emphasis on student learning rather than on teaching as well as the active and responsible role students can take in their learning. Furthermore, at a time where the inclusion of student engagement in quality evaluation of teaching is discussed, it seems important that students can relate to the outcomes (Coates, 2005). Nonetheless, the integration of students in the elaboration of outcomes has not been proposed so far. Therefore, this study will attempt a first step towards student participation in the development of outcomes for European Languages at the University of Western Australia.


To seek students' opinions, a survey seemed the most appropriate method. As there were 189 students majoring in European Languages, who were taught in a considerable number of different classes, conducting a survey by distributing hardcopy questionnaires seemed a difficult and time-consuming enterprise. Accordingly, an online delivery mode was chosen and WebCT, which is normally used for teaching, accommodated the survey. Students majoring in European Languages received an e-mail which invited them to do the survey on WebCT. They were presented with eight outcomes which they had to class according to their importance. In addition, students had the opportunity to formulate additional outcomes and to make comments.

The first step of this project was to formulate relevant outcomes for a major in European Languages to submit to the students. The following criteria were used:

For this study, in order to present the students with a small number of outcomes, only two of the University's educational principles were considered:
Students at The University of Western Australia are encouraged and facilitated to develop the ability and desire:
This focus on a restricted number of outcomes has practical reasons and does not mean that other educational principles such as "to work independently and in a team" are not relevant for European Languages.

For this project, formulation of outcomes is based on the Honours degree benchmark statements published by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, an independent organisation in Britain which aims at safeguarding the standards of higher education qualifications. The Languages and related studies benchmark group distinguishes four dimensions of language:

Languages are at one and the same time:
These subdivisions are very convincing because they cover both knowledge and skills in regard to the target language and cultures (points 1 and 3) and in regard to the relation between source and target language and cultures (point 4 and 2). Therefore, they were used for the formulation of the first four outcomes in the questionnaire submitted to the students (table 1). Outcome one and two were the following: A high level of language competency in one of the European languages and an informed understanding of societies and cultures in which one of the three languages is used. Although in practice the two outcomes are intricately linked they were separated in the questionnaire (Byram & Esarte-Sarries, 1991, p.5). The formulation of outcome two focuses mainly on what is widely seen as important knowledge and understanding of other cultures: social norms, value systems and world views. (Hinkel, 1999, p.2) According to the languages and related studies benchmark group, these are embodied in literature and other cultural products, also historical texts, of the target language as well as "in the history, geography, institutions and economic life of these societies". (Languages and related studies benchmark group, 2002, p.2/3)

Table 1: The eight outcomes

Outcome no.On successful completion of a major in European Languages a student should able to:
1demonstrate a high level in the four competencies (listening, reading, speaking and writing) in one of the three European languages, i.e. being able to communicate without problems and using correct language in a French, German or Italian environment.
2show an informed understanding of societies and cultures in which one of the three languages is used and being familiar with key issues in the domains of literature, film. and contemporary thought.
3mediate between the two languages by translating and interpreting a variety of literary and non-literary texts.
4compare and contrast ways of thinking and perceptions of the world in different cultures.
5confidently and critically use library and internet resources as well as to be familiar with the usual reference practices.
6critically read and analyse any type of text in one of the languages.
7develop original ideas and arguments and relate them to critical studies on literatures.
8express arguments in a logical, concise and clear form.

In regard to "the explicit knowledge of language", the languages and related studies benchmark group (2002, p.5) mentioned two aspects. On one hand they stated:

Explicit knowledge of language makes up a significant part of all languages programs. As a minimum input it involves the study of linguistic structures in the context of specific language uses; ... at a more specialised level, language study may involve the detailed consideration of synchronic and diachronic dimensions of language linked to a variety of linguistic theories as illustrated by different languages.
The latter, "more specialised level" of linguistic studies is covered by the discipline of linguistics at UWA. The study of linguistic structures as part of the process of language acquisition is normally undertaken with the aim of correctly using the language and is also assessed in the context of language use. In other words, it is included in the outcome on language competency. On the other hand, the benchmark group mentioned another aspect of "explicit knowledge of language":
Many language programs seek to enable students to mediate between languages by means of translation and interpreting across a wide range of media. These activities require knowledge of how language systems relate to one another and of the techniques which permit mediation between languages.
This quotation mirrors the fact that many scholars consider translation and interpretation to be discrete skills which are not linked to proficiency in the target language (S. Fotos, 2005, p.664). Consequently, a program aiming at language proficiency will not necessarily include language mediation. As this outcome seems to be controversial, it was integrated as third outcome in the student questionnaire.

The last aspect of language learning, the intercultural awareness which the benchmark group described as "the ability to compare the view of the world from ... [the students'] own languages and cultures with the view of the world from the languages and cultures they have acquired", is generally considered an important outcome (Languages and related studies benchmark group, 2002, p.5). Although one might argue that a thorough knowledge of the target culture automatically leads to comparisons of the different Weltanschauung, it was formulated as a fourth outcome in the questionnaire. So, outcomes one to four in the questionnaire cover the four aspects of language as they were defined by the benchmark group.

Given the University's emphasis on its commitment to enhancing research in its mission statement (University of Western Australia, 2005), and the fact that some of the students do an honours degree and further research afterwards, the important question whether students should acquire the very basic skills to do research in Literature and Cultural Studies during their studies for a major in European Languages, was addressed. The outcomes statements in the questionnaire divided research skills in four aspects: first, the collecting and evaluation of material including correct referencing, second, the critical analysis of any type of text, third, the development of original ideas and arguments and fourth, the formulation of the latter in a clear and concise form (outcomes no. 5-8).

Data analysis

For every single outcome the students had to indicate if they found it "very important", "important", "not important" or whether it "should not be included in the outcomes statements". Then, the percentage of students opting for each one of the four answers was calculated. Moreover chi-square tests were carried out in order to establish whether the answers of certain groups of outcomes were significantly different from other groups.

Survey results

54 of the 189 students majoring in European Languages answered the survey, which represents a backflow of 28.6 %. Figure 1 summarises the distribution of students' opinions about the importance of the single outcomes. However, the following text will analyse the acquired data in more detail.

Language skills and cultural knowledge and understandings

More than 83% of the students considered language skills (outcome no. 1) the most important goal of their studies. The chi-square test for the association between outcome 1 and all the other outcomes showed that there is a highly significant difference (p<0.001). Analysis of the additional outcomes that students formulated and of their comments supported this way of prioritising. Almost half of all students (26/54), or a big majority of those who formulated outcomes and made comments (26/33), reinforced the importance of language in their statements. A majority of them expressed the wish to acquire good or better levels of oral competency. For instance, one student wrote that "it is wrong that I will be graduating with a language degree without actually being able to communicate fluently" and another asked: "Why don't we use the multimedia centre more?". Some (7/33) find it important to learn colloquial and informal language. In short, the big majority stated language acquisition as the primary goal of their studies in European Languages.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Student perception of importance of outcomes

Besides the language skills, knowledge and understanding of the target language cultures (outcome no. 2) clearly ranked second, although 68% of the students found them important and 21% very important. The same imbalance could be observed in regard to all outcomes referring to language use (outcomes no. 1, 3, 8) and the outcomes regarding knowledge of cultures (outcomes 2,4) (figure 2). The chi-square test for the association between the groups showed that there is a highly significant difference between them (p<0.001). The comments indicated that a few students (4/33) saw a certain concurrence between language competency and knowledge of cultures. For instance, the student who deplored not to be able to speak the language fluently, added: "I know more than necessary about the country and culture" and another stated: "it should be more important to be able to express oneself in another language, than to know the social and cultural and literary context and history, as we can do that in English". However, students who expressed this kind of ideas were a minority. A bigger number of comments were made in regard to what kind of knowledge of the target cultures should be learned.

In a few comments (5/33) the students stated that they would like to acquire knowledge about "day-to-day society, eg how transport, the hospital system, education etc. works", or "etiquette and customs". These students advocated the acquisition of what Byram and Esarte-Sarries call 'language for touring' which prepares students for typical situations of a tourist in a country where the target language is used (Byram & Esarte-Sarries, 1991, p.9). Two students wished to gain knowledge of the type a tourist would acquire, for instance about "famous landmarks and architecture of the country". Four students (4/33) advocated less emphasis on literature stating for example: "I would like there to be less emphasis on literary texts and more focus on general conversation, with topics relevant to today's society". Another student claimed that he/she would prefer to know how to communicate in business situations rather than to be able to study foreign literature. Summarising, the students expressed interest in very different aspects of the cultures and societies where the target language is spoken.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Student perception of importance of groups of outcomes
Group 1: Language use, outcomes 1, 3 and 8
Group 2: Knowledge and understanding of cultures, outcomes 2 and 4
Group 3: Skills necessary for research, outcomes 5, 6 and 7

Translation and interpretation

Translation and interpretation was considered as very important by 32% of the students and as important by 64%. Only two students (3.8%) did not consider it important. Figure 3, representing the importance of outcomes, shows that translation and interpretation (outcome no. 3) achieved the second highest score. But the outcome was not mentioned by the students as additional outcome or in comments. However, a solid understanding of grammar, the other form of explicit knowledge on language, was proposed as an outcome by 4 students (4/33). One student explained this to be necessary because many students wanted to become language teachers.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Simplified histogram of student perception of importance of outcomes

Research skills

The third important result, as visible in figure 3, is that the group of outcomes referring to research skills achieved the lowest scores. The use of resources and referencing (outcome no. 5), was considered as not important or as not to be put in outcomes statements by 40.5% of the students. Less than 10% found it very important. For outcome number 7, indicating that students should be able to develop original ideas and to relate them to critical studies on literature, 41.5% of the students opted for 'not important' or 'should not be integrated in outcomes statements' and 15.1% for 'very important'. The most importance in this group was given to the critical analysis of any type of text in the target language. Thus research skills were low in students' priorities although a majority of them finds them important.

Summarising, the survey showed three major results:

Discussion and conclusion

This study aimed to do a first move towards integrating students into the process of elaborating outcomes. Therefore, a survey of students majoring in European Languages was conducted to investigate their opinion about skills and knowledge they should have attained at the end of their studies. Students had to indicate the importance they attributed to eight outcomes and were given the opportunity to add supplementary outcomes. Their interest was demonstrated by an answer rate of 28.6% of the 189 students majoring in European Languages; 33 of them added other outcomes, and comments.

The major result of the investigation was that students' opinions differed considerably from the current outcomes established by a team of teachers. The survey demonstrated that a majority of students prioritised language acquisition although they considered understanding and knowledge of target language cultures and societies to be important. In comparison, in the current outcomes statements, knowledge and understanding of European cultures have considerable weight. Graduates should have attained:

Cultural understandings are mentioned in regard to the target language as well as in the intercultural dimension. Evidently, there is some discrepancy in the emphasis between current outcomes and student opinions.

The fact that a considerable number of students found knowledge about target language cultures not important or at least not as important as language acquisition suggests that they are unaware of the intricate link between proficiency in language use and knowledge and understanding of the target language cultures, a fact which is uncontested in recent literature on language teaching (Byram & Esarte-Sarries, 1991, p.5; Crozet & Liddicoat, 2000, p.1). The students who advocated a very restricted teaching and learning of knowledge and understandings of target language cultures may have been equally unaware of the consequences. Byram & Esarte-Sarries, for instance, argue that "learning for touring", which is designed to prepare students for touring in the country (or countries) where the target language is used, does not provide the students with inter-cultural understandings or, in other words, prepare them to adapt to new and unpredictable situations (Byram & Esarte-Sarries, 1991, p.9). Moreover, the "learning for touring" approach does not change the students' ethnocentric perspective. According to Byram and Esarte-Sarries, inter-cultural understandings include the ability to analyse the foreign culture as well as the capacity "for affective response to experience of another culture which neither hinders his [the student's] perceptions of self and others nor prevents his adaptation to new environments" (Byram & Esarte-Sarries, 1991, p.11). In order to achieve this, Byram and Esarte-Sarries propose the model of the language learner as ethnographer. In this model, the students draw on "sources of information such as the native speaker, and products of his culture" using techniques of ethnographical investigation (Byram & Esarte-Sarries, 1991, pp.10-11). In this way the cross-cultural competency included in the University's educational principles could be achieved. Thus it is desirable that the students become aware of the crucial role of understandings of cultures. Besides the actual learning and teaching of language and culture, discussions on outcomes could enhance this awareness.

The results were similar in regard to research in the field of literature and cultural studies which, as it investigates products of the target language cultures, is actually a part of the ethnographical work Byram & Esarte-Sarries (1991) recommend. In this field, student opinions differed still more clearly from current outcomes and stood in contrast to the University's mission statement which explicitly professes a commitment to research (University of Western Australia, 2005). Likewise, the current outcomes clearly state that the students should attain:

Information management and research skills, including the critical use of the Internet and printed resources.
In addition, knowledge about and understanding of literature is included in the outcome on intercultural understanding. The current outcomes statements correspond to the position taken by the Arts Faculty which has recently introduced IRIS, 'Introductory research and information skills', a compulsory unit for all its first-year students. It is delivered through WebCT and helps students acquire basic generic research skills. However, according to the survey results, a considerable number of students (41.5%) did not find it important to learn the basic skills to be able to do research in the fields of literature or cultural studies. This is more evidence for the necessity to make students aware of the close relationship between language acquisition, understanding of cultures and research. As has already been stated, this can be achieved in language and culture teaching as well as a discussion of outcomes.

Students' opinions and current outcomes differed also in regard to mediating between the two languages. The investigation revealed that, beside the capacity of using the specific European language, students considered interpretation and translation skills as most important. This is in line with the outcomes statements of the Asian Languages which explicitly include translation from English into the target language and vice-versa in their outcomes. In contrast, in the current outcomes statements of European Languages, translation and interpretation are not included. This raises two questions: firstly, what exactly do students mean by interpretation and translation? Secondly, should the University, or rather European Languages, offer units for interpretation and translation? Both questions cannot be answered conclusively here. In student perception, interpretation and translation might either be just a means of bringing their language skills to a higher level, or an additional skill which may be useful in their future professional life. The former would be in contrast with the students' strong focus on language proficiency, particularly in the oral and aural competencies which suggests that they prefer a communicative approach to language teaching over what Fotos calls the "Grammar-Translation Method" which is largely based on explicit knowledge of language (Fotos, 2005, p.664). Yet, some students (3/33) formulated a sound knowledge of grammar as a separate outcome, hence advocating emphasis on explicit knowledge of language. Thus, to determine the exact meaning of the high importance of interpretation and translation, students' opinions would have to be investigated further. The second question concerning units for interpretation and translation cannot be answered conclusively either. As interpretation and translation are highly demanding and specific skills with professional status, the answer depends on the wider question as to whether the University provides a general education or vocational training.

In conclusion, this study illustrates that students have differing ideas of what a graduate in European Languages should be able to do and therefore underlines the importance of including them in the process of elaborating outcomes. Students' endorsement of outcomes furthers intrinsic motivation and indeed learning. Although the inclusion of students might be challenging for teachers and administration, this study indicates that a continuing dialogue between students and teachers about outcomes is necessary. More investigation into students' opinions and needs is crucial, not only in regard to the outcomes discussed in this paper but also in regard to other desirable outcomes.


Byram, M., & Esarte-Sarries, V. (1991). Investigating Cultural Studies in Foreign Language Teaching. Clevendon & Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.

Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, University of Western Australia (2002). Educational Principles. [viewed 25 Sep 2006] http://www.catl.uwa.edu.au/current_initiatives/obe

Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, University of Western Australia (2006a). Outcome-based Education and Assessment at UWA. [viewed 21 Sep 2006] http://www.catl.uwa.edu.au/current_initiatives/obe

Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, University of Western Australia. (2006b) Student Learning Outcomes at the University of Western Australia. [viewed 21 Sep 2006] http://www.catl.uwa.edu.au/__data/page/77891/SLO_final.pdf

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Tucker, B. (2004). Literature Review Outcomes-focused Education in Universities. Perth: Learning Support Network, Curtin University of Technology. [viewed 21 Sep 2006] http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/outcomes/docs/LitReview.pdf

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I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to Marnie Giles, Administration Assistant of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, for giving me access to the outcomes statements which are not published, to Dr Jan Meyer for helping me with statistical analysis of my data, and to my supervisors Dr Srilata Ravi and Dr Judy Johnston.

Author: Barbara Pauk is a PhD candidate in Social and Cultural Studies and Humanities at The University of Western Australia. She is writing a thesis on British and French women travellers between 1830 and 1900. As an intern, she has taught in both English Communication and Cultural Studies and European Languages and Studies (French) at the University of Western Australia. Postal: 7 Rake Court, Ocean Reef WA 6027, Australia. Email: paukfb01@student.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Pauk, B. (2007). Student participation in developing outcomes: A survey of students majoring in European Languages. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/pauk.html

Copyright 2007 Barbara Pauk. The author assigns 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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