Assigning a Final Course Mark

Some instructors create elaborate points schemes for determining final course marks. These schemes might include, attendance, participation, homework, and lab attendance in addition to quiz, test, midterm and final exam grades. That’s a lot of record keeping and calculating for an instructor, especially for an instructor who is teaching 15 units or more. What criteria do you use to assign students their final course mark? What do you think of basing final course marks solely on proof that students have learned the material and the skill or using it for communication. Might the averaging of Scantron (true/false, multiple choice) unit tests with their objective little purple score in the right hand corner of the form be a much simpler way of assigning a final course mark? Consider this: I have had students who have been absent many times prove to me that they have somehow learned the material and the skill to use it for communication. Should I penalize them for having been absent? I have had students with psychological conditions never say a word in class and have a hard time doing group activities but come up with stunning results. Do I lower their grade for not having participated actively in class activities? Some of my students rarely do their homework, seeming to soak up everything they need to be successful in class. How about students who never go to the lab because their class and work schedules conflict with the lab’s operating hours? I have learned to be flexible and and base final course marks on results, not points. What are your thoughts?


Is homework absolutely necessary? What kinds of homework assignments produce the best results? Do you have time to correct homework the students write out on paper and hand in to you for correction? Do you assign homework from the web site so you don’t have to personally correct much or anything? (Ooh!) How can you make sure students are not having someone else more knowlegable do their online assignments? Do you assign compositions? At what point in the term? How many drafts? Do you give the students prompts for their compositions? Do they follow them? Do you suspect that some students may write their compositions in English and run them through Google Translate? Do you grade based on points or on results? Have you heard students asking “Professor, do we get points for this?” and then mumbling to a classmate, “If we don’t get points I’m not doing it.” Do you detest the word ‘points’ as much as I do? A good book to read on the topic of points is Punishment by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

Current Textbooks

What is the organizing principle behind this new wave of textbooks? Why are the big publishing houses cranking out tome after tome of textbooks that force instructors to flip their classrooms and depend on publishers’ web sites? Who told them that would be a good idea? Are publishing houses jumping on the bandwagon just to make a fast buck while the fad lasts? (Is it a fad?) Have you used a textbook that requires a flipped classroom and student-centered learning? How has that worked out? Were you able to tweak it if it didn’t work out? Are textbooks designed for university students always (or ever) appropriate for CC students? How have publishers’ computer web sites worked out for you? Would you prefer a flexible textbook that would allow each instructor the freedom to conduct her or his classes in a way that is of greatest benefit to the students? I would.

The Language Laboratory

The language lab was conceived in the 1950’s and gained popularity in the 1960’s mainly because most students didn’t have personal tape recorders, and anyway the pre-recorded tapes were not readily available to students for take-home use. The Audio-Lingual method was in vogue, and the lab was a place where students could go to put on headphones, listen, repeat, memorize, and drill, drill, drill. Sometimes an instructor would sit at a console in front of a group of students wearing headphones and peering through the plastic windows at the front of their carrels. (If you google the Wikipedia article Language Lab you can see a picture of such.) You never knew when he or she was listening in on you and what they would say or do if you messed up. My first experience with a language lab was as a freshman at UCLA in 1967-68. I was taking Russian for majors because I wanted to be “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Each week the assignment was to memorize a new dialog of ten to twenty lines from the book Modern Russian. The dialogs were “real language” and right from the start contained different verb tenses and noun and adjective cases. Russian grammar is extremely complicated for an English speaker, so it was impossible to make generalizations from the dialogs so you could formulate your own original sentences. There were also repetition drills, pattern drills, singular to plural drills, pronunciation drills, and more drills. (I must admit I didn’t really mind the drills.) The Russians had beaten us in the space race by putting the first satellite—“Sputnik”—into orbit, and we were frantic to learn Russian so we could compete better in the Cold War. The Russian language lab seemed to be modeled on a communist dictatorship and we were like prisoners in a gulag being brainwashed. Seriously, what I wound up doing was going to the lab once for each chapter so I could see how to pronounce the words of the dialog sentences for that chapter (Russian has a lot of vowel reduction). Then I would go home and study and memorize the dialog so I could get an A on the test. I never used a language lab for any language after that. L.A. Mission College didn’t have a campus for the first sixteen years of its existence; our classes were scattered all over the northeast San Fernando Valley. So we never built a language lab. Instead we got permission from the publishers to copy their cassettes for student home use. During a conversation at UCLA in the mid-80’s Tracy Terrell, principal author of Dos Mundos, told me that listening to recorded material was useful only to practice aural comprehension. Some people use the lab for testing. One advantage of that is that students are in carrels and can’t copy other students’ answers. What kinds of items are on such tests? T/F, multiple choice, matching, fill-ins, writing sentences from dictation, answering written questions with original full sentences, or? It has been said that a lab is a meeting place for language students. For what purposes? In a lab they work alone in carrels with headphones on. With the advent of PCs and the net, are language laboratories a relic of the past? Many students say they go to lab only because they are forced to. They prefer to use their personal computers on their own time. Also, it is hard to justify staffing the language lab when very few students ever go there. Somebody please tell us how to make the language lab fun so students will want to go there.

The Role of the Computer in Foreign Language Learning

I taught my first FL class—Spanish 1—at UCLA, Fall 1972. Of course there was no such thing as a personal computer at that time. I got my first IBM PC with 64K RAM and two floppy disk drives in 1983 because I had been typing text materials on a typewriter and had had it with changing text with liquid white-out and those rolls of narrow strips of white paper with sticky on the back that you could type on to replace a whole line. I also used my first PC to write my dissertation on. Obviously, computers revolutionized word processing early on. I didn’t get a computer with a modem until 1995. So I learned to teach way before computers with online capabilities became popular. At that time, all of classroom language teaching/learning was human to human, textbook to human. Homework was handwritten. And the eager students learned easily and well. And the not-so-interested students passed the course and seemed satisfied. Fast forward to the early 2000’s. I’m still teaching without recourse to the computer but starting to feel insecure about it. In one class I had an amazing computer geek (I use the term lovingly). One day I asked him after class if I was way behind the times and should be using the computer in class and requiring that the students use the computer outside of class. His answer went something like this: “What we do in class is great. Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re on the computer so much that a course like this is refreshing. If you want to incorporate computer use I would suggest only that you put practice exams online so we can see the types of things we need to know for the unit exams.” I recently taught Italian 1 using the textbook Sentieri, which requires extensive use of the computer and the publisher’s website. I myself did some of the computer activities that I had assigned to the students, mainly fill-ins and matching as I recall. My impression was that the students really needed to compose sentences, both oral and written, as soon and as often as possible. The sorts of things the site was having them do was kind of like teaching a person to do crossword puzzles instead of write essays. Fun (maybe?), but definitely not necessary. Also, I know from having done private tutoring that students can have a more advanced student or a native speaker (or their tutor!) do their online homework for them so they can get all the answers right and get the maximum number of “points.” In the class in which I used Sentieri students would complain that they couldn’t do their homework because the site was down or wouldn’t respond to their clicks. I myself was having trouble finding out if they’d done their homework or had even paid the fee to use the publisher’s site. Once I asked several students why they had not done the online assignment. They replied that they had indeed done it. I later found out that the site had put most of my students on one list but that little group on another list that I didn’t know existed. The whole experience was intensely frustrating for me and the students. And in the end it’s all about points, points, points. Points mean nothing to me. The question is “Did they learn more of the language, something useful for communicating real-life thoughts and feelings?” I’m not sure a machine can make that happen. End of rant! What are your thoughts? Is this sort of use of the computer superior to interaction between instructor and students and between student and student? Is extensive use of computers dehumanizing? Do students appreciate a “rest” from computer use? Should computer and video be used during classroom presentations? How about Power Point (what is Power Point?)? Constantly or occasionally? What do you think of using cyber-sources such as Wikipedia and YouTube for enriching and enjoyable online input? I think they’re awesome (Even though I resisted for a long while, I have finally included the word “awesome” in my personal vocabulary). My students can see beautiful travelogues of Italy and watch videos of Italian songs and sing along. The students can be assigned to do a report on any facet of Italian culture that interests them: motorcycles, the Renaissance, fashion, architecture…anything Italian! You want to inspire a student to study Italian? Let them investigate what they’re passionate about! Now that’s the best use of the computer for our purposes I can think of. What do you guys think?

Online and Hybrid Foreign Language Classes

I’ve never taught online. What goes on? I’ve heard a few things, for example that it works OK for Classical Latin, a language that you don’t have to learn to speak or understand when spoken. But I don’t see online classes being appropriate for living, spoken languages. Don’t the students need immediate feedback from the instructor? How can the instructor teach or correct pronunciation? What about using the language for communication with other students? Via chat rooms? Via Skype? A few students have said that they appreciate online classes because it’s difficult or impossible for them to get to a campus. Please tell us what you know about online classes and what you think of them.

What is the best way to spend class time?

Here’s my take on it. All my classes meet for at least two hours two days a week. I find this arrangement better than one hour five days a week because the students have time to play with the material right after the presentation. Class time is precious. After I call roll I do what I call “loading the students” by giving a presentation using the marker board and the textbook which includes the grammar (say the present tense of the verb “to go”) and vocabulary of the day (go where, with whom, when, to do what, why?) and a useful context in which to play with these elements. All this time the students are actively taking notes. They can break into my presentation at any time to ask a question. They are constantly participating. During the presentation I ask them to do short oral translations (English to Italian) using the material. In other words, my presentations are interactive. I’m preparing them to take over, form dyads (with classmates of their choice) and interview each other using the grammar and vocabulary of the day and anything else they have learned from previous lessons. The questions they are getting ready to ask each other are in the book and are mostly open-ended thus encouraging rejoinders. For example: Where do you go on weekends? With whom? What do you do there? Why? All these little questions give them the opportunity to use the new material and dredge up things they’ve learned in previous lessons. They can answer truthfully or be fanciful. While they are doing this activity I silently walk around and make myself available for questions they may have during the interview. To change things up sometimes I prepare them to work quietly alone matching columns, or better, composing paragraphs on the topic of the day to read to their classmates, etc. For homework they usually write their own personal answers to the questions they asked their partner in class. Sometimes they also copy sentences containing blanks, filling in the blanks with conjugated forms, etc. Copying is very important in a first-year language class. I personally correct and make comments on all the homework thereby creating a personal relationship with each student. Basically I try to create a friendly community of language learners with me as the facilitator. Most of them say they love learning in a free and easy atmosphere by playing creatively with the language like this. What’s your take on how to best spend class time?

Flipping the classroom? Student-centered learning?

Is flipping the classroom or student-centered learning a good idea or even possible in a community college foreign language class, especially an elementary class? I’m pretty sure flipping means that the students learn on their own before class and apply what they’ve learned during class time by forming dyads or small groups and creating something or solving something. Am I right? In a flipped classroom the instructor doesn’t instruct but rather serves as a consultant, if I’m not mistaken. What is your idea of a flipped foreign language classroom? Is flipping a fad? Have you flipped? It’s said to work well for many subjects in K-12 classrooms. I think they are currently trying versions of it at universities (UCLA is currently using Pearson’s Unidades, 2nd edition). But, given the heterogeneity of community college classes, is flipping a help or a hindrance in “getting the job done?” And what exactly is student-centered learning? Does it necessarily involve flipping? Does it work in an elementary FL classroom? And what happens when students are assigned group work in class? First of all, it is hard to create dyads for many reasons: Student A doesn’t want or like to work with Student B. Student A is much brighter than Student B and both wind up being frustrated. Student A is bright but has Aspergers and can only work alone, etc. Also, when students form groups of three or four or more, Student A often winds up doing all or most of the work and twenty minutes or so of class time is wasted for Students B, C, and D for any number of reasons. It’s not that I’m a pessimist; I almost always see these problems arise whenever I assign group work. But back to flipping. To begin with, I’m not sure most community college students would want or be able to prepare beforehand for a language class, work unassisted during class time and then do homework after class. They would complain: “This is not the only course I’m taking.” “ I have a life, you know.” “Why don’t you teach us instead of just sitting on your…chair? Preparing for class at home by reading or watching a video can be hard for an elementary foreign language student. In history or psych I can see it working. But this involves a foreign language. Let’s say I’m an English-speaker and I have to learn brand new material online to use unassisted with other neophytes in my Chinese 1 class the next day. Think about it.

Culture or Language: What is it we’re trying to accomplish in elementary classes?

Are our goals a) to facilitate the students’ learning to understand, speak, read and write the language and also read and discuss interesting facts about the culture, or b) to present the culture and then teach some stock phrases, some basic vocab and some grammar as a secondary goal? And is there possibly a goal c)? Up until a few years ago the answer was definitely a). I don’t find b) desirable or even in the realm of possibility. It would be frustrating (to put it mildly) to most students to have a language course taught with so little emphasis on the language itself. Such a course should be labeled Whateverlanguage Culture 101. And many students say they find culture to be of only passing interest. Can anyone explain who came up with this (to my mind) bizarre idea, how it works, and why the publishing houses jumped on the band wagon? If someone can convince me that b) is preferable to a), I will gladly reorient my teaching strategies. I suspect some were saying something like “Look, despite our best efforts most students walk away from a year of college Spanish with only a few phrases they learned at the beginning of the course like ¡Hola! ¿Qué tal? ¿Cómo estás? Maybe we should just give up on the language thing and teach them culture and a little Spanish so they can say the course was worth the time, effort and money.” Am I wrong? At UCLA back in the day elementary courses were grammar driven, moderately vocabulary-rich, and contained cultural readings. There were also two independent culture-only courses you could take in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese: Sp/Ptg 42 Peninsular Culture, and Sp/Ptg 44 Latin American Culture. They were required for majors but given in English so the entire university community could benefit from them. We have similar courses at our LACCD campuses. However, if we want or have to teach a lot of culture in our elementary language classes these days, what should the ratio of culture to language be? And what does the rather vague term “culture” include? Should the culture presentations/readings be in English or in the language? Also, I hear some instructors have been successful at teaching grammar and vocabulary via culture. If you are one of them, please tell us what your experience has been. Everybody, what’s your take on all (or some) of the above?