Let’s write our own?

(This is about student-driven rubrics for orals. I rarely have the sense to blog my actual lessons that go well on the very day that they go well so I’m quite excited at the hot-off-the-classroom-floorness of this.)

As an oral examiner I feel I have taken on various roles, some genuinely educative, some empowering, some cringeworthy and all unforgettable.

Today the ‘point’ of classroom tests came together in my head a little. Here’s a step-by-step of why I had a good oral exam experience this morning.

The group:

beginner/ pre-intermediate / CEFR A2/ TOEIC 350/ ‘low’-level/ perhaps-slightly-disengaged/ didn’t-make-it-through-last-year’s-program/ “we wanna be scientists not linguists” (circle as appropriate).

My job:

motivate/ educate/ transform/ inspire/ love/ nurture/ and/ whip into shape before the next round of external assessment.

The dynamic:

A disastrous first few lessons, due mostly to my own panic at the shape-whipping imperative but then the ball started rolling and I started learning a few things about teaching this group of people. Moving along fairly smoothly.

The materials:

(I recommend this highly, we’re having fun with it)

The students are designing their own course books, working in groups of 4 to 5 and teaching some of the content as they go along. The content of their course books is whatever they chose to bring into their ‘course’ from the English speaking world.

It’s very much a work in progress but in general it is all highly contextualised material, completely related to their every day lives as university students. Lives that are currently in French and which they’re re-designing from a ‘if we were to do this in English’ perspective, as opposed to a ‘when we one day travel to an English-speaking country’ perspective. The themes are theirs. I have my lessons, input and snippets in parallel to their ongoing work, I do my best to echo and mirror.

My dilemma:

Do I set a term exam on the content they’ve brought into class? Do I set a random term exam on a theme of my choice? Do I photocopy an external exam past paper? Given how meaningful and personal the course had become, none these options were on the right wavelength.

And so:

I drew upon the wisdom of “when in doubt, ask” and I asked my students. I spoke to them about rubrics and how we decide ‘what’ to grade students on. They frowned. I showed them some of the rubrics we use in ELT and suggested that we adapt something into a table of sorts with levels and criteria etc… They frowned some more. I said we could just take a ready-made rubric and delete what wasn’t relevant to us. I almost completely lost them at this point.

And then a little wisdom came from one of the students who spends a lot of my lesson Facebooking his (English-speaking) girlfriend (who lives in England- surely that counts as language learning?) “Let’s just write our own and keep in simple”.

And so we did.

This is what my students came up with as what we should be looking for in an oral exam. I typed and cleaned up some of the language for it to look more ‘official’ and gave it back to them so they could see it recast. They came up with 7 points for assessment.

  1. The student is able to present the context of the subject successfully.
  2. The student is able to give a systematic summary of the subject.
  3. The student shows thinking about the wider issues of the subject.
  4. The student is able to describe the voice of the text they read.
  5. The student is able to articulate his/her ideas precisely
  6. The student is well-prepared and comfortable with the material.
  7. The student is able to successfully use all the vocabulary related to the subject.

(They got a choice of 3 topics with a text on and a video of, to watch beforehand. I chose the topics based on what I knew about them after three months. I found it so interesting that for an oral exam, no one mentioned pronunciation. And “correct grammar use” was apparently off the radar.)

And so this morning we did our exam. There were four of us examining for each round. I was one examiner and three students from the group were the others. Each student thus had the experience of examining and being examined. My decision was only a quarter of the final grade. I felt that my students were even better at giving spontaneous feedback than I was 🙂

This has been brewing for some time. When I started examining in highly formal contexts, where a box ticked for language was the make-or-break for academic scholarship or career advancement, I became acutely aware of how ego-inflating being an oral examiner is/can be.

I became so interested in this that I wrote an entire thesis proposal on it. The proposal didn’t make the cut. It suggested that measuring the empowerment of the teacher who morphs into ‘oral examiner’ and the disempowerment of the student’s slump into ‘candidate’ in what was otherwise a ‘normal’ classroom situation. I felt that this would shed useful light in sickling our way through the jungle of oral testing procedures. Now that I’m actually doing a doctorate I see why the proposal didn’t make the cut. But the inflated-deflated dynamic is something that has stayed with me. I might blog separately about this.

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