We asked our Fellows to write us a short blog about their background and what they are doing as part of their BILT Fellowship. The following blog is from Jonas Langner, who has been a BILT Fellow since February 2018.
As the German Language Director in the School of Modern Languages I oversee all German language teaching offered at the University of Bristol, ie German language classes for students of German and those attending classes as part of the University-wide Language Programme. This also entails the setting of exams assessing the four skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) plus translation. Very often, language papers are designed in a way that test the student’s language skills by asking them to fill in the gaps with the correct verb form or translating a text without access to a dictionary. I am sure that everyone who has ever attempted to learn a language will have come across those exercises. While these tasks allow the learner to check their declarative grammar and vocabulary knowledge, both examples do not really test their procedural knowledge and do not really serve any other purpose other than enabling the tutor to award a mark.
This established and very traditional approach should come as a surprise, as languages are first and foremost a tool for communication. There should be plenty of opportunities to assess languages in contexts that at least simulate a dialogue with someone else, thereby trying to replicate a real-world situation.
With that in mind, I redesigned the translation-into-German part of our degree programme last summer by replacing it with mediation tasks. Students are no longer asked to translate a text into German in exam conditions, ie on their own and without a dictionary, as I think that this is neither a realistic nor an authentic task, and very few of them will ever work as translators into German. Instead, they are now given a specific situation and target readership for which they have to paraphrase an English text into German (the German term for this is ‘Sprachmittlung’). This requires students to reduce the text to the most important and relevant information for their readers, and enables them to be more flexible with the use of vocabulary and phrases. Furthermore, they have to ensure that the register and text type they use is appropriate to the given scenario. I can easily imagine graduates having to do something similar in their jobs – either in written or spoken form – even if they have to do it within English. Thus, this task should prepare them for work, an important aspect given the need to ensure the employability of our students.
Starting as a BILT fellow in February was a welcome opportunity to research the field of assessment further. Given my experience outlined above, I quickly decided to look into authentic assessment, with the aim of introducing further real-life tasks into the German programme, but also to come up with recommendations for the institution as a whole. A good starting point to familiarise oneself with this concept is the article “A Five-Dimensional Framework for Authentic Assessment” by Judith T. M. Gulikers, Theo J. Bastiaens and Paul A. Kirschner (2004) in Educational Technology Research and Development, 52 (3), pp. 67-86.
The publication date of this article shows that this is not a brand-new concept and has been around long before the debate about the ‘employability’ of university students started to dominate the discussion in higher education. This surprised me, as authentic assessment has never been a theme for any of the conferences on modern languages teaching in the UK in recent years.
One of the aspects discussed by Gulikers et al. is that authentic assessment should take place in a “physical or virtual context [that] resembles […] professional practice” (73). This is where – in my view – the challenge for German and languages as a degree subject generally lies. Our students go into a wide range of different careers, ranging from banking through law to teaching and translating. This poses the question of what “professional practice” we should prepare our students for.
I hope that looking at the subject benchmark statement for languages, cultures and societies by the QAA and the report on “Global Graduates” – which students doing languages and spending a year abroad should be – by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the Council for Industry and Higher Education and CFE Research and Consulting (http://www.ncub.co.uk/index.php?option=com_docman&view=download&category_slug=publications&alias=42-global-graduates-into-global-leaders&Itemid=2728), as well as getting more information from the University’s Management Information Team about the careers our students go into will leave me better placed to answer that question. Together with my research into authentic assessment, my goal is to come up with practical ideas of how to change the way we currently assess to arrive at assessment that is more authentic and therefore more useful to our students.