Thursday, June 15, 2006



Our foreign languages department keeps running into the same issue over and over again, so I thought I’d see if the blogosphere has a solution.

Students who took, say, two years of Spanish in high school (and who just graduated high school) frequently sign up for Spanish 1 here, figuring that it will be an easy ‘A.’ More often than not, the students are bored out of their minds by the class, since they’ve already learned the material, and stop coming. Then they fail, and the complaints begin.

During advisement, advisors routinely ask students if they’ve taken a language in high school, but since advisors don’t have access to the high school transcripts, the students can lie with impunity. Many do, thinking they’re outsmarting the system.

For some reason, languages seems to be the only department for which this is a major issue. I haven’t seen this kind of behavior in, say, math, where a student might have already had trig in high school. (It’s a nonissue in the subject areas high schools don’t teach.)

There’s a related issue of native (or semi-native) speakers taking classes in their own language. There, too, it’s tough to catch, and many of the students are in a peculiar position of having good vocabulary but terrible written grammar, or of mixing (say) Spanish with English such that they don’t especially master either. But they don’t study, since they assume it will be a cakewalk, and then fail.

Has anyone out there found an effective way to deal with these issues? I’d love to place every student appropriately in the first place, but the information to do that isn’t always available. And a student who perceives an incentive can easily bomb a placement test, if she just wants the ‘easy’ level. Anything helpful would be appreciated!

The placement test at my institution comes with a carrot: score well enough, and you can test out of some (or all!) of your foreign language requirement.
How come advisors don't have access to the high school transcripts? Where I work, the transcripts are online and as an advisor, I have access to them.

You could also try something we do with math: we pay a math instructor to take a week in the summer and place students based on high school transcripts. Students rarely argue with the placements ....
I'm not sure I see the problem. If students who are already fluent in a second language want an easy A so badly that they are willing to misrepresent what they have taken in high school and/or tank a placement test, let them have the easy A as long as they earn it. This does not strike me as unfair.

And if a student in this circumstance gets a poor grade or even fails the course, isn't the ensuing complaint particularly easy to refute? (S)he knew the material, (s)he just didn't do the work. End of discussion, right? "But the course was BORING" is no defense.

If there's some aspect to this that I'm overlooking, I apologize.
Perhaps much can be done with course descriptions, by labelling the class as "grammar intensive" or as having an "immersion atmosphere that requires constant participation and practice writing," with the stated goal of creating a [foreign language]-speaking community in the classroom.

No one thinks themselves a native Trig speaker. Even the people who take it again probably have in mind that they have something to learn. And everyone knows even English speakers have huge difficulties in "English class," so there must be a way to pitch the class as being the same kind of intense learning environment.

I remember this happened in my college German II class. There were quite a few "easy A" guys sitting there, hoping to do a few workbook exercises and graduate. I'll never forget the look on their faces when our prof put "Seeräuber Jenny" on the CD player and made us write for an hour in German about what we thought the "Schiff mit acht Segeln" symbolized.
The simple answer is a placement test. And don't allow people to take a level below where they place. Otherwise, it's up to the students. Few language profs "want" to fail anybody--most will work and work and work with a willing student until they pass. The students are adults, so treat them like they are.
My experience comes more as a student. I had spent a year in Japan in high school, and then wanted to take Japanese 101 in college. My school thought I should be in II, but where I lived in Japan had a very specific accent (not standard), and I never really learned grammar rules. In addition, I struggled with formal Japanese, because most of what I learned was with my host family and school friends--informal Japanese. For the Japanese to be useful to me, I needed to learn formal and the grammar.

The first month was easy for me, but then I did have to study and do the homework in order to pass the quizzes and speaking tests. It was definately worth my time to do it.

Then I took II the next fall, and that was too easy for me--I had learned the grammar, understood the formal tenses, and had the vocab down from my year there. So I got the dean to give me credit for four semesters when I only took three. And I think that was appropriate, as did the Japanese prof.
When students disregard the placement test... as a teacher, about all I can do is have my students fill out forms detailing their experiences with learning foreign languages and then pay special attention to their language abilities during the first week or so of class (when students are still allowed to switch into other courses at my institution) and try to determine if I should talk to them and try to convince them to take a different level.

I'm not sure what an administrator or advisor can do to try to improve the situation, other than tell true horror stories about all those who go for what they think is an easy A and, by slacking off, severely damage their grade point average (and, in some cases, unintentionally delay their date of graduation).

The funny thing is, almost all the students who have ever failed or gotten a D in a language class I've taught are those who who should have signed up for a more advanced one but thought they'd be able to get an easy A (or an easy B, at least) without coming to class often or doing much work. In my experience, when students aren't in class much to practice their Spanish and when they don't practice outside of class by doing their homework, they don't end up doing well on exams, no matter how much Spanish they knew coming into the class.
Placement tests and their rigid use are good to avoid this - everyone must be placed according to their performance on a placement test. If you test into second semester, you cannot take first semester, and if you try to you won't get credit for the course. However, if someone feels that they really know more than the test says they do, they are welcome to move up a level.

I have had a few isolated students who complain that they were misplaced (too high) and were never able to catch up. However, these complaints only came to my attention in the course evaluations - student never came to office hours or contacted me for extra help. So the test is a good way to make sure people are taking the language level that they need to.

I would assume something similar would work in other academic disciplines. As I recall, as an undergrad I had to take a math placement exam, even though I "placed out of" Calculus from AP exams. Though I don't usually advocate more testing, in this area it is probably necessary.
Several commenters have recommended that students not be able to enroll in courses lower than what they have placed into. Most students taking placement tests are freshmen who may not have the maturity to keep up in a higher level class - regardless of their language abilities. When I was 16, I tested into seventh-semester French at a very large state university. The professor refused to allow me into that course because of my age and inexperience. I thought he was a jerk at the time, but by the time I was a junior, I realized he did me a huge favor. What I did was switch languages - when a student has a good grasp of one foreign language, the others come easier.
Our students take a placement test. There is an incentive to do well. If a student places higher than the first course, they can take the next level. Once the pass that course, the receive retroactive credit for the courses they tested out of.
Part of the problem (to Anon at 5:14am) is that those who want to take the language and don't have experience with it find themselves in a class with fluent speakers/writers--and a curve.

It is, to say the least, a disincentive.

We didn't have placement tests back in the Paleolithic, and I signed up for French I (having had three years in h.s., but nothing senior year, when the language was dropped from the curriculum). The teacher "tested" all of us the first class and then asked several to switch to French II.

Deceptive students can be countered by an alert teacher before too much damage is done.
I don't think there is much to do on your side, although you might want to encourage your language teachers to establish a standard contract syllabus procedure. The idea is that the first day of class the whole group gets two copies of the syllabus. They go home and read it and sign one copy and bring it back for the instructor's files and keep the other copy as a reference.

When the complaints come, the instructor points to the attendance and notice that X amount of work must be completed to pass... and then the student's signature on the bottom. Makes for a quick resolution of the complaint.
As someone who majored in Spanish as an undergraduate and took over 60 credits in languages all together throughout her undergraduate career, I see where the problem is. Ken Houghton is exactly right. When you have people who are sailing through the course, it is intimidating to the people who are just beginning. And students who are discouraged are unlikely to continue with languages.

Another problem, I think, is that intro-level language courses have no problem filling up. What's hard, though, is keeping students. What's the point of having advanced literature, composition, and conversation classes when nobody wants to go past 101? And no prof, adjunct or otherwise, wants to teach nothing but the intro section forever.

I agree with those who encourage students to place out of the course. Those who do well can take a higher level or take a different language. Honestly, taking another language is a more meaningful "easy A" in most cases--it's easy because you're already familiar with how the language works, but it's meaningful because you're actually learning something new. In fact, my sister's university had a course called "Portuguese for Romance Language Speakers" which took advantage of this--it taught advanced Romance language speakers a new language without boring them to death with the details of verb conjugation.
Wouldn't a reasonable response to complaints be, "You lied to us about your abilities, so what's the issue here, precisely?

I don't mean to sound adversarial, but isn't this an excellent opportunity to remind people that when they lie to people and get caught, they can suffer consequences? A teachable moment, if you will?
I taught in the Spanish department here a couple of years back when they had a similar problem - a rigorously enforced placement test would place anyone who had any previous Spanish classroom (or, i guess, home) experience in the second level course (102) or higher; only "true beginners" could take the first level course (101).
The minority of students in 102 were coming directly from the previous semester in 101 were ready to start with the rather difficult lessons that were taught the first week of 102. Most of the students, though, had gone at least a year after high school without Spanish practice and/or had not covered nearly as much material in their high school classes (and certainly not at as rigorous a level) as was expected by the department's curriculum.
I taught 102 the fall of that year and it was a disaster - students were at all different levels, with most far from ready to jump straight into the rules for imperfect/preterit usage (the first topic on the 102 syllabus). There was a lot of frustration all around, with everyone's grades and morale (and my evaluations) suffering as a result.
That spring, the department piloted a new course - something like "accelerated elementary Spanish" (106), which covered all of 101 and 102 (i.e. the whole textbook) in a single 3-credit semester (the first half of the book was covered very quickly - it was more of a review, since the students presumably had already been introduced to this material - while the second half was covered only a bit more quickly than it would have been in 102). Under the new system, 106 became the default placement for students who had some previous Spanish experience, but not enough to place into the third level (201). With 106 in place, only students who had taken 101 in the department here were placed into 102.
I taught 106 that Spring, and it was absolutely wonderful - the course had just enough review of basics to refresh students' memories without them getting bored, and it also gave me a chance to undo any bad habits they picked up in high school classes and ensured that everyone was on the same page when we got into the more difficult grammatical topics. The fast pace of the course also kept everyone on the ball - there was no time to fall behind or space out (or, at my end, to come up with lame filler activities). Of course other factors could have affected this, but my students' grades (and my evaluations) were considerably stronger in the spring semester, everyone seemed happier throughout, and the department has (as far as I've heard) been happy with the change.
I am advising a student who has no real prior formal student of French, but has a pretty impressive reading knowledge that she has just "picked up." (Out of curiosity, when she woud see French books or magazines in the library, she would just try to make sense of them, using dictionaries and grammar reference books intermittently as needed. But mostly she just thought of it as a fun puzzle. She's been doing it for years.)

I suspect she would do extremely well on a written language placement test of the SAT II subject test variety. (That is, the sort of multiple-guess "Which of these words fits in the space in the given sentence?" and reading comprehension questions.)

On the other hand, she has not studied oral French at all. Her accent isn't too bad, but she's certainly not a fluent speaker and she has no real experience with listening comprehension.

But she is motivated to learn. Her choices are first semester French or third semester French. She doesn't have the oral comprehension skills to deal with third semester French, so first semester beginning French seems like the only choice.

(The ideal alternative, of course, would be to send her off to spend a few weeks in Quebec or France, in a sink-or-swim immersion, where she would likely pick up the missing oral skills pretty quickly. But that costs a lot more than a three-credit course at the community college!)
An addition to Inside the Philosophy Factory's comment about contract syllabus.

I've taught two different Slavic languages at a four-year university. Both language programs have the same safeguards in place. There is a placement test, which we adminster twice: once before the start of term and once during the first week of class. Then, all students who register for the first-year class in either language must sign a contract on the first day of class. The contract states that these courses are for people with no prior knowledge of the language. The contract spells out what we mean by prior knowledge (no earlier classes and no speaking the language at home). The contract makes it very clear that by signing it, the student is telling us that he/she does indeed belong in the class according to the criteria spelled out in the contract and that, should the instructor discover that the student has lied (taken earlier courses or speaks the target language at home), the department reserves the right to move the student to a more appropriate level or fail him/her. It's kept the first-year classes in the department free of heritage speakers and more advanced students who can easily upset class dynamics. Heritage speakers are automatically sent into the second-year class. We do make exceptions, of course, on a case-by-case basis.

My department has also recently introduced a special course aimed at heritage speakers. It focuses on grammar, spelling, correcting anglicisms, and the development of abstract vocabularly. Then the heritage speakers are sent to third- and fourth-year classes based on their progress. So far, these classes have been incredibly successful.
A friend in my department (linguistics) is doing her PhD on this issue. I can put you in touch with her if you are still interested, just send me an email.
The comment by the anonymous directly above mine reminds me of my time in Denmark.

I went to language classes four mornings a week for the year I lived there.

When I first signed up for these, there was an interview and a questionaire about prior knowledge of the language.

I noted on the questionaire that I had never learned Danish formally, but that I had spent a few weeks in Sweden, spoke fluent German and as a linguist, picked up languages very quickly.

In the interview they said, "Well, we'll obviously have to put you in the beginners' class". I argued my way out of that (by picking up a novel off the shelf and translating a passage to English on the spot) and ended up in the class for people who had been learning for four years. But the problem was, there really is no mechanism for dealing with people in that situation I was in.

When I entered the course, I couldn't speak a word of Danish, or understand spoken Danish at all. But I could read high-level texts as quickly as I could English (thanks to knowledge of German and Swedish). Within a month I was fluent and getting full marks on all the tests. But for that month, I must have been the worst student to have in the class. No one could talk to me -- I slowed down discussions and activities -- and everyone thought I was a moron.

If they had put me in the beginners' course, I would have been a problem student of the opposite sort: bored, disengaged, asking questions about things that the instructor didn't want to get into yet.

The problem is that there are always students in that sort of situation in any language class -- ones who are too advanced for beginners' courses, but who don't have enough formal training in the language to fit into an advanced course. Most of them do well _eventually_ in an advanced class, but at university, where their grades actually matter (unlike my situation in Denmark) they don't want to take the chance that they won't catch up fast enough to get good grades.

What we need is a separate programme for these people, but (a) at most universities there aren't enough of them to make up a full class and (b) they tend to each have individual needs (in a French course you might have the one who has lived in France for a few years so can speak colloquially and fluently, but has no idea of the written language or grammatical rules, while you have someone who is self-taught from a book and can compose decent French, but not speak or understand a word of the spoken language).

And I have no idea how to deal with this. Nor does anyone, I think. Which is precisely why my friend (see comment above) is finding it such a fascinating research topic.
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