Professors diversify teaching mediums

As Colby students get flooded with finals during this time of the semester, some professors are making an effort to integrate alternatives, and in the case of Visiting Assistant Professor of English Jamison Kantor, “[change] up the exam-rhythm.”

In Kantor’s English seminar course, EN397B: Capitalism, Crisis, and Romanticism, students had a spoken midterm, which “[provided] an opportunity to think through a specific problem or literary paradox that intrigued [them],” said Kantor.  He added that students had “an opportunity to put [themselves] in the role of a scholar-teacher: they present an argument that has been grounded in some research, and do it in a little bit more formal a setting than the classroom discussion.”

Oral assessments complement the material of the course, which focuses on the “intersections of British Romantic literature and the rise of the commercial society in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-centuries.”

“[They] hearken back to the old discipline of oration—something for which 19th century British politicians were especially famous, but that seems to have been replaced these days by asynchronic types of communication like texting, emailing, etc. Of course, this is not a knock on my students—they’re wonderful communicators in person!”

“The spoken midterm seeks to restore a kind of lost art in pedagogy: oratory, which is not just about presenting imaginative ideas connected to previous discussions, but also about the order, form, and organization of those ideas,” Kantor continued.

Kantor provides his students with a template, which should be used to guide their midterm discussion, since “it can be challenging to talk through a complicated literary problem in an orderly way,” said Kantor. “This, I think, presents a bit of challenge. Unlike playing a certain form in a jazz chart, or running a passing route in a football game, we’re not used to modeling our speech on a given template (not consciously, anyway—some scholars of linguistics might argue that there is always an implicit template in speech). But I think the advantages are numerous: students get a chance to assume the role of the teacher, shape what might be diffuse points they had in discussion into an organic whole, and they get to finish the whole thing in about 30 minutes,” Kantor added.

In terms of students’ reactions to oral assessments in his course, Kantor said that he hadn’t polled them on it, “but I think they liked it. … It’s also a shorter experience, although there may be more pressure because of its length. But, other than stressing the form of a good spoken argument, I try to keep it as natural and conversational as possible. I will certainly use spoken assessment in other classes–especially upper-level classes where students are about to enter the job market (and enjoy multiple rounds of interviews), or enter grad school.”

Oral assessments are also essential to foreign language courses, “where the goal … is development of oral and aural skills as well as reading and writing,” said Ziskind Professor of East Asian Studies Kimberly Besio in an email correspondence. In her Chinese courses, Besio uses a combination of essays, written exams, and oral presentations to assess her students. “I would imagine that in the future most [students] will use [their] spoken Chinese much more often than [their] written Chinese so I feel that it is important to work on oral presentation and aural comprehension as well as writing and reading. … Presentations push you to incorporate the patterns you are learning into a larger communicative context.  If you are not pushed to utilize new patterns to express your own ideas you will never make them your own,” she said.

In terms of grading oral assessments, Besio has developed an effective grading process. “For me it has been somewhat a long process to figure out how to grade oral assignments fairly.  When I first incorporated oral assignments into the class I tried to grade them on the fly and felt that such a method was very inadequate, then I started having them taped so that I could watch them several times each time focusing on different aspects of the presentation.  Ultimately though, I think the most useful (for the student) is the step that I added last year—that is to have each student come in and watch the tape with me so that we can discuss the ways you could have improved the presentation. … I think using oral assessment as part of the grade is actually fairer as some people are more oral than others; thus everyone can be assessed on both their strengths and weaknesses,” she said.

Assistant Professor of Spanish Bretton White also incorporates oral assessments in her courses, where lower-level Spanish courses are more focused on grammar and vocabulary, while higher-level courses are more focused on debate and communicating coherent thoughts.

For many professors, oral assessments complement the written coursework. “We speak every day in class. This is just a more formal extension of what students are always already doing. Also, we have designed a practical and comprehensive focus for their oral assessment. First, students write a letter of application to study abroad in a country/program of their choosing­—this is an in-class composition,” White said.

Next, students give presentations to a selection committee (comprised of their peers) for that study abroad program. In the presentations they describe their strengths as candidates and they narrate an event in their past that has shaped them as a person. The selection committee asks questions of the candidates. Finally, the students do one-on-one interviews with the program director (the professor) to discuss their application and their plans for the future,” White continued.

In foreign language courses, oral assessments cause students to develop a deeper level of understanding of the language. “I think a presentational oral test requires a student to fully know what he or she is expressing in a complete way.…In Spanish 126 (Elementary Spanish II) the presentation material stems from personal experience, so the material is well known to the speaker, so he or she can concentrate on the oral expression of that experience, which is often the primary challenge of this type of exercise at the beginning language level. In a conversational oral test, maintaining the thread of a conversation is examined. This involves many different skills, including listening comprehension, interpreting gestures and expressions, and responding accurately and appropriately in a timely way. I think my students recognize that it is challenging and possibly intimidating to speak in front of the class, alone, but we spend almost all of our class time speaking, so they are more prepared than they realize, I think,” said White.

Professors who incorporate oral assessments are requiring their students to be “just as convincing in person as they are on paper,” said Kantor. “We also shouldn’t forget the emphasis on spoken performance in graduate and post-professional education, which many Colby students pursue. Comprehensive exams, dissertation defenses, and mock litigation all require some sort of verbal acuity.”

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