Language learning holds a central place in the experience of most CLA students; anyone earning a BA degree is required to demonstrate proficiency in a second language by the time they graduate. But learning a language can be an intimidating prospect.
Dan Soneson, director of the CLA Language Center, is always looking to improve the experience. “How are we approaching our task [of] helping students …. what kinds of things could language programs be working towards within our curriculum?”
Soneson’s efforts received a major boost three years ago thanks to a prestigious national grant which has put students in charge of their own language learning experience
Funding a New Way of Learning
In August 2014 the University of Minnesota Twin Cities was one of three large public universities to receive a Proficiency Initiative grant (dubbed PACE, for Proficiency Assessment for Curricular Enhancement, by the Language Center), funded by the federal Language Flagship program. With the $1.2 million awarded, the Language Center has been able to assess student proficiency, provide professional development for instructors, and involve students in the process through self-assessment.
Administered by the Language Center, PACE has involved students and instructors from seven language programs: Arabic, French, German, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
After three years of PACE funding , it has become increasingly possible for the instructors to assess what tools and resources work and don’t work. Among these are tests sponsored by the American Council of Foreign Language Teachers (ACTFL). Major trends in student learning have also been documented and methods adjusted.
“One of the things that has come out of the PACE project in several languages and at different levels is ... that listening comprehension was low. So there’s this push to make changes in the curriculum to address that,” says Joanne Peltonen, Language Center testing coordinator.
Becoming Your Own BOSS(A)
A key component of the PACE program is the Basic Outcomes Student Self Assessment (BOSSA). Through BOSSA, students can take control of their own learning goals and outcomes. This self-assessment tool allows students to record themselves speaking in the language they are learning and then rate their own progress based on that recording.
CLA sophomore Emily Nagel participated in BOSSA for the first time this year. “It was weird at first, but it allows us to come to terms with how we actually sound and work on things that are important, like pronunciation and fluency,” she says.
Students discuss their analysis in a group setting with fellow classmates and their instructor. Self-assessment tools like BOSSA not only provide valuable information that allows teachers to better gauge student learning within their classroom, but also creates a sense of community and a more productive learning environment for students. “It was encouraging because everyone was going through the same struggles,” says Nagel.
The PACE funding has had a transformative impact on language learning in CLA. “Instructors across languages, across programs, are talking to each other more. Our sense of community is growing and we feel energized by that,” says Gabriela Sweet, PACE sustainability coordinator. “The changes I’m seeing in the climate as far as the teacher not being the center of the classroom, students feeling more empowered, taking charge, having tools they can use and the self-assessment program will continue.”
Soneson notes that the PACE program has not only helped increase language proficiency but has built other skills vital to student success. “We’re dealing with a number of things, not just the proficiency development but also the development of the individual as an undergraduate student,” he says. “[Like] the development of critical thinking, of cultural analysis, of awareness of ‘the other’ and getting beyond one’s own small sphere of influences.”