Medievalising beginners’ French assignments & assessment: 2018 renovations & innovations (1)

(This and other medieval manuscript images punctuating this series of posts are via Emily Steiner (University of Pennsylvania), @PiersatPenn)

French courses here at UBC have changed considerably over the last two years.


At this time two years ago, a group of FHIS colleagues had come to the end of a university internal grant redesigning some French and Spanish courses; more at “Shiny new research project” (April 2015). By spring 2017, that project had already directly benefitted over 1,000 students, benefits that included saving them money. In February 2017 we had asked for a 12-month extension to the project, to continue work on the courses that had had lowest priority in the project (for valid reasons), FREN 101 and 102, using that grant’s remaining funds ($8,000). That would have meant finishing the new materials we’d already made for it and setting them up online; I wanted this to be free open access, but was dreading the next steps that would follow: discussion with other people, as not everyone is in favour of free open access, especially those who use the fine noble word “innovation” to mean “an invention or other new thing to which intellectual property can be attached, that belongs to someone, from which money can be made.” IP for these materials would reside with the University and could be theirs to dispose of as they saw fit. This is a known problem with grant-dependent research and innovation; a systemic problem in neoliberal universities generally.

Fortunately none of these dread things happened, as we didn’t get that grant extension (as far as I know?), but everything turned out fine and maybe even for the better. In addition, between 2015 and 2019, our university and province have moved towards embracing and promoting open access resources.

Starting in August 2017, a group of faculty in the department spent a year working together to rethink and redesign French language courses and programmes as a whole. This work was voluntary, in addition to our regular work, and cost the university no money. The principal change aligned eight courses (FREN 101-102-111-112-122-123-224-225) with the Common European Framework of Reference in Languages (CEFR) / French DELF (the two are equivalent, the DELF being the CEFR translated to French). The CEFR is the main international standard for EU languages, as used in schools and universities worldwide. See also: “Shiny new French courses” (September 2018).

We decided together on textbooks, in French and from publishers based in France, around which the coordinators of each course produced new structures and syllabus. In changing course materials, we have already saved students a lot of money: for FREN 101 and 102, new materials are less than half the price of the previous ones (⅓ of the price compared to the version sold, with price markup, at the UBC Bookstore), saving at least $50 per person. As we have around 800-900 students a year, taking into account that many of those taking FREN 102 took 101 in the previous term, even if that means halving those numbers that’s a saving of at least $20,000. A bonus; not yet the ideal for a public university, of materials that are free and open (and with no tuition fees but grants paid for by taxes, but that’s another can of worms), but as discussed previously (“On textbooks, midterm blues, and other truths of social justice,” October 2017) that’s not yet an option for French.

The experimental new incarnations of our French courses started in September 2018 and have now run for an academic year. Course coordinators and other faculty who regularly teach that sequence of French courses met over this last academic year and at its end, to check in on how the new materials were working, and to discuss further adaptations: for example, meeting in April to discuss changes for the summer iterations and for next year.

(For the record, one of the things that student hated the most was that all the materials are in French, including grammar explanations; as usual, in my experience teaching university language courses, students aren’t anti-grammar—au contraire—but they’re pro-understanding including more and deeper explanations that are comprehensible and at their intellectual level: so, in English. This is something that we need to work on, and to work creatively around DELF methodology. My compromise so far is “Resources: grammar” (December 2018). More in the third post of this present series.)

I was fortunate to benefit from another internal grant, providing me with a teaching buy-out so that I was only teaching two rather than the usual three courses in September-December 2018. This grant was in part to provide time for working on individual projects associated with a course. In my case, that course was FREN 101 and to a lesser extent 102; I have been and am currently coordinating these two courses. Results:

  • new course outlines (DONE also by other colleagues in this sequence of French courses)
  • proposed course revisions (DONE)
  • development of teaching/instructional strategies (DONE: see this post and the next two)
  • assignment banks (DONE: assignments in the rest of this post)
  • suggestions for specific language learning modules/resources (DONE: see next post)

This set of three posts is on the “innovative skill-based complex formative assessments,” as it were, that came out of work redesigning FREN 101. I’m currently teaching and coordinating the course again, so I’ve made some changes: learning (I hope) from how the course had worked in practice, how its continuation in the next course had worked, how students had done the assignments, and what students had said about all this in conversation. I’ll also be asking for further feedback later in the summer, in time to take into account before September and the start of the new term and academic year.


Aim: going beyond the (French) textbook and its assignments, adapting them to students’ individual lives and our local environment, to a university setting, and to transnational critical intercultural understanding.

In previous incarnations of FREN 101 and 102, students had already been doing locally-centred projects, mapping “their” UBC and Vancouver. Here’s the oldest one, in its first version in FREN 102 from August 2013:

and its first version for FREN 101, again in a summer course, in June 2014, as an optional extra:

This idea shares common ground with medieval European ones of mapping and wayfinding, of adventuring while contemplating one’s journey; a map-making that is not a simple representation but a translation, transfiguration, and transformation; a transformation of the mapper; geographies and psychogeography, storytelling, and reflection.

For more on perceptions of maps and mapping, see “Losing oneself, being found, and finding one’s own way: Lancelot’s adventurous travel without maps” (November 2009, for the 38th UBC Medieval Workshop, “Writing the World”), and for more the work of a local UBC Medieval Studies colleague, Robert Rouse, who organised that workshop / conference and has worked extensively on mapping.

Projects for these courses had also always (since 2009, and when teaching similar courses all the way back to 2001) included creative writing options.

The autumn of 2018 was always going to be different and I’d long decided that at least one course that I would be teaching would feature some additional material and alternative assignments.

November 2018 marked the centenary of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s death and, two days later, the centenary of the end of World War I. The former was commemorated worldwide through contributions to the hashtag #APOLLINR18. See also: “Poeticising language learning for beginners (feat. Apollinaire for #APOLLINR18)” (October 2018).

Homework assignments (as distinct from regular practice exercises after class) should integrate French into a local environment and everyday life, and this in a place that is not Francophone. Our immediate written and legible environment is to some extent Francographic: bilingual labels on products in shops, for example. Vancouver is, however, multilingual; and like any environment, it is a multidimensional one that includes the online; virtual space; and the integrated other worlds of music, film, literature, and other creative and imaginative arts. (Thus, for example, a worldwide community’s remembrance of Apollinaire.)

Since 2015, I’ve offered at least one writing assignment in which students visit a UBC museum to look closely at and describe an object.

The fall 2018 FREN 101 had four projects, based on those at the end of each unit of the textbook, but with adaptations / translations to our local environment:

(Censored information above: blacked out by me, URLs of Dropbox files shared with students but not for open public use.)

I changed this project-part of the course work for the summer intensive version (May-June 2019). The changes I made were guided by listening to students, and by seeing what students themselves did with the assignments, especially those students who took more critical and creative directions, or redirections to an assignment.

In the first iteration, I placed students (on Canvas) in groups myself. Some groups needed tweaking, as people dropped out or students asked to be moved into other groups. The next term, in FREN 102, I set up groups the same way for the first project and then offered students the possibility to reconfigure their groups for other projects. Some students worked alone. I changed the project parameters slightly so that they were adaptable for groups of different sizes. This term, back to FREN 101, I’ve left group-formation up to students: a group can have 1-4 students, with approximately the same quantity of work per student (scaled up or down for different group sizes). I’ve had students do group work before in other courses, and have learned to be flexible in managing them and in trying to factor in strategies for dealing with all that can go wrong with group work and with groups; ensuring that individual work (or lack thereof) is recognised within that of the group, offering extensions and peace talks when needed, and so on. Generally things work out in the end.

I was heartened to see how many students made friends in their groups and enjoyed working together; in a language class, one of the main end results—a “learning outcome,” if you will—ought to be human relationships, the formation of friendships and communities. That sort of thing is part of the university’s strategic plan, and part of the purpose of any university undergraduate degree, serving the public good in preparing future citizens. This is easier in smaller classes (that is, the size that language classes ought to be, and for which CEFR / DELF materials are intended and designed), but the “think-pair-square-share” approach (hence a basic unit that is the group of around 4 people) is a compromise.

In the summer version, to see what happens, I’ve left students to organise themselves into groups. With hindsight, this seems to me to be a better idea anyway. The exercise isn’t an experiment in behavioural psychology. Its point isn’t how students work together, but the work itself. If the first classes have been set up so that students get to spend time meeting and working with each other, then they have some sense of compatibility. Group work is set up so that students can do everything on UBC Canvas if they wish, thus avoiding using other social media, exchanging personal information, and engaging in unnecessary risky online behaviour. Students also have the option of working together in real life, for which it is best that they figure out their own groups as they live all over Vancouver and could potentially be 3 hours away from each other, and some also work during the day (some are also parents and caregivers) and need to fit this course and its work around the rest of their schedule and life.

I changed stage 2 of the project to add options for groups whose “local environment” wasn’t the UBC campus. Yes, flexibility means that sometimes you make changes to courses along the way when they have started; but they should be done responsibly, exercising sense and judgement, and only ever be changes like this one which are to the benefit of students:


Students know that if they want to work with others but haven’t found partners, I can help; and they have the option of working alone if they prefer. (I’m also pretty open to extensions when needed and duly requested.) I guess this is a kind of “flexible blended hybrid” course, in that I’ve built flexibility into it so that it can bend and weave around students, pliable and adaptable to them as individual human beings. This change has therefore been as much for theoretical (andragogy vs. pedagogy, and treating adults like adults) and ideological (respect, equity, social justice) reasons as practical ones.

The big change: the summer 2019 course has one single project, working towards something akin to a “scaffolded” structure, in part for another practical reason: the summer incarnation of the course is shorter and more intensive. The winter-session courses are thirteen weeks long, three hours a week; those in the summer are six weeks long, for six hours a week.

With a simplified and semi-scaffolded approach, students make one larger thing in steps rather than several unrelated (or not directly obviously related) smaller things. I’m calling this semi-scaffolded, as it’s not the fuller hand-holding and slow-motion work in class that one would have in a fully scaffolded assignment (see this 2014 piece by Rebecca Alber from Edutopia, for example). Visualise the actual scaffolding at the origin of the figurative usage. Add, perhaps, a flying buttress or two and maybe even a gargoyle afterwards.

This present kind of assignment, and perception of what an assignment is and why it is and what it is for, is aligned with my own previous course-design practices over the last ten years. Like anything else in teaching, I’m vaguely bumblingly aiming towards a philosophy of education / learning—the two words should be fully interchangeable—that aspires to one day being something like Ken Campbell’s “diddling” and doodling, “seekers,” and radical education. It’s about asking questions and seeking knowledge, about curiosity, about wonder, and about questioning everything including assignments and courses themselves.

I’m now trying to do with French what I do in other academic areas: build a course around a student project, akin to a medieval apprentice- or master-piece. (There are two, really, that weave together; the other is in the next post.) To grotesquely misquote Chrétien de Troye, a mout bele conjointure of “objective” and “outcome,” an “applied” and “transformative” learning from which savoir becomes savoir-faire. This assignment is not my idea at all but a medieval and medievalist one, which you’ll also find in cultures and histories all around the world, including many teaching traditions that are much older than those of medieval (let alone post-medieval or modern) Europe. Add in, and mix and stir, the idea of the project—from primary school onwards—and any other longer slower deeper kind of research up to dissertations, doctorates, and massive international long-term long-distance major research projects.

“Master-work” projects in previous courses:

How to assess this assignment? The first time I did this, in fall 2018, I used traditional marking: half the points for the content (le fond), half for language (la forme: spelling, grammar, structure). I observed what students did with the assignments, and spoke with and listened to those who came to give me feedback in office hours, and made some changes: here are the new marking rubrics for summer 2019:

This work is also assessed through the last question on the final examination (a closed-book traditional written exam), open-ended writing, asking students to write about their favourite project or savoir-vivre item (on which latter, see next post). This was the only part of the exam that included English in the instructions, being a different kind of exercise. Here, for comparison, is one of two earlier open-ended writing parts of a December 2018 exam:

And here is the last question in that exam:

There was an additional element, unknown before the exam: to whom are you explaining this?

To decide this, I handed us all over to Dame Fortune. I wrote twenty options on pieces of paper, folded them, put them in a hat, and drew one at random. (I’ve used StoryCubes in other assignments in other courses to add that element of the unknown and unknowable.) Similarly in the next course in the sequence, FREN 102, with one significant change: students learned past and future tenses in this course, which many used to enable explanation of the process of creation. This hadn’t been asked for specifically in the exam, but is an example of something I’ve learned from students this year, so I’ll be adapting this question on further exams: 101 version, description of item; 102 version, retelling the process.

An exam question like this means that the last thing that students write, and the very last work that they do in a course, is about knowledge that they have found and made themselves, ending an exam by turning to their own specialist expertise. A sweet note to end on for most students; a bitter one for those who did less work, or less intelligently and thoughtfully, carefully and caringly, or who cheated along the way. So far, we have been lucky and it has almost entirely been the former. Some previous examples of this kind of question from other exams, to show how it can be adapted to other courses (medieval studies, upper-level French culture):


2 Continuous assessment as self-assessment: savoir-vivre

3 The next steps

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