Medievalising beginners’ French assignments & assessment: 2018 renovations & innovations (3), the next steps

This is the third of three posts on “innovative skill-based complex formative assessments.” The first post, two months ago, was about student projects, and how I’d changed them over the last year, learning from the students and from our work in the course. You could call this “interactive transformative learning.” The second post, from early June, was on the move from savoirs to savoir-faire to savoir-vivre, and student e-portfolios. This third one is in a drafty form; I’m posting it anyway. (I’m currently on annual leave and this post was delayed due to my being ill recently.)


—How can we make exams better? In composing them, we need to be taking exams beyond the mechanically summative, and breaking a toxic studying culture that’s contrary to, and destructive of, deep learning; exams that aren’t just the regurgitation of savoirs. (Caveat: I’m currently rereading Montaigne’s Essais as part of designing another course, so that’s going to be colouring anything else I’m thinking or writing about.)

—It’s already a start to include a question about individual work that brings out self-evaluation through reflection. That idea of “bringing forth from the inside” is an important one; it’s the literal, etymological, rich, deep sense of the word “education.”

For FREN 101 and 102, for example, it is the last question on the final examination (a closed-book traditional written exam). 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. 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):

—A next step: anti-exams that are both summative and formative: for example, retaking the same exam at the start of the next course in the sequence.


In our university, students already have the right to view their exams, and this is a good thing to be encouraged. How that works in practice is a matter of institutional culture. It’s not healthy, and is anti-educational, for seeing one’s exam paper to be associated with querying its mark and one’s final grade. That reinforces an emphasis on quantitative scores, point-scoring, the reduction of an individual human being and their learning to a statistical point in relation to mean, mode, median, range, percentiles, and GPA; the elimination of rich human relationships with fellow students as a collaborative learning community, in favour of competition; and all dealings with faculty restricted to product reviews, customer service transactions, and grade-grubbing. What would be better: making it normal to see one’s exam, and indeed, why not, to have a copy of it: so as to learn from mistakes, including mistakes that one made because one was in an exam situation and that one wouldn’t make under more usual circumstances. This can be reassuring to students who did well through the term—as all of them should, if they’ve worked well and regularly all term, and if a course has been designed to expect and encourage such work—and then did less well in a final exam. Seeing an exam a certain time after it, once one is out of exam mode and settled back down again, helps to develop critical distance including a distance from one’s previous selves and one’s work. That work is not you; you are not your work, and certainly not just that single piece of work.

Teaching and coordinating beginners’ French, and having dealt with placement and advising as part of my work over the last few years, means that I’ve often worked with students who are in their first year at university. Life is difficult for them, as university is very different from high school. Or at least it ought to be, and it ought to be expected to be. One way in which it’s different is that you’re not going to get 90-99% just for doing everything that you were told to do: this is “higher” and “advanced” education, and that means going beyond the mere box-ticking. Another way is that you will be expected to have developed, or to develop, critical distance. Unfortunately, that can translate as “no molly-coddling” or harshness or not caring, or to a quantified distanciation and dehumanisation, including numerus clausus approaches to marking and rigid scaling of grades. Dehumanising, in removing human agency and responsibility from the equation, that of individual faculty; and in turning assessment into a mechanical and mechanised exercise, with the removal of humans rendering it neat and tidy, clean, fair, impartial, and pure. Amongst other neoliberal horrors, that dehumanisation is a double blow to critical distance and to individual agency and responsibility.

As my friend TH observes, in the context of a conversation today about syllabus-writing, this sort of thing moves a course (and a university itself) from the domain of students and teachers and knowledge, to that of what he called “Administrators and Assessors”; the domain of risk management, accountancy, and branding; perpetuating an anti-academic consumerist commodifying compliance culture. More obviously damaging to faculty work; less obviously, to knowledge and to learning; most importantly, harmful to students and through them with future repercussions for a society and for our shared world outside academia, a world that public universities are a part of. Something that needs to be explained to unimaginative non-academic types—you know, the kind who throw around words like “innovation” unaware of the irony of their doing so, and who need measurable deliverables—is that insofar as there is any tangible “product” resulting from this process, it is knowledge and know-how. Transformative learning, in which a student is transformed through learning and they transform learning by creating knowledge. A student is their own product. True “learning outcomes” can’t be known until much later. Perhaps, even, not until one’s death. Or later. (But bear in mind that I am currently deep in rereading Montaigne, and haunted like him by La Boétie.)

Make exams more individual, human, personal, and critical. For students writing them and for faculty designing and marking them. Make them critical in the full proper sense of the word: weighing positives and negatives, commenting on both, putting the “value” back into an evaluation that’s returned to its proper centre, wise judgement. Add more formative assessment and feedback and commentary. That’s how learning happens: making mistakes and learning from them, and continuing to do so for ever, building one’s knowledge each time.

Make evaluation valuable, qualitative, about values and value, and about valuing student work. This also means: invest in faculty so that they have time to give proper formative feedback. Slowly, attentively, to treat each individual student and their work decently and respectfully. Multiple-choice tests and exams, computer-markable, purely quantitative and summative: that is not the answer. I see the results every year, in students who “studied” and were trained to pass tests and get high grades at high school, but have forgotten everything they knew (insofar as they had actually learned anything) by the time they next take a French course; a year or two later, or even just a few months later.

Return value and meaning to the word “evaluation.” Rescue it, in activist resistance philology, from misuse and abuse by the colonialist usurpations of corporatese that have emptied it of descriptive content and connotation, destroyed via purified denotation that’s anti-learning and anti-knowledge and paradoxically prescriptive.

Make evaluation meaningful again.


A practical application: make learning more poetic. Structure and syllabus, materials, assignments. A whole course, a course as a whole, and everything in it. Metaphorically speaking, any course has the potential to sing. To be lyric writ large, in the progressively-compiled collection that is an undergraduate degree, which will be a song-book for the future continuations and commentary that are a life lived fully, poetically. The troubadour chansonniers aren’t just books containing medieval Occitan literature; these exemplary collections of poems, songs, and commentary around them are a model for radical education, for lifelong learning, and for a transformative universal poeticity thinking and going far beyond the present.

—more poetry and more work with poetry and other short-form word-arts, adapting and transforming a general CEFR / DELF to a university setting, in a department of French (and other) language, literatures, and cultures. There are already other DELFs for other audiences: primary school, businesspeople. Why not add more? Be it officially or by adapting the DELF to a “DELF+” model?

—some examples for French: memes, comics / bande dessinée, medieval manuscript illuminations and marginalia and their contextual interaction with rubrication and text, Apollinaire calligrams and bestiary, Ponge prose poems, La Bruyère portraits, La Rochefoucault maxims, inspirational quotes, epigrams and epitaphs, pastiches and parodies of all of the above, Surrealist creative games, and puns.

—in short: any form of word-art with a focus on sound-effects, word-play, and linguistic aesthetics; in appreciation, commentary, and active making. Rather, interactive: working with rather than on language itself. And enjoying it.


—more peer evaluation, by students of each other, both formative and summative. Some previous examples:

  • MDVL 310D: Topics in Medieval Studies
    MARVELS” (2018)
  • MDVL301A: Medieval Studies: European Literature from the 5th to the 14th Century
    THE LIBERAL ARTS“ (2016)
  • RMST 221: Literatures and Cultures of the Romance World I: Medieval to Early Modern
    INTRIGUE” (2012)

I’ve already learned a lot this year from my colleague Dr Bri Orr (who teaches Spanish and Arts One), and from an exciting session at Congress about assignments and assessment, which included learning from peers.


—organising resources collected by students, ex. YouTube channels for grammar videos. See also: resources (grammar, dictionaries) on this blog, and on the free open public UBC Blogs “FREN 101 & 102 resources” site; in August I will be adding some student selections to both. I’ll also ask the students concerned if they wish to be credited by name; this might take some time and mean changes along the way.

Student collection of resources is knowledge-production: or, learning-centred learning: distinct from conservative teacher-centred or neoliberal consumerist student-centred learning, this idea is a cooperative, anarchist, feminist, ecocritical work together by peers, all of use serving the greater good of knowledge together and helping future students; sustainable and sustaining; contributing to a live dynamic ecosystem. Potentially, a crowd-sourcing of material for an open access part of a department site, as open education resources, outreach, public humanities, and public service.

One could also call this “transformative learning”; a term rich in its ambiguity and philological layers.

—one of the things that students hated the most about the new form of our French courses is that all the materials are in French, including grammar; 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.

Formative: laying foundations and working practices for future—long-term, over more than one course, potentially over a degree, and later lifelong—learning. “Continuing studies” can also be what the words say. Further reading: Michel de Certeau, Albert Camus. (And of course Montaigne.)

—the inclusion of public-facing scholarship.

—ePortfolios and transferrable skills for workplaces: not just consumers but makers, not just reviewers and reactions but shapers of discourse, moderators and facilitators of online interactions


Can the summative also be formative? If not, and if a choice must be made between the two, instead of settling for the summative—easier, falsely objective, dangerously reductive, and destructive to actual learning—how can that choice instead be the formative?

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