Sunday, January 25, 2009

Latest Issue of Foreign Language Annals and Spanish Community Service Learning

As usual, the Winter 2008 issue of Foreign Language Annals if full of good information for language instructors. While there are no articles specifically about community service learning, the topic does show up in one article:

Jose G. Ricardo-Osorio. "A Study of Foreing Language Learning Outcomes Assessment in U.S. Undergraduate Education." Foreign Language Annals 41.4 (2008): 590-610.

I have been thinking a lot lately about what a degree in Spanish really means. The obvious conclusion is that it means different things for different stakeholders:
  • Professors think it has to do with critical thinking skills and an overall knowledge of language and culture--usually taught through linguistics and literature.
  • Students think it means learning to speak Spanish and learn about the people of Spanish-speaking countries.
  • Employers think it means fluency.

Those may be gross generalizations, but as generalizations I think they are accurate. (Write a comment to agree or disagree!)

It seems to me that only in a well-run Spanish community service learning course or program do those three perspectives begin to converge.

Why do I say that? Because in most literature/culture courses in the Spanish major that I am aware of, there is no intentional language instruction. Students are expected to improve their fluency and accuracy by osmosis.

So then what happens after a Spanish major takes several courses of this type of instruction in linguistics and literature/culture? I don't think we know, in the true sense of program assessment. We can see what grades a student received and whether or not he/she studied abroad, but not much else. At the University of Illinois, only the students studying to be high school Spanish teachers must take the oral proficiency test.

I invite you to read Ricardo-Osorio's article about students' foreign language learning outcomes. I learned a lot from it. I also understand that most Spanish departments--especially now--simply don't have the resources it takes to do a thorough assessment of their majors' learning outcomes before they graduate.

What are the types of assessment that Ricardo-Osorio notes?
  1. The OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview)
  2. Self-Assessment
  3. Student Portfolios
  4. Exit Exams
  5. Computer-Assisted Assessment
  6. Capstone Course Project
  7. Service Learning Project

Regarding the Service Learning Project as a means to assess student learning outcomes, Ricardo-Osorio writes, "Due to the nature of service learning, performance-based assessments can easily be incorporated. Thus, Students may be required to apply what they learned in the classroom to real life scenarios" (595).

As anyone who teaches/directs Spanish community service learning (CSL) knows, this is very oversimplified. We are only beginning to understand what assessment can look like in foreign langauage CSL. (Darcy Lear and I plan to present and publish on this in the near future.) And in a huge program like the U of I's, how could you possibly create a CSL experience for every student AND assess that experience in the way Ricardo-Osorio describes: "To ensure quality, teachers must observe and record not only what and how the students do, but also the effect of the experience on the other participating agents of the project (i.e., community and special populations) (Holland, 2001)" (595).

I am glad to see CSL included as a part of the solution to assess our Spanish majors' learning outcomes. Obviously, the idea needs much more development and input from CSL practitioners.


  1. Dear Ann,
    I am glad to know that you found the data I presented in my article very informative. I look forward to reading your research on student learning outcomes assessment in CSL programs.
    I think that one way to use CSL as a key assessment is to random sample the students who will participate in the program. As you assert, using CSL as an assessment measure can be a very complex (and logistically impossible)endeavour. However, it can be used to assess certain students. If we accept that students learn at different paces and by various means, we must also embrace the notion of assessing students in the same way they learn. This means that the ideal students to participate in a CSL program should be students who better learn by doing, by constructing, by solving problems. Bottom line, not all of the students in a foreign language program should be assessed through CSL. There are other performance-based options that can be used instead. A foreign language department's learning outcomes assessment report could include CSL as a key assessment to collect data for program improvement. Thus, a random sampling approach may be less expensive and easier to administer.
    I would like to maintain our communication channels open. It is always encouraging to come across colleagues who are also passionate about the assessment of learning.

  2. I'm glad to see your comment here! CSL was not the direct focus of your article, obviously, so it is nice to see more of your ideas about CSL assessment here.
    I don't want this to get buried in a comment that no one reads, so I'll feature your comment in a post.