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Student perceptions of beginning French and Spanish language performance. (Language Teaching & Learning).

Abstract

By examining students' perceptions of their personal language learning endeavors, teacher perceptions of their students' language learning, as well as the similarities and discrepancies therewithin, language teachers can gain valuable insights into their students' self-regulatory skills, thus informing the language instruction process. This study examines where (in terms of skill) and how (in terms of degree and direction) student and teacher perceptions coexist in the beginning French and Spanish classroom.

Introduction

Most U.S. students who have studied a second language have done so under less-than-ideal conditions. First, unlike our European counterparts, we tend to reserve language study for secondary and post-secondary level students (Brown, 1994). Second, language learning typically takes place in a classroom environment for a mere handful of hours per week. Most language educators would argue that beginning language instruction as early as possible, and within authentic contexts, should be our goal. However, until language teachers are able to reconfigure the U.S. educational system, we must continue to improve our understanding of the current language learning context: the classroom. To this end, the following pages seek to shed light on the language learning process by studying student perceptions of language performance in introductory second language (French and Spanish) courses.

Like all teachers, language educators have considerable influence on the ways in which their students make sense of their learning and qualify their successes and failures. Certainly, both the implicit and explicit messages that we convey in our classrooms affect our students' developing notions of themselves as language learners, as well as their progress in the language (Williams and Burden, 1999: 200).

Students judge their success by internal (personal opinion) as well as external (teacher approval, grades) factors (Williams and Burden, 1999). Whereas language teachers are unable to tap into their students' internal measures of performance, we can help students to become more accurate assessors by ameliorating the quality of the external messages we send. For the less-skilled student, simple grades may be an insufficient medium of communication. Individual conferences or frequent narrative progress reports, for example, may be possible ways of improving the accuracy of the less-skilled student's perception and, quite possibly, performance.

By examining our students' perceptions of their personal language learning endeavors, teacher perceptions of their students' language learning, as well as the similarities and discrepancies therewithin, language teachers can gain valuable insights into their students' self-regulatory skills, thus informing the language instruction process. Indeed, Boekaerts (1998) believes that post-modern education must encourage students to steer and direct their own learning (p. 13), and an essential first step toward this goal is understanding how students perceive their own performance.

Perception Theory

Three dominant models (attribution theory, self-efficacy, and self-concept) have given shape to much of the perception research to date, and can be classified primarily in terms of where they cast their gaze: back toward the past, ahead to the future, or on the present.

The Past

Attribution theory posits the student as a rational analyzer of learning causes and outcomes in which retrospective judgement of the causes of one's performance has a motivational effect. The causal determiners most commonly cited in any given success or failure have been: ability, effort, luck, and task difficulty (Weiner, 1983). Causal attributions are "latent variables-mental states or events that are not observable but are presumed to exist because their effects are observable" (Whitley, Hanson, and Frieze, 1985: 609). At its core, attribution research seeks to reveal how learners explain a completed-or past-success or failure. Although a retrospective explanation, causal attributions can motivate a future action as well. Indeed, Bandura and Dweck (1985), found that students' beliefs about the nature of their intelligence predicted their achievement goal preference.

The Future

Self-efficacy refers to the beliefs that one has in his or her "capacities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments" (Bandura 1997: 3). Self-efficacy, however, does not equal self-esteem. Whereas self-efficacy is based upon judgements of personal capacity, self-esteem is based upon judgements of overall self-worth, with "no fixed relationship between beliefs about one's capabilities and whether one likes or dislikes oneself" (Bandura, 1997:11). Whereas attribution theory attempts to explain a past outcome, perceived self-efficacy refers to the beliefs about what one is able to do, in the future, with the skills that one possesses today.

The Present

Self-concept is comprised of thoughts and feelings about the self within very specific domains such as emotional stability, physical appearance, academic study, and conduct. The role of self-concept is to:

1. maintain consistency in an individual's goal structure;

2. interpret experiences in terms of their salience; and

3. provide a set of expectancies (Boekaerts, 1998: 16).

The self-concept (the attributes or flaws that a person believes he or she possesses) is at times at odds with the "ideal self" (the attributes that a person would like to possess).

For Byrne (1984), there is an "unquestionable, persistent relationship between one's self-concept and his or her academic ability" (440). Most educators would agree that students' actions and affect influence learning. For Zimmerman (1994: 3), students are "metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their own learning process"

The present investigation, therefore, chose to examine the beginning language student's self-concept and the relationship between student and teacher perceptions of performance. Specifically, students' current (or on-line) perceptions of language performance were compared to teachers' perceptions of these same students' performance.

Language Learning Strategies

Learning strategies are specific actions taken by the learner to "make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferable to new situations" (Oxford, 1990: 8). Learning strategies are typically categorized as either direct or indirect and include: memory strategies, cognitive strategies, comprehension strategies, metacognitive strategies, affective strategies, and social strategies. Learning strategies that have been identified as particularly useful to second language learners include: goal-setting, circumlocution, use of mnemonics, and use of contextual cues (Brown, 1994). Simply put, learning strategies are the specific "attacks" (Brown, 1994: 114) that learners employ when faced with a language learning problem. Selection and execution of any given "attack" varies considerably within and across individuals and is a direct result of how learners perceive their language ability and performance.

Whereas relatively few studies have investigated student perceptions within the beginning language classroom, a wealth of recent research has concentrated on language learning strategies. Just as the profession has come to realize the importance of studying our students' language learning strategies and developing explicit training in the use of more effective strategies, so must we begin to study student perceptions of language performance and develop tools to improve communication and understanding between teacher and student.

Unfortunately, perceptions, like language learning strategies, are often impossible to observe. Therefore, both language learning strategies and perceptions of language performance must be carefully excavated by the interested practitioner via mechanisms such as questionnaires and/or interviewing techniques. Given the sizeable number of learning strategy studies to date, many research tools have already been developed to aid the researcher in identifying the "unobservable", namely language learning strategy questionnaires. Because questions pertaining to both language learning strategies and language learning perceptions must be posed directly to the learner, the questionnaire seemed the most efficient and logical tool for the following perception inquiry (Bailey, 1990; Oxford, 1990).

The Study

Methodology

Students' perceptions of their second language performance and teachers' perceptions of their students' performance are far from perfectly congruous (Boekaerts, 1998; Gascoigne, in press). To investigate the extent and direction of teacher-student perception discrepancies in the introductory second language classroom, an interpretative survey study was conducted. Specifically, a questionnaire (see Appendix A) was administered to post-secondary level beginning students of French and Spanish. A teacher-perception survey (see Appendix B) was used to gather teacher-perception data.

Participants

Students enrolled in introductory (first-semester) French and Spanish at the University of Nebraska at Omaha during the fall of 2000 participated in this study. Two instructors (one in French and one in Spanish) provided perception data as well. All students were either true beginners (no prior experience in their respective language) or they had limited high school language experience but were placed into the introductory course as the result of a placement examination. All participants were native English speakers. The classes contained a mix of both males and females. Although not a requirement, all 33 students who were asked to participate elected to do so. Participants were not compensated. Both instructors held PhDs in their respective languages and had at least ten years teaching experience.

Materials

The only tool used in this study was the self-perception questionnaire and variations thereof. The student perception questionnaire (see Appendix A for a collapsed French and Spanish version) is a recasting of Rebecca Oxford's Self-Evaluation Questionnaire (Oxford, 1990: 182-83), modified elsewhere (Gascoigne, in press). The questionnaire contained five sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing skills, and overall language performance. Each of the five sections contained situational questions, "How much do you understand of a typical classroom reading passage (less than half, more than half, all of it)?" And general questions, "Give yourself an overall rating on writing." Two versions of the student perception questionnaire were developed. Although all questions contained an identical structure, one version was administered to students of French, and therefore contained references to French, while the other was administered to students of Spanish, and contained references to Spanish (see Appendix A for a collapsed version).

A teacher perception questionnaire was also drafted. The questions on the teacher perception questionnaire paralleled those of the student questionnaires. This tool, however, allowed the teacher to reflect upon and record her perception of each student's performance. The two instructors completed the teacher perception questionnaire once per student (17 and 16 times respectively). Although not the main focus of the investigation, final course grades were also collected.

Procedure

Ten weeks into the semester, students in both classes were given the student perception questionnaires to complete and return to the instructor. Students were given 15 minutes of class time to carefully reflect upon their language performance and record their reflections on the survey. Students were encouraged to be honest and were ensured that their responses would have no influence on their final course grades. Moreover, the instructors did not review the student perception responses until after the final course grades were tallied and turned in to the registrar.

Because the instructors had to complete surveys for 17 and 16 students respectively, this was done out of class when the instructors had a sufficient block of time available to reflect on each individual student. The instructors neither consulted their grade-books, nor reviewed the student perception questionnaires. Instead, the instructors recorded their individual reflections, as did the students. Also, both the instructors and the students were instructed to complete their respective questionnaires with the students' level of language study in mind. In other words, students (and instructors) were not to compare the students' performance to that of a native speaker of the target language, for example.

Results

Both the student perception and the teacher perception questionnaires were based on a five-point scale. The questionnaires asked respondents to rank each skill according to the following criteria:

1 point -- doing very well

2 points -- doing just fine

3 points -- not too bad

4 points -- having a few problems

5 points -- having serious problems (Gascoigne, in press)

Final course grades were assigned the typical A, B, C, D, or F letter grade. A final course grade of A was assigned a point value of one (doing very well). A final course grade of F was given five points (having serious problems).

Tables 1 through 4 present average student and teacher perceptions by skill for each language. Using the teachers' perceptions as an arbitrary point of departure, Tables 1 through 4 also provide the average difference scores. A teacher perception rating minus a student perception rating yielded a difference score. A negative difference score indicates a student underestimate relative to the instructor's perception. A positive difference score represents a student overestimate relative to the instructor's perception. Table 5 presents student and teacher perceptions for overall language performance. Table 6 provides three sets of difference scores for overall performance: teacher minus student perceptions, teacher perceptions minus final course grades, and student perceptions minus final course grades. See issue's website <http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/fallp.htm>

Discussion

This investigation examined student perceptions of overall language performance, as well as breaking down perceptions on a skill by skill basis: speaking, writing, reading, and listening. Not only did the survey results provide interesting information concerning the degree and direction (underestimates or overestimates) in which student perceptions differ from teacher perceptions, but this information also suggests where, in terms of skill, teacher feedback / communication must be improved.

French

Both for individual skills and overall language ability, beginning French students overestimated their performance relative to their instructors' perception. The students' overestimates were significant for overall ability and all skills except listening comprehension.

Although not evident in the tabled averages, a student by student comparison revealed a more interesting trend than the skill by skill configuration. Specifically, the greatest discrepancy between student and teacher perceptions occurred for the weakest students, that is students with the lowest overall grades. Inversely, the smallest discrepancies between student and teacher perceptions occurred with the strongest students. It should be noted that the final course grades also correlated very highly with the teacher perceptions (see Table 6).

Spanish

The results for the Spanish students were somewhat similar to those for the French students. Beginning Spanish students overestimated their performance relative to their instructor's perception with regards to overall language ability and all individual skills except listening comprehension. Here, students underestimated their performance relative to their instructor's perception. However, none of the estimates yielded significant results.

The student by student comparison for beginning Spanish students revealed the same trend as that of beginning French students. Students receiving the lowest overall grades tended to overestimate their abilities relative to the teacher's perceptions. However, it should be noted that the final course grades correlated very highly with both the teacher and student perceptions.

In need of further investigation are the unique findings in terms of listening comprehension for both French and Spanish. For the Spanish students, listening comprehension was the only skill for which the students produced an underestimate relative to the teacher's perception. For students of French, the differences for listening comprehension were the only scores that did not reach statistical significance. Although different results (underestimate, a lack of significance) in terms of language, the common uniqueness of the listening comprehension outcomes is of great interest and begs further study.

Conclusion

Results of the present investigation indicate that the weaker language students are not only less skilled in terms of language performance, but also, and perhaps relatedly, less skilled at assessing their language performance. The specific relationship between the less-skilled students' performance and their perception of their performance begs further investigation. Indeed, a host of explanations, ranging from the causal to the coincidental, could be posited. Nevertheless, the most immediate point raised by the results is that less-skilled language students tend to be less skilled at assessing their progress in the language both overall and in terms of individual skills. Particular care, therefore, must be taken to improve communication between the less-skilled language student and the instructor. Moreover, traditional feedback (grades, isolated comments) may need to be expanded and retooled for the less-skilled student.

Works Cited

Bailey, Kathleen. "The Use of Diary Studies in Teacher Education Programs." Second Language Teacher Education. Eds. J.C. Richards and D. Nunan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, (1990): 215-226.

Bandura, Albert. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman and Co., 1997.

Bandura, M., and Carol Dweck. "The Relationship of Conceptions of Intelligence and Achievement Goals to Achievement-Related Cognition, Affect, and Behavior." Unpublished Manuscript. Harvard University. 1985.

Boekaerts, Monique. "Boosting Students' Capacity to Promote Their Own Learning: A Goal Theory Perspective." Research Dialogue in Learning and Instruction. 1.1 (1998): 13-18.

Brown, H. Douglas. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Byrne, Barbara. "The General/Academic Self-Concept Nomological Network: A Review of Construct Validation Research." Review of Educational Research 54,3 (1984): 427-56.

Gascoigne Lally, Carolyn. "Discrepancies in Teacher and Student Perceptions of French Language Performance." The French Review (in press).

Oxford, Rebecca. Language Teaching Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. New York: Newbury House Publishers, 1990.

Weiner, Bernard. "Speculations Regarding the Role of Affect in Achievement-Change Programs Guided by Attributional Principles." Teacher and Student Perceptions: Implications for Learning. Eds. John M. Levine and Margret C. Wang. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, (1983): 57-74.

Whitley, Bernard, Irene Hanson, and I. Frieze. "Children's Causal Attributions for Success and Failure in Achievement Settings: A Meta-Analysis." Journal of Educational Psychology 77,5 (1985): 608-616.

Williams, Marion and Robert Burden. "Students' Developing Conceptions of Themselves as Language Learners." Modern Language Journal 83 (1999): 193-201.

Zimmerman, Barry. "Discussions of Academic Self-Regulation: A Conceptual Framework for Education." Self Regulation of Learning and Performance. Eds. Dale Schunk and Barry Zimmerman. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum (1994): 3-24.

Carolyn Gascoigne, The University of Nebraska at Omaha Karen Robinson, The University of Nebraska at Omaha

Carolyn, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of French and Second Language Acquisition. Karen, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Second Language Acquisition.
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Author:Robinson, Karen
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
Words:2873
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