Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt: Stacey Johnson and Reflective Final Exams
By Faith Rovenolt, CFT undergraduate intern
During Spring 2020, the Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt blog series will highlight teaching innovations that CFT staff have implemented and evaluated in their own courses.
Dr. Stacey Johnson is passionate about teaching languages, and if there is one teaching technique she is passionate about, it’s reflective exams. For her graduate-level methods courses on teaching language, SLS 6030 – Foreign Language Learning and Teaching and EDUC 6580 – EFL Methods, Johnson prefers not to end the semester with a traditional final exam but rather has her students review what they’ve learned over the course and connect it back to the course’s learning objectives.
For students learning to teach foreign languages, Johnson’s course provides the knowledge they need. Just as important as what they learn in the class, though, is the perspective shift on how they look at the material. Johnson’s students are changing from learners to teachers. Johnson hopes and has found that by using a reflective final exam, her students can become aware of their own perspective shifts and come to appreciate the difficulty and lifelong dedication learning to teach requires.
Additionally, Johnson doesn’t feel that a traditional exam is merited in her courses. The graduate students she teaches are already highly motivated and by the time of final exams, Johnson has already gauged how well her students are doing through various class assignments. Therefore, she doesn’t need a final exam to convince herself that they’re doing well—she gives a reflective final exam so her students can have clear in their own minds that they know the material.
To implement this, Johnson has the course’s objectives clearly stated in the syllabus. Example learning objects may look like:
By the end of this course, students will be able to confidently say:
1. I can use my knowledge of L2 teaching methodology to plan instruction that promotes language acquisition and successful intercultural communication.
2. I can gather and interpret information about learning and performance to promote the continuous intellectual, social, and linguistic development of each learner.
3. I can evaluate instruction based on my knowledge of language acquisition and critically engaged teaching.
4. I can make a case for what constitutes excellent language teaching based on my own and others’ experiences; principles of justice, equity, and access; as well as theory, research, and best practices.
Johnson then conducts a “pre-survey” where students free-write on what they know about the learning objectives. They have about 20 minutes of class time and one page, front and back, to write. Johnson collects the assignment, using them to gauge knowledge gaps and to customize her teaching for the class, and the students don’t see what they wrote again until the final exam. Students go into the final exam knowing that it is low stakes, counting for only a small part of their final grade.
On the reflective final exams, Johnson asks her students to revisit their original free-write and answer what they’ve learned since, how they would answer differently, and what else they need to learn. Importantly, Johnson has not written any critiques or feedback on their original free-write, so any adjustments are their own. An example final exam’s questions might look like:
- What have you learned since you first wrote this? List some of the ideas, theories, studies, or examples from this class that have been most influential in your learning this semester.
- How would you answer differently now? Revise your answers to reflect your current knowledge.
- What else do you need to learn to be able to effectively teach language with communication in mind? How will you get the knowledge and experiences you need to progress?
Students have reported that Johnson’s reflective exam was both the least stressful exam and the exam they were most proud of. It gives them a chance to apply what they’ve learned and take ownership of their learning. They come away with an understanding that learning to teach is an ongoing process. Johnson plans to continue to use reflective exams in the future and is considering several approaches to adapt them for particular classes.
I think reflective exams could be a wonderful tool, especially in other classes for graduate students or courses designed for upperclassmen where the students are already motivated and confident in their own skills and knowledge is an important takeaway of the course. It is also a good tool for any course where a change in perspective is either the goal or a critical skill to understand the course material and to help students reflect on and become aware of this change.