Tuesday, January 23, 2007

quizzical quizzes, testical tests

Ah, life in Seoul.

I gave my Smoo freshmen their midterm exam, and something occurred to me: because I usually teach conversation, I almost never have a chance to see all my students seated at their desks, writing implements deployed, staring at a piece of paper, and silently scribbling answers. It was eerie and a bit depressing, but I had asked for it: I had told the frosh that they would be taking a three-part test-- vocab, short essay, and oral. They did the vocab and short essay sections in class; I had told them to record answers to questions I had posted online, and to send me their sound files by midnight.

While not a total fiasco, the oral exam was nevertheless problematic. I regret having done things this way; it would have been better simply to extend the test over two days to allow me time to do face-to-face oral interviews. My students had been given specific instructions, several days in advance, regarding the oral component of the midterm. They were to send their files in the MP3 format, which is widely available thanks to the glut of MP3 player/recorders on the peninsula. They were to respond to the questions I had posted by answering them in a single take (no reading allowed!), and to speak for a minimum of five minutes. This being the advanced class, I knew that the latter request wouldn't be too much of a problem. The students had until midnight, Monday night, to email me their sound files.

As you might guess, if you were honest in remembering your own college days, I got most of the sound files between 11:30PM and midnight. The students had had all day to work on their recordings, but this didn't stop them from dithering. Worse, they sent sound files in almost every format except MP3-- I have now made the acquaintance of a veritable alphabet soup of bizarre file suffixes (who knew there was a ".rec"??). The emails that arrived after midnight featured all manner of pleading and "tears" emoticons (grrrrrrr), as well as some abominable English: "please forgive my lating" from an advanced student?

Two students claimed they were simply unable to get hold of MP3 players; I refuse to believe this. That's like saying you can't find a single can of Coke in an American town. One girl gave me her mother's voice recorder, on which she had done her recording; another gave me a standard cassette tape.

This, of course, is a big reminder of what teaching high school in America was like: students almost always tend to slither and slide around the requirements you give them, sniffing out plausible reinterpretations of the teacher's instructions, seeping like water through whatever verbal and logical cracks they find.

By having the students record their voices instead of simply interviewing them, I had added several extra steps to what should have been a straightforward process, and as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott knows, the more you overthink the plumbin', the easier it is to stop up the drain. So today's partial snafu was partially my fault. The rest I chalk up to the natural squishiness and squirminess of adolescence.

I have a few things to say in my defense, though. First, these freshmen are far and away better than that previous crop of Neanderthals. I came to trust that they could and would do anything, and do it competently. I should have realized that teens can do only so much before their teen-ness begins to show, but I think I can be forgiven my charitable assumptions.

Second, I did have several reasons for opting for the recorded samples this time around. Among them: (1) I didn't want to extend the test over two days, which made it necessary to make the oral component something the students could do within a 12-hour period on the same day. (2) With such large classes, I'm naturally leery of using the one-on-one interview method for testing purposes: you inevitably have to shorten each interview, and you're also left with the problem of how to occupy the rest of the class. I normally use the interview method during "regular" semesters, because classes are substantialy smaller. But with nearly twenty students and only seventy minutes' class time, this didn't seem like a viable option. (3) I wanted the chance to listen to student output at my leisure, which is one big reason in favor of making recordings.

As my friend Max pointed out in a recent email, this style of testing-- recording a lengthy spiel-- doesn't put the student in an interactional context; the dynamic flow of conversation is not a factor, which makes an already-artificial test even more artificial. I agree, and consider this a major flaw of such a test, but at the same time, I felt free to use this method because I had not billed this course as a "conversation class" to my freshmen: I am, instead, using a more project-oriented approach this semester, and I made my students aware of this at the beginning.

Still, my defense aside, I've realized that the language lab technique is probably not a good idea unless one has access to recording facilities that can accommodate around twenty people at the same time. Lessons learned.

And now I've got a shitload of grading to do.


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