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A positive attitude isn’t enough: Finding a balance with assessment

Art Tsang, Chinese University of Hong Kong Amos Paran, UCL Institute of Education

Reasons for the incorporation of literature into second language/foreign language (L2/FL) curricula are abundant. The most salient rationale is the promotion of a more humanistic education that embraces appreciation, emotional engagement, self-understanding, generic skills, and other whole-person-development areas (McRae, 1991; Sivasubramaniam, 2006). Gone are the days when L2/FL education was all about language proficiency enhancement. In recognising the value of literature in the present era of learner-centredness and holistic education, many educators have welcomed literature in L2/FL curricula with open arms. However, many big questions follow, such as: Should we examine literature? How do we do it? Why do we do it? What do we test? These questions are a tough call for many educators.

In our recent article, ‘Learners’ views of literature in EFL education from curricular and assessment perspectives’, we explore some of these thorny questions by investigating learners’ views in Hong Kong, where literature is a relatively recent compulsory element in the English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) senior secondary-level curriculum (Tsang & Paran, 2021). Via a questionnaire, we examined 1,190 secondary school students’ views of two literature modules – ‘short stories’ (ShS) and ‘poems and songs (P&S)’. The participants were asked to indicate whether:

  1. it was good that the modules were included in the curriculum
  2. the modules should be examined
  3. they would study the modules even if they were not examined.

In addition to rating these statements, they were asked to comment on their choices.

The findings were intriguing. The participants’ views of the ShS module were positive, whereas the views of those who had taken P&S were mixed. However, when the participants considered assessment as a factor, most disagreed with the suggestion that these modules should be examined. Most interestingly, even though they viewed ShS rather favourably, they were not certain, on the whole, whether they would take ShS if it were not assessed, and the vast majority of the participants who had taken the P&S module would not consider taking it if it were not assessed, even though most of these respondents agreed that it was good to include P&S in the new curriculum.

The findings have important implications not only for L2/FL teachers but all those involved in curriculum and assessment design beyond language education. Our research clearly shows that learners may not be motivated to study a certain topic if they are not assessed, even when their attitudes towards the topic are scaled neutral to positive. This examination orientation on the part of learners is not exclusive to Hong Kong; it exists in many places and cultures, and is not an element that can be easily changed. Therefore, if educators believe in the importance of an area in the curriculum, we would advise making the assessment of the area compulsory as this would send a strong signal to both teachers and learners about its importance.

‘Our research clearly shows that learners may not be motivated to study a certain topic if they are not assessed, even when their attitudes towards the topic are scaled neutral to positive.’

At the same time, using different assessment methods (especially formative assessment) is important so that learners do not study just for the sake of getting good grades, and that the assessment is a means to the end of encouraging engagement with areas which we educators think are integral to learners’ all-round education. Another possibility is to make the area compulsory in a curriculum but not part of a high-stakes public examination, just as students at tertiary level may be required to take certain courses that are assessed on a pass/fail basis but do not impact on degree classification. The learners would need to take these modules, complete coursework and pass, thereby encouraging engagement with the topic rather than a race for grades.


This blog post is based on the article ‘Learners’ views of literature in EFL education from curricular and assessment perspectives’ by Art Tsang and Amos Paran, published in the Curriculum Journal. It has been made temporarily free-to-view to those without a subscription, courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


References

McRae, J. (1991). Literature with a small ‘l’. Macmillan.

Sivasubramaniam, S. (2006). Promoting the prevalence of literature in the practice of foreign and second language education: Issues and insights. Asian EFL journal, 8(4), 254–273.

Tsang, A., & Paran, A. (2021). Learners’ views of literature in EFL education from curricular and assessment perspectives. Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.102