Portfolio of independent learning at the University of Central England (UCE)

Author: Kirsten Söntgens


A portfolio of independent learning has been introduced to post A-level students at various levels in the three languages of Spanish, French and German at UCE. The Translang Approach has been chosen as a framework for development of transferable skills.

Table of contents

1.Introduction: Transferable skills in German, French and Spanish

In 1999 we started to develop a Divisional Website (http://bsstudents.uce.ac.uk/dlib/) to facilitate the teaching and learning of languages at the University of Central England (UCE) Business School. The Website is based on the well- established curriculum model of Kolb’s experiential learning (Kolb 1984), recognising that a sound pedagogical basis is needed for any educational development, including the use of technology. Kolb’s learning cycle has been adapted by the Learning Methods Unit (LMU) at UCE to include technologies each addressing a particular stage in Kolb’s learning cycle (Staley and Eastcott, 1999). The model recognizes that it is insufficient simply to learn new concepts, just as it is insufficient to have an experience in isolation. The learner must make the link between theory and practice through active experimentation and through reflection on the learning process. Students learn experientially by systematically performing learning activities at each stage of the cycle identified by Kolb as planning, experience, reflection and conceptualization.


(Staley and Eastcott, 1999)

The development of the Divisional Website as a tool for teaching and learning has facilitated the increasing involvement of students in the learning process, initially through learning tasks development and the publication of students work in the student zone of the Website. This process led the Division of Languages and International Business to introduce a portfolio of independent learning for post A-level students (levels three to six) in German, French and Spanish. The materials produced by TransLang. have been adapted and extended for use on the  Divisional Website. The TransLang approach has been chosen as it is an established framework for the development of transferable skills which we found convenient and easy to adapt to an on-line environment. We also recognise the potential of the TransLang approach to add value to the student experience, as it aims to facilitate transferable skills in the learning and teaching of languages much more explicitly.

Students are actively involved in planning their learning, monitoring their own progress and evaluating learning outcomes as outlined in Kolb’s experiential learning model. This is achieved via an electronic learning contract. The learning contract can be accessed on the Website:

View document

See also  http://bsstudents.uce.ac.uk/dlib/langs/port/pfcontract.doc

Instructions to students are

1.  Save this document onto disk.
2. Complete only the white boxes.  Make sure that you write full answers.
3. Save your completed document.
4. E-mail your completed document AS AN ATTACHMENT to your language tutor.

2.The teaching context

The Division of Languages and International Business at UCE offers French, German and Spanish from Beginners to post A-level. Although all language modules are open to all students from the Business School and to a certain extent to students from other faculties, the post A-level level modules (levels three to six) are validated as part of the named BA Hons. degrees in Marketing, Business Administration and International Business with French, German or Spanish.  These programmes are known as the Languages Minors and the students who take them  can thus be described as specialist language students. Class contact per module has recently been reduced from four to three hours per week, resulting in a call for more independent study. Taught provision is combined with open learning, supported by resources on the Divisional Website, in the Business Schools Learning Centre and in the Library. Students are especially encouraged to use IT and communications technology.

The aims of the portfolio of independent work can be described as follows:

  • To provide a framework for independent work, especially in the light of reduced class contact time and a greater spread of ability levels because of the need to combine classes because of lower numbers.
  • To empower students and enable them to take more control over their learning.
  • To showcase language learning as a means of developing transferable and employability skills in undergraduate students.

3.The student groups

The pilot project involved student groups across the three languages at UCE, focusing on the following specialist language students in the post A-level groups (3-6):

French level 3 (first year, post A-level) - 8 students
French level 4 (second year, post A-level, preparing to go abroad) - 7 students
French level 6 (final year students, having returned from the residence abroad)- 8 students
German level 3/4  - 12 students
German level 6 - 6 students
Spanish level 3/4 - 14 students
Spanish level 6 - 6 students


Although most students in the above mentioned groups are on the Languages Minors programme, there are a few students who take higher level language modules as an option credited to their programme of study. Some of them are international students who want to develop their second or third language further.  Most students are from the Business School. Students, more so in German than the other languages, have been progressively introduced to the concept of autonomous learning through the introduction of collaborative independent learning tasks. However the idea of portfolio work was new to all the students. Examples of good portfolio work have been available to students on the Website throughout the semester. This facilitates peer discussion and evaluation with a view to preparing improved pieces of work for the final portfolio.

4. Materials

The concept of portfolio work was introduced using the adapted materials produced by TransLang. All materials, including the task descriptions, assessment criteria and learning contracts were permanently available to the students on the Website at http://bsstudents.uce.ac.uk/dlib/langs/port/portfolio.htm

The portfolio consisted of the following elements:

  • a skills review (TransLang. material) carried out in class in weeks 1/2 to introduce the idea of  portfolio work and to highlight the transferable skills that can be facilitated through the learning of a language. Following the skills review students were required to prioritise three skills to be developed during the semester.
  • A compulsory review of language resources (adapted from TransLang.)
  • Three tasks to be chosen by the students in consultation with the tutor from the following list of tasks:
      - presentation skills with or without Powerpoint (adapted from TransLang)
      - grammar (new task)
      - conversation (face-to-face, email tandems or Internet chat) (adapted and extended from TransLang)
      - website (Translang)
      - listening skills (new task)
      - newspaper (Translang)
      - essays/reports (new task)
      - intercultural awareness (new task)
      - open task (new task)

Each task had to be submitted with a learning contract to support reflective practice. Three dates were set for the submission of tasks to encourage continuous working throughout the semester and to enable staff to provide feedback on tasks and learning contracts. In the final portfolio, students had to include fair copies of all work previously submitted together with a final self-evaluation reflecting on the process of compiling a portfolio as well as on the skills and tasks chosen.

It has been made clear to the students that it is not enough simply to do the tasks, but that they also need to reflect on the learning process. To this effect all tasks include guiding questions for analysis and reflection. The general format as well as the individual tasks are clearly defined in terms of the evidence students should collect. All tasks have deadlines attached and offer guidelines as to how much work is to be done (two hours per task). This helps students demonstrate their achievement of the learning outcomes in ways which are more easily assembled. It should also make it easier to assess the portfolios fairly. The assessment criteria focus on the process and product of compiling a portfolio of independent work, stressing explicitly the importance of transferable skills in language learning.

5. Assessment

The portfolio was assessed using the adapted criteria from TransLang., but were solely assessed by the tutor. The teaching team felt that, in the first instance, it was too great a step towards open learning for the students to carry out a self-assessment that would count towards the module marks. In semester 1 all language modules are assessed by coursework only, including the following elements:

  • Portfolio (30%)
  • Oral Presentation (20%)
  • TV writing task (30%)
  • Summary (20%)

The assessment workload for tutors was judged to be fairly high, especially during the semester when work had to be returned with feedback to students at regular intervals. This was especially the case if one tutor had more than one post A-level group, as was the case with French. On average it took about thirty minutes to mark a completed portfolio including feedback to the students.

6. Evaluation

Sources of semester one evaluation were as follows:

  • Module questionnaires
  • Self-evaluation by students in the portfolio themselves
  • Focus groups with French levels three and six, German levels three/four and six, Spanish levels three/four and six.
  • Conversations with German, French and Spanish tutors involved
  • Double marking of portfolios

6.1 Student questionnaires and focus groups

A systematic evaluation of on-line experiential language learning, including the portfolio, has been carried out independently by the Centre of Research into Quality (CRQ) at UCE using a student survey that aims to assess the quality of student learning. The student survey contained a sample of 27 students from three ability levels. All students were full-time undergraduates in the 18-25 age group. 59% were home students, the rest from Europe and overseas. The survey entailed 50 questions that elicit answers from the following categories: learning styles, expectations, motivation, learning and flexibility. The questions elicit answers using the Likert scale.

The qualitative evaluation by CRQ was supplemented by focus groups conduced by myself to collect qualitative data. It can be argued that focus groups are appropriate because the use of the focus group is a method frequently employed in audience reception studies (Lunt and Livingstone, 1996) and that group interviews are closer to real life than one to one interviews as people tend to talk to others when interpreting content (Gunter, 2000).  Also, focus groups can be useful when people talk in a group because it can enhance recall and demonstrate different opinions in one group, and, like the interview, it provides a rich source of data (Anderson, 1998). Of course, the drawback of focus groups relates to unfavourable aspects of group dynamics, such as the dominant behaviour of certain group members who try to impose their views on others or steer the discussion in a certain direction. It is largely due to the interviewer’s skills to elicit comments from all group members in order to gain a full picture of the student experience.

From the questionnaires and the focus groups it can be seen that the majority of students felt generally positive about the portfolios. Reasons given were the individual choice of tasks, enhanced motivation to carry out self-selected tasks, a focus on weak skills without necessarily losing marks. Transferable skills most often cited by students were self-management skills (organisation and time), web- and IT skills, especially email tandems, and presentation skills. Tutors added locating resources and decision making to this list. Negative comments from the students included the fact that the portfolio was too time-consuming, especially with regard to the learning contracts, tasks were not as useful as other assessment tasks, i.e. detracted from language learning. The benefit of reflection on the learning process was not perceived by all students, who wanted to see the number of learning contracts reduced.

Students generally felt that they were well supported throughout the portfolio as advice was available on and off line with regard to the possible choice of tasks and feedback on completed tasks.

6.2 Task selection and evaluation

The most popular tasks in French were the grammar, listening and website tasks, in Spanish the essay, website and intercultural tasks and in German the web-based and conversation tasks, making the exploration of websites the favourite task across the three languages. The differences between the languages can possibly be explained by different mentoring approaches, i.e. how advice on tasks was given by tutors (for example in French levels three and four students were strongly advised to choose the listening tasks in preparation for the residence abroad). Perhaps students were focusing on a particular skill, because it was highlighted in class and they felt the need to work further on that particular skill.

Tutors found the cultural task very useful in terms of offering students the opportunity to follow up personal interests, the website task because it provided confidence in using the Internet not only for languages but for other subjects. Providing fair copies of all work was also seen as essential for students in order to test and correct themselves (especially for grammar).  Work was generally handed in on time and tutors felt that the portfolio work encouraged and developed better organisation and time management as well as decision making.

6.3 Assessment

The pass rate for all portfolios across the three languages is high. On the whole it was found that marks for the portfolio were largely comparable with marks in other assessed elements. However, comments were made by individual tutors that portfolio work especially benefited "weaker" students who, with guidance, performed better in their portfolio work, than in other assessed language tasks. Tutors felt that all students benefited from focusing on "weaker" skills and noticed an improvement especially in the areas of grammar and listening comprehension. It was also evident that students gained in confidence and employed a measure of strategic thinking in the completion of tasks.

It was also noted that marking portfolios was fairly time consuming and that tutors would like to revise the assessment criteria to provide a more detailed basis for analysis, especially with regard to the learning contracts. The portfolios are naturally paper-heavy (size and volume), but the submission via email is clearly only advisable for the first drafts of work and not the whole of the completed portfolio as the printing would otherwise take up additional tutor time. Although the portfolios were difficult to mark, as this was the first time of assessing portfolio work for tutors, one tutor felt that they were motivating for students and well worth the effort! He also thought that students developed as learners and I agree that students possibly developed more in terms of transferable skills than in language skills. As a course team we felt that we had succeeded in making students much more aware of transferable skills in language learning, but students themselves felt that certain aspects of the portfolio, i.e. the reflective elements were time-consuming and detracted from actual language learning.

7. Planning for the future

We are also running a "peer observation" of teaching scheme in the Division, which will hopefully provide additional insights into how different members of staff integrate the development of transferable skills into learning and teaching a foreign language.

Furthermore, we have secured the help of a PhD student from Birmingham University, Rebecca Eynon, who researches the use of web-based teaching and learning in HE and who will carry out a detailed analysis of the use of the Divisional Website as a tool for teaching and learning in semester 2 (2001). The teaching team is currently reviewing the portfolio with a view to implementing a revised version for the first semester of the next academic year. Such a portfolio can be more easily integrated into a programme which is assessed by coursework only.

The following recommendations, after interviews with the teaching team, can be made at this stage:

  • Design a briefing sheet or handbook for staff and students, outlining what you expect them to do and how this could be achieved. Include Dos and DONT’s. (Sally Brown et al, 1994)
  • Use the Website to show examples of good portfolio work to help students see how it can be done.
  • Define the workload more closely, not only in terms of time to be spent on activities, but in terms of activities to be completed for each task.
  • Streamline all tasks in order to avoid paper overload and provide more imaginative task descriptions.
  • Revise the shape of the learning contracts and discuss transferable skills development for each portfolio task.
  • Provide intermittent opportunities to discuss transferable skills in class.
  • Give students the opportunity to assess their language skills via the provision of the standard assessment criteria for each language skill. (A focus on language skills should not be lost and was found to be motivating for the students.)
  • Provide more detailed assessment criteria, e.g. a proforma to tick off the achievement of each learning outcome, and make decisions about the quality of the evidence while working through a portfolio (Brown and Race, 1998)



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Related links

University of Central England Teaching and Learning Strategy

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