An interim assessment of the introduction of accredited portfolios in introductory French courses

Author: Christine Penman


This paper reports on the introduction of accredited portfolios into an ab initio French language course at the University of Stirling. These were introduced to help students progress from a teacher-led learning environment into one in which a more autonomous approach was required. Student feedback was mainly positive, whilst a slight improvement in grades was also reported. However, some areas of difficulty would benefit from further development.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Introduction

The 'Introductory French' course has been run at the University of Stirling since 1995. It qualifies for description as an ab initio course to the extent that it teaches the language from the basics to a mixed audience of complete and false' beginners. As an illustration, in Autumn 2003 only 11 students out of a cohort of 43 had no prior knowledge of French. Most students had qualifications ranging from Scottish Standard Grades and Highers to English GCSEs. What all students had in common was a low attainment in a language placement test which was given to all first-year students of French disregarding their original qualifications.

Introductory French is run over two semesters and is followed by two semesters of Intermediate French. Students who perform well on these courses are offered the possibility to join mainstream French after the first or second semester.

2. Introduction of portfolios in 2003

2.1. Rationale for the introduction of portfolios

The introduction of a language learning portfolio in first-year French courses evolved organically from the realisation that a form of scaffolding needed to be put in place to ease the students' transition from teacher-led learning to a HE environment where increased learning autonomy is expected. This view was compounded by motivational issues as in past years tutors and some students alike had felt that there was a lack of students' involvement in the course, mainly on the part of false beginners', some of whom could be suspected of using these elective courses strategically as building blocks' towards the constitution of a degree.

The forms of portfolios are manifold and definitions of purpose, contents, assessment and outcomes vary greatly. The overarching principles however tend to be a constant as a portfolio brings together evidence of work and learning, structure and critical reflection. (Baume, 2001). Within the Stirling context, a language learning portfolio was conceived with the aim of improving students' involvement in the course through an increased sense of ownership of their work. Learners would by the end of the semester hold a document which they could view as a summary of their effort in this subject with their organised notes from tutorials, exercises done in private study, assessments with tutors' notes and their own corrections, notes on grammar, vocabulary and culture. Weekly statements of language learning would through critical reflection encourage them to identify their strengths and weaknesses and generate their own action plan for language learning. The objectives were for students to understand the need for regular independent work, acquire good learning strategies, develop a sense of cohesion between various teaching inputs and an interest in learning beyond prescribed tasks.

2.2. Features of portfolios

Introduced in Autumn 2003 for all first-year French courses, the language learning portfolio was made compulsory and assessed twice during that semester. The portfolio grade corresponded to 25% of coursework assessment, with 80% of the marks allocated to prescribed activities (completion of set exercises, correction of assignments, note-taking on grammar and cultural points) and 20% to evidence of independent learning and statements on language learning. Guidance was provided in a booklet with examples of what was expected under each heading and websites to explore and students were introduced to the concept of the portfolio during a lecture. In Spring 2004 portfolios were retained for the Introductory course only and assessed once at the end of the semester. The statements of language learning were removed due their negative perception in students' questionnaires in the previous semester.

2.3. Feedback from students

Feedback was obtained from questionnaires issued at the end of the Autumn semester to all first-year students. Answers to questions related to the usefulness of the portfolio and its ability to help students become more autonomous learners were largely positive. Open questions probing the notion of usefulness spontaneously generated comments on organisational benefits and work discipline, help in grammatical competence and to a lesser extent in the development of learning strategies and learner autonomy. Conversely negative comments tended to relate to the learning statements, and to a lesser extent to lack of clarity about independent learning and time and constraint. Questionnaires issued to Introductory French students at the end of the Spring semester elicited the same type of answers, with 46% claiming to having become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and targets in language learning and 60% of them finding the portfolios either very useful' (30%) or useful' (30%).

Examination of the effect of the introduction of the portfolio on students' grades is not conclusive due to the limited sample (two consecutive years of Introductory French without portfolio and one with) but an examination of mean marks points to improvement of grades in both the Autumn and Spring semesters. Correspondingly there seems to be a slight improvement in students' retention from the Autum to the Spring semester. These insights need to be confirmed by data from future research.

3. Conclusion

The portfolios have on the whole met their objectives but the dimension of self-reflection needs to be re-introduced in a way which will not alienate the students, maybe in the form of a single report per semester. Issues of self-assessment, logistics and staff time will also need to be addressed. Finally feedback from students indicates that they need more scaffolding for activities of independent learning.


Baume, D. (2001) 'A Briefing on the the assessment of portfolios'. Assessment Series No 6 , LTSN Generic Centre. Accessed from: (

Guard, N., U. Richter and S. Waller (2003) 'Portfolio assessments'. The Guide to Good Practice for learning and teaching in Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, (

Söntgens, K. 'Portfolio of independent learning at the university of Central England'. The Guide to Good Practice for learning and teaching in Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, (