NOTE: This report is part of a larger article, Action Research: Reseeing Learning and Rethinking Practice in the LOTE Classroom, published by the LOTE Center for Educator Development. Please access the main page for full text and copyright information.

Student Feelings, Authentic Instruction, and the AP Test

Renée Wooten, Wichita Falls ISD

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of my study was to examine student feelings regarding readiness and comfort level pertaining to taking the AP Spanish Language test. The topic is important to me because I am a new teacher of AP Spanish Language. My personal feelings are that authentic evaluation and instruction is more valuable to students than activities and isolated evaluations performed in the traditional manner. Yet students are in my class to prepare for the AP exam which is largely traditional in format: multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, etc. I know that a goal of an effective teacher is to teach the way one tests. So, with the addition of the AP program, how would I stay true to my style of teaching while preparing them for the exam?

My students’ feelings are very important to me because I want them to have a positive experience learning Spanish that will extend beyond the four walls of the classroom. I hope that I can offer to my students the opportunity to perform well on the exam and to feel confident and secure in their ability to use the language. After all, I surmise that a high level of confidence and security with one’s knowledge will foster positive feelings regarding the exam and create an environment conducive to success in the class and on the AP Spanish Language test. Yet students say they are overwhelmed at the thought of the exam and do not seem to realize how much they actually know and can do in Spanish.

Research Questions

I wanted to know if student feelings about their ability to do well on the AP exam were related to the types of lessons and assessments that were performed in the classroom. Specifically, I wanted to know if students felt that authentic activities that required more than verb conjugation drills and memorization of vocabulary led them to feel comfortable and prepared enough to take the exam. Were students likely to feel more or less prepared to take the AP Spanish Language test after having performed non-traditional activities that require them to show what they can do rather than those that simply test their ability to memorize? I also questioned the relationship between the types of assessments that were used in the class and students’ feelings of confidence in taking the AP exam. Were students more or less likely to feel prepared and confident with an authentic evaluation tool rather than one that was more traditional, such as multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank?

Data Collection and Findings

The study took place over a six-week grading period. First, I reviewed my lesson plan, and I inserted more traditional activities (straight-forward grammar and vocabulary presentations) and assessments (vocabulary quizzes, discrete point tests) to be given in conjunction with those that I considered more authentic, meaning that they would require students to show what they were able to do with the language. For example, instead of having students fill in reflexive verb conjugations on a worksheet, I might ask them to “perform” their morning routine as another student narrated the scene or to summarize a folk tale by writing a script for a skit. I alternated the activities that were traditional and required conventional assessment tools with those that allowed the students to demonstrate what they could do with what they know instead of just what they could memorize.

I must admit, the class did seem to respond well to the structure of the traditional lessons. Based on my observations of the class recorded in my research journal, I noted that “the students are mostly prepared. They even mention that they need to be pushed to study,” and “The students are responding to the very structured-style classes we have been having.” I wondered if it might reflect a halo effect: “Maybe they are responding to the extra attention.”

Since I was not collecting quantitative data, I did not conduct a pre-test at the beginning of the six weeks because I did not want to influence students’ answers on the final survey that would be administered at the end of that grading period. When the time came, I gave them a survey with open-ended questions, asking them to comment on those activities and assessments that they liked and that allowed them to feel more prepared and confident to take the AP Spanish Language exam. Because my research was to obtain qualitative information, I read for themes in the answers. I recorded the common responses and found that 72% of students had lacked confidence about taking the AP Spanish Language test prior to this grading period (and 77% did not feel prepared), but at the end of this 6-weeks, 61% now felt more confident and more prepared about taking it. Overall, students now had a better attitude with regard to taking the exam. Many expressed that although they might not pass the AP test, they were enjoying the experience of preparing for it.

Since survey results had indicated students’ lack of confidence when we began the grading period, I thought it would be interesting to see what activities and assessments had improved their confidence. According to the survey, the activities that they felt were most beneficial in preparing them for the AP exam were those that were not traditional. The activities and assignments that were most enjoyed by 83% of the students were the authentic ones that required that they produce and present information. Indeed, this type of authentic assignment did seem to provide students with feelings of contentment, confidence, and preparedness. Even though they responded well to the traditionally-structured assignments, when surveyed, they overwhelmingly indicated a preference for the more authentic tasks.

Plan of Action

During my review of the surveys, I wondered if they might feel more confident and prepared due to factors that I could not control during the study. For example, I thought that the students might have more positive feelings toward taking the AP exam simply because they had been able to practice for an additional six-week period. So I decided that this was not the type of study that could be performed exclusively in one grading period. In fact, I think that the inquiry might be more effective if conducted during the entire year.

I also thought that the types of students present in this class might have much to do with their feelings regarding the test. Most of these students are seniors, and those in this particular senior class expect to make the best marks on tests, but they are not overly willing to do the work to make this happen. In other words, they usually feel so confident about their abilities that they refuse to commit extra time and energy to study or do additional work other than what has been required.

I will not complete this study until after the AP exam has been taken in May, at which point I will again survey students about their feelings on taking the AP exam, how prepared they felt, and their confidence about their success on the exam. Although students indicated that they liked the authentic classroom activities best, they also pointed out that the experiment had helped them feel more prepared to take the AP exam. Therefore, I do plan to try this experiment next year with the AP class. Although the lessons might change, the mixing of traditional and non-traditional methods and evaluations will remain constant. Again, I will be curious as to the feelings of my students.

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