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How learning works in the Greek and Latin classroom, part 3

This month’s column is the third part in a series I’m posting every other month or so about how we can apply and see in action the 7 principles of research-based pedagogy described in the excellent book How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose, et al.  Last time was motivation, and before that was knowledge organization.  This month’s topic: practice and feedback, ch. 5 of the book.

Language acquisition is a hard task, particularly when the language is, like Latin and ancient Greek, inflected, culturally distant, and highly literary.  Learning a foreign language demands the kind of rigorous and sustained practice that is the basis for all successful learning — and in language study, it’s hard to fake either the skills or development towards skill mastery.  The research-based learning principle about practice and feedback is therefore essential to effective foreign-language instruction.

In the formulation of Ambrose et al., “[g]oal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback are critical to learning.”  By goal-directed practice, the authors mean practice deliberately applied to a specific challenge related to the skill under study, as opposed to general or unfocused practice: in music, for instance, practicing scales or especially tricky passages is an example of goal-directed practice, as opposed to mere playing-through of a piece from start to finish.  By targeted feedback, the authors mean feedback that comes frequently and timely, indicates to students their progress towards their learning goal, and lays out the steps they must take to achieve their goal.

Imagine learning how to make a cake.  Your instructor could have you follow the recipe all the way through and give you feedback at the end of the process based on how the cake came out of the oven.  Or s/he could direct your practice in several isolated steps — measuring, mixing, baking, icing — and give you feedback on the way along with suggestions about common pitfalls to avoid (“use a kitchen scale, not a measuring cup”) and clarifications of expectations (“when I say make thick batter, I mean…”).  The second approach is more effective, will likely result in a better cake, and will definitely result in better baking skills.

So what are the ramifications of this pedagogical principle for us as teachers of Greek and Latin?  First and foremost, we shouldn’t merely tell our students to study and leave it to them to figure out what, how, how often, and for how long.  To teach language, we also need to teach how to learn a language.  This meta-instruction can take the form of discussion about tips, tricks, and techniques, like flashcards, tools for organization, concept maps, drilling, self-testing, and application.  It could involve the Macalester College / University of North Dakota pamphlet “Learning to Learn” (PDF) by Karl R. Wirth and Dexter Perkins and reports on neuroscientific research about long-term memory storage (as presented by Ed Vockell or Peter Brown et al.).  Key findings indicate that multiple, staggered sessions of memorization/practice on different, interwoven topics/skills make for a more effective strategy than monolithic chunks of time spent cramming a single content area that will never be revisited.  However we introduce these considerations to our students, it is crucial for them to be motivated to learn, or else we might as well inscribe our language-learning advice upon the wind and running water.

Part of our task in fostering effective practice is, as Ambrose et al. explain, to set challenges at an appropriate level for our students’ current knowledge and skill development.  In language courses beyond the first, then, it is beneficial to determine students’ prior knowledge through an early survey or assessment and to adjust our instruction to meet them where they are (more on this in December’s column).  Similarly, it is more effective to make adjustments to pacing, schedule, and even pedagogical methods mid-term than to plow ahead according to the original plan or goal.  Rubrics — though often lamented as part of the bureaucratization of education — are in fact an extremely useful tool when used correctly, since well-designed rubrics clarify criteria and expectations, focus attention and practice on key areas, and enable students to self-assess and direct further efforts.  A language-acquisition rubric could be as straightforward as this set from Santa Monica High School, or as nuanced and detailed as the VALUE rubrics for reading and writing (with some adaptation to classical-language acquisition necessary).

Some of the strategies for ensuring effective modes of practice are already standard elements of Greek and Latin teaching: multiple occasions for practice and scaffolded practice, i.e., exercises that break down a complex skill into its component parts and focus on each part in isolation.  Examples of scaffolded practice include parsing nouns and verbs and transforming case/gender/person/number/tense/voice/mood; translating sentences with vocabulary list provided; and diagramming sentences without translation.

The way we use our in-class time with our students will set the tone for their out-of-class activities.  If we spend the whole session lecturing, students will tend to be content merely with reading their textbooks at home and not the kinds of practice that are more active and, not coincidentally, more successful.  If, on the other hand, we leave the initial grammar lessons to the textbook (or to YouTube, or to our own lectures posted on a course website), and devote class time to practice individually and in groups and as a whole, our students are more likely to use their homework time in like fashion, and thus to make greater language gains both in and outside class.

A typical means of giving feedback in classical language courses — daily homework assignments in addition to regular quizzes and tests — embodies the fundamental pieces of good feedback, namely frequency, timeliness, and specificity.  And there are other things in the feedback toolbox that can greatly assist students without being as labor-intensive as marking papers.  For instance, we might describe to our students the patterns of errors we have noticed in the class or offer a handout with guidance on common pitfalls in the grammar topic currently under examination.  By using class sessions for practice and drills rather than grammar lecture, we can troubleshoot our students’ language skill development singly or in groups, and can use patterns of error we detect to guide our future instructional activity.  (If we do so in the context of an adventure roleplaying game, so much the merrier!)

It is also worthwhile to distinguish between summative and formative feedback.  Summative feedback consists of grades, which can be given on tests or quizzes with relatively little correction markup.  Formative feedback, on the other hand, doesn’t affect a student’s grade in the course but instead is intended to guide and shape the student’s subsequent efforts, and is particularly useful in daily/weekly homework assignments and in-class exercises.  Allowing revision or resubmission of assignments for a somewhat higher grade is a tool that I have found pays off in terms of student practice and improvement.

All of these considerations ultimately boil down to course design, a matter that my fellow columnist Curtis Dozier discussed at the beginning of the academic year.  Our students will get the most out of our courses generally — and out of goal-directed practice and targeted feedback specifically — when we design our courses carefully, intentionally, and with attention to the alignment between course learning goals, exercises that prompt practice at those goals, and mechanisms for assessment, feedback, and evaluation of student progress towards those goals.

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad's picture

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Assistant Professor of Classical Languages at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He's also one of "those gaming people" in Classics pedagogy. He can be contacted at thmgg@wfu.edu.

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