NSS: What does “The course has helped me to present myself with confidence” mean?

September 29, 2011


The report from the LLAS Subject Centre National Student Survey project last academic year is now online. In the project we focused in on eight of the 22 questions. Whilst many of the questions were found to be problematic, this one was especially difficult to unpack.

Question 19: The course has helped me to present myself with confidence.

From the report

When answering this question, many students initially thought about giving oral presentations.  It was also linked to employability and interviewing skills, but the question of whether this was about personal confidence or academic confidence was unclear. And where students reported an increase in confidence, was this down to the skills their course had given them, their year abroad, their work placements, or was it just part of being four years older?

One member of staff observed that the NSS is carried out at a time where students are at their most anxious, perhaps looking for work, perhaps worried about the future. In languages it was suggested that this question might be thought about in the context of L2 competence or confidence in dealing with people from other cultures. ―It’s a bit of a weird question said one student. ―It really wants you to say “yes”, because if you say “no”, you‘re saying something bad about yourself.

Further thoughts

Some further thoughts here. Some a little pedantic maybe, but that’s what happens when you start to unpack the question with students and lecturers.

What this question might mean Possible assumptions Other issues

Doing oral presentations

Feeling confident in person

Interviewing skills


Able to express opinions without fear.

Able to challenge the opinions of others.

Not anxious

Students can stand up for themselves

Students are confident they will get a good job.

Students were unable to present themselves with confidence at the beginning the course.

Confidence comes from going the course.

Presenting oneself with confidence is a good thing (some students might benefit from being less confident)

A course which does not help students present themselves with confidence is not a good course.

The student who answers this question in negative might have been better off doing a different course or studying at a different place.

Confidence might come from sources other than the course e.g. student societies, increased age, work experience, time spent abroad

Does a negative answer to this question suggest that the course was in any way inadequate?

Some evidence of students thinking about L2 language confidence, but this question was for students of all disciplines.

Students who answer this in the negative are saying something bad about themselves.

Student anxiety or lack of confidence indicates poor teaching or course design.

Leadership and role-play: A few thoughts on the LLAS Head of Departments’ event.

September 15, 2011

Our first event of the ‘new LLAS’, Thriving in the New World of Higher Education: a workshop for heads of department and leaders in languages, linguistics and area studies took place yesterday. We had an overview on the state of Modern Languages in the UK from Jim Coleman (Open University and Chair of UCML) and Pam Moores talked about the resources developed as part of Shaping the Future, a project set up in response to Michael Worton’s report into Modern Languages in English universities. Our Director Mike Kelly had some good tips on managing relationships with senior managers in the university, and on the importance of understanding your university’s mission and making sure you know who you should go to for what.


My own contribution was in the form of role-play exercise in which participants ‘played’ a Head of Languages meeting her/his Dean to discuss either a faculty reorganisation or a curriculum change programme. I enjoy role-play as a way of learning, but I realise that not everyone does. However, it seemed that most people enjoyed the exercise and benefitted putting themselves in the position of another person. Some of our HoD’s are very good actors it seems.

As the author of the role-play scenarios, it was interesting to observe the numerous directions in which a situation can play out. The briefs for each role included a section entitled ‘What is on your mind’. It was interesting to see the ways in which people used or did not use this information to their advantage (some of the items were put in as deliberate distractions, e.g. your feelings about other people). I will write more about using role-play in this context at a later date.

For me the key lesson from this event is on the importance of working relationships. In these uncertain times for higher education, how we manage our relationships is more important than ever.


Could our students demand we teach courses we don’t already?

August 9, 2011

Student: I enjoyed your lecture today. I find Africa fascinating.

Lecturer: Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Student: I want to study for a degree in African Studies

Lecturer: Er we don’t offer a course in that here.

Student: But the University of Harrogate does

Lecturer: Umm, well, we don’t here…

Student: I think we should make the university set up an African Studies course.

Lecturer: Errrrr….

Student: If they didn’t listen we could have sit-ins and protest to the Vice-Chancellor and get the local papers in.

Lecturer: Mmmmm

As far as I know this never happens in the UK. Students here select their subject of study on their UCAS form prior to arrival. Some universities will allow students to change course during or at the end of the first year. Students will protest if a university attempts to close down a department or a programme, but a protest aimed at getting the university to offer courses it doesn’t already teach or have the staff for? No way!

But at the US universities in Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur’s book, Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education this is precisely what has happened as students have sort to pressure senior management to set up courses in Asian-American Studies, Women’s Studies and Queer Studies. When I began to read the book for review in Innovations in Education and Teaching International I was somewhat intrigued by this form of protest (the book opens with an account of students getting arrested for occupying the administrative building at the University of Texas).

The differences between US and British universities cannot be addressed in anything as short as a blog post. But whilst I have difficultly foreseeing these sorts of campaigns in British universities, I think that there is an interesting point here. For students unable to ‘go away’ for university many subjects are not available to them. For example students in many areas of England are unable to access a languages degree in their own Travel To Work Area (TTWA) or even in the next one. Students who live in the Welsh borders, parts of Lincolnshire, parts of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset and parts of North-East and North-West England are not within two TTWAs of a university which offers language degrees. I expect similar patterns would emerge for other subjects. Could students in the UK start lobbying for the provision of new courses in their university or locality?

Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur, Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education (Ashgate, 2011).

My review in Innovations in Education and Teaching International

Should we standardise language course titles?

August 8, 2011

Suppose you have just completed French Level 4. What standard are you at? Can you ask for directions, read L’Étranger, conjugate the pluperfect subjective, book a hotel room, express your thoughts on the Arab Spring, recognise the past historic tense, or discuss Molière on French TV?

It depends of course. In my most recent report of ‘non-specialist’ language learners (in other words, those not doing a degree in languages – I’m not really sure about the term), I asked learners to provide me with the exact title of their course. I then mapped their answers to the standard they said they should have reached by the end of the course. What I found was that Level/Stage 4 courses appear at all three levels to which I mapped the course titles.We have a Level 6 at A1/A2, a Level 8 at B1/B2, a Level 4 at C1/C2 showing just how every institution has its own system. Thinking radically for a moment, why don’t we standardise our course titles?

Some of the advantages I can think of include:

  1. More learners would be able to articulate their level to employers or other stakeholders. (Over a third of learners were unable to say what standard they should have reached by the end of their language course)
  2. Learners would be able to continue their language learning at another institution (e.g. if they got a job in another part of the country or wanted to continue studying at a higher level not available at their current university).
  3. We would be able to collect better data cross-institutional on the language abilities of ‘non-specialist’ language learners.
  4. Students might be less worried about whether a certain level of course was too easy or too difficult for them.
  5. We could have a national recognised standard for all language learners (you could argue that we could achieve this simply by putting CEFR levels into every course title).
A defence of the current unstandardised system would be most welcome!

Read the full report.

Goodbye subject centre, hello LLAS Centre

July 20, 2011

The new LLAS: Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies will come into existence on 1 August. Despite the withdrawal of most of our HEA funding we are fortunate to be able to carry on with some of our activities as a ‘not for profit’. We will continue to work with HEA as well as with subject associations in LLAS.

We have a programme of workshops and conferences lined up already and we are planning further workshops on areas such as employability, language teaching and sustainable development. We will also be available to provide staff development in departments and will continue to publish Début: the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies.

Nevertheless, this is very much the end of an era. I will greatly miss the many colleagues in other subject centres I have worked with over the years though I hope that I will continue to see them in other settings.

Area Studies: plus ça change?

June 16, 2011

Liz Lightfoot’s recent article “The value of area studies” in British Academy Review succinctly outlines the difficulties and challenges facing departments of area studies. In the eight plus years I have held the area studies remit for the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, discussions about area studies invariably focus on the identity of the field–for example in 2004 LLAS ran a workshop entitled the Disciplinary Identity of Area Studies. In 2005, I attended a workshop entitled The Future of Interdisciplinary Area Studies run by the University of Oxford. In many respects the British Academy event The role of Area Studies in Higher Education in November 2010 was a revisiting of the Oxford conference. I even had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with many of the same people.

When I joined LLAS in 2003 my primary role was to run the Area Studies Project. A key aim of that project was build up an area studies community. There have been some successes. Driven by the project and in particular the vision of Dick Ellis, the then chair of the Area Studies Specialist Advisory Group the UK Council for Area Studies Associations (UKCASA) was formed in November 2003. It is pleasing to see that UKCASA is providing a strong voice for area studies in both teaching and research. Moreover, it has helped to bridge the gap between Anglophone and non-Anglophone area studies. The funding for the Language-based area studies centres was also an encouraging sign.

However, the questions raised when area studies is mentioned seem to be the same as they were eight years ago. And they are probably much the same as they were twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Department closures, the apparent rewarding of disciplinarily specialisation by the RAE and REF, the reliance of area studies programmes on ‘donor’ departments and questions of whether interdisciplinarity (more breath) inevitably means less depth leading to the suggestion that interdisciplinary courses might be a bit light, intellectually speaking. Naturally the latter is denied more area studies proponents who see the demands of area studies as more rather than less challenging.

Lightfoot’s article opens with the newsroom cry “Find someone who knows about Egypt!” in response the protests taking place there and elsewhere in the Middle East.  Quoted in the article Tim Wright says “The problem with providing a national resource is that no one knows where the next area of concern will come from? Will it be a need for Kurdish specialists, or people with a deep knowledge of Afghanistan, Egypt or Pakistan?”

Or Canada maybe? Well probably not, but from a government perspective a key rationale for area studies is based on the national interest, the next protest or the next war. Talk is afoot of another referendum in Quebec, but whether that referendum, whatever its outcome, will generate much interest in the UK is unclear. The rationales for area studies tend focus on the need to understand the different, the unknown, the economically important and the dangerous. Perhaps the real worry is that we will never seek to understand those societies which we see as similar, known, economically unimportant and safe.

Reference: Lightfoot, L. (2011) The Value of Area Studies, British Academy Review 17, pp. 48-51

“We are learning slowly as we teach over the years”: Teaching the Green Humanities

May 27, 2011

“We are learning slowly as we teach over the years” is the last thing I wrote in my notebook at the “Teaching the Green Humanities” workshop on Wednesday. I can’t remember exactly who said it or even whether I wrote it down exactly as it was expressed, but it was said during the final panel with the workshop speakers. The second last thing I wrote down was “Slowness as virtue”. Six years after taking on the Education for Sustainable Development brief for LLAS I am still learning and still learning very slowly.

I’m not able to do justice to the ground which was covered during the event, but a few things will stick in my mind.  Arran Stibbe’s reminder (or was it a revelation) that “more sustainable” planet is still unsustainable will stick with me. I need to ponder Greg Garrard’s suggestion that the philosophy of ecology might be a good potential bridge between humanities and the sciences—sometimes it really does “just depend” and the ‘unlaw like’ nature of philosophy may allow this possibility (I hope I’m not mis-representing Greg here in any way). Jessica Frye’s discussion of engaging EFL students (mainly scientists and engineers in her case) through reading eco-poetry demonstrates the potential to teach about environmental issues in a context where many would not think it possible.

Still learning, very slowly.