Chapter 11: Reflecting on Assessment Design and Feedback: Reflections on the Research and Practice of a Language and Culture Educator

Chapter 11

Reflecting on Assessment Design and Feedback: Reflections on the Research and Practice of a Language and Culture Educator

AnaMaria Ducasse, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University


As a Language and Culture Educator (LCE) with over twenty-five years’ experience in research and practice in that field, the author considers the focus on reflective practice in designing assessment and feedback in her teaching and research. In doing this, the author considers both the context of her teaching practice and the history of her research agenda and publications in the field of student assessment and feedback in order to draw in evidence-based practice of feedback practices alongside her own reflections on her experiences in the classroom. This chapter’s narrative is founded on both elements of the biography of the author as well as an array of vignettes that illustrate aspects of the feedback and learning and teaching practice of one LCE at RMIT University.

Keywords: language pedagogy, assessment design, feedback processes, reflective practice, language and culture education



In this chapter I reflect on twenty-five years of experience as a Language and Culture Educator (LCE) in higher education. I consider myself a facilitator, an educator, with insights into pedagogy, the practice of which is an integral part of my role. This chapter shares my reflections and exercises in critical awareness to present my views as an LCE. Although I spent many hours reflecting, planning, and developing my teaching practice, the thoughts shared here have heretofore not been explicated and shared. The foil for the reflection on my practice in this chapter is my current teaching context. At RMIT over the years, undergraduate and postgraduate students have studied in Spanish language and culture classes across eight levels, from introductory to advanced. Students in these classes are from across the university, but a large proportion is from the Bachelor of International Studies. In addition, I teach sociolinguistics and supervise Higher Degree Research in areas of language and applied linguistics. My reflections here endeavour to acknowledge the link between practitioner reflection and student learning. They evidence, I hope, the notion that “reflection itself becomes not a means to an end or something to perform, but rather a way of being in the world” (Hebert, 2015, p. 369).

As an educator, I hope to be a role model for how language learning can be part of a person’s life-long learning. Experience as a language teacher and student has shaped my practice. Because I have witnessed differences in learning contexts as a result of teaching locally and internationally at different levels of education, I have some grounded empathy with local and international students transitioning from traditional to ‘new’ or unexpected styles of learning as occurs within language classrooms. In those classrooms, I aim to provide a range of practitioner’s disciplinary and pedagogical insights used to enhance learning, teaching, assessment and feedback that supports course participants’ development and engagement.

In learning a language, you look at what you know and what you are learning, and as you see yourself in a mirror; you are reaching out to the other side, another version of yourself in another language and culture. That space between where you have come from and where the speakers of a language are located has been called the Third Place. It has since been adapted to many areas and the concept has been renamed across disciplines. It was first coined by Lo Bianco, Liddicoat and Crozet (1999) for intercultural language teaching. It was defined as ‘a space of negotiation between two or more cultures – as the ultimate goal to strive for within what came to be known in Australia as intercultural language teaching” (Crozet, 2015, p. 137). Within it, you are making for yourself a new expanding place where you are no longer mono- or bi-lingual; you have an additional language that transforms your ability to communicate across cultures. Intercultural language teaching invites critical reflection by learners on connections between language and culture, while inviting them to respond about how they feel and think when faced with cultural differences (Crozet, 2015, p. 144). As a multilingual speaker and teacher of four languages, I position myself in the continuum of that third space. My work as an educator spans four languages and has focused on facilitating learners in that space between their language/s and the ‘different’ one being enjoyed and embraced. My reflection on practice as an LCE emerges from the perspective of a a bilingual/bicultural English/Spanish family background and as a speaker of four languages: namely my two ‘home languages’ and French and Italian which I have studied formally after secondary studies.

The students I have been teaching are learning additional languages while also engaging with diverse disciplines. The intersection of language instruction with disciplines also occurs at a collegial level, due to the types of research undertaken by my colleagues in the discipline area of Global and Language Studies. The range of research foci of my colleagues exemplifies the diversity of perspectives to which our students are exposed in language classrooms. In terms of the areas explored in our PhD theses, on gender and identity, there is Glenda Mejia’s thesis on the ‘Representation of Women in Revolutionary Cuban Cinema’ and Maki Yoshida’s  ‘Negotiation of gendered language and social identities by students of Japanese as an additional language in Australian universities’. In the intercultural space, we find Jindan Ni’s ‘Discovery and Influence across Boundaries: A Comparative Approach to The Tale of Genji’ and Jing Qi’s ‘Language teachers & the teaching of culture: Insights into the interface between theoretical discourses, context and practice based on an Australian case study’, and ‘Intercultural doctoral education’. In the French/Australian intercultural space, we have ‘National history and migrant history after the transnational turn: the French in Australia and the articulation of Frenchness’ by Alexis Bergantz and ‘Expressing opinions in French and Australian English discourse’ by Kerry Mullan. This array of research projects amongst RMIT’s LCEs indicates that a significant level of disciplinary expertise is overlaid onto the practice of teaching language, which is much more than dis-embedded vocabulary and grammar rules. The disciplinary intersection with language teaching (and learning for students) is one of the things that can bring engaging with a new language to life.

Reflecting on a research agenda on assessment design and practice

Given the context of the array of research backgrounds of the LCEs at RMIT that inform our teaching practice, I will here consider some of the history of my own research agenda, which focuses on assessment and feedback. My earliest research in applied linguistics was on language teaching at the tertiary level. I considered the appropriate quantity of grammar to teach in a language curriculum, and when this grammar instruction should occur (Ducasse, 2002). Swiftly, however, my focus turned to assessment and reflection, which has carried through to my current research (e.g. Ducasse, 2022, expanded on below). For example, I explored working with older learners in higher education; I was keen for them to set their own goals and show me their progress as a way for them to make explicit for themselves why they were studying advanced Spanish (Ducasse, 2004). I asked students to set personal learning goals and then reflect and assess themselves against these in a reflective self-assessment task which counted towards their final marks.

My next research inquiries involved assessing orals in tertiary level Spanish language and culture learners at the beginner level. I found that if I paired the students with a task to complete, I could listen to them and mark without involving myself in the test talk and thus allow them more airtime to display their language proficiency. At the time, ‘interaction’ was not a developed criterion for assessing orals, so I focused on diverse aspects of paired assessment. I explored the impact of asking students to watch videos of their performance and their perceived performance while talking in pairs for an assessment (Ducasse, 2007). When asked, the candidates discussed elements of turn-taking and listening, which I saw as evidence of their awareness of managing an assessed conversation.

I turned next to the teacher assessors, wondering what they observed while students conversed in pairs for their Spanish oral assessment. I found that these teachers regularly noticed non-verbal skills (Ducasse, 2013), students’ listening skills, and how they managed turn-taking (Ducasse & Brown, 2009). The teachers workshopped their observations and developed a decision tree rubric for marking paired interaction (Ducasse, 2009; 2010), which at the time was radical. Later, I was fortunately granted study leave in 2011 and invited to participate in the professional development of SaberPro, which was a compulsory generic skill Colombian post-secondary graduate written assessment. That year, I worked with the assessors in the Colombian Institute for the Evaluation of Education (ICFES), who marked writing tasks written by Colombian Spanish speakers in their language. There were ninety assessors, and we worked on what they focused on first when they marked writing. First came the content, then the text organisation (i.e., cohesion and coherence) and finally language expression (Ducasse, 2011). After applying the decision tree methodology again, this time for assessing writing (see also Upshur & Turner, 1995), the assessors used the decision trees to rate the SaberPro written task during moderation training (Ducasse & Hill, 2015) for the next national exam, and they felt empowered to have contributed to the questions involved in developing rating scales decision trees (Ducasse, 2019).

On my return to Australia in 2012, generic skills (also called graduate attributes) such as critical thinking in higher education were being discussed and with a greater focus placed on oral assessment in all study areas. Where teaching speaking in the language classroom was a given, the expansion of communication skills through different faculties across disciplines offered an opening for colleagues at La Trobe and I to explore oral presentation assessments in higher education. We examined the requirements of the oral presentation tasks by observing groups of international students preparing for and presenting oral presentations at the university. We compared the oral skills required for academic oral presentations and those assessed in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) used for university entrance by international students. We concluded that from what we had observed, the cut off scores for speaking on the IELTS were too low so students were not able to speak well enough to participate in classes when they started (Ducasse & Brown, 2011). A study of the curriculum documents also uncovered that though students were expected to take speaking assessments they were not being adequately prepared for this (Ducasse, 2014). We later undertook a study of oral presentations across disciplines (Business, Biology and Health Sciences) and focused on another high stakes speaking test, the ‘TOEL iBT™ ‘. It is an online test where candidates record responses to computer-generated speech. We compared whether students’ speaking in oral presentations matched the demands of the TOEFL iBT™ speaking through a discourse analysis of transcriptions (from the TOEFL iBT™ and the presentations (Brown & Ducasse, 2019.) We asked the raters to discuss how they marked after watching video performances of presentations (Ducasse & Brown, 2020).

Disciplinary research in assessment and pedagogical practice in Spanish provided an opening for co-teaching a translation subject which evolved into research with the coordinator. This research considered overlaps between classroom-based assessment research and Spanish studies pedagogy. Language students in a third/fourth-year translation course for language majors were the foil to enhance learning amongst colleagues. The coordinator studied Italian and became a literary translator lecturing on theory and practice in English. A native French speaker specialist in contemporary French literature, and I, a Spanish/English Bilingual and applied linguist, were tutors. We sourced the weekly class texts for tasks on various translation skills that matched the lecture topic to tutor groups of students in our language. When I was a student, translations were frequent assessment tasks. However, I had never used translation tasks in my teaching practice because translation is a specialist skill, which is no longer developed and assessed in second language classes.

Matching text difficulty in weekly skill areas across languages and developing tasks was a struggle for us and pushed us to rethink what was being assessed. The three of us were fluent in Spanish and English and sharing French and Italian fluency with each tutor enabled me to compare tasks across languages. It offered a learning opportunity to highlight different perspectives on assessment because we came from three research disciplines and languages. I observed that the application of second language assessment theory in the tutors’ practice sharply contrasts with the practice of their literature and translation colleagues. To learn more, I offered to lead an assessment project on conveying implicit cultural knowledge across languages through translation. I pondered how an elusive concept such as ‘culture’ could be straitjacketed into a translation task and marking rubric.

Working together was a way to clarify the forms of thinking, writing, and assessing in our disciplines. I learned how translation was taught and assessed, and interrogating the process helped develop competence by reflecting on assessment and refining rubrics with the framework developed by Hill (2017, p. 4), which sets out a series of questions for teachers to consider when setting classroom based assessment: “1. What do teachers do? 2. What do teachers look for? 3. What theories and standards do they use?; 4. What are learners’ understandings of and orientations to
assessment? and 5. How does the context for teaching shape assessment

We presented at the Language and Culture Network of Australian Universities, and our paper was well received and accepted for publication (Ducasse & Maher, 2020). This collaboration exemplifies teacher/researcher praxis (Poehner & Inbar-Louie, 2020; Ducasse & Hill, 2020), where our relationship progressed from collaborating colleagues to teacher-researchers. We learned from each other and changed our practice by becoming more flexible on what counted as marking criteria in assessment tasks for the translation of culture in language translations. Through teaching together, designing assessed tasks in English and their corresponding translation rubrics in the three languages the course was taught (i.e., Italian, Spanish French), we made explicit and measurable in the rubrics the construct that was being measured and assessed. After learning about different constructs assessed in translations the coordinator embraced ‘defining the construct’ as she explained skills to assess and what to look for in the source text to challenge students in assessment tasks.

Reflecting on classroom practice of feedback

Once you start language learning, it can be a lifelong endeavour, so as a facilitator, I try to help students find their best way of learning a language. This is half of the challenge and knowing that students have different motivations and that they learn in different ways and thus I use many feedback methods to enable students to know how they are going and what to work on to improve. As a teacher, you are like a sounding board where students try language out on you to see if they are making sense. I am there so students can learn to ‘perform’ by writing or speaking proficiently in a new language. Garcia (2001, p. 232) notes that teaching “is perceived as assisted performance”; this resonates with a concern for student learning, and I agree with Ellis (1989; 2008) that students can be encouraged to discover and make explicit how they best learn to enable practitioners to support and encourage learning.

The challenges of promoting learning can be supported by an “instructional conversation” (Goldenberg, 1993; Perez & Vazquez, 1996; Stipek, 2002) by extending the roles of teacher and student that allow for dual-directional feedback to foster improvement via critical reflection for both parties. I respond to students ‘trying out their Spanish’ in ways that facilitate student efforts to share ideas and, in this way, contribute to classroom communication. As Scribner (1999) points out, “teachers who apply the concept of instructional conversations embrace the philosophy that talking and thinking go together and assume that the student may have something to say beyond what the student’s teacher or peer is thinking or already knows” (p. 202). Its function in class drives interesting, engaging, and relevant conversations among students, encouraging high participation.

The notion that ”learning is performance achieved through assistance” (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976) closely aligns with my language teaching beliefs. Students are assisted in accomplishing tasks and learning that might be unachievable alone. It is done through a socially constructed learning context based on Vygotsky’s well-known sociocultural learning theory (1980). Rather than conceptualising students as being passive recipients of grammar and vocabulary Vygotsky’s work has an application for transcending such a grammar focused instruction by using innovation in teaching, assessment, and feedback to talk about culture, building knowledge and reflecting together on how student learning fits with their world. A student-centred reflective classroom meets the challenges of learning content while improving language at their Zone of Proximal Development (Aljaafreh & Lantolf, 1994).

When teaching and coordinating an advanced Spanish Language and Society course, as I have regularly done, the principal objective is to transition from learning language as an ‘object of learning’ to studying content through authentic spoken and written texts. Through an innovative, collaborative, and reflective teaching approach, student presenters lead the weekly workshop by providing an overview of the content in ways that the students devised so that they could work to their own strengths (Tomlinson, 2015). The central written assessment, which were weekly reflections written in Spanish, aimed to explore their learning and what the content and language learning experience meant in the context of their bachelor’s degree, whatever it might be, and their life experience. This partnership with students extended to the co-created development of the criteria for correcting their reflection task (Hill and Ducasse, 2022). We – the students and I, as their teacher – devised marking criteria for the journal writing collaboratively by using student samples of work (with permission) and my first draft of marking criteria. Firstly, the students tried marking their own first draft (not graded), and in class through their questions and suggestions about what might count for a grade, the criteria were further expanded, then were accepted by myself and the class as the ‘new’ adopted criteria to be implemented for grading the remainder of the reflection tasks.

In relation to providing feedback on students’ foreign language speaking practice, it is worth reflecting on Edmondson’s point that, “We seek to teach people how to talk when they are not being taught” (1985, p. 162). It captures that ‘talk’ is the outward expression of thinking processes honed via learning, regardless of language or level. Two examples are presented from my advanced and beginners’ Spanish classes.

When teachers meet student expectations on the feedback in response to assessment tasks, they can work together towards their goals, even beyond curricular goals. Assessed oral reflection tasks were incorporated in my Level 5 Spanish class during online delivery undertaken during the lockdowns in Melbourne during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic (Ducasse, 2022a) at a time when language assessments previously delivered face to face and on paper were adapted for online delivery (Ducasse, 2022b). Listening to the oral reflections in Spanish facilitated an acknowledgement of the importance of student emotions connected to language learning and feedback. Hence, with an emphasis on emotions, it was possible to provide a modest but important level of support to students with immediacy while learning a language in an online learning classroom context.

It is worth acknowledging that feedback is not only something that teachers give to students. It is elicited formally from students in the context of twice-a-semester staff-student focus groups. Student representatives on the staff student consultative committee (SSCC) from each language are trained and receive a certificate for providing direct feedback and identifying areas for development for Spanish or other language classes. In this forum, students provide candid feedback on their experience of their classes. Among the questions regularly asked is: ”Why don’t teachers correct every mistake when I speak?” In responding to this, there needs to be an acknowledgement that learner characteristics affect learning, so it is crucial to design instruction around that evidence in order to make learning and feedback meaningful (Kember, 1991; Kember et al., 1999). Correcting every mistake in formative or summative language production, whether written or spoken, is an issue when it disrupts communication for speaking and confuses what is essential to correct at a particular level in writing.

In responding to students’ perception of practice (i.e., requests for the teacher to correct everything learners said so they could achieve fluency), I made changes to create a safe way for all students to prepare for fluency in speaking assessments. They performed timed practice with their peers. The fluency ‘rehearsal’ task comprises students speaking and recording fifteen seconds on their mobile phones in Spanish and then increasing the length in fifteen-second increments over the semester. They continued until they could speak about themselves while recording video and sound for five minutes into their phone camera in front of two peers. The peers could then immediately provide feedback to each other, using the rubric and which provided them with an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the final oral presentation task requirements through the process of appraising their own recorded speech and that of their peers during the ‘rehearsal task’.

In the lead-up to the paired speaking test, students self-select into groups of four class members. They practice speaking tasks with each other and provide each other with feedback. On the test day, the group is split into two pairs randomly, who speak together. The practice means they are learning while preparing for a test. The random split means they are comfortable with the partner but cannot memorise a script ahead of the test task since they are presented with the exact speaking topics ten minutes before they start a ten-minute dialogue/discussion task recorded in Microsoft Teams. Students receive a copy of the recording with their partners. While students speak, I take notes and mark them individually. I upload feedback comments and the rubric in the learning management system. Also, I send a comment on the learning platform that shows how to correct pronunciation errors that lead to misunderstanding.

Among my current feedback practices is enabling students to understand that the way feedback is delivered and framed is developed in view of evidence. To do this, for example, I have sent announcements recognising that “you might be wondering about doing an oral in pairs”, or on giving peers feedback on presentations, “well, research tells us…” In doing this, I endeavour to engage students to reflect on emerging research in language learning and feedback practices, and the ideas that were sourced from journal articles, conferences I attended, webinars, and discussions with academic colleagues with language teaching experience.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that students often have difficulties in their language-learning journey. They struggle with achieving fluency and learn a lot about cultures different from theirs. A possible solution is to offer peer role models who can allay fears about not becoming sufficiently fluent. Spanish-speaking students studying in English can also share experiences and provide feedback by speaking with students and engaging on topics relevant to the Spanish course to reduce beginners’ fears of ‘not achieving’. These native Spanish speakers might encourage students to follow the path of many others before them, such as by going on exchange, or undertaking an internship or an intensive course in a Spanish speaking country. I have invited PhD students from Spanish speaking countries to Spanish 4 to discuss how they felt about learning English before coming to RMIT. Then they speak in Spanish about their research topic relevant to class content, for example, the impact of woodburning heaters on health in disadvantaged areas in Chile. Similarly, a Colombian student completing a Spanish Art PhD was invited to lead Spanish 4 around the National Gallery of Victoria Spanish art collection for a similar exchange about study in Australia, with the added Spanish input for the art tour. I have organised these talks in the hope that these native Spanish-speakers might encourage students to advance their language learning still further.


Before I embarked on a path to engage regularly in explicit critical reflection, I had less awareness of theoretical frameworks that underpin teaching. I had given precedence to practical implications of decisions taken for the classroom experience. However, through participation in relation to feedback and assessment, I gained insight into how students perceive and use feedback as part of a chain of learning experiences. Exploring how to make a fair marking grid, then seeking to apply it justly, and then observing students react to and interpret the feedback provided, formed a cycle of feedback (see Figure 1) that, it is hoped, improves the teaching and feedback practices in my courses.

Figure 1. The feedback chain reaction (Ducasse & Hill, 2019)

In this cycle and my teaching, teacher and student collaboration in learning has been deliberately made more explicit to the students via the cycle of reflection and learning. By working together, the practitioner provides a learning context, and, in their way, students show me that they are learning so it can be reported on and assessed. There is an intent to approach teaching with transparency and the expectation that learning is co-constructed.

Key points learned from this multi-pronged reflection on my teaching and learning is that it has, I think, generalisability to pedagogy in other disciplines. I have sought to contribute to the scholarship of learning and teaching in relation to assessment moderation in conjunction with staff from the Social Work discipline area. Internationally I was invited to an Erasmus teaching exchange at UPF Barcelona to present my RMIT feedback research. Since 2021, I have been working with them on research into in the assessment of plurilingual discursive competence and feedback literacy.

In conclusion, in this chapter, I have sought to explain my ethos as a language and culture educator at RMIT University via insights drawn from my disciplinary overlap of applied linguistics and language pedagogy. With insights from applied linguistics and language pedagogy combined with critical reflections informed by the scholarship of learning and teaching, this chapter demonstrated proactive ways to support the engaged, global and transformative educational experience of our students including, but by no means limited to, those specialising in language studies. This chapter also calls for the opening and widening of an ongoing agenda that continuously explores and makes explicit the Language and Culture Educators’ orientation towards effective pedagogy in an ever-evolving higher education context. In turn, it seeks to contribute to “the collective understanding of effective teaching” (Devlin & Samarawicrema, 2010, p. 122).


This chapter is supported by the research project Inter_ECODAL: Interculturality and intercomprehension assessing plurilingual discourse competence: digital student feedback literacy (reference PID2020-113796RB-I00/MICINN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033), co-funded by “Research Challenges” R+D+i Projects, Ministry of Science and Innovation (MICINN), Spain, and Spanish State Research Agency (AEI).


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A Skilled Hand and a Cultivated Mind Copyright © 2024 by Julian Lee; Maki Yoshida; Jindan Ni; Kaye Quek; and Anamaria Ducasse is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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