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LASER-Focused Language Learning

Professor Troy Cox’s new tool helps foreign language students decide what class they should take.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, missionaries abroad came home in droves. Some went back out on reassignment, but some returned to BYU the next fall, where many began taking language classes in their mission language. Most of the languages taught in the College designate one course in the program for returned missionaries to take, but because this group of incoming students had all served for different amounts of time, their language skills were not nearly as similar as most returned missionaries’. This posed a problem for Associate Professor Troy Cox, (Associate Director of Language Proficiency Services and Research for the Center for Language Studies). How could they be placed in classes when they were at such disparate levels of fluency?

In order to help students find the right language class, Cox began work on what would become the LASER (Language Ability Self-Evaluation Resource). This tool gathers information that is highly correlated with language proficiency, helps students self-assess their ability in their chosen language, and provides a class recommendation. Cox created the LASER to gain insight into how students view their language ability and help them succeed in and beyond the classroom.

Cox’s inspiration came from a previous project he had worked on called WebCAPE (Computer Adaptive Placement Exam). The WebCAPE assesses language ability based on a series of multiple-choice questions that require the participant to read, listen to, and answer questions in and about a foreign language. However, Cox was determined to remedy a few issues with the WebCAPE.

“WebCAPE was really good at this ‘remember factual stuff,’.” Cox says. But he wanted to take the technology one step further. He began asking himself, “How can we create an instrument that assesses different types of knowledge and higher-order skills, including self-awareness?”

Girl doing homework

Cox moved his new test away from the WebCAPE’s model, working to make it align with values that he hopes language students will learn while at BYU and beyond. He says, “What are we signaling to students if the very first thing that we’re asking them to do to assess their language ability is to take a multiple-choice test? Do we want students that are automatons that need to be told where to go and what to do via external checklists? Or do we want them to become reflective learners that can accurately calibrate their language proficiency and choose what’s best for them?”

With this in mind, Cox designed the test to consist of two modules: self-evaluation and productive language samples. The first section asks the language learner to analyze their skills and then offers a class recommendation based on their self-assessment. The second section requires the student to record and send an audio sample to their prospective instructor for review. Professors then have the option to make corrections to the students’ class suggestions based on their performance.

After administering the tests for four years, Cox has found that it is a “very reliable instrument.” Cox prefers this form of evaluation because it not only allows students to have autonomy when it comes to language evaluation, it also allows instructors to understand the perceptions of the students—and students themselves to understand the dichotomy between their perceived skill and actual skill.

Cox has found that most language learners follow a very specific pattern when perceiving their own ability, called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Learners often have the highest confidence when they first begin a new skill; once they learn more, their confidence plummets as they come to realize how much is required to actually gain mastery. If they choose to continue to work on their skill, their confidence increases much slower and eventually evens out so that they have the same confidence they had as a beginner. Beginning-level language learners typically rank themselves higher than their actual skill level, while the most advanced-level learners rank themselves lower than their actual level. “This leads to a chicken-or-egg-type-question: do higher-level language learners become more humble as they reach higher levels of proficiency? Or do more humble learners gain higher levels of proficiency as they are more willing to learn?” Cox says that at this point, we don’t know for certain.

Overall, Cox just wants students to excel in their studies and their life. He wants students to develop a “humble confidence,” something that can be obtained by becoming aware of areas of improvement and then having the confidence to actually improve. Cox says, “If you don’t have eyes to see your weaknesses, how would you know to improve them?”

The LASER encourages language learners to become critical about their own perceptions and places them in a position where they have the best opportunity to actually improve. Cox shares that his greatest hope for the LASER is for students to absorb these principles and patterns and become self-reliant enough to be agentive, life-long learners.

To learn more about the LASER and how it works, click here.