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It’s just a simple assignment…or is it?

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Irene Winter was surprised when my colleague and I contacted her about an assignment she recently gave her English class. “It’s just a simple assignment”, she insisted, but we knew there was more to the exercise than meets the eye.

My colleague Morten Fahlvik, Educational Researcher at itslearning, has a daughter at Bergen Private Gymnas; the Norwegian upper secondary school where Irene teaches English and music. He was impressed by the very first assignment his daughter got from Irene in her English class. The exercise asked students to make a film clip talking about themselves and describing their experience with English. It seemed simple enough, but the actual complexity of the exercise drove Morten to ask Irene about the pedagogical intentions behind her assignment.

“I learn a lot from the assignment,” Irene explained, “As my students are new to me, it helps me put faces to names; evaluate levels of fluency, vocabulary and pronunciation; and most importantly, get to know them a little. Once you do that, you become invested in the relationship and their learning process. It’s important to know how your students think.”


Most students approached the assignment wholeheartedly, as they wanted to make a good first impression on their teacher. The majority were already comfortable with technology, so the technical aspect of making the recordings was generally problem-free. Irene asked them to use Photobooth to record the clips. Alternatively, the built-in video recorder on itslearning could have been used. Below is a screenshot of Irene’s assignment. (Click on the picture for a larger version).

Irene revealed to us that she had several goals in mind when creating the assignment:

  • get to know students as individuals in order to pinpoint their needs and aspirations
  • get a feel for their pronunciation, vocabulary and oral fluency
  • get students to reflect upon their English level, their motivation regarding the subject and the amount of effort they must make in order to progress
  • get to know students’ needs, wishes and fears regarding speaking English in class (which is challenging for many)
  • get students to reflect upon their attitude toward reading English and the correct use of grammar
  • give students training in the use of technology, which will benefit them in the future


It was important for Irene to find out if her students had any personal concerns regarding English class. Irene reassured them that their videos would only be viewed by her. Some students used this private audience to confess their extreme anxiety about speaking English aloud in class, among other issues. In past years, Irene has felt she found out about such issues far too late. If she had known sooner she could have addressed the concerns at an earlier stage. The videos allowed students to share information that they might never have brought up in class.

Irene takes all this valuable information into consideration regarding her teaching. She tries not to call on students who are terrified to speak in class. She often lets students choose whether they’d like to work in groups or individually; whether they’d like to communicate verbally or in writing, etc.

Student choice

itslearning helps Irene offer students choices. For example, some of her students made several attempts at recording their videos at home and decided that it just wasn’t going well enough. They contacted Irene through itslearning and she calmed their fears by giving them the option to just record a sound file or write down their answers instead. Irene discouraged them from simply reading manuscripts instead of speaking more candidly, as candid speech gave her more insight into how fluent their English was.

Reading between the lines

The videos allowed Irene to read between the lines of what the students were saying, thus gaining insight into their confidence levels and attitudes. Some students were outgoing or laid-back in their presentations, others were quite introverted. Some recorded themselves lounging on their beds; some barricaded themselves in their bathrooms for privacy.

Some of the least confident students actually spoke English quite well. The assignment gave Irene the opportunity to discover this and give them much-needed positive feedback. itslearning allows teachers to add comments when returning graded assignments to students. It also allows teachers to embed sound or video files containing feedback, for a more personal touch.

Just a simple assignment…

So as you can see, there’s much more to this assignment than is revealed at first glance. Thanks so much Irene, for showing us how a “simple” assignment at the beginning of the school year can lead to the accumulation of so much valuable information!