Transforming Assessment to Address Anxiety in The Language Classroom

Gillian Lord (University of Florida) and Amy Rossomondo (University of Kansas), coauthors of Contraseña: Your Password to Foundational Spanish, share how they developed materials to connect on a new level with students and to help them overcome language learning anxiety.  

Our own involvement in teaching Spanish, and teaching others how to teach Spanish, led us to realize that most pedagogical materials don’t interest students, don’t help students learn, and certainly don’t make students want to keep learning more about Spanish-speaking people or the places where they live. Most Spanish textbooks and supporting digital materials rely on form-focused, mechanical exercises and, simply put, lack engaging content. Let’s face it, if students aren’t even excited about the language they’re learning or the materials they’re using, and can’t see meaningful progress, how can we hope that they will develop into eager participant users of the language?

The challenges 2020 brought to higher education taught us that, more than ever, we need to connect with students on an emotional and psychological level; our recent encounters have shown that students living these challenges benefit immensely from materials developed at the forefront of proven pedagogies and approaches.

Why does this matter?

Because students are stressed!

One issue that recurs in both language and higher education research is the impact of student anxiety on successful learning in college. Not surprisingly, increased levels of anxiety can have detrimental effects on student success, a problem that is on the rise. The majority of U.S. college students (63%) reported feeling overwhelming anxiety in 2017, and almost a quarter reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional (American College Health Association, 2018). Research also reveals that the first year of college correlates with the sharpest increase in anxiety among college students (Conley et al., 2020). This is of particular concern, given that most students who enroll in foundational language classes are first-year students.

In second-language research specifically, foreign languages have been shown to be linked to cognitive and social causes for anxiety (McIntyre, 2017). Language students often worry about how they will sound in front of their instructor and classmates and are anxious about feeling inadequate, foolish, or even worse, complete failures. In our classroom context—virtual, hybrid, or face to face—language anxiety can result in lower grades and limited learning, impaired performance on tests, and withdrawal or avoidance. It would be understandable for a student experiencing any of these effects to discontinue their study at the first opportunity.

Our recommendations and suggested approach

Research-based recommendations for reducing both general academic and foreign language anxiety converge with respect to instructional design. It involves moving from fewer high-stakes exams to more regular lower-stakes opportunities to demonstrate learning, utilizing scaffolded assignments, ensuring greater transparency, building communities of support, and encouraging metacognitive reflection. Materials creation through a process called Backward Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) enables us to incorporate all these recommendations.

Backward Design is a process that begins by asking “What do we want our students to be able to do?” and by articulating learning objectives at a global (course), macro (unit), and micro level (daily). The next step asks, “How will students demonstrate their learning?” and consists of determining what acceptable evidence would indicate that students have achieved these outcomes, e.g., developing effective assessments of student learning. In the final step we ask, “How will our students learn?” and thus develop and sequence appropriate instructional materials and learning activities to allow students to build toward successfully achieving the learning objectives.

Not surprisingly, when we reorganized our own classes and used materials designed via Backward Design, our students responded as we hoped. Students put effort into unit-culminating projects and were proud of their work that showcased their language ability. By commenting on each other’s projects in an ePortfolio, they learned from each other and built community at the same time. We incorporated more traditional tests into our program, but had students complete them in groups as a reinforcement and solidification activity.

Our development of a new introductory and intermediate Spanish program, Contraseña (Password) began with the recognition that, at a global level, we want our students to develop communicative abilities and feel an affinity for the different groups of people who share Spanish as a common language. Of particular relevance was the decision that frequent, authentic assessment—in the form of unit-level projects—would reveal more meaningful and visible learning than unit or cumulative exams ever could. Students do not learn a foreign language to memorize conjugations and fill in blanks on a test! They learn a foreign language to be able to create a social media profile, make plans with a friend, write a formal letter or informal text message, and understand a Spanish-language news article or website.

Contraseña is the result of asking ourselves and our colleagues several key questions:

  • How can we leverage second-language research and higher education best practices to create better Spanish teaching materials?
  • What would happen if we aligned our learning goals with students’ own interests and goals?
  • How would students react to Backward Designed assessments that allow them to showcase what they learn in meaningful ways?

We continue to be inspired by the strong belief that effective language study can and should play a transformative role in our students’ higher educational experiences.


American College Health Association (2018). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Undergraduate Student Reference Group Data Report Fall 2018.

Conley, C. S., Shapiro, J. B., Huguenel, B. M., & Kirsch, A. C. (2020). Navigating the College Years: Developmental Trajectories and Gender Differences in Psychological Functioning, Cognitive-Affective Strategies, and Social Well-Being. Emerging Adulthood, 8(2), 103–117.

MacIntyre, P. D. (2017). An overview of language anxiety research and trends in its development. New insights into language anxiety: Theory, research and educational implications25, 53. (pp. 25, 53). Multilingual Matters.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

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