Beyond exams and essays: Creative methods of assessment in the Department of Languages and Cultures

Our students have just finished choosing their modules for their second and final year, and one question they often ask when selecting their modules is ‘how is this module assessed’? This is also a question that prospective applicants often ask, so we wanted to showcase in this blog post some of our more creative methods of assessment. We are proud of our innovative assignments, which enable students to develop their skills in many different areas, so we have asked our Programme Directors to give us some recent examples of assessments for Spanish, German, Italian, French and comparative modules!


In this first post we cover some examples of recent creative forms of assessment used in our comparative modules. Comparative modules compare and contrast the history, literature, cinema…produced in different cultural spheres, bringing them together in modules such as Greats of European Cinema, Comparative Literature, Society, Thought and Art, or Language and Power, to name only a few.


Our comparative modules involve exciting methods of assessment, for instance for the module “Language and Power”, a radio show on language and migration was recently designed, written, and conducted by the students enrolled in the module. The whole module had been designed around this outcome, and therefore all lectures were delivered in preparation for the show. Before going on air, students received a 2-hour training at Junction 11, the University digital radio which hosted the show. A series of five 50-minute shows (Voicing the invisible(s)), on 5 different topics, went on air, involving all 25 students of the module. By working with a professional equipment, students could include sounds, songs, interviews and live feedback in their shows, and had to carefully mix up solid research-based content with some more “entertaining” material. It was such a success that some students designed and presented their own radio show after this experience. As one of the students wrote: “This project taught us and gave us a lot, and such opportunities to flourish are surely what education is all about”.


Another innovative method of assessment was the project Who wants to become… and editor? How to transform a classroom in a publishing house, for the module ML2LLM “Literature Language and Media”. Over 10 weeks in the Spring Term, students designed, wrote, edited, and managed to publish a 96-page book entitled Behind the Screen. Social Media through the student eye. The class was organised as a publishing lab. Week by week, invited guests introduced as to book design, book editing, proofreading, book marketing, etc. Students then decided a topic they wanted publish on, and took a role: most of them became authors (of chapters), then we had 2 assistant editors, 2 iconographers, 2 proof-readers, 1 production manager (in charge of getting in touch with the printer, i.e. the Department of Typography), 1 event manager (to organise a book launch), etc. It was like the big game of writing and publishing, but we ended up with a collective book with 13 short chapters based on research, professionally designed by a graduate from Typography, and digitally printed in 200 copies. Students left the module with 2 copies of the book each, to show what they are able to do, and with the feeling that when talking about books the combination of content and technical skills is not only possible, but almost necessary to understand the physicality and the complexity of books and book industry.

Beyond exams and essays: Creative methods of assessment in German studies

Our German section make wide use of different assessment formats which boost our students’ creativity, flexibility, promote dissemination of students’ research findings and work inclusively. Generally, coursework assessment offers varying tasks which allow students to play to their strength but also explore new forms of working. Thus Part 1 modules like Icons of Modern Germany base tasks on varying primary sources from East German schoolbooks to West German pop songs; students can choose between text question, contextualising visual materials or commenting on a song or poem; they can also decide to either write an essay or produce a poster.

This variety continues into Parts 2 and 3. For example, uur Word Formation module allows students to write a commentary as well as updated version on a dictionary entry. In the module on Romantic literature, students get the option to do a creative project which can consist of a translation, writing a (fictitious) letter or diary based on an author or literary character, or generate a series of drawings or paintings on some literary piece. The option to do posters which present findings to a wider public can be chosen in the German cinema module. This broad range of formats and opportunities to think beyond the usual essay, is also there in our language modules which offer portfolio assessment or video shooting in addition to tests or essays.


Beyond exams and essays: Creative methods of assessment in French Studies

In French, students on the module ‘How to Think in French’ (FR2HTF) carry out an assessment with the contemporary French publication Philosophie magazine. They are individually assigned a copy and are asked to locate a number of common expressions and figures of speech. This develops their analytical skills in a contemporary and varied context. The articles they read range from letters pages to cartoons, snippets of canonical texts to interviews with contemporary philosophers and cultural figures.

In the module ‘The First World War: Then and Now: students write a learning journal in which they are invited to reflect on how their understanding of a particular aspect or topic has evolved as a result of class discussions and of the independent research they have conducted. Students often choose to explore lesser-know aspects of the conflict, such as medical advances, the parallels between occupation (and resistance) in WW1 and in WW2, or the way the war was portrayed in children’s albums during the conflict.

As for our French language modules, in first and second year students complete a portfolio, a collection of creative and independent work showcasing their progress in French. It’s a great opportunity to receive personalised feedback on their accent and intonation (especially for shy students!), written expression, and other language skills.

For practising their French and keeping track of their learning, students can also test their grammar each week through easily-accessible online tests and in class, we like to do Kahoot quizzes. For beginners’ and intermediate levels, there are different forms of weekly formative assessments available to students: they can test their vocabulary with Quizlet via the flashcards that we have created, based on the topics discussed each week. They can also contribute to these lists by creating and editing their own flashcards.

Beyond exams and essays: Creative methods of assessment in Spanish and Latin American Studies

In Spanish our first-year cultural module ‘Icons of Spain and Latin America’ involves an assessment designed to help you understand what we’re looking for in university essays and how to improve your work. Students hand in their essay and we provide feedback, then the students use the feedback to develop their essay and resubmit it with a reflection on what they’ve done and how it’s helped. It’s great to be able to do this in the first year as you’ll need those essay writing skills all the way through your degree. It also helps you learn how to reflect on feedback and use it to improve your work (useful at university and beyond!). Students find this really helpful and often comment on how beneficial it was in the module feedback.

In our final-year module on dictatorships in South America, students take it in turn to write a blog post summarising the seminar reading and some questions they think it would be useful to discuss. This helps us to have really interesting discussions in the seminar, and students find the blogs are really useful resources for their revision.

In Spanish language, several of our modules have a ‘language portfolio’, where you submit activities throughout the year. Students create some of their own activities, so you can focus in on the areas of language learning you really want to improve (and let your creativity run wild if you like!). This helps you to work on developing specific skills gradually over the course of the year, which is important for language learning.

Beyond exams and essays: Creative methods of assessment in Italian studies

Our Italian section’s creative assignments enables students to ‘posterise’ their research! In several cultural modules we have embedded poster presentations, i.e. academic posters in A1 format which let students present a topic of their choice in a very effective, visual way. In “Poster presentations” sessions students bring their own posters and display them like in an exhibition, which is open to anyone. After the presentation students can keep their professionally-printed posters and take them to job interviews to show their ability to sum up information in a catchy way. It is a win-win assessment method. Teachers can transfer some presentation skills onto their students, and students do enjoy the visual appeal of their posters, which stay with them as a piece of evidence of a good quality and effective work.


In one of our Italian socio-linguistics modules, students recently edited a newsletter – entitled Reading Italians (where the plural is for signalling the linguistic variety of contemporary Italian). Financed by a small grant from the University Teaching and Learning Development Fund, and professionally designed by an undergraduate student of Typography (which could use the newsletter as the final project of her academic year), the newsletter was edited by two students from the module, and included several articles written by students to talk about their sociolinguist projects. Two issues of the newsletter were released (100 copies each): one to discuss ideas, and one to disseminate the results of the students’ research. Graphically stunning, the two issues were sent to all the Italian departments in the UK, to let colleagues and students from other universities what we were doing.

Student Life: The ability to pursue our own research

Sarah Thurmer (French and Italian, 2014)

Sarah Thurmer (French and Italian, 2014)

Yesterday afternoon, students in Dr Charles Leavitt’s final-year Italian module IT3AF: After the Flood – Italy 1945-1956, gave their research poster presentations. Students investigated a wide variety of topics, then presented and discussed their research findings with colleagues in the Italian section. We’ve asked Sarah Thurmer, who presented an innovative poster on advertisements in the Italian journal Rinascita last year, to share her thoughts on conducting and sharing research as an advanced undergraduate. Here’s what she had to say:

Two years ago now, I was set to choose my final year Italian modules while still away on my Erasmus placement in Padua, Italy. The module IT3AF appeared on a list and I was presented with the term ‘After the Flood’ for the first time. As a French and Italian student, I had the chance to choose only two Italian modules and with six available I had more than enough to choose from, but IT3AF caught my eye immediately. At the time, I was writing my dissertation on the spread of western communism in France and Italy after the Second World War, and I was therefore drawn to this module, which would allow me to study the cultural and political debates in the post-war period – fantastic!

Gemma Martinez presents her research on Naples after the liberation.

Gemma Martinez presents her research on Naples after the liberation.

Just weeks into the programme and my final year back in Reading, I began to realise that After the Flood was turning out to be the most challenging, rewarding and enjoyable module I had ever taken.

The module was at its core was an introduction to the critical analysis of a selection of texts, novels, films and journals and Dr Leavitt presented us with a schedule of seminars for the year with lists of everything we would be analysing and when, as well as detailing the assessment and deadlines. He also arranged weekly film viewings outside of seminar hours so that we could together watch a collection of unforgettable films from the dopoguerra (post-war period) in Italy.

Lorenzo Corradi leads a discussion on the USA's policy of communist containment and its effects in post-war Italy.

Lorenzo Corradi leads a discussion on the USA’s policy of communist containment and its effects in post-war Italy.

As students, we had all the information we needed and what came next was up to us. I soon realised if I was to really engage with the content and participate in what became very heated and inspiring in-class discussions, I needed to read everything and I mean everything.

For the first time, I was reading the short stories, the novels, the poems and the articles not because I had to, but because I wanted to. For a student who always avoided literature and stuck to the safety of solid facts in history textbooks, IT3AF was allowing me to take the ideas and values expressed by authors and directors and apply them to the history and politics of the period.

Not only did the novels, a favourite of mine being Uomini e No by Elio Vittorini, compliment what I already knew about the dopoguerra, they allowed me to view the period through different eyes and see past the tables of election results or industrial production figures.

Helena Moore presents her research on the return to Italy of Jewish survivors of the Shoah.

Helena Moore presents her research on Italian survivors of the Shoah and their re-integration in Italy.

I was already enjoying the module and then in the Spring Term, the study of journals was introduced and this is where I really engaged.

After an exciting guest lecture from Dr Mila Milani, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Reading, three post-war Italian journals were presented to us and all students picked one to work on. I chose Rinascita, simply because I found Palmiro Togliatti, the journal’s editor and the head of Italy’s Communist Party, an interesting figure.

I can remember nervously withdrawing the journals from the library’s closed-access collection. I immediately loved reading them. I loved analysing the images, the poems, the advertisements and of course the long articles, all in Italian, and I was excited to use to them to produce coursework.

Sophie Baldwin discusses her research on changing attitudes to divorce in Italy after the war.

Sophie Baldwin discusses her research on changing attitudes to divorce in Italy after the war.

At this point in the year, we were all being given the freedom to take the study of these journals, (or even the films, novels and poems) in whatever way we wanted within the bounds of the assessment deadlines. I know that I, along with my classmates, found this the most exciting part of the module.

Dr Leavitt enjoyed listening to our interpretations and ideas and was happy to help us further study the area we engaged with most. Many of us had never created conference posters, let alone presented them to our peers and lecturers. Yet through the study of the journal Rinascita and the flexibility to pursue the area I engaged best with, I confidently presented a poster which gained me the highest mark of my degree and fantastic feedback from everyone involved.

Students and lecturers alike enjoyed the poster presentation session and it was a great way to end the module and the year on a high. I even felt confident going into the exam because I had really connected with the content rather than reading texts simply because they were on the reading list and I wasn’t left cramming information and lecture slides the night before the exam.

Josie Harrison discusses her project on the legacy of internal exile (confino) under Fascism.

Josie Harrison discusses her project on the legacy of internal exile (confino) under Fascism.

IT3AF filled me with confidence in my studies and I look back on it now as a module I really enjoyed, something I know I am not alone in. The ability to pursue our own research, voice our own opinions and informally debate with one another made it different to anything I had studied before.

Looking back on my university experience six months after graduation, I realise it is no longer as important what mark I gained for each essay or presentation, but the skills I gained from the research, production and assessment of my work will stay with me as I continue my studies and embark of my professional future.

In IT3AF with Dr Leavitt, learning went from being a series of lectures and seminars with predicted outcomes to being an in-depth analysis of all relevant resources at my disposal and a collaboration of ideas and concepts. Lecture slides were no longer my bible and I learnt to value my own interpretations.

Gabriella Burns has to hold back from dancing as she presents her work on popular music in post-war Italy.

Gabriella Burns tries to keep from dancing as she presents her work on popular music in post-war Italy.

I would recommend this module to anyone. I had a previous interest in the period 1945 -1956 but it wasn’t the study of what I already knew that was the most rewarding, it was the discovery of new material and skills. Moreover, I now look back on IT3AF as enjoyable, so much so that I am now considering continuing studies to MA level within the Italian department.

To learn more about IT3AF: After the Flood, the dozens of other modules we offer in European Studies, French, German, Italian, and the multi-language comparative modules we offer in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Reading, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.


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Gabriella Craft leads a discussion on Italian masculinity after Fascism.

Gabriella Craft leads a discussion on Italian masculinity after Fascism.

Chloé Saleh discusses Italian Arte Povera

Chloé Saleh discusses Italian Arte Povera




Stefano Santosuosso considers Francesca Passaseo's research findings on Italian translations of Ernest Hemingway

Stefano Santosuosso considers Francesca Passaseo’s research findings on Italian translations of Ernest Hemingway

Get to Know a Reading Module: Travel in the GDR

Ever stopped to think about why you travel, where and how? Dr Alison E. Martin has.

Dr Alison MartinA specialist in travel writing, with a main focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel narratives, Dr Martin offers a module for second-year students, GM2OPT3, which explores travel in quite a different period – the twentieth century – and examines travel in Europe and beyond during the Cold War.

Her seminar has several missions. One of these is to revise the commonly-held views that travel writing is not proper ‘literature’ at all – in the sense that it is not creatively crafted – and that it is nothing more than coffee-table reading, merely seeking to entertain,
with little ‘meat’ and message to it. She also aims to make students understand how travel is intimately related to all sorts of things we do in life – not just get to work or go on holiday. Where we go and how we travel has much to do with the community to which we belong or the social group to which we aspire, our dreams and aspirations or our fears and concerns.

RathäuserWhile in this course we adopt the time-honoured position of the ‘armchair traveller’, undertaking voyages with our authors to places as disparate as Siberia and Brighton, America and Cologne, we do so with a critical eye as we examine how the writers in this module use a wide range of different textual strategies – the use of first-person narration, direct speech, factual enumeration – to create a seemingly authentic, immediate and above all engaging picture of the foreign.

Get to Know a Reading Module: The Legend of Tristan and Iseult

In a regular feature on the Blog of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, we invite you to “Get to know a Reading module.” We want to share with you examples of the innovative teaching that goes on in the department, as well as the excellent work that our students do inside and beyond the classroom. Each month we’ll invite one of our Lecturers to fill us in on one of the dozens of modules our department offers, from language and linguistics to cinema, history, literature, politics, and beyond. This month, we’re featuring a module on Medieval France.

IreneDr Irene Fabry-Tehranchi is a specialist of Medieval French Literature, in particular knightly romances of the court of King Arthur and text and image relations in illuminated manuscripts. Her FR305 module for final-year French students looks at the Legend of Tristan and Iseult in order to introduce her students to key aspects of Medieval French Literature and the cultural context within which it was written.

In the legend, the knight Tristan goes to Ireland to fetch the beautiful Iseult as a wife for his uncle Mark. On the way back, Tristan and Iseult drink by mistake a love potion and will carry on loving each other, despite Iseult’s wedding, hiding their affair from the court and from the King…

fr112 (3) f144This passionate love story and its tragic end played a key role in the development of medieval imagination, as well as its literary and artistic creation. In the Middle Ages, the legend of Tristan and Iseult was not transmitted in a single text. The story led to different versions, in verse and in prose, and had a wide diffusion, in French and other European languages. In addition to the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the prose Tristan, references to the legend appeared on medieval ivory or wooden caskets, mirror cases, tapestries, decorative tiles or even chairs, shoes and tin objects, showing its wide appeal and success.


tristan casketIn this module, which alternates between lectures and seminars including students’ presentations on particular themes or textual passages, we examine the rise of courtly love in vernacular literature, the cultural importance of chivalry, feudalism, and constructions of sexuality and gender.  We look at different representations of transgression, including deception and adultery, and examine the question of marginality, from life outside the royal court to madness or leprosy, considered as both a physical and moral stigma by medieval society.

The myth of Tristan and Iseult also proved very productive in the 19th and 20th century, from Wagner’s opera to Jean Cocteau’s filmL’Éternel retour, which we study together.