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Empower Self-Reliant Learners with a Paradigm Shift on Grading

By diverging from language-teacher stereotypes, this professor has created assessments that empower students to be self-reliant, eager learners.


Martha Ann Maus, PhD

Adjunct Lecturer of Spanish, College of Charleston

PhD in Spanish Language and Literature, MA and BA in Spanish

“If I had to say in a tweet why learning a language like Spanish is important, I would focus less on ‘business opportunities down the road’ and more on how it opens you up to meeting new, cool people and thinking in new ways,” says Martha Ann Maus, PhD, adjunct lecturer of Spanish at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. “[It] is a doorway to a world of adventures you could have.”

Her unconventional methods of assessment and grading do more than allay students’ fears of learning (and speaking) a new language. By focusing on collaboration, connection, and progress—never perfection—she empowers students to open their minds to the myriad ways in which they can use language to help others with whom we share this planet.

“For example, in a grocery store, one encounters people that struggle to express needing change in English,” she says. “What can I do? If I only knew two words—dinero and cambio [money and change]—I can intercede in a meaningful way that helps another person in the community.”

Ultimately, Maus hopes that her students will realize this: “I don’t need to know everything. I need to use what I do know to make a connection. That is worth a try every time.”

Challenge: Common fears and lack of confidence

When Maus began teaching at the College of Charleston in 2015, she noticed something: “The words oral exam seemed to strike fear in my students’ hearts,” she says. “They hate talking in public and fear exams.” Further, she says her students have unrealistic expectations, which she likens to the desire to make “this crème brulee that should be perfect, like in the pictures.”

“I have students who have fallen in love with language and culture, and they are now different people. Learning a new language sparked something positive and adventurous within them. It gave them confidence, and that influences them no matter what career they ultimately choose. To instill a sense of adventure—one that overrides any fear my students feel—that’s my dream.”

— Martha Ann Maus, PhD

To help students open up to the language—to take risks, gain confidence, and stretch their learning muscles—she decided that she needed to get rid of these ways of thinking altogether. “Learning español is not a passive process where we wait for others to tell us if we are good enough or if we messed up,” she asserts. “We have to shift the response at a gut level: Fear is visceral.”

So she asked herself an important question: “What if the students were to actually get excited about demonstrating proficiency?” Then she made it her mission to find out how to inspire that sort of gut reaction.

Innovation: Focusing on connection and collaboration

“To instill a sense of adventure that overrides any fear my students feel—that’s my philosophy,” says Maus. For starters, she completely did away with the traditional oral exam, in which a student speaks solo for the teacher. “That’s not how language works or how communication works,” she says. “Both are collaborative. My biggest innovation may be that I am looking for connection rather than perfection.”

When it comes to building confidence with a language, she adds, “Half of the battle is to not sweat the small stuff. I tell my students that no one on the street will ever yell at you for using the wrong form of a verb. And if they do,” she laughs, “why would you want to talk to them anyway?”

She uses the communicative approach, which holds that getting your idea across is more important than pronunciation and conjugation. So, rather than using oral exams to call out student errors, she utilizes assessments of student conversations (one-on-one with each other, about a predetermined topic) to allow students to show what they know. Then, using guiding questions, Maus helps students engage in self-reflection to assess their own progress and set new goals.

This approach involves a complete shift in attitude for both professor and student. “I’m not substituting this assessment for an oral exam,” she says. “I’m changing what I understand as demonstrating proficiency to speak a foreign language.” Beyond empowering students to take ownership of their learning process, Maus’s assessments offer opportunities to have fun with the language while learning practical applications of it.

“Some students have had Spanish teachers who annihilated them for small mistakes. We are often left to deal with this damage,” she concludes. “I can’t undo it. I can, however, provide a safe space for students to get their ‘español jam’ on!”


SPAN 202 Intermediate Spanish

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“Since students who take SPAN 202 have already taken three Spanish courses, this is an intensification and review of so many concepts that students have learned about Spanish up to this point. Unfortunately, most books still consider grammar (in context) to be the key point to review. One thing SPAN 202 does is provide an intensification of culture in different forms alongside this intense review. So, while there’s plenty of grammar and basics, we include a focus on movies, poetry, food, politics, history, art, music, and other important elements of culture.”

— Martha Ann Maus, PhD

Course: SPAN 202 Intermediate Spanish

Frequency: Three 1-hour class meetings per week for 16 weeks

Class size: 23

Course description: Develops a basic proficiency in Spanish and familiarity with Hispanic culture through practice in the use of the basic language skills and acquisition of vocabulary.


Lesson: The “I Need a Vacation!” oral assessment

Maus’s lesson called “I Need a Vacation!” is an assessment in the form of a low-pressure, high-adventure conversation between two students. To complete it, students in class pair up and practice their Spanish by discussing the topic of vacations, following guidelines in her detailed rubric. The activity culminates when the duo visits Maus’s office to perform their travel-themed dialogue for her.

How she warms students to the idea and executes the evaluation process are truly innovative aspects of this lesson. Here are Maus’s recommendations for an educator who wishes to adopt her student-centric, self-reflective approach:

Shift the mood of the classroom

“I am not the boss of español,” she tells students at the outset. “A huge amount of the success of this lesson is ‘I identify with you, and you with me.’” When the teacher gives a little, and the students give a little, they build a climate of mutual honesty and trust.

“Rapport and humor need to be emphasized as fundamental, even critical,” says Maus, “because the point is to break down the walls that inhibit students from responding in a way that would reflect their inner selves. Developing rapport with students is the most difficult thing to do in the classroom. It requires check-ins, physical movement, and daily maintenance. Any single response by a teacher can ruin it forever.”

To energize students, Maus suggests that teachers move around the room a lot, make eye contact, and use strong intonation and melodramatic gestures when they teach—and do not take themselves too seriously. “Humor helps students to identify with each other and with me, which is critical to changing their perspective on how they can approach learning and using the Spanish language,” she says. “I share with my students that I am super klutzy, so I come across as vulnerable. This helps me seem less intimidating and allows my students to relax.”

Acknowledge and address students’ anxieties

Language learners often enter the classroom with specific anxieties. So, during the first week of class, Maus asks students to express their concerns, one by one, then she addresses each in turn, explaining why her approach should alleviate their fears.

For example, they will not have to engage in public speaking. Maus tells them she will never demand that they recite specific words or sentences—not in front of the group and not to her. Instead, they will be assessed on a conversation with a classmate, she explains. As conversing is something we do daily (albeit in our native language), this is generally less intimidating than traditional-style oral language exams.

“The word 'exam' seems to strike fear in my students’ hearts, so I stopped using it. Assessment does not equal exam. An exam implies that you can get something wrong. An assessment doesn’t focus on right or wrong but on how we are going to get better.”

— Martha Ann Maus, PhD
Recognize the power of words

Even the name of Maus’s assessment was thoughtfully selected: The word vacation itself implies rest and relaxation. However, other words—such as exam and mistake—hold a more negative energy.

In addition to shedding the traditional setup and expectations of oral exams, Maus refuses to use the word exam at all. “Assessment does not equal exam,” she says. “An exam implies that you can get something wrong. An assessment doesn’t focus on right or wrong but on how we are going to get better.”

The word mistake also holds negative connotations that Maus wishes to dispel. “Students need to be asked regularly, ‘What is a mistake?’” she says. She offers this example: “Is it a bad thing to learn that eating too big of a bite of ice cream causes brain freeze?” she asks. “No.” Taking a too-big bite of ice cream, she explains, is not morally wrong.

Rather than seeing this sort of thing as a mistake, she asks students, “What if we asked what we got out of that experience?” We may have learned to eat ice cream more slowly, which is beneficial because it allows us to enjoy the treat for a longer period of time. “We can associate using the [Spanish] language with positive loops, too,” she says.

Clarify your goals and expectations

For this assignment, Maus invites students to ask basic questions about a recent vacation (When? Where? With whom? How did you get there?), as well as deeper ones about past experiences (Where did you go as a child? What were some vacation traditions?).

Example: Cada año, mi familia y yo nos quedábamos en una casa al lado de un lago.

Translation: Every year, my family and I stayed in a house next to a lake.

Her guidelines and rubric get very specific about expectations. For example, “I will need to hear you use 3 separate comparisons (less than, more than, etc.)” and “I don’t want to hear repeat questions.” When students feel clear about what they need to do, they are likely to feel more confident going into the assessment.

But allow for flexibility, too

Maus offers plenty of room for students to show their creativity: Their vacation dialogue can be true, fictitious, or a little of each. Students can personalize the conversation, making the exercise more engaging, empowering, creative, and just plain fun (or sometimes funny).

Example: En nuestras vacaciones más recientes, Miguel tomó tanta leche como yo.

Translation: In our most recent vacation, Miguel drank as much milk as I did.

“Emphasis needs to be placed on using what they already know, but let’s show what we know in a creative way,” she explains. “Do I have to have a specific response that [I am] listening for? Nope. Students should understand this is their show. There are elements I would like to have included, but those can be addressed in any way they want, provided the response meets guidelines.”

Emphasize connection over perfection

Perfection is not expected in Maus’s classroom. Instead, she wants her students to practice Spanish, find their strengths, identify areas that need extra focus, and then work steadily on those. The end goal, she asserts, is always to use communication to build connections with other people.

“Perfection implies an exterior listener that only wants to hear specific things, whereas a person that wants progress wants hands-on choices being made in the language-learning atmosphere,” she says. “But this can be for any kind of assessment. When do I stop choosing to look at the verb charts and actually dance the words to my beat? It’s like using notes to make chords: I may miss a note or be off key, but the music is there.”

Maus’s Inspiring Mentors

Like many great educators today, Martha Ann Maus had teacher-mentors who informed her opinions about effective learning practices. During Maus’s first year as a Spanish student at the University of Portland (Maus would later, in 2002, begin to teach and tutor Spanish at the same university), Laura Looney worked with Maus almost daily. “Her patience and diligence are truly saintly,” she says of Looney. “She never showed anger, disappointment, or negativity in general.”

If a student needed assistance in a particular area, Looney’s approach was to empower that student to figure things out, with her serving as the guide. “She always asked questions,” says Maus. “She would say, ‘Do you remember…?’ Or ‘Why this one?’” This empowered Maus to address her own “shortcomings,” she says. “I did the work with her asking questions. I had the power to [improve myself]. I want my students to be able to feel that moment of ‘I did it!’ And be proud of it!”

Kate Regan, who passed away in 2014, was another amazing mentor who saw Maus through her PhD studies. This professor’s genuine interest in her students and her irrepressible spirit (she would act out scenes from Don Quixote) both live on in Maus’s heart and teaching style. Like Looney, Regan would not criticize, and she understood the nature of empowerment. “She sought out information from students,” says Maus. “Kate had a way with questions that allowed students to address and respond to their own doubts.”

Further, adds Maus, Regan taught her the power of creating a dialogue rather monologuing from a podium. “She loved to listen,” says Maus. “She was fun and receptive to feedback. She wanted to connect with students—and for them to connect with each other. I can still see her with her hand on her chin and the other crossed below it saying, ‘Hmm … interesting. So, tell me why…?’”

Adds Maus, “When I became a teacher, I felt that if I could be like Kate, I’d be doing something right.”

Empower students by asking, “Tell me why … ”

Maus’s approach to grading is unconventional, too: She and her students engage in grading students’ oral assessments together. “I don’t criticize anyone,” she notes. “I allow the students to reflect on their performance. Then we discuss what is a reasonable mark on the rubric.”

“Now is the time for educators to pull out the phrase ‘Tell me why,’” says Maus, adding that this strategy was borrowed from her own Spanish professors. “This is the students’ place to say what they think they did well in each aspect of assessment,” she says. “This is a place of power and learning for them.”

To address students’ doubts and draw out their deeper observations, she asks many questions, such as, “Why did you do well? How does this make it more meaningful? Is there another way we can say the same idea? What’s another word for ______?”

She also recommends sharing what students did well. (“It was awesome when I heard _____.”) And if something could be improved, she looks for a way to model it for them, using phrases such as, “I heard a moment of ____. Let’s try _____ together instead.” Last, she asks students to set two tangible goals.

“Self-reflection is tremendously useful as a tool in learning,” says Maus. “They went through the performance; I watched the performance. Who needs to be doing the deciphering? Not me! So, how can I guide students along to consider whether or not they have demonstrated proficiency without explicitly saying it? Ultimately, the students need to come up with their own conclusions about what kinds of changes they can make to bolster their progress.”

Create positive reward loops that last “forever”

Referring back to the ice cream example and the idea of positive reward loops, the overall focus Maus hopes to instill in students is: “What’s waiting for me at the end?”

To address the question (in one of many possible ways), she asked herself, “What’s a reward loop that would mean something to students?” One answer, she has found, is to allow students to choose their favorite activity to do during a class period, and (if it worked well) to let them know she will be using it with future classes, too.

“Students love having this control of class,” she says. To maintain that friendly atmosphere till the very end (and beyond)—and so no one judges them—Maus does not reveal the identity of the student whose idea is being featured. By way of introduction, she might say, “Chosen by an accomplished Spanishatition, today we will be singing a song called _______ .”

“I don’t need to advertise who did it,” she says, “as long as I acknowledge to someone privately that their activity is being used.”

Once students realize they can have a positive impact upon the community of language learners in their own school, they may feel empowered to use what they know to build connections with others, far beyond the classroom walls.


It can be challenging, at first, to convince students to abandon their quest for perfection: Many students will want to have the perfect accent, grammatical structure, syntax, and vocabulary. “Most people don’t even master that in their native tongue,” Maus tells them. “It seems irrelevant to me to push this when we don’t think or speak like we write.”


Maus believes that a teacher might be reluctant to adopt her approach because it is somewhat unstructured. “I do well with fluidity,” she says. “Not everyone does.”

She adds that others may question her grading practices, which involve input from the student. Though she does have the final word on a student’s grade, she feels that her co-evaluation practice helps students see whether they are being realistic about their actual performance. It also reinforces the idea that they have the power to directly influence it and their experience in the classroom, she notes.

“Mostly, my students love how I work with them on this and their grade,” she says. “Every so often I have a student who thinks they rocked it even though they couldn’t get their nose out of the notecard. But that’s the exception.” Usually, students tell her that they did not expect the assessment to be so “easy and fun.”

Maus’s Written Expectations

Maus shares a great deal of information with students before the evaluation, so they are clear on what they must do to be successful. Here are some of her guidelines about the exam:

  • It will take 2–3 minutes, minimum.
  • The dialogue should be fun and creative. It can be real or fictitious.
  • Bring a 4×6 notecard; there is a 60-word limit to what can be on it. Students can glance at it (to jog the memory), but directly reading from it will result in a complete loss of credit. Students should not use Google translate or a native speaker (e.g., a Spanish-speaking grandmother) to fix their notecard.
  • Each student in the duo creates three questions to ask the other. All six questions and answers must be completely different; no repeats.
  • Each student must create a unique answer to each of their partner’s three questions.
    • Example: La única vez que hice esquí acuático fue hace dos años.
    • Translation: The only time I did water skiing was two years ago.
  • Each student must provide two comparison/contrast phrases with relation to their partner’s vacations. One of them might be:
    • Example: Cuando éramos jóvenes, yo viajaba menos que Miguel.
    • Translation: When we were young, I traveled less than Miguel.
  • Students should vary their vocabulary; the broader the spectrum of vocabulary, the higher the score.
  • Students should focus on connecting with their partner, which is the key to good communication.

Next steps

Maus says she is excited to continue and grow her use of unconventional approaches, because not every student learns the same way. “Newer pedagogy demonstrates a shift in recognizing and including individualized student skill sets,” adds Maus. “Assessment allows for inclusion, so students can show how they best make a meaningful connection in a foreign language.”

She says that her direct superior, who is the coordinator for basic language programs at the College of Charleston, is supportive of and enthusiastic about new ideas and new approaches. This has inspired Maus to continue to think innovatively and test out new ideas.

“I see the class, this lesson, and this rubric as ‘works in progress,’” Maus says. “I am continuing to develop my part.”

Her next step is to have private discussions with students to learn their view of this kind of evaluation, when compared to a traditional experience. She is constantly seeking other scenarios that students enjoy so she can use them as context for this kind of assessment. She hopes to create additional engaging, fun, and rapport-building activities to approach the same set of assessment criteria via other mediums.

Student feedback

“I see kids who’d never speak a word in class, but if I give them a partner and show them I expect them to be collaborative, then they don’t think I’ll be coming at them with a red pen,” she says. “I want students to realize that working with each other will help them get better and empower each other to engage in the language.” According to this sampling from student evaluations, she seems to be exceeding expectations:

  • “She was always very open and allowed for us to talk about our lives and day while speaking Spanish which helped a lot with practicing and comprehending the language.”
  • “You worked hard to make sure we always understand and let us know that everyone makes mistakes and we shouldn’t get embarrassed if we don’t know something or get it wrong.”
  • “Her ability to have a relationship with the class instead of feeling like [an] authoritative figure. She involved herself and became one with the class.”
  • “Professor Maus teaches by interacting and speaking with students. If someone doesn’t understand or pronounce something correctly, she will continuously repeat and work with the student until it’s right.”
  • “Very engaging, friendly, and does not criticize students for errors, but uses that as a way to demonstrate how to fix and give examples on how to fix, even if it took several tries.”

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