Using word association to assess learning in the BA ES

By Paul Stephenson

My experience of teaching Area Studies in the BA European Studies is that, once you move beyond the initial tour de table that maps what we know based on basic assumptions and personal experiences, the group has little idea about the specific institutional and political complexity of the country, let alone the key elements of its history and society. For example, students are largely unaware of the UK devolution process since the late 1990s, or the fundamental role of the 1978 Spanish Constitution paving the way for democracy – and, indeed, why would they?

With this in mind I wanted to see if, at a very crude level, I could gain insight into what the group learns simply by using word association at the beginning and end of the course. Sure, I watch and grade students’ presentations, and I read their 2,500 word individual paper, so I have a sense of their individual achievement. Zooming out from the specifics of the student’s own research, could I use word association to assess a change in the group perspective over time? Could I gauge what the key takeaways were, even if at the most superficial level?

Like any word association, the idea is to utter, or in this case, write down, whatever the first words are that come into your head, and not to police yourself or overthink. As such, it’s crucial to make clear that it’s by no means a test, but simply meant as a gauge – of feeling and perspective.

In Week 1, I handed round paper to the students. I told them not to write their names on the paper but simply write down 3-5 words they connect with the country, and that I would collect them in. I told them the idea was to compare the associations at the beginning and end of the course, and that I would make word clouds to share with the group at the end of the course, in so doing providing an incentive to ‘stay with’ the course. I asked students to do the same again in Week 6, after a number of key topics had been presented and discussed in class. Before collecting the words in, we did a tour de table and each student voiced theirs so that we could immediately gauge the group perspective.

A word cloud might be seen as “a bit of fluff rather than a useful academic tool”. However, word clouds can be a powerful tool to depict stereotypical responses in an exercise that requires participants to state their immediate – spontaneous – response to a word or object. Most often, the more a word is used in a text (or in this case, list) the bigger it appears. It is usually seen as “a way to preview a passage, or to analyze a text”. The simple visuals, and often, use of colour, can help with student engagement. They are used to compare documents over time (change in word use) and between authors (frequency and difference of word use).

Example 1: United Kingdom (1 group)

Example 2: Spain (2 groups)

So what can we glean from all of this? At the outset, in the first set of words, stereotypes were rife and certain were words repeated with high frequency. Many can be explained by direct experience or personal interest, and they were largely positive in nature. Afterwards, however, certain words were still repeated but with less frequency. The number of different words increased, suggesting more nuanced insight and appreciation. A good proportion of words reflected the issues covered in class suggesting some substantive learning. A large number of words related to historical and contemporary political systems and conveyed more complex ideas, including elements related to Comparative Politics (the parallel course). The mix remains positive and negative, but there is more recognition of tensions and struggle, contestation and fragmentation. Stereotypes persist nonetheless despite indicators of learning (because they are true?).

Students don’t necessarily choose ‘intelligent words’ later on, though they might do, conscious of the purpose of the word association as a means to gauge collective learning outcomes. My hunch based on the words shared orally (before being collected in) is that those studentsnotoriginating in the country of study (here the Spanish/Catalan and British students), and those who have not spent an extensive time in the country of study, are more likely to change their word associations over time. Nonetheless, students from the country said that the course had covered topics not dealt with in school at home.

In short, arguably, the words represent the change in identity of the group, both as a set of individuals and as a collective. The word clouds might be considered as portraits of the group.

About the author

Paul Stephenson is Assistant Professor at FASoS. He teaches courses in the BA ES, MA EPA and RMES. He is also on the BA AC programme committee. Paul did his BA in European Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London and his MPhil and PhD at University of Cambridge. He is also active as a poet and on the editorial board for the faculty’s magazine Mosaïek.