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Alice Pack Lecture highlights BYU Professor Dr. Troy Cox and his life lessons with failure and growth

Dr. Troy L. Cox talks to a student who attended the Alice Pack Lecture.

Failure is essential, said Dr. Troy L. Cox, while discussing his life lessons from scholarship, during his presentation for the annual Alice Pack Lecture held in the Heber J. Grant Building on March 3.

“Awkward and ugly are part of the process,” said Cox. “We need to embrace it, to recognize when the failures happen, because it’s only when we recognize the failures that we can make goals that can help us move past [them].”

The Alice Pack lecture is an event held annually by the Faculty of Education & Social Work, commemorating Alice Pack, former Church College of Hawaii faculty member and alumna, and the work she did in the TESOL and EIL programs.

“She’s a huge reason the program even exists the way it is,” said Leola Solis, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education & Social Work and the program director for TESOL and EIL at BYU–Hawaii. “We want to commemorate that once a year around her birthday … So we have this Alice Pack Lecture to remind everyone who she is.”

Cox is an associate professor of linguistics at BYU, and his presentation entitled, “Measuring Language Development through Self-assessment: A Look at Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry,” focused on research Cox has done regarding measures of proficiency, as well as barriers to progression in learning to speak a new language.

Solis said she first met Cox when he came to do training for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). When she heard he would be in town for the Asia-Pacific Career Conference (APCC), Solis said she jumped on the opportunity to have him speak.

“Assessment is very important in our program,” said Solis. “Especially since students with language learning ... need to have something in place to say, ‘According to this, you are ready to take these classes and your language ability is at this level.’ A lot of that was discussed in this session.”

To introduce his research, Cox shared an experience he had once while he was riding his bike and began to notice he had a very high heart rate. He explained how he assumed there was something wrong with the device he was using to measure his heart rate, only to discover later in the hospital that his heart was in arrhythmia.

“It made me think,” said Cox of his experience. “We self-assess all the time, but sometimes our perception of our ability is not in tune with actual reality. A lot of the scholarship I do deals with testing, objective measurement … and self-assessment.”

Cox outlined four major levels of progression in speaking a new language: novice, intermediate, advanced, and superior. He discussed in detail the specific expectations for each level, as well as sublevels and examples of what those performing at the respective levels might sound like.

Steven Carter, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education & Social Work, said he came to the lecture because Cox used to be his professor when he was in grad school, and he was interested in what he had to say regarding assessment.

“I felt like it was a good introductory way of giving students some insight into how complex measurement and assessment can be … I think we take testing for granted in many scenarios. We don’t understand how complex it really is.”

In his studies regarding measurement and self-assessment, Cox said he found people have a general tendency to overestimate their language ability. “In every instance, people are overconfident in their language ability. Their perception of where they’re at is higher than where they’re actually at,” said Cox. “There’s a tendency if you’re going to err , [you will] err on the side of being overconfident.”

Cox used examples from his personal life to further illustrate his findings, ranging from analogies regarding yoga and bike riding to T-shirt sizes and “Lord of the Rings.” Using his knowledge and passion for bike riding, Cox identified two potential barriers to becoming proficient in a new language–tailwinds and headwinds.

Lillian Zhang, a senior from China studying TESOL, said she found the in-depth explanation of ACTFL levels helpful to her as a student now but also in her potential future career.

“When he talked about tailwinds and headwinds, it helped me to understand why some students think they are better than they are or worse than they are,” said Zhang.

“Tailwinds are the winds that carry you through, that move in the same direction as you. Headwinds are the winds that move against you, for example, when you’re riding your bike or you’re walking. When you’re learning a language, the tailwind is the positive environment you’re in that encourages you to go forward, and the headwinds are the obstacles or difficulties.”

In Cox’s explanation of headwinds and tailwinds, he showcased how they can be either barriers or supports to language proficiency, depending on how the learner reacts to and are aware of them.

“We are unaware of the help that’s going with us when we’re successful,” explained Cox regarding tailwinds. “We attribute it to ourselves, instead of attributing it to external circumstances. We think we’re faster than we are because we have tailwinds that are helping us.”

On the reverse side, Cox discussed headwinds, or how challenges and failures in learning a new language frequently lead to giving up.

“We tend to be very aware of every headwind that comes our way. We’re very aware when circumstances are against us. The problem with headwinds is that our performance is worse than our true ability,” said Cox.

“We don’t realize that we actually are better. Because there are these adverse conditions, we underestimate our ability. We might feel the universe is against us … we might even quit.

“But the fact is the opposition can result in growth. If we’re aware and we’re humble, and we’re always looking for ways to improve, there can be opportunities for growth.

“Unless you’re failing, unless you’re not pushing yourself, you’re not going to have growth,” said Cox. “If you aren’t failing, you’re limiting growth potential.”