Wednesday, 25 November 2015

What goes on outside the class?

Image taken from wikipedia
I teach in an academic context. I work with students who are moving on to third level study, either undergraduate or postgraduate degrees. The amount of work that is required to get through the course and secure a place in university is considerable, far more than can be achieved in the classroom. Ergo, work needs to be done outside the classroom. This leaves me with two questions. The first is:

How involved do I get in this outside class work?

In the past, I took more of a hands off approach. I suggested websites, articles, study strategies, etc. I recommended that students form study groups and work together on certain assignments. I advised students to find time in their day, along with a suitable location to dedicate to study. And generally, the result was pretty much the same. Some people followed the advice and some people didn't. And truth be told, the people who followed the advice were more than likely the people who would have done it anyway. My conclusion was that my advice/recommendations/suggestions were pretty much worthless, not really helping the people who needed it. 

This got me thinking about why so many people were failing to do the work that needed to be done. I think any of the following could be the cause:
  • distractions
I think distractions cover a lot. In my day it was telly and Goldeneye; today it is probably something I haven't even heard of yet. Chances are though that whatever this distraction is, it's probably on the internet somewhere. So casually advising students to use the internet to improve their language skills seems somewhat perilous. Yes, the internet is fantastic but it is also massive, overwhelming and a quagmire.  If they can get in, get what they need and get out, then great. But I'd say a lot get lost in there.
  • other commitments
Other commitments is fair enough. Students have families, jobs. The problem is that exams and university admissions departments don't really care. So the work still has to be done. 
  • lack of study habits
Lack of study habits sounds a bit vague but I am constantly staggered by how many students impose no kind of system on their studying. For many, the approach seems to be to sit down with a book and hope for the best. There is no planning of what they will study, no time limits, no setting of goals. And for others, the habit of even this kind of unstructured study has never really taken root. Study is often the thing to be done when everything else has been taken care of. 
  • lethargy stemming from a sense of overwhelming dread at the amount of work that needs to be done and uncertainty about where to begin
As someone who failed spectacularly in my early days at university, I relate to being overwhelmed. For my students, the amount of work can seem a bottomless pit and this is at the same time that they are being overwhelmed by a new culture and being away from their families for the first time. In that case, it's no wonder that study gets put off a bit. 

So if all of these factors are conspiring against the students, I figured a fairly rigorous independent study schedule might be helpful. So now my approach is very much hands on. Every week I email my students a list of tasks that need to be accomplished for the following week. This covers reading, listening, writing, vocabulary, grammar and can also expand to include research methods related topics. I have attached one here. Everything is then followed up on in class. My hope is that it gives students something clear and achievable to focus on each week. For the less autonomous students, I hope it provides a model of an approach to independent study that they may be able to work with in the future when they don't have someone emailing them work to do. 

The second question I had was:

How do I refer to this independent study work?

I struggle with this. Is it flipped? I suppose but I have a bit of a problem with that term; the notion that some revolutionary new method has come along when really it's just decent, well thought out homework. Independent study work sounds okay but it is not super independent as I am the one dictating what work needs to be done. Also, it sounds a bit phoney. The reason, I think, is because the real name for this is homework. This is how I think of it and I am pretty sure many of the students think of it in the same way. But homework sounds a bit childish, too school-y for people going on to third level study. An independent study schedule sounds much more academic-y. But really, it's just homework. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

What else do I not know about...

I came across this piece by Mike Griffin today. It's a fun activity that takes a short, teacher-written piece and spins it in clever ways, playing on the teacher as outsider. For a start, I find this interesting as for most of my teaching life, I've worked in the country of my birth so it is fun to see how other teachers working abroad can exploit their "foreignness" in the classroom. One of the few times I did teach abroad, I used to do this activity where the students had to work in groups to choose suitable local TV shows for me to watch. Sounds a bit rubbish but it used to go down well. Now, it is a very different dynamic - the students are the ones that I am trying to help navigate through a strange new environment.

The other thing that caught my eye was Mike's casual reference to a Flesch Reading Ease rating. If you've not heard of it before, it is a tool to determine the level of difficulty of a particular text. I used it on my last post (shameless plug) and got a score of 66.4 - the higher the score, the easier the text. It seems like such a useful tool for:

  • making sure readings aren't too easy/difficult
  • grading articles - find out what the initial Flesch score is and then tweak to try to get the number up (or down) a bit 
  • motivating students - seems like you can show progression with this scale: "Look, you were struggling with articles in the 70s, now look, you're flying through the 60s"
I've been a teacher for over 10 years now and I'd never heard of this. It made me wonder about all the other interesting teaching type things I know nothing about - things that other teachers use and don't make a big deal out of but which are really interesting. And rather cheesily, this made me think about CPD and how most of the good stuff comes from other teachers who find something and figure out a way to use it and are then good enough to share it.