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. 


  1. I'm completely with you on the importance of following up on tasks you set students to do outside of class. It was one of the key points of my IATEFL talk a couple of years ago (there's a blow-by-blow write-up here by the wonderful Lizzie Pinard: ).

    I like to mix up how I follow up on tasks too, so sometimes, it'll just be a quickie Q&A around the class, sometimes I'll get them to do mini-presentations (just 30 secs) on something they learnt and sometimes I'll get them to rework something they wrote at home in class (perhaps in groups) before they hand it in. So one of my favourites is to ask them to write a 50-word summary of something at home, then in class they try and hone it down to just 25 words, say.

    And as to your question: does it really matter what we call it - except in blogs and CPD contexts? I think to my students I just refer to it as 'study' - they should see what they do in class and what they do outside as all part of them same thing.
    Julie (Moore)

    1. Hi Julie,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. And thanks for sharing the link to your session. I picked out a few really key points that you made:

      "Give the students a clear rationale"

      I think this is brilliant. I've found students buy in a lot more if they understand the reason things are done as they are and if they see the thinking that has gone into decisions made in the classroom. I've recently found that a lot of my EAP students come to class with very fixed ideas about what is "academic" English (e.g. every essay topic is "controversial" - academic=complex) and how they can best improve their writing. By getting into our rationale, I've found they are more accepting. I've also found that when they see the level of thought that has gone into stuff, they have tried to put similar levels of thought into their objections to certain tasks/activities/assignments etc.

      "..the important thing is to require students to report back."

      I'm obsessed with this idea. My assumption, rightly or wrongly, is that most people won't be too inclined to do work if there is no payback. And like you say, there are so many different ways to offer that payback - class discussion, Q & A, mini presentations.

      Lizzie mentions your idea of using abstracts. I remember you talked about this in your BALEAP session this year and I thought it was such a good idea. I'm definitely going to try and do more of that in the spring.

      As for the name, you're right - it is not really all that important. I just found saying "Let's check your independent reading study" a bit cumbersome compared to "Let's check your reading homework". As well as that, I've a bit of a bee in my bonnet about fancy names for what is essentially, an idea as old as the hills (way too many idioms in there)

    2. Giving students a rationale for doing it is brilliant (and incidentally not always so obvious to us who administer this work). It is what we want EAP students to be able to do in their own writing, right?

      I also like Julie's idea of a quick pressie and even a Q&A, but have students be the experts on a particular task where classmates ask them. This tends to be how the ARC roles work out during the in-class group work, too .

      Maybe a working name for this is "learning plan"? i toyed around with that before myself, but may come off a little remedial: I accept that.

  2. Thanks for commenting Tyson. I saw your ARCs getting discussed in BALEAP talk and makes me realise that your idea of roles could really add to the post "homework" follow up (not sure why I put the quotes up there - trying to distance myself from the stern old fogey of a teacher I'm becoming)

    I do like to explain rationale. I think there's a dual purpose. One it helps students buy in and see the value. Secondly, I've found with some students they can be a bit dismissive of approaches in class simply because it doesn't match their expectation. By discussing rationale I am challenging students that if they have a better approach I am more than happy to change but they need to justify their position.

    Also , I've used the term learning plan. Or study plan. Or self study plan. It never lasts and after a while I slip and start referring to it as homework.

    1. Another use for rationale: clarifying to ourselves why we do things. :)