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Category Archives: Young Adults

Here I add posts on teaching English to young adults. university students in particular.

Shall we self-study?

The idea of self-study groups isn’t a novelty. This learning technique has been tried and tested for centuries (at least, I’m convinced to believe so). I also believe that few will question the really he learning potential of self-study groups.

The advantages of self-study groups are self-obvious: higher motivations of participants for learning; the increased sense of responsibility for one’s part of a task; the inspiring feeling of togetherness and being one team; the genuine interest in what participants are studying; better understanding and acquisition of the material as one has to teach it to others; and, the last but not the least, extensive practice of communicative skills. Not surprising that all these advantages may lead to better learning outcomes.

Team-puzzle-440x360-copy

However, as it is always the case in our world, the self-study group method of learning has its drawbacks too. The most evident disadvantage is the possible lack of the general direction of studies. Also, learners in a self-study group may stray from the main topic and get lost in details not being able to see the wood for the trees.

All these aspects considered, I believe it’s relatively easy to overcome the drawbacks of self-study group learning by introducing the time limit and some general plan of studies for a given group of learners.

To see how self-study groups have been used to boost students’ motivation, you can watch this video. The video shows high school students who speak about their experience of working in self-study groups.

Unfortunately, I have never had a chance to be part of self-study group myself and, to my own surprise, I have never tried this technique within all nine years of my teaching practice. So last week I decided to give it a go and see what would happen. Below you will find my observations and reflections on my experience of self-study groups of university students.

For the past three weeks, my students and I have been working on public skills and presentations skills, in particular. We have discussed some aspects of speaking in public; we have studied some practical techniques of delivering a speech and interacting with the audience; we have watched a model presentation and my students have made presentations of their own. However, it was clear to me that I would be able to cover all the aspects of public speaking within the rigid time limit we work in (one 90-min lesson a week): I literally wouldn’t have time to actually teach, discuss and practice the techniques in the classroom. So it dawned on me to give each student an individual question related to presentation skills as part of homework and to ask students to crowd source information for these questions to share it with other students the next lesson. The result exceeded all my expectations.

First of all, each and every student was ready with their part of homework. Secondly, some of the students had brought with them not only some texts but also some visuals like graphs, pictures and slides to illustrate their question. Thirdly, after being left on their own, my students promptly overcame some confusion at the unfamiliar setting and started working together, successfully managing the order of speakers, sharing information, asking and answering each other’s questions. In fact, they were literally learning from each other. I was really amazed that when I could stand back and gave my students almost complete autonomy, they were coping pretty well and learning was happening without my actual involvement.

However, the experiment wouldn’t be a real experiment if I didn’t introduce some variations in the way the study groups worked.

In my first group of students there was no leader assigned to steer the group in a particular direction, track the order of speakers and manage the time of the session. Students were all responsible for the way their group worked. I think that the absence of a leader significantly influenced the work of the group: the session looked more discussion-like and relaxed, while the atmosphere in the group was both informal and respectful. Students were doing their best to speak and put their ideas clearly, they were listening to each other more attentively and were eager to answer any questions. This was a group of people who were truly sharing knowledge and learning from each other. However, although the work of the group was managed well, timing was a bit of a problem because there was nobody to track the time and no one thought it was necessary.

In the second group of mine, I assigned a student to be the leader. His responsibilities included: managing the time and the order of speakers. Needless to say, that this group was better managed, at least in terms of time. However, the general atmosphere in this group differed from that in the previous group. Surely, I understand that the atmosphere in a group depends largely on the people comprising it, but the way the work of the group is organized comes into play too. So when I was observing my students in the second group, I had a feeling that they subconsciously reacted to their leader as if he was a teacher or any other sort of authority. The presence of any kind of authority changes the way people feel or interact in a group, so, in many cases, I noticed that the leader was the connecting-link in the conversations, that students felt less relaxed and less willing to contribute to the discussion, and that they were reluctant to ask questions, to express their opinion, or to add any extra information and take part in the conversation. In fact, there wasn’t a discussion as such, the whole session resembled in many ways a teacher-centered (in this case, leader-centered) lesson. It looked as if students were solely anxious to tell, retell or even to read out their bit of information and call it a day.

This was the first time I had had my students work in a self-study groups setting, and it was only natural for my students to feel some discomfort and awkwardness. So there is no doubt that more observations are needed to draw up more distinct conclusions on how different settings influence the work of a self-study group.

However, what I can say with certainty is what a teacher should and shouldn’t do during the session of the self-study group. First of all, the teacher should help students learn how to cooperate and self-study: students need to feel at ease with working together. They should learn to respect and appreciate each others’ contribution and opinions. Students need to learn not to be afraid or shy to express their ideas and ask questions. Also, it would be beneficial for students to learn to feel responsible for their own learning and stop being docile consumers of whatever their teacher telling them. Students should get the feeling of being independent and active participants of the learning process. Secondly, while conducting the self-study group session, a teacher should sit somewhere at the back of the classroom or leave the classroom in order to come back later to see what result the students have come up with. I would like to note here that the latter option can be chosen only when the learners have learnt to work in a self-study group and are quite confident and willing to work on the task without teacher’s supervision. When a teacher is present at the self-study group session, they should avoid any eye-contact with the students and be solely focused on taking notes of what is happening in the classroom. The eye-contact should be avoided to make students feel that they are on their own and should speak to each other instead of constantly looking back at the teacher for feedback. This will help students to become more self-reliable and start concentrating on the discussion.

I strongly believe that introducing self-study groups in one’s teaching is beneficial both for teachers, as it brings variety in the classroom routine, and to students, as they become more autonomous learners. So far, I can say that this was a really promising and inspiring experience. I will definitely use this method of teaching in the future.

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in General, Young Adults

 

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Who to ask?(2) or What do students want?

I believe in coincidences. When two events happen at the same time, they enhance each other and the connection between them becomes strikingly obvious. A coincidence gives you an unprecedented chance to have a broader view of the events.

Such an eye-opening coincidence occurred when I was doing a survey with my Moscow State University students at the Physics faculty this spring. (For the general overview of the survey, please see https://eltdiary.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/who-to-ask/ ) The survey coincided with the arrival of the parcel with Teaching Unplugged.  The ideas in the book and the survey results were so much in line with each other! Both the authors of the book and the students expressed one and the same idea – COMMUNICATION is central to language learning.

This idea is concisely expressed in the quotation from the Common European Framework of Reference for Modern Languages: language learning should “satisfy …communicative needs”, enabling learners to “exchange information and ideas … and communicate their thoughts and feelings.” (I came across this quotation in Luke Medding’s story in the Introduction to Teaching Unplugged)

I believe this is a key point in teaching and learning languages because, as stated in Teaching Unplugged, “conversation is the fundamental, universal and default form of language. For this reason, most language learners feel cheated if their course includes little or no conversation practice.” (Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury, 2009) Unfortunately, this is so much common a case in Russian Post-Soviet schools and Universities where conversation isn’t given much priority. However, students are eager to socialize with, learn from and exchange their experiences with each other. As you will see from the detailed description of survey results below, most students expressed the wish to speak and interact with each other more. Moreover, learners would like to talk about things that are most relevant to them and what they can engage with.  One of my students said that the discussions in class shouldn’t necessarily be about physics (my students’ main subject at the faculty). This once again confirms that teachers should unplug from time to time to give room for students’ initiative and creativity.

All this became so clear to me after I looked through the responses my students had given in the survey.

So now it’s right time for me to step back and give floor to my students  🙂

Below I comment each question of the survey and provide some quotations from students’ feedback sheets.

Q#1 – What is your general impression of the lesson today?

In general, this question is an indicator of the efficiency of your teaching. If your teaching meets your students’ needs and interests, most of the answers to this question will be favourable. If favourable comments constitute only half of the responses, it’s time for a teacher to revise their methods.

I’m happy to say that almost all of my students are unanimous in their opinion of my lessons. Here is what they say:

  • “I think it was very interesting and useful”
  • “I really liked it! There was a comfortable atmosphere (as usual)”
  • “It was interesting. I had slept about 3 hours last night but it wasn’t a problem. Great job!’
  • “Sunny time” /The day was really sunny and bright! /
  • “I think it was very funny and interesting.”
  • “It was incredible.”
  • ”I liked the lesson! On the one hand we didn’t do much, so I’m not very tired after the lesson. But on the other, I realize that I’ve learnt some new facts about the language.”
  • “It’s always interesting. I really like the atmosphere in the classroom. It’s positive and friendly.”
  • “I don’t know how to describe it, but I think all your lessons are great!”

(Dear students, believe me, I always try to do my best 🙂 I’m glad you enjoy my lessons! 🙂 )

Q#2 – What have you learnt today?

First of all, I’d like to give a brief description of the lesson we had that day. It was a grammar revision lesson on verbs followed by Gerund or Infinitives.

  1. Warming-up speaking activity on what students had seen, felt, heard, smelt or noticed on their way to the University: S-S/T-CL (10 min)
  2. Oral drill of verbs in the form of peer check in pairs. Before the pair check, I checked each student individually. (15 min)
  3. Homework check: students were given their classmates’ home tasks that they had prepared for that lesson. They checked them individually then with those whose homework they had checked. Then there was the whole class check. (15 min)
  4. Controlled practice on Gerund: S/S-S/T-CL (20-25 min)
  5. Freer practice on Gerund: discussion of questions that included some verbs with gerund. Students were arranged in two rows. Over some time one row of students moved forming new pairs of students. (15 min)
  6. Feedback survey (7-10 min)

On the whole, the students found it easy to recall what they had learnt during the lesson. I’m not going to give students comments on this question because they were almost the same, stating that they “learnt new rules on gerund after certain verbs and what [their] friends had been doing in the morning, [their] feelings and other.”

At first sight this question might look unnecessary. Why to ask an obvious thing? But I find this particular question very beneficial for the development of students’ learning autonomy. By looking back at what they have studied during a lesson, students will learn over some time to set clear learning goals and revise them and also their achievement on a regular basis. I think it could be a good practice to include this question in our lessons plans, making students get used to such summarizing and revision.

Q#3 – What part of the lesson did you like in the class today? Why?

The answers to this question led me to the following conclusion about what students really like to do in class.

Firstly, students like to act as teachers and check each other’s knowledge or homework:

  • “I liked the part when I was like a teacher and checked homework of my classmate…”
  • “I liked checking the verbs in pairs.”

Needless to say how beneficial the peer check is. It never fails to raise students’ awareness and concentration on the task. This leads to a better class work efficiency and students’ better performance and quicker progress.

Secondly, the students like cooperation:

  • “I liked when we did exercises and then checked them together but first in pairs.”
  • “I like to compare our results.”
  • “I like when we worked in pairs, because I have terrible English speaking skills and don’t feel stressed when I work in a pair.”

This once again reminds us how important the pair work is. It reduces stress, fosters cooperation and increases students’ speaking time.

Next, students like competitions:

  • “I like the spirit of competition, it makes me work better.”
  • “I liked the part of the lesson when we had a some kind of gerund battle.”

Well, yes, people do like to compete! This is natural after all! So why to neglect this sort of activity? Even a traditional grammar exercise check can be turned into a competition. The competition takes the boredom away and brings fun and joy into the classroom. Competitions can be made even more enjoyable if the winners get some small prizes such as a sweet, an eraser, etc.

Finally, students like communicating with each other:

  • “It is interesting to talk with classmates.”
  • “I like to chat with my classmates.”
  • “I like the part when we speak with each other.”
  • “I like intercourse with the friends. I think it is very interesting to know something new about people who are round you.”

Well, it’s all about communication 🙂 We are humans because we communicate. And we communicate because we are humans. It’s in the human nature to speak, to share and to interact. Languages were invented for this purpose. However, when it comes to teaching a foreign language, speaking turns out to be the most disregarded part of the learning process. At least it’s true for Russian Post-Soviet educational traditions, according to which learners of foreign languages have mainly been taught reading and writing as if they have been trained for the roles of scanners or printers.

So, the teacher’s duty is to allocate as much class time as possible to developing speaking skills through conversation. To quote from Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury , “there are at least five reasons why conversation should occupy a key role in language learning. These are:

  • Conversation is language at work
  • Conversation is discourse.
  • Conversation is interactive, dialogic and communicative.
  • Conversation scaffolds learning.
  • Conversation promotes socialization.” (Teaching Unplugged, 2009)

But how to increase students’ speaking time in the classroom if teachers are often forced to meet the deadlines and tight schedules? In my opinion, the best way out is to try to turn each task or activity into a conversation.

The students’ responses to this question naturally take me to the last fifth question of the survey.

Q#4 – What part of the lesson did you dislike in the class today? Why?

We can’t avoid criticism, can we? 🙂 So, here is the point of the survey where the students were asked to express their criticism and ideas how my lessons can be improved.

I was really glad to find out that a lot of respondents had left this section blank or said something like “I don’t have anything to say here” or “There wasn’t anything I disliked about the lesson.”

However, this question is one of the most important in the survey because it provides the teacher with invaluable information about what is going wrong or what the students are not happy with. This is a sort of a diagnosis of what should be immediately dealt with and improved.

Some students expressed their worries about being publicly tested. They felt nervous and even frightened. I understand those students’ concerns and next time I probably change the order of the activities. I’ll first ask students to check each other in pairs and then I’ll quickly test each student individually. This order will help less confident students to get better prepared for the test and might reduce their tension.

However, I think that a bit of nervousness is healthy: tests shake students up a bit 🙂

There was one more comment to this question. The student said that s/he didn’t like the part of the lesson when the lesson was over and they had to leave the classroom 🙂

I hope that this will be the only regret our students express about our lessons! I also hope that the questionnaire will help you to achieve this.

Thanks

I would like to address to all of my students and to thank them for taking part in the survey and sharing their impressions and observations with me.

My dear students, I also thank you all for attending my lessons, for doing all your home tasks and for contributing to our lessons.

I apologize for not quoting all the responses here. It was done to save time and post space. But it no way means that some of your responses are more important than others. Let me assure you that each and every comment of yours has been taken into consideration.

I wish you every luck and success in your studies and life. It’s been pleasure to work with you! 🙂

I also would like to thank everyone who has read my post to this point 😉 Thank you for taking time and reading my post. I hope it wasn’t a waste of time for you and you have found something useful in it.

Thank you!


P.S.

Here are the beautiful flowers my students gave to me at the end of the semester 🙂

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2012 in Young Adults

 

Who to ask?

Two University Teachers of English are talking:

T1: You know, I’ve been teaching here for quite a long time – almost five years. But now I’ve got a feeling that I mightn’t be doing everything I could do. And I doubt that my students are happy with my lessons. What do you think I should do?

T2: I can come and observe your lesson, if you like…

T1: Oh, that’ll be good. Thank you!

T2: But you know what?

T1: ?

T2: Why not to ask your students?

T1: What do you mean?

T2: I mean to ask the students if they’re enjoying your lessons and what they would like to improve about them.

T1: Hmmm. Do you think it’s appropriate? Well, I must think about it.

If you’ve come to the point as Teacher 1 in the above dialogue when you aren’t sure that your lessons meet the interests of your students, why not to ask the students themselves what they think about your teaching? It takes courage but it pays off. The only prerequisite is open-mindedness, the ability to take criticism and to be ready to change.

About a month ago I decided to give this idea a go and did a survey among my University students on their impression of the lesson they’d just had. The students were invited to give feedback by answering the following five questions:

  1. What is your general impression of the lesson today?
  2. What have you learnt today?
  3. What part of the lesson did you like in the class today? Why?
  4. What part of the lesson did you dislike in the class today? Why?
  5. What would you like to do in class next week?

I owe this idea to Chiew who suggested using such feedback questions for sparkling students’ motivation and getting them involved in what actually happens at the lessons. http://itdi.pro/blog/2012/03/05/how-important-is-homework-scott-thornbury/

I slightly modified the original questions and turned the homework task into a classroom activity. I decided to ask students to complete the questionnaire right at the end of the lesson for two reasons: first, to ensure that everyone present gives the feedback; second, to strike while the iron is hot and the students remember the lesson clearly.

The students were given 7 minutes at the end of the lesson to answer the five questions of the survey.

I should say that my students were pleased and slightly surprised at the fact that a teacher gave them an opportunity to express their opinions and wishes about the lesson. The students’ surprise was quite understandable as it isn’t common here in Russia for students to be asked to give their opinion on what their teacher is doing and what is more to suggest any improvements.

To make this survey more attractive for the students, I prepared colourful answer sheets. Here we can see a photo of them.

The students could choose an answer sheet by the colour they liked. This didn’t fail to add even more fun to the activity.

I must admit that on the whole my students liked the activity. And though there were some students who were doubtful about what to write, which I attribute to the novelty of the task, most students had so much to say that 7 minutes seemed too short for them.

In fact, I enjoyed doing the survey. For me it’s been very tempting and exciting to find out what other people think about what I’m doing, especially if these people are the target audience of my activity. After all, if you’re confident in what you’re doing you have nothing to be afraid of. Students aren’t going to pan you. Rather, they’ll be pleased with the chance to be heard and with the understanding that their opinion is valued and trusted by their teacher.

On the whole, it was a very positive experience. In my opinion, such survey can be a really useful thing. For a teacher, the survey gives immediate feedback on their lessons and teaching methods. Thanks to the survey, a teacher can quickly adjust the content of the lessons and/or the style of teaching to the needs of a particular group of learners. Moreover, learners’ responses may prompt some fresh ideas to be used in the classroom and may trigger the teacher’s professional self-evaluation and self-reflection. The survey could be an indispensable help for a teacher who wishes to be (or become) a flexible, open-minded and sensitive to learners’ needs professional.

On the other hand, learners can benefit from the survey too. First of all, such questionnaires give learners the opportunity to be an active part of the learning process and influence to some extent what goes into the lesson and the way the lessons are conducted. But what is more, the survey may help learners to develop their autonomy in a way that they become more aware of their needs and what they can take from lessons.

I believe, such brief questionnaires can provide a lot of motivational stimuli to learners and make them feel that their opinion and needs really matter.

I’m sure I’m going to use this sort of feedback activity with my other groups too.

I thank Chiew for suggesting such a brilliant idea. And I also thank my students for taking part in the survey and being honest with their evaluation of my lesson.

So, why not to ask your students? 🙂 Do try this survey out and see how it’ll work for you. I would be very much pleased if you share your results and ideas how this survey could be improved.

P.S. If you got interested in the survey, you may find it interesting to read my next post on the same survey which gives a more detailed description of the activity (see https://eltdiary.wordpress.com/2012/06/08/who-to-ask2-or-what-do-students-want/).

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2012 in Young Adults