Use Google Drive to co-create an a posteriori syllabus

So if you’re not using a coursebook, and you can’t wait for some super duper platform with all the bells and whistles like I proposed, then what are you using? 

While I’ve never used Blackboard or Edu-whatever-it’s-called or any of the big brand name edtech platforms, I have tried a few smaller, freer ones, including the now-defunct collaboration tool Wiggio and a sort of Post-it note board whose name I can’t remember.

But when I made the switch from Word and USB-sticks to Google Drive about 5 years ago, I discovered that it was easier to share links to “living documents” than send the files themselves. Sharing a link to master documents means you can always update them, improve them, and most importantly, spell check them (I can proofread other people’s stuff but I’m often totally blind to my own last-minute spelling errors). And you worry much less about whether someone’s got the “right” version.

Then I took the next step to start creating and sharing a Google Doc to collect all the links in one place (which all but eliminates email sending).

Now I use Google Drive to

  • co-create an a posteriori syllabus
  • share teacher- and student-generated documents and links
  • post (and give feedback on) writing homework

My tech approach is by no means revolutionary — in fact, I’d call it a pretty low-tech tech option. But it is what I’m using for the time being.

So in this post I’ll go through these tasks one by one and then mention a few obstacles you might have if you want to try it yourself.

 

The a posteriori syllabus

When I shifted away from coursebooks I ran into a series of problems:

  1. Organization. I’m not naturally very organized. And lessons ― when you’re producing one after another yourself ― can tend to vanish into nowhere.
  2. Emergent language. Coursebook or not, I’d always wanted some way to keep track of all that great stuff that comes up in class, because whenever you use a coursebook the emergent language seems to fade into the background. It’s hard to compete with Useful language boxes on glossy paged spreads.
  3. I’m also someone who comes into class with a few big events in my mind ― what I think could happen and how long it might take. But I’ve often got more events, or the events expand to bigger than, I’ve planned. So I wanted a place to keep track not of what we were supposed to do, but what we actually did.

For each course I create a Google Doc that I store on in a folder on Google Drive. I create a reference section with few permanent links (and stuff gets added throughout the year).

2018-02-13 22_15_03-Wednesday Class Record - Google Docs
At the beginning of each course (or as new students are added) I get their email address and share the link. I set everybody’s permission to edit, because I want them writing on it, too. (Nobody actually has to have a Gmail/Drive account exept you.)

Then, as we go, we write up what we did in class. The result looks something like this:

2018-02-13 22_06_35-Wednesday Class Record - Google Docs

What we do is, each week I copy and paste the syllabus template, and the students take turns writing up the Class Summary and Whiteboard notes (literally what was on the whiteboard) and adding a (hopefully) catchy title to that week’s class.

I always include links to things we might have used in class. I write the homework in the appropriate box, immediately after class. (In this Class Record the page references are to a grammar books, Grammar and Vocabulary for First.) I also link to a lot of activities that I’ve developed over the last few years, like these listening activities.

2018-02-13 22_51_32-Daily Listening - Google Drive

Learner training

I used to insist that students students get it right and I was very specific about what I wanted. I even created this guide, Writing the Class Syllabus (download Word file), and this activity, Writing a class summary (download Word file), to do on the second day of class. In a nutshell, it trains students to write the correct form by comparing and improving two sub-par class summary texts, like you might in a exam writing task.

I generally don’t do this anymore because I find that students get it, more or less, without this, and I’d rather have them think more about the other students and less about whether they’re following all the rules. Also because exam prep is so product-focused I don’t think they need to worry about getting yet another format picture perfect. But I might be wrong.

If you want to try this yourself, here are a few tips:

  1. To decide who’s doing the Class Record for that week, just go in alphabetical order based on who’s in class that day (it’s the easiest way, trust me).
  2. If you use the How to write… task above, finish the task by having students write up a summary of last week’s class (i.e. writing up Day 1 on Day 2). Then put everybody’s work up on the wall and get students to circulate and check who best fulfilled the task. The “winner” gets to actually put their summary and notes online. This makes for a not a bad start to the year if you want to get students reading and evaluating each other’s work.
  3. If you’re not going to use the How to write task, do the Class Record yourself for the first few classes then give them feedback right away on the first time. If you’re slack, they’ll be.
  4. Encourage the student writing the record to take a photo of the whiteboard for later. You’ll still be amazed at what comes out sometimes in the student’s version of the notes.
  5. Set deadlines for when the students should post the summary/whiteboard notes if you like, but I’m more lenient these days. But always be strict with yourself about putting up the homework right away.
  6. Refer back to the Whiteboard notes for in-class review. I’ll often dictate sentences with stuff from the previous week. It’s always a way of helping the person writing up the Class Record feel their work is worth something.

The Writing file

Another standard feature of my courses is a shared Writing document. It’s linked from the Class Record (see the box at the top of the first image above) and the students post their “formal” writing homework there (stuff for more careful marking and review).

I use the same document to put up a model task and tips, sometimes in the form of comments, as you can see here…

2018-02-13 23_19_06-Saturday Writing - Google Docs

And sometimes just as crazy-man-with-a-highlighter lists.

2018-02-13 23_26_42-Wednesday Writing - Google Docs

BTW: I still tend to over-mark (my New Year’s Resolution is to step back from that cliff).

But one thing the Writing doc has saved me from is repeating the same issues that I used to repeat by private email. By having one shared doc I can say “look at what I wrote on Marco’s text”. And it works well for positive elements, too.

 

Other student contributions

I’ll also create and link blank docs for students to:

  • Create vocabulary lists
  • Create exam-style speaking activities
  • Write writing cheat sheets (summaries of the genre types on the exams)
  • Share Reading Circles contributions

One thing I’ve not been successful at is getting students to comment “socially” ― on each other’s work, or whatever. But Google Docs is for collaboration (I use it for collaborating on copywriting at my other job), so I’m sure there are plenty of more opportunities for the eager teacher.

Other programs

And of course, there are other useful (but standard) programs in the Google Drive suite, all of which I’ve used at various times:

  • Google Forms ― you can use to make surveys, homework activities or feedback forms.
  • Google Sheets ― like Excel, and I always make attendance forms that automatically total up days in class, etc.
  • Google Slides ― like PowerPoint, and we always use them for storing and running Pecha Kucha presentations

Some obstacles

Technical

There are some technical issues with Apple users. I’m not an Apple user, but I believe things work much better if they download the Google Docs app for iOS (but they still might have issues viewing comments).

Another technical issue might be that students, with editing power, can delete everything on the doc. But I’ve never had that happen, whatever age the students (I’ve taught from 13 years old on up), and even if it did you can always view and revert to a previous version in the Version Control menu.

Affective

I’ve never had any problems with say, a shared writing doc that everyone can see. Everybody gets into it. And knowing that everybody can see your comments means I’ve become much more careful about not sounding too negative. It’s made me more human. But you know your situation better than I do so you be the judge if it would work for you.

Business

Lastly, as Paul Walsh pointed out re my last post, in-company classes put up all sorts of barriers to using tech.

I’ve had companies that block Google Drive, companies that let employees look at Google Docs but block any further links from those docs, and companies that gave me permission (but not the employees) to access it, though I quickly found out that the wi-fi was terminally malfunctioning and useless.

The good thing about Drive is that you can set documents to be editable offline. So even if you can’t connect, you can come into class with the doc open, add the homework or whatever without the connection, and it will automatically sync when you return to digital civilization.

But, in reality, I mostly don’t use the Class Record in class. The Class Record is there to keep us all together when we’re not right there in front of each other. Because that’s where the teaching and the collaboration and conversation happens, and I don’t need an app for that.

 

I’d love to hear if you’re using Google Drive and what for or if you’ve got better ways to give your course a little backbone without ever cracking a coursebook spine.

 

 

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The coursebook I want

I and a lot of ELT teachers I admire spend a lot of time dissing, cutting down, criticising, mocking, disparaging and complaining about coursebooks. So I’d like to look at the other side for a moment: what kind of coursebook would I want? Well, glad you asked:

A platform

My ideal coursebook wouldn’t be a book at all, but a platform. I love opening books, but when it comes to a collaborative learning experience the one thing a book is is closed. In terms of platforms, I want something simple, accessible, sharable and open. Something like Google Drive. Wait, not just like Google Drive, but maybe Google Drive itself, because there’s nothing I hate more than proprietary platforms that want to gobble up your time, energy and resources and then collapse, or not get updated, or just plain suck. Google’s not going anywhere, it gets updated, and lots of people like myself already use it for a lot of other stuff. So, if not Google, my coursebook would work within a popular, easy and ubiquitous platform (not simply try to imitate one).

Curated

The pro-coursebook argument that’s hard to beat is that it saves the busy teacher (or the one keenly aware of how much her out-of-class time is really worth) time. So I imagine a sort of expert teacher working in each country as content curator, finding and publishing a curated selection of 5 or so new texts a day. But of course you’re not bound to use the curated texts: you could do it too.

Connected

This daily list would continue to grow until it contained hundreds or thousands of texts. Or rather, it wouldn’t contain them, but link to them, because I want my students seeing the contexts in which these texts ― academic articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, film scripts, poems etc. ― were really published.

Customizable

At any point in the term you set a number of filters based on your location, student preferences, or favorite sites, and the coursebook would indicate texts and sources that might be of interest (and show you fewer or no texts outside your areas of interest).

Automated to help text selection

Any text “imported” (linked) into the coursebook would be cataloged and automatically tagged with an estimated CEFR level, word-count, estimated reading time per CEFR level (how long would it take a C1 student to read vs a C2 student), as well as a number of useful searchable tags relating to topic, variety of English, register, occurrence of grammar and lexis. This would all make the task of finding texts within the system much, much easier for the busy teacher.

Automated to help task creation

In one click, you switch from the text at its original source to a bare-bones, text-only “workshop” version that you could manipulate at will. The platform would also come with a series of tools that allow you to instantly create a variety of different activities, including gap fills based on various parameters (e.g. removing prepositions, auxiliary verbs or all function words). A variety of exam formats would also be supported, like the Cambridge Use of English tasks.

You could work with these text-activities online, in class, if your students use tablets/computers, or you could print them out. Or could link them as homework tasks on the evolving syllabus.

Flexible

Of course the coursebook would have no chapters, or order, but teachers could make intelligent decisions about what texts to use based on class interest or language issues that need addressing. From one week to the next the teacher could share the texts with the students to create an evolving syllabus.

Simple interface for students

This evolving syllabus would be the user interface i.e. what students see ― basically a formatted document with links, texts, etc. the teacher has placed for each lesson. Layout would be basic ― you don’t want to spend your time worrying about pagination. And you don’t want to just replicate the jam-packed tiny-font landscape of a typical coursebook spread. Just a single-column format, like a blog. But you could also give students “creator” status so they could do the same operations on a text by using the same tools that you do.

Emergent

Because the search functions work so well, when something comes up in class, like a student sees examples of inversion, and asks about, or you realize that students don’t have much vocabulary for topic X, you could easily search and find a text that would offer a context for addressing the gap.

Repetitious

You could create and share word lists from texts you’ve read. And the platform would have a series of reminders that would encourage you to recycle vocabulary/texts at set intervals. You might work on a text in class, and then 3 weeks later the platform reminds you to either recycle the vocabulary, or create a new recall activity based on that text.

Productive

The platform would also have a catalogue of communicative task types like debates, roleplays, etc. Rather than fixed any activity to that particular text, the teacher could choose an activity type and the platform would prompt her with suggestions for how to create that particular activity, including a framework for various stages. And templates would make actually writing up activities for distribution (either in paper or electronically) to students faster and easier.

Social

Each of the texts would come with an “access community” feature, and you could share what you did or see what other teachers have done with a specific text, as well as what texts were used before and after it. Teachers could comment and share opinions, difficulties, and classroom reactions to texts. Texts that generate a lot of interest might get more visibility on the platform, while others, that generate no interest or uptake, could get phased out.

Supportive of teacher development

To start with, the platform would offer tips and suggestions to teachers about how to set up activities, prompts for writing comprehension questions, what texts to pair together, and even offer reminders to try other activity types. But, with the teacher’s consent, the platform’s “voice” would gradually get muted as the teacher grows in experience and internalizes frameworks or task types.

But even with the training wheels off, formatting options would still be accessible so you could create e.g. exam task activities that look like the real thing.

Conclusion

Yes, there’s a learning curve with any platform (or any new coursebook series), but the idea would be to help teachers save time sourcing texts and creating tasks, so that they could have more energy to devote to being in the class itself (discussing, debating, revising). And the tags, reminders and search functions would help teachers build internal consistency and repetition into a course that’s not fixed in advance but evolves as it goes.

 

Well, what about it? Is that the kind of coursebook you’d use? Or have you got something better?

 

 

Dynamite at ETAS 2018. Zofingen, Switzerland

Kyle and I have just returned, full of inspiration, from the excellent ETAS Conference (English Teachers Association) in Switzerland. Compared to our last gig at IATEFL, we both agreed that the smaller venue was much friendlier and we felt totally relaxed and very welcome. So thank you ETAS!

We were lucky enough to do a workshop demonstrating our ideas for teaching exam prep, some of which we have written about previously here on the blog.  I thought it would be a good idea to summarise the activities for anyone who wasn’t able to attend, and also to share the slides from the presentation (here: Long live exam prep!)

For the purposes of the workshop we took the Cambridge English: First (CEFR B2) as an example for how our activities can be linked to the sub-skills and language points required for success in the exam. However, the activities can easily be adapted and graded for pretty much any mainstream EFL exam.

The ‘Dynamite’ philosophy is that exam oriented teaching should be…

  • Scaffolded: individual skills or language points required for exam success are first practised in isolation
  • Student-generated
  • Student-centred
  • Low-prep
  • Personalised
  • Learner focused not book focused

 

Activity 1- First lesson- FCE Speaking part 1

The activity aims to generate questions similar to those in FCE part 1, and also doubles as a get-to-know you activity in the first lesson with a new class.

Students guess information about the teacher, which gets boarded whether it’s right or not. Then students are asked to write questions for the teacher to find out if the information is true or false.  In order to make this more challenging they are asked to use specific structures such as a hypothetical conditional, or the present perfect. The students ask the teacher their questions, and then use them in a mingle activity with each other. See here for a more detailed description.

Activity 2- Photos- FCE Speaking part 2

Students find a photo on their phones of their friends doing something interesting or funny. In pairs they look at each other’s pictures and find the similarities and differences.

Using personal photos means that students are more likely to be engaged and motivated, and can focus their attention on the comparative aspect of the task rather than falling into the trap of simply describing the pictures.

Activity 3- Agreeing and disagreeing- FCE Speaking parts 3 and 4

Students come up with some topics they’d like to talk about, such as music or sport. They work in pairs and give an opinion on each of the topics, giving a reason for their opinion. These cards with exponents for agreeing and disagreeing are then distributed:

dsc_0895.jpg

Students mingle, giving their opinion on each topic and agreeing or disagreeing with their partner by reading the expression on the card. They then swap cards and change partners and repeat.

Activity 4- Expressing concession- FCE parts 3 and 4

Students repeat the activity above, but extend their answers, using the expression ‘having said that‘ . For example:

SA- I think Prince was the best musician own the world because his music is sexy and raw.

SB- You’ve got a point. Having said that, I didn’t like Purple Rain much.

In this way the exam task is scaffolded step by step: first the students generate ideas, then they learn and use target expressions for agreeing and disagreeing (thus, we hope, avoiding the dreaded “I agree”). Once they are comfortable with this (it may take a few lessons), difficulty can be added by asking them to extend their answers by adding contrasting information.

For a more detailed description of these activities see here.

Activity 5- Bus stop conversation- FCE parts 3 and 4

The bus stop conversation can be used to practice pretty much any structure you want your students to practice. To make them focus on the target language you can use cards (as above) or write the information they need to include in their conversation on the board. For a more detailed description of this activity see here.

Activity 6- Gimme Five- FCE part 3

If you’ve talked about any topic in class you can swiftly and easily turn it into a FCE part 3 speaking task. Just tell your students “Gimme 5!” That is, 5 items related to the topic. Then board them and pose a question about them. If you’ve just read an article on e.g. why New Year’s Resolutions seldom work (an old post-New Year favourite of Kyle’s) just ask them for 5 reasons why they don’t and board the question “Why don’t New Year’s Resolutions usually work?” Once this becomes routine students will be better at thinking of input and questions. And you can use it to input the kind of conversational language discussed above. You could run this routine for months before you tell the students it’s actually “on the test”.

Further reading

For more opinions on exam-prep, see also: this article in HLT Mag by Alex Case, Professor Costas Gabrielatos’s critique of exam-oriented teaching in Greece, and Marisa Constantinides’s discussion in ELT Chat.

On a different topic, keep an eye out for the article coming up in the summer edition of the ETAS journal  about my workshops with teachers of refugees in Athens, adapted from a previous blog post.

Thanks again to everyone at ETAS for giving us the opportunity to share our ideas. It was wonderful to meet you all!

 

Stories from Greece

If you’ve been following my summer musings you’ll know that I’m on a tiny island in Greece doing research for my MA. This involves interviewing Greek nationals about how and why they’ve learned English, and to comment on the situation in Greece in general as regards the influence of the English language.

They are asked to describe what Benson (1) calls their ‘language learning career’. I’d read in other research papers that some people can be a bit reticent about telling their life stories, but (at the risk of essentialising again) not the Greeks, it seems. In fact I’ve had quite the opposite problem : disgruntled people saying ‘So when are you going to interview ME?!’

So I’ve ended up with more data than I actually need for the assignment. But all of it valuable and in Holliday’s (2) words ‘rich’.

Some people stay on the island all year round, and others come only for some months, usually in the summer. They are from all over the country, and are of all ages and from all walks of life. As a result I’ve been privileged enough to hear lots of different and fascinating stories.

Participants had to be minimum CEFR B2. Although they were not selected on this basis, all of the people I interviewed had had private English lessons, either at a language school (frontistirio) or one to one. All of them had taken and passed the Cambridge First Certificate exam when they were teenagers.

Below is a random taster of some of the quotes from the interviews:

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How were your English lessons different in the private school (frontistirio) from the state school?

– “Like night and day.” (Fay, baker)

What were lessons like in the state school?

– “In Greece, if you don’t do your reading or homework…it’s OK!” (Cassiopeia, student)

– “We did nothing. It was a play hour.” (Dimitris, unemployed)

– “I remember my friend…he used to come out of the desk and start doing push ups in the middle of the class.” (Panagiotis, economist)

– “When I was a girl…there wasn’t an option. They didn’t have English lessons…Nothing.” (Hannah, artisan)

What were lessons like in the frontistirio?

– “There it was very serious.” (Dimitris)

– “We were doing more interesting stuff like music and movies” (Costas, student)

– “I remember the first book we had. There was a character called ‘Tricky Dicky’ haha!- but we didn’t know what that meant then!. It was a nice book…nice pictures.” (Babis, student)

– “I had a very good teacher…He was good at teaching the pronunciation, how to speak with the nose and stuff like this…” (Hannah)

Why do Greek parents send their children to frontistiria?

– “Greek society. You do what your neighbour is doing.” (Babis)

– “The (state) education system in general is problematic.” (Costas)

What else helped you to learn English?

– “Music! Music!” (Eleni, psychologist)

– “Songs! songs!” (Hannah)

– “English girls! English girls!” (George, shopkeeper)

– “Oh yes I had an English girlfriend. I forgot that!” (Panagiotis)

When you speak English do you feel you behave in a different way?

– “Yes of course. It’s not me. I’m Hellenic.” (Vasilis, businessman)

– “I cannot make jokes or be that clever in English…I don’t have that sort of connection as I have in Greek.” (Costas)

– “Yes! My flatmate told me that and for me it was like a shock because I didn’t realise!” (Anna, nursery school teacher)

Who do you use English with now?

– “Just YOU! The interviewer!” (George)

What is ‘Greeklish’?

– “It’s like poison” (Fay)

– “I LOVE Greeklish!” (Costas)

————

Much much more to come. Watch this space…

A big thanks and a big kiss to all my new friends from the island who participated. You are the best!

 

References:

  1. Benson, P. (2011). Language Learning Careers as an Object of Narrative Research in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly Vol 45. No. 3 pp545-553
  2. Holliday, A. (2016). Doing and Writing Qualitative Research. London: Sage

Friendship and Filoxenia: ‘Otherings’ or Facts?

DSC_0465

My Greek is actually coming on. Not thanks to my ‘friendship’ (long story – I should write a book.. or better, a soap opera) but the friendship (no scare quotes), hospitality and general loveliness of Greek people. I have a bagful of scribbled notes of things that people have taught me. I don’t have a teacher, I have hundreds of them. It’s as if the island itself is willing me to learn Greek. It’s actually an incredibly effective way to learn, because I attach new vocabulary to the person or situation where I heard it, which helps me to remember.

Since my MA research is about the influencing factors on English language learning, it got me wondering about whether students of English in the UK ever meet anyone who has the patience to help them in this way. I seriously doubt it. I don’t imagine many of my respondents will say ‘I studied in England and everyone I spoke to wanted to help’. Picture a grumpy pub  landlord saying ‘Yes of course I can explain the use of the present perfect. Oh and have some free food and wine too!’

I may be wrong though. Adrian Holliday would say that I’m ‘othering’ or ‘essentialising’ (1) about my own culture. That is, I’m making assumptions based on the stereotypical attributes of people from a particular country. People in the UK are: individualistic, capitalist and hence less likely to be hospitable and give time to someone without the expectation of financial gain.

Greece, however, is a different story.

There’s even a word for this phenomenon from Greek mythology: ‘filoxenia’, which can be said to be the opposite of xenophobia. Basically, (I’m ‘othering’ again) Greek people are hospitable to foreigners.

Where do these differences come from? Is it to do with the climate? In the summer in Greece everything slows down.  And what do people do? They chill out. They chat. The other day, after shamefacedly admitting to one Greek friend that I’d just walked to the beach then done nothing all afternoon, she said ‘It’s normal to do nothing when it’s hot. And it’s a 5km walk there and back- that’s not nothing!’. Thus my busy-Britishness revealed itself. (I have henceforth decided to make an effort to do absolutely nothing for at least four hours a day in attempt to liberate myself from such embarrassing capitalist tendencies. This is actually way more difficult than it sounds, hence why I’m currently lying in a hammock… writing a blog post).

Seemingly, Adrian Holliday would do away with cultural generalisations altogether. Benjamin Whorf (2), on the other hand, famously emphasised the importance of culture on language. And from my own experience, I know there is no word in Italian for ‘hangover’ and there is no word in English for the Italian ‘dislivello’ (the difference in altitude between the start and end point of a climb in the mountains) presumably because the British drink a lot, and Italy is mountainous. There seems to be a hundred different ways to say ‘no problem’ in Greek, suggesting Greeks are chilled out people. Are these otherings or facts? And I’ve heard that in Swedish there is a word for the inside of your elbow. Goodness knows what that means…

I agree with Holliday insofar as stereotypes are dangerous…But surely some differences are to be celebrated and enjoyed?

—————-

References

1. Holliday, A. (2016). Doing and Writing Qualitative Research. LA:Sage Publishing

2. Whorf, B. (1940). Science and Linguistics. Retrieved 21.01.17 from:http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/whorf.scienceandlinguistics.pdf

 

 

 

Exploit cognitive bias to get the student evaluations you deserve

If you’re here in Italy, terms run later than many other places, but finally, finally, your students are counting down the hours until they can put their English on the shelf and you out of their mind and get down to full-on summer fun. Actually living life! But wait, before you say goodbye, there’s one more thing you’ve got to get from them.

It’s time for student evaluations… of your teaching!

If there’s one thing you actually do have to prepare for in the academic year, it’s student evaluations of teaching (SET). So before you set foot into that classroom again, go check out Russ Mayne’s awesome list of sure-fire ways to ace your SETs this year. Go on, do it.

Now that you’re back, read on. I’ve distilled some insights from my reading of behavioral economist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow to produce one big fat evidence-based footnote to Russ’s article.

Go out with a (happy) bang

Before you hand out your SET forms, consider this: what’s the most memorable thing you did before asking them to  fill out the SET? Was it a game? Was it a pizza party? Or was it the dreaded final exam? How you answer could make all the difference in the world for your students and, perhaps, your future career.

In his book, Daniel Kahneman describes the relationship between our experiencing self and our remembering self. Whatever the first self has to say about an experience while we’re in it, it’s the second one that gets the final say in how we’ll think about and judge that experience for the rest of our lives. It seems that we always confuse memory with experience.

And what happens at the end of the experience is what we remember most. To illustrate, Kahneman relates the story of an audience member at one of his lectures who reported listening to a wonderful production of a classical symphony on a CD only to find it interrupted by a terrible scratch at the end. Despite the fact that the first 30 or 40 minutes of the symphony had been a joyous experience ― “musical bliss” ― the memory of the experience was defined by the scratch heard at the end.

What you can learn from a colonoscopy

Kahneman tried to formulate rules to predict how we remember pain based on some patients’ experience and memory of a painful colonoscopy procedure.

The peak-end rule

This rule states that how we remember pain ― our official memory of it, so to speak ― is the average of peak state (i.e. the worst level) of pain plus the end state of pain, or (peak + end)/2.  

Duration neglect

This rule states that duration of pain is entirely irrelevant to our after-the-fact perception of pain. Whether it’s six minutes or six hours doesn’t matter; only the peak-end rule conditions our memory.

Implications for SET

What that means, of course, is that you want their pre-SET memories to be good ones. Which means ending not with a test, but a pizza party.

If you’re trying to manipulate positively influence your students’ memories of the experience, you then put some time between that painful final exam and the actual questionnaire. Don’t let that exam be the scratch on the otherwise lovely classical symphony.

But don’t just fill the time in between with pizza parties: as Kahneman argues that “gradual relief may be preferable to abrupt relief” when it comes to the end. So you might consider having a series of increasingly less painful tasks before the big pizza-filled pre-SET sendoff.

And when planning for next year, with your end-of-year pizza party far in the distance, you might consider leveling the peak-pain experience. Rather than a high stakes mid-term and final opt instead for continuous assessment. Assessment based on a series of low stakes tests will ensure that the peak pain level is never very great. And what they’ll remember from your class is not a series of short sharp shocks but one fairly smooth (or only mildly uncomfortable) ride.

As Kahneman concludes, the remembering self is the one that “keeps score”. If you want to get a good one yourself, better hold the test and double down on the pizza margherita.

The best SETs money can buy (only 10 cents!)

When it comes to making judgments or predictions about anything from the frequency of terrorist attacks to estimates of our own life satisfaction, we often don’t do the difficult task of digging up all the relevant examples before reaching a conclusion. Rather we base our judgments on the nearest available information, a shortcut called the availability heuristic.

One of the dangers of the availability heuristic is that it operates by unconsciously reformulating the question in light of the most available evidence. By substituting one question for another, it can produce readily produce an answer that seems like the right answer to original question.

To illustrate, Kahneman reports on experiment from Norbert Schwartz in which participants were asked to complete a questionnaire on life happiness. Just before they took the questionnaire, however, half the group was sent out to make a photocopy where they found ― as luck would have it ― a dime laying by the copy machine. When they completed the questionnaire, these same students ranked their happiness markedly higher.

In a general sense, this is the availability heuristic at work, as when asked to consider our general happiness we reach for the readily available memory of the very minor stroke of good luck. Kahneman further defines this as a mood heuristic, or a short of shortcut that extrapolates our general well being from our feeling in the specific moment. In effect, participants were unconsciously answering the much easier-to-answer question: How happy are you right now?

And all it took was 10 cents.

Implications for SET

Make it your job to sow happiness before you hand out those evaluation forms. Fill your pockets with ten cents in your local currency, and have those students rushing to the photocopier.

You could also (for no cost at all) announce that you’d made a mistake marking their last exam, and that you’d added an extra two points to their score.

It’s not clear how much a feeling of just “getting lucky” and a sense of exclusiveness are essential to this increase in happiness (if everybody found a dime on their seat, and they all knew about it, would the effect be the same?), but to be safe you might announce exam-mark increases by way of private note.

The important thing to remember is that it shouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg (I mean, they’re not paying you that much, right?) to make sure your students are substituting any unrelated positive feeling for how they actually feel about your course when completing their SET.

Want less criticism? Ask for more

When it comes to our personal beliefs, the more evidence or examples we can marshal in support, the more confident we are. This is the availability heuristic at work again, as we make judgments based the information closest at hand. Which also means that the less evidence we can quickly access, the less confident we feel.

This is especially true when we expect the task to be easy: when we suddenly can’t think of examples, and we’re surprised by it (what Kahneman calls “unexplained unavailability”) our confidence in our own belief gets dealt a serious blow.

Implications for SETs

If you want to set yourself up for success, precede any general evaluation by varying the number of examples you ask for:

Think of three ways you’ve improved your English this year.

Do you feel that your English has improved this year?

Thinking of three way you’ve improved should be easy, and produce a more positive general feeling when answering the second question. Ask for 12 ways, however, and as the students run out steam producing enough of the requested answers, they’ll start wondering how, and if, any improvement was actually made.

But this is exactly what you want them doing when asking them for criticism. Compare a question like: Think of three ways this course could be improved to Think of 12 ways this course could be improved. The relative difficulty of retrieving enough ideas for the second question ― even if they produce six or seven ― should leave your students struggling to reach the target number.

This means that even the most troublesome students, waiting to tear you to pieces in the evaluation form, may find themselves a victim of “unexplained unavailability”: unable to produce enough negative examples, they’ll suddenly be left thinking that, relative to the expectations,  there’s not much about the class that needs improving.

Kahneman cites a UCLA professor who tested this theory by varying the amount of suggested improvements students were required to produce. Students who had to produce more rated the class higher: even though they actually listed more improvements, they failed to reach the (higher) minimum number.

Game on

In summary, by exploiting cognitive bias you’ve got a much better chance of getting good SET results than actually hoping they’ll be able to fairly and accurately judge the quality of the course, their learning and your teaching (this is science, people!). To get the SETs you deserve, just make sure that

  • their memory of peak pain (e.g. the test) is comfortable behind them
  • good fortune smiles on them immediately preceding the SET
  • it’s easy to produce enough praise but hard to produce enough criticism to meet questionnaire requirements.

Sure, some people claim that SETs are biased against female instructors, don’t correlate to effective learning, or even downright worthless. But I say they just aren’t trying hard enough!

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and put a Nobel Prize winner’s insights to work for you today.

Got any other smart ideas for how to game your SET? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

‘Friendships’ and L3 acquisition on the beach

At the risk of sounding narcissistic, for my MA dissertation I’d planned to study myself. That is, my L3 acquisition experience here in Greece. Unfortunately the proposal looked more like a PhD thesis: too much stuff. So instead I’m going to research language identity by interviewing Greeks about their English language learning experiences.

But the L3 thing is always present in my mind for obvious reasons. After having learned Italian, it’s exciting to be at the bottom of the acquisition ladder again and slowly feel how the pieces are starting to fit together. It’s all too easy to feel complacent here with learning Greek, though, because so many people are proficient in English. I found that Athens was the worst place to learn. It’s almost as if English is an unofficial second language in the capital. Most people switch effortlessly from Greek to English as soon as they hear you’re struggling.

So now I’m on a tiny island and have finally found a few people whose English is marginally less amazing, so it’s giving me more opportunities to learn. I’m trying to follow my own teachery advice: trying out new language without worrying about making a fool of myself, immersing myself in Greek conversation, make notes of new vocabulary. But I have to say that I’m not being very systematic and it’s much more fun to.. erm…let’s say… form a ‘friendship’ with a native speaker.

In my reading about second language identity I came across an article by Kinginger (1) which says that sex can be seen as a valid learning strategy and should be researched more thoroughly.

I feel exonerated.

And in fact many of the competent speakers of English that I’ve met here have told me that they reached proficiency through having a relationship with a native speaker. When I do the interviews it will be interesting to note what sort of effect this experience, what Benson et. al. (2) might call a ‘critical incident’, has on feelings of language identity.

Integrative motivation

Apart from my ‘friendship’ as motivation, my desire to integrate and understand conversations is pushing me forward. I’ve gone back to being that dumb person sitting at dinner not saying anything, but when there are occasional recognisable snippets it feels pretty amazing. I’d actually missed being the dumb person! I remember experiencing something like disappointment when I felt could understand everything in Italian, like there was nothing fascinating about it any more. I guess it works both ways: once you think you’ve integrated you feel demotivated. I’m sure there is plenty of Italian lexis that I don’t know but I’m not particularly driven to learn it any more. Maybe because I don’t have an Italian ‘friend’ any more…

Reading and writing are of course tricky in Greek. Apart from the different alphabet, there are (for example) four ways to write /i/. So my reading speed is pretty poor. SMS messages help with writing thanks to suggestive text, as does my dictionary app, which provides me with essential lexis for my… ‘critical incidents’.

Multicompetence

Cook (3) said that multicompetent language users have different sorts of brains. And in fact I can feel that my neurons are firing in two directions. I’ve noticed that: both of my languages activate when I’m listening and speaking. I code-switch between English, Italian and Greek. Some words are similar in Greek and Italian: portafoglio (wallet), cappello (hat) have Greek cognates, and Greek has lots of loanwords from English: ‘hangover’, ‘party’. Not that I’m partying much, obviously (just in case my dissertation tutor is reading this …). But it can be as much of a hindrance as a help. Having been used to communicating freely in Italian for the last few years, it’s frustrating not to be able to say what I need to say, especially in those…erm…important moments.

Identity

About my own language identity, I don’t feel ‘just’ English. I feel European. It’s as if my experience of living in Italy gives validity to this idea, and my knowledge of Greek will strengthen it. Dornyei (4) writes about how integrative motivation for learners of English now refers to the international community (as ownership of English is global) and thus also implies an international identity. Perhaps by my attempts to learn European languages I’m trying to psychologically ‘remain’ despite the decision of my fellow countrymen? Maybe my new friend will help me with that. 🙂

 

References

  1. Kinginger, C. (2015). Student mobility and identity-related language learning. Intercultural Education 26:1, 6-15
  2. Benson, P., Barkhuizen, G.; Bodycott, P.;Brown, J. (2013). Second Language Identity in Narratives of Study Abroad. Palgrave macMillan
  3. Cook, V. (1999). Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching. TESOL Quarterly  33(2): 185-209.
  4. Dornyei, Z., Ushioda, E. (2009). Motivation, Language, Identity and the L2 Self. Bristol:Multilingual Matters