10-step process listening for exam classes

This post is part 1 of a series based on a talk I gave at the IH Barcelona conference on February 8th.

Exam classes always run the risk of ending up the same: with testing, testing and more testing. Whether it’s bad planning, midterm exhaustion, pre-exam pressure from students (is this gonna be on the test?) or simply course books and materials that don’t offer anything but testing, exam classes can sometimes devolve into doing one test prep task after another.

And exam prep listening lessons can often exhibit these tendencies in a more acute form.

Because listening is all in the head. You can’t see it. You, as in anybody, but especially you, the teacher. So how do you know if they’ve got it? You test them. So, as ELT listening expert John Field has written, all listening teaching tends to look like listening testing.

And I’d say it’s even worse in exam classes. When exam pressure and expectations of success come into play, everybody simply chases after the right answers. Did you put A or B? What was the answer? Did you get it right? Two plays, check your answers, and move on to the next task.

2020-02-06 22_12_38-You Say It Like Its A Bad Thing GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I teach mostly classes preparing students for the Cambridge First and Cambridge Advanced exams. While most test prep materials are good at teaching what Field calls (sneeringly, or so I always imagine) test-wise strategies, which he associates with exploiting loopholes, I’d more charitably call test-specific strategic competence. Students need to figure out the best way to approach each task, how to listen, how much time they have, and what they should do in their precious seconds of reading time.

But the reason Field sneers, of course, is that most of this doesn’t have anything to do with listening. It’s simply knowing and practicing the test.

But what students really need to succeed at listening is the ability to decode fairly fast speech – because without that they can’t begin to do the deeper operations of matching the audio signal to a written paraphrase (in the form of a test item) and distinguish it from similar-looking distractors.

Better decoding is essential. So how do you get better at decoding?

In this series of posts, I’m going to look at a couple of ways I try to help test takers get better at decoding, while (best of all) letting them turn on and tune into the stuff that interests them.

10-Step Process Listening

The upper intermediate and advanced level students – particularly teens – I teach all have their favorite YouTube channels and Netflix series that they watch in English. Do they understand them? Sure! Do they really understand them? Er, yeah?

Learners who can self-select YouTube audio usually get the gist, but there’s so much more they don’t. Listening tasks are designed to take them further into detail, but if you’re a busy teacher and you want them to listen to stuff beyond exam material, you probably won’t have time to make new tasks all the time.

That’s where a process comes in. Processes or routines are great because if you do it right you can give students something that’s materials light, learnable and repeatable (remember, like the PPP method you might have learned in your Celta course, but a whole lot better) and lets students work in relative autonomy.

When students are faced with a video/audio text, here’s the process:

2020-02-20 23_35_02-Sounds like teen spirit - Google SlidesI demo it in class. I just tell them to number their paper 1-10, then give them the list above, then explain what each means, orally. Then, before they it at home individually, I’ll follow up with an email/handout like this:

 

BEFORE LISTENING

1. Look: write down basic info like the title, source, speaker, etc-

2. Predict: predict what the speaker might say (topics and vocabulary)

LISTENING

3. Gist listening (once straight through) What’s the speaker’s main point? BLUE pen

4. Detail listening: listen again for more information. This time you don’t have to listen straight through. Advance, pause, skip around, repeat as much as you need. But don’t use the transcript/subtitles yet. BLACK pen

5. 3 tough spots: Identify three spots (minute:second, e.g. 02:45) that are difficult to understand. What’s so difficult? Performance (accent, speed, etc.)? Words (unfamiliar words)? Or non-explicit meaning (you know the words, but not the meaning)?

6. Dictation: Choose a 30-second section of text and transcribe it word for word

7. Check. If there are subtitles/a transcript, listen to check your dictation and understanding. RED pen

AFTER LISTENING

8. Vocab: 5-10 topic-related words that help you talk about the topic, 5-10 new/useful words/expressions

9. Respond: What do you think about the video? Do you agree/disagree? How is it relevant to your life?

10. Reflect: Think back on the listening process

  • I understood ____ % after the first listening; ____ % after the detail listening
  • What caused the most difficulty? (speed, accent, presentation, topic, vocabulary, etc.)
  • Which steps above helped you most understand the listening? (e.g. 1, 4, etc.)
  • What should you do more of/less of next time?

 

Note to the teacher:

The first 4 steps all work together, with each step creating the reason for the next. You look at the YouTube video/webpage and write down some details. This leads to prediction, where students write down what they think the speaker will say (based on their own outside knowledge).

Now, this is not a very exam-useful skill (exam takers have only a short amount of time that they have to spend reading the test items, not predicting – and anyways exams are designed so that outside knowledge shouldn’t be a factor). But it is a very useful life listening skill, and as I said it sets up the point: gist.

In this process, listening for gist is basically checking your predictions. Were you right? And detail listening is checking your gist understanding. Were you right when you listened the first time? What more would you add?

Make sure you tell students they can listen as many times as necessary, backing up, skipping, jumping forward, to get the maximum out of it. That’s detail – real detail.

This is usually the maximum of most listening, but the idea here is to get students to listen further, beyond gist, and start figuring out how the listening is succeeding or breaking down for them.

Ah wait, and the pens. If you can get them to use different colored pens, it’s another way to make the listening visible – to show both them and you how understanding is deepened with each task.

3 Tough Spots

To help students (and you) understand where they aren’t able to decode, have them write down 3 spots and try to determine what made it difficult. This isn’t an exact science, but it will help students try to pinpoint difficulties to get beyond simply “I don’t understand”.

Dictation

Choose a 30” spot and transcribe it word for word. This is way tougher – and takes way longer – than you might think at first (Try it yourself!). The beauty of this is that listening really becomes visible here, as you can see what they hear, and where even their own understanding of English and the topic is not sufficient to compensatorily fill in the gaps in their own decoding.

You might find that while students are getting the content words, they’re missing out on the functional stuff like auxiliary verbs and articles and prepositions that allow listeners to get more than a Swiss-cheese understanding of the content words. And can easily form the basis for many listening lessons to come (stay tuned for the next blog post on that).

Response

This is simply getting students to express why they picked this listening and what they personally learned from it so they can better share in class (or help you understand their choices).

Reflection

Like the tough spots, this part is simply to get students to think about how much they understood and why, so they can think strategically about the listening texts they choose, and what they can do themselves to keep improving.

How do you set it up?

This is really an at-home task. There’s no set-up for me (no writing test questions, yay!), students can choose their own texts, and I just take a peek at the results. But the first time, definitely go through it in class. In a small class, you could have somebody control the computer for a whole class listening. In a bigger class, with equal access to personal tech, you could have everybody listen on their own device with a headset.

Model what you want them to do at home, and let them work in pairs for the dictation and other steps.

When they do it at home, they could either bring in their work next week or (better I think) email it to you – with the link to the audio they listened to. Check to make sure they’ve done it right, and then look into a couple more deeply. What kind of texts did they choose? What were their tough spots? Where there common language features in their dictations?

2020-02-20 23_33_15-Sounds like teen spirit - Google Slides

Exam task extension

10-step Process Listening works with YouTube, but it also works with exam tasks as well – and helps you get beyond two-listens-and-done.

In this version, prediction is simply the test strategy of listening, and the first and second listening are played straight through normally. But the rest of the process is kept in place (with a series of steps before students even check their answers – remember, this is not a test, but test prep!).

One feature I add to doing this process with exam tasks is asking students to say how confident they are (0=not at all, 2=confident) with their answer after two listenings. Why?

The one “cognitive style” said to influence exam success is risk-taking (Note: I’ve got a source for this I’ll add soon). In a multiple choice test, where wrong answers are marked the same as no answer, there’s no reason not to guess. But risk-averse people may not do it. Conversely, risk-takers may guess too easily and frequently, confident the odds are on their side as a short-cut to improving their listening. So the idea with putting their confidence level is simply letting them see if their own estimates are correct – while encouraging both types to see the weakness (if any) of their habitual strategy.

2020-02-20 23_34_13-Sounds like teen spirit - Google Slides

If you students are using a test prep coursebook, have them try this at home to go beyond simply chasing after the right answers and get more out of their listening prep.

In the next post I’ll go into some different ways to recycle your listening exam tasks and extend them for teaching.

Tried it out? Let me know!

2019 European Elections: 3 exam class activities

Before you go “here’s that guy talking again and again and again about why we should talk about politics in the classroom but it’s easy for him to say because he teaches in a liberal democracy and not in country X where I teach,” have you heard the one about the teacher in Palermo who was suspended from her job for talking about politics in the classroom? She has defenders and detractors (many of whom make no attempt to clarify what actually happened in that classroom), but what’s clear is that politics, in our politically charged times, can be tricky even in countries that in no way resemble country X.

But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Despite the Palermo incident, the Italian Ministry of Education says we should. As of this year in Italy, Cittadinanza e Costituzione – citizenship and the constitution – is a set subject in curriculum and on the matriculation exam, which means that government, human rights – and by extension, politics – will be taught to help foster more “active citizens” (and this in a country with higher than average voter turnout where many state schools already teach religion or non-religious morality classes as well as philosophy classes – deep-thinking topics that in my opinion students should be exposed to).

Which brings me to the European elections.

In this last week before the elections I’ve wanted to engage two classes of students on some basics about the elections, including why people (don’t) vote and how to get informed about your choices. Youth voter turnout is terrible (in much of Europe as well as my own country of origin, the US), and the one thing that all educators should agree on is that young people should understand how and where to vote. If that doesn’t sound so controversial, it shouldn’t. If they want to debate policy we can, but I’ve explicitly said that what I’m interested in is how they make decisions, not who they decide for.

Class background

The first is a small group of 5 high school students preparing for the Cambridge Advanced, two of whom are 18. The other group, an IELTS preparation class, has six students, including two 18-year old high school students, two under-24s and two over-30s. These are classes in a private language center, and the students are mostly L1 Italian.

Useful links

Here are some useful sites and documents I found that I’ll refer to in the following activities.

Here are three activities. These were all pretty spontaneous creations — knowing there’s something big like the EUROPEAN ELECTIONS coming up makes me practice avoidance strategies. It’s always something I want to deal with, but the topic can seem too big or overwhelming to start. But a few minutes of googling showed me youth voting statistics and I knew I had my in. The rest are back-of-the-envelope activities that evolved in class (as is often the case, the post-lesson reflection has taken a lot longer than the pre-lesson planning).

ACTIVITY 1

Cambridge Advanced proposal

Set up activities:

  • Guess/predict voter turnout for age groups/countries in recent elections
  • Compare predictions to reality using the charts above
  • Brainstorm reasons as to why young people (or Europeans, or Italians) don’t vote
  • Brainstorm possible solutions

Writing set up. A proposal (but you could equally do a CAE Report writing task)

EU Votes, an NGO, is looking for ways to increase voter turnout among young people for the 2019 EU elections. Write a proposal (220-260 worlds) in which you:

  • Discuss why young people don’t vote
  • Suggest possible solutions
  • Say why these solutions would be effective at increasing voter turnout among young people

 

By the way, the reality of youth voter turnout (28% in the EU overall, and a slightly better 45% in Italy) was a real shocker for my students. All of the voting-age people said they would vote and the high school students predicted 90% of their friends would – which goes to show how outside the norm they are, and how educational the acutal research has been.

 

ACTIVITY 2

Comparing political platforms

When do you decide how to vote? We looked first at the question in the EU socio-demographic index about whether people report deciding in advance or right before the vote. And how do students know who to vote for? One of the suggestions from the writing task was to have a unified comparison site – like the ones you use to compare prices and features on a new mobile phone – where you could compare political party platforms. So we created our own analogue version, using the following set up:

  • Board list of main parties
  • Board list of major issues parties are addressing
  • Students used their phones to look up the platforms for the various parties, e.g. Cinque Stelle, Europa Verde, the Lega, Forza Italia and Partito Democratico and take notes in English (from Italian sources)
  • Due to limited board space, students discuss how to group issues – Abortion with Women’s Rights or the Family; Women’s Rights with Employment, etc. – to create useful categories for comparison
  • Students board information
  • In pairs, write sentences comparing and contrasting party ideas

 

Students were surprised by a number of discoveries, and in the process we talked about austerity and the right to asylum and the students left with larger vocabularies and more practice in useful structures and somewhat more informed about the impending vote than when they came in.

 

ACTIVITY 3

IELTS Writing Task 1: EU Election Voter Turnout

One thing I like about IELTS exam prep is Writing Part 1 task – especially when you can find (or have students find) their own data visualizations to analyze. But here we started with the introduction to the socio-politico index – which I swear is basically an IELTS coursebook in itself (so many charts and graphs, so much IELTS-ready language).

Here’s the outline of the procedure:

  • Make predictions about results to survey questions in the socio-politico index – do more men or women vote, what age group votes most, what professional level, etc.
  • Check predictions in introduction (pp. 3-6)
  • Scan text for 3 examples each of big differences, small differences, superlatives, language for introducing a new topic (e.g. when it comes to…)
  • Then I selected 5 countries from Politico’s awesome interactive chart and had students use the language to make comparisons. Followed by the same task using chart on voter turnout by age group.

Task:

The line graph shows voter turnout in European Elections between 1979 and 2014. The chart shows voter turnout by age group in the 2014 election.

Summarize the information by selecting and reporting the main features and making comparisons where relevant.

 

That’s it. No, there was no challenging of the dominant hierarchies — just run of the mill activities used with authentic materials and some fairly real-world objectives. While most of these documents will be still relevant – or updated – for the next elections, on the eve of this very important European vote I can’t think of anything I’d rather be discussing with my students.

First Certificate Speaking Part 3: More bang for your paired speaking task buck

Like any other speaking exam, the First Certificate Speaking Paper attempts to get natural speaking performance from a highly artificial situation. With rigorous timing, set questions, obligatory interaction patterns, and an interlocutor who has to stick at all times to the script, there’s no wonder it feels almost miraculous when candidates manage to surmount all this and actually sound like two human beings.

But today I discovered that starting to overcome some of these problems (3 specific problems, in fact) was as easy as banging my fist on the table.

If you don’t have time to read all my revelations as they came to me here’s your executive summary:

To encourage more natural turn-taking in pair speaking exam tasks (e.g. First Certificate Speaking Part 3), signal when candidates have to abandon their turns by banging loudly on the table every 15 seconds. The surprising benefits of this are:

  • More turns taken
  • More coverage of obligatory talking points (prompts)
  • More range of agreeing/disagreeing language
  • More cooperational support given by each candidate

Keeping reading for the long version.

Problem 1: Monologues

Take First Certificate Part 3. My 18-student group today was decimated (no not literally) by illness, school trips, and school exams, which left only 6 of us. I got a pair of guinea pigs for candidates (no not literally) while the other four watched. Part 3, if you’re not familiar with it, requires students to have a conversation about a set topic – really, to answer a set question – using a series of prompts to help them discuss. They’ve got two minutes before they’re interrupted with a follow-up question.

What I got, today, was this:

Candidate A: Monologue, monologue, monologue. Monologue, monologue. (45 seconds)

Candidate B: Monologue, monologue. Monologue, monologue. (45 seconds)

Candidate A: Monologue, monologue. (20 seconds)

Candidate B: Monolo– (10 seconds)

Me: Thank you.

Why does this happen?

Because the situation is highly artificial. Because they’re afraid to interrupt. Because they don’t know what to say. Because they’re afraid of the other person not saying anything, and so they keep talking. Because they’re not listening to each other, just talking in a vacuum.

So today I did something different. I told the students:

When you hear me bang on the table, your partner takes over. I’m going to bang on the table every 15 seconds.

The same pair went again. Wham. Bang. Boom.

Both students clearly felt they were under the gun. They were talking faster, tenser, and nervouser. (Yes, I just wrote that). But they each took a lot more turns.

Then I got all three groups working on their own activity, and I kept banging on the table. The high school classroom where I was teaching is basically cinder block, there’s no sound dampening anything, and the desk jarred and jangled on the floor. Really satisfyingly obnoxious.

But the thing is, each student ceded their turn when I banged. Which meant that each student contributed more, and it was much easier for students to use 5 of the issues, rather than only two or three. And as I tried to explain, rather than feeling like they’re under the gun, like they’re prisoners of my maniacal table-banging, a 15 second turn is the opposite. It’s not imprisoning; on the contrary, it frees you of the responsibility of filling the silence. Because you only have to speak for a 15 second run, not 30 seconds, or 45, or one minute, or as long as you can because you’re terrified your partner’s not going to say a thing. 15 seconds isn’t confining, it’s liberating.

And by creating moments of transition, it suddenly opened up space to confront another problem.

Problem 2: I disagree with you, sir. And I with you, madam

This is the over-use of a few brick-heavy stock phrases, particularly I agree and I disagree. Yes, we do say these things, but they can also come across as heavy, provocative and final. In conversations we often seek agreement, and soften disagreement. I usually try to get my students to say things like:

Agreement

  • Totally
  • Definitely
  • Sure
  • Uh-huh
  • Yeah

Disagreement

  • I’m not so sure
  • I don’t know
  • Maybe, but
  • Well, …

Tone is key. Particularly with disagreement. We drill these expressions. I try to get them to use the agreement expressions as backchannel input, and often to signal to their partner that they’ve got a contribution to make. But students don’t always produce them when they have to (in exam simulations).

What I discovered, however, was that by forcing more transitions (bang bang bang), it suddenly opened up space for the use of a variety of agreement/disagreement responses. I brought this to their attention, and when we did the next round of table banging, I started hearing more and more nice noises: yeah, totally, I’m not so sure, well…

Problem 3: Blah blah blah

The last problem is just simply candidates not listening to their partner. I think, in part, this is caused by the fear of the endless turn. If you think your partner’s going to blather on forever, and you’ve just got to get your say in before the clock runs out, you don’t really care what the other person says.

However, when you know your partner may get cut off (bang) in the middle of the sentence, then you’ve got to be listening to paper over the awkward transition. So in addition to students suddenly using more language of agreement and disagreement, I said bang might be a good time for not just agreeing or disagreeing, but:

Supporting your partner’s statement/opinion with

  • a) exemplification: yeah, like X or Y
  • b) continuation: just finish your partner’s sentence, then add more

And they did. I don’t have any recorded evidence, but you once you give students permission (bang) to pick up the utterance their partner dropped, they will. They’ll finish the sentence, add to it, run with it.

Conclusion

In the end, it was by forcing artificial breaks into a conversation that suddenly made it sound much more like a conversation. It’s a silly, ugly technique, and like all training wheels should be taken away as soon as possible, but it sure got results, and fast – a lot faster than simply interrupting the activity to say, Come on, let’s try to do a bit more… and letting them spin on for two more minutes. Banging away got me:

  • More turns taken
  • More coverage of obligatory talking points (prompts)
  • More range of agreeing/disagreeing language
  • More cooperational support given by each candidate

So if you’re prepping students for speaking exams, try it (bang) and let me know if it works (bang bang).

 

Reading texts as writing templates

Texts, any texts, can serve as models for writing. Not just the long-form, formal writing tasks that students have to do on exam tasks, but as sentence or paragraph frames, or templates.

As Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein explain in They Say, I Say, their really awesome book on academic writing, templates

have a generative quality, prompting students to make moves in their writing that they might not otherwise make or even know they should make…. In showing students how to make such moves, templates do more than organize students’ ideas; they help bring those ideas into existence (Graff & Birkenstein, 2014:xxi).

Last week students in my IELTS prep class were discussing issues from the reading homework (from a text called “Walking with dinosaurs”, in the Cambridge IELTS Trainier book) when suddenly the structure of the first paragraph jumped out at me:

The media image of palaeontologists who study prehistoric life is often of field workers camped in the desert in the hot sun, carefully picking away at the rock surrounding a large dinosaur bone. But Peter Falkingham has done little of that for a while now. Instead, he devotes himself to his computer. Not because he has become inundated with paperwork, but because he is a new kind of paleontologist: a computational paleontologist.

What got my attention was the series of moves made by the writer:

  1. Introduce a commonplace idea
  2. Introduce a contrasting idea (first as a teaser, delaying the full explanation)
  3. Develop the contrasting idea
  4. Offer a supposed rationale for the contrast
  5. Overturn the supposed rationale with the true one

And there are a series of clear and reusable frames – a template – that could easily be used by students:

The media image of palaeontologists who study prehistoric life is often of field workers camped in the desert in the hot sun, carefully picking away at the rock surrounding a large dinosaur bone. But Peter Falkingham has done little of that for a while now. Instead, he devotes himself to his computer. Not because he has become inundated with paperwork, but because he is a new kind of paleontologist: a computational paleontologist.

My rationale for all this is that one of the challenges of academic writing (ok, some of you might debate that Cambridge and IELTS exam writing is true academic writing) is getting students to deal with opposing viewpoints, offer differing views, and develop, even if to dismantle, contrasting arguments.

So I boarded the language of this template but substituted:

The media image of Italy is often of…

They brainstormed a series of possibilities, including the Mafia, mothers, fashion, food, and work habits.

Then they worked in pairs to write and revise their paragraphs. Hopping from group to group I got to help them a series of interesting issues, mostly around the idea of the expectations you set up with each sentence and how to satisfy them in the successive sentences to make the argument flow (moving from general to specific, setting up contrasts, exemplification, etc.).

The only student example I’ve got written down is a fragment on my whiteboard photo:

….Not because the media’s depiction of us as addicted to pasta isn’t true, but because Italy also has a whole host of other food traditions to choose from.

I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more reading-text-as-writing-template opportunities.

 

Further reading:

They Say, I Say: The moves that matter in academic writing. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, 2014.

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.

 

 

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?

 

 

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.