Category: Exams

An Energy Dip: approaching high demand teaching (Part One)

imageAfter all the excitement of Iatefl last week, I hit reality back in the classroom this week, and what with all the to do about Sugata Mitra’s ideas and the need to make up a whole series of lessons I suddenly found myself in a very dark professional place. I am teaching a group of learners, or rather, trying to help them, prepare for the Cambridge Advanced Exam in June this year. However, do we have an academic year to prepare for this? No, we have 7 lessons, and now, due to Easter and various national holidays we are about to have a three week break. This, as is understandable, has caused a certain amount of panic both for the students and for me. Far from following high demand teaching, something I truly believe in, we have been focusing on exam strategies and they have been doing practice tests at home, independently.

Learning or Devouring exercises?

Focusing on exam strategies! Good idea, I hear someone say. Well, yes, that is what I thought too, until I realised that what they are doing is trying to do as many tests as possible, swallowing entire volumes of tests, emptying the library and then coming back for more. They are definitely motivated, but my energy dip and depression came from the realisation that this is all very shallow, and that I really have no idea if they are actually learning anything at all. I had just finished gong painstakingly through two exercises designed to make them aware of the need not just to focus on single words but to focus on words and the other words they collocate with. It was an exercise where they had to look at sentences, which were examples of candidate errors in the Use of English exam, and decide where the preposition errors were. I went over the activity and they got the answers right with very little trouble.

I knew I was in trouble, though, when I saw someone checking “something” could it have been a train timetable? on her phone. This activity was so far away from engaging these learners that they may as well have been on the Moon.

Time to stop and Reflect

So, what did I do? Well, I said, “OK”… and they were already focusing on the next exercise, when I said “No, let’s think about this.” The smartphone was put aside for a minute. I said. “Yes, you can identify the prepositions very well but can you use these expressions? Will you remember any of them five minutes after you have walked out of this door?” This was said humorously and so greeted by  nervous laughter but I then took pity on them, smiled, and said “So how can you remember new language?” This was familiar territory and someone, with a rsigned expression said “write sentences” and I replied that yes, they could do that, but today we were going to do something different.

Mechanical study or “Meaningful” study?

Stage 1: Cognitive Study

I then asked them in two groups to take one exercise each and paraphrase the phrasal verbs and expressions( these were things like I congratulated him on getting a new job. Absolutely not memorable for these students or anyone else for that matter) I asked them to think about the context the expressions were being used in, and monitored. It soon became clear that there were several problem areas. What could you set up, for instance? Could you only set up a business or could you set up a committee as well? This led us naturally into dictionary work, and they found out how to use these expressions in a lot more depth. They then mixed the two groups and shared their findings, and by this time the questions were coming thick and fast. The smartphone was being used for the dictionary app and the train timetable was a thing of the past.

Stage Two: personalisation and experimentation: making the language your own

Then I asked them to choose five of the expressions and to make them into questions to interview someone in the other group. This was where the meaningful action came as they asked “real questions” and created content that neither I nor the traditional exercises could have predicted. “to congratulate someone on something” was transformed into “Has anyone ever congratulated you on passing your exams? Much more meaningful for these students as was the reply: “Yes, my parents have… when I deserved it.”

Before long we were involved in a discussion about Starbucks and why the concept probably wouldn’t work in Italy. This was communication and, I think, it was definitely demand high teaching.

Reflection again

At the end I asked them why we had spent 30 minutes of our precious lesson on two exercises. They answered that it had helped them to really understand this language. At that point I felt that the energy dip had passed and I was back on track. I agreed with them and warned against mechanical exam practice without going into the language in depth and sent them of with a series of things to do over the three week holiday including the idea that they should “Make the exercises they do really work for them”.

I’m quite excited to see what they bring back with them :-)

 

 

 

Teaching mindfully and Facing exams courageously

IMG_0611I’m Back

I suddenly realised that I haven’t blogged on my poor, neglected space since September!! I can only hang my head in shame and mutter excuses about how tied up I’ve been with conference sin Prague, the student blog and its sister Facebook page,. etc. Please feel free to check them out and I’d love you to participate in some of our discussions if you feel like it. :-)

Mindful Teaching

Well, I actually wanted to talk about mindful teaching today, which I am trying to put into practice. What this means is basically that I slow down, stop trying to do three million things at the same time in the classroom, worrying about whether we are doing too much, too little, whether it is appropriate or not for my students, what we should go onto next, oh yes, and where did I put that DVD?… You get the general idea? Instead of doing all that what I want to do is to slow down, breathe and notice what is going on in the classroom, notice how I am feeling, what people are saying and how they are sitting, moving and, (tricky this one) feeling. This may seem obvious but I felt the need to remind myself this week. What I noticed as I walked into my C1 university lesson in general English was this:

1) some people looked tired and had various types of colds and snuffles;

2) there was a general sense of agitation in the room and people were whispeirng together;

3) some people had very large wads of paper with reams of photocopies of Powerpoint slides on them.

You didn’t need to be a detective to realise that exams were approaching and everyone was worried about this. Obviously, if you have an important exam to do you concentrate on that rather than on your other classes, so I did the rest of the class in an understanding way, and if people had not done their preparation I made it clear that I realised why. This in itself had a positive effect because everyone relaxed and appreciated their teacher trying to relate to them. (I think)

Accepting Fear and Vulnerability

After this class, though, I went on to think about how students (or anyone else for that matter) can deal with these feelings of fear and nervousness, which can be so strong that they actually stop you concentrating; the exact opposite of what you want.

At some level, of course, this is tied up with the need to be perfect. We live in a world that frowns on mistakes and where we apportion blame rather than trying to learn from our mistakes helping each other. Of course we are frightened of exams, where someone sits in judgement on us, and our performance in twenty minutes or so becomes our very being.

To move beyond this is quite a challenge, but I strongly believe that the secret to success lies in “being who you are” together with all your imperfections, giving the answers you know and understand, in exams, and using the exam to show your examiners all this, rather than showing them your fear.

Courage and Speaking from the Heart

We all need to be courageous, and not only in exams, but the origin of the world lies in “heart” or “cor” in Latin, something we perhaps forget. So to be courageous in an exam means really communicating what you feel about the subject. If you are at unviersity studying languages you chose this degree course because languages are something you love.. so find the meaning and personal relevance of the exam you are preparing (Yes, even if it is a “law exam”, after all “law” is related to human beings and life, so find ways to make it important and meaningful to you.)

I include this amazinf TED talk on the subject of “vulnerability” here. It lasts twenty minutes, but if you take the time to listen to Brené Brown’s words, it will be well worth the effort.

So, make yourself a cup of tea, sit down and enjoy:

Lessons from My Office Hours

What is the point of Failure and what can it teach us?

From Microsoft Clipart

 

I know this title sounds pretty bleak but it is partly the result of an episode that happened this week during my office hours, and that I thought I’d like to share with you. Before I do so, though I need to outline our C1 exam so that you will understand how both the student and I felt:

The University of Verona Language Centre C1 Test

Our C1 exam consists of three parts, and students need to pass all three to be given the credits they need. The first part is a computer based test which focuses on Use of Language in Context, Reading and Listening. This is followed by a Written test, which at this level involves producing a text of approx. 200 – 250 words in either a narrative, descriptive or discursive style on various subjects. The final test is an oral test of about 10-15 minutes which is usually in a paired format and students have to show that they can communicate in effective English about familiar and more abstract topics. In order to pass all this they need to get a minimum of 60% over the three parts of the test, and they are allowed to score from 55% to 60% on one of the parts if this is then compensated for on one of the other parts.

What this means, then, is that a student can pass the whole test if he or she scores only 55% on the computer test but this is then compensated for if he or she goes on to score 65% on the written and then 60% on the oral test, giving a total of 60% overall.

Failing your exams … or, even worse, Almost Passing

So, to come back to the episode last week, this is what happened: a student came to my university office hours last week, clutching an enormous exercise book and communicating in an English that was perfectly comprehensible. She told me that she had tried to do our C1 written paper various times and was having trouble. She had passed the computer test but couldn’t pass the composition paper. This girl had been in my course and had religiously printed out all the work she and others had done on writing during the course. (This is available for all students on my wiki, with the questions, the students’ answers and my comments and correction code. See this example page.) She had also gone on to develop this by focusing on specific areas such as phrasal verbs etc. all lovingly colour coded in her exercise book. She had come with a few intelligent questions such as what did I mean by “effective language”. (I explained that I meant language that “did its job” of communicating the message you wanted it to, clearly and well.) All this told me that she was a student who had studied hard and thought about what she was reading. This is what we want in our students, isn’t it?

Well, then she showed me a practice essay she had written in a narrative style, using an old exam question as a model. She was convinced that this was “perfect” and yet as soon as I read the first sentence I knew that we were up against quite a few problems and I could feel a sinking feeling come over me.

What was the Problem?

The first sentence was already problematic:

“I can’t descend.” Emma said.

I asked her whether the story was informal or formal and she said that that was another thing she had not really understood. What did informal language or formal language mean. I explained and gave her examples in Italian, so that she realised that the use of “descend” here wasn’t natural. You wouldn’t say that to a friend. She said that she had been avoiding simple words like “get down” because she thought they were too easy, aren’t they more of a B1 level??? was the question. It took quite some explaining to show here that words as such can have many different levels and what is important is to know how to use them.

Coffee and mug
Coffe pot and mug the perfect collocation

Collocation, colligation and Word Choice

We all know how important collocations are in natural language use, and we spend quite a lot of time talking about this in class. Despite this, however, my student had quite a few unnatural collocations such as “It was snowing abundant” (as well as the fact that she was using aan adjective instead of an adverb). She knew what collcations were but didn’t know how to find them, check them or notice them. She said, the problem was that she did not know when something was not possible. The same was true of colligation or “grammatical collocation” as you might think of this. She had looked up the word “discesa” which in Italian means a slope but can also be used as an adjective or adverb meaning downhill. She had found the word “downhill” and was using it to mean “slope” so she produced a sentence like this: “They skied along the downhill with ease.” We have a problem here of incorrect word choice followed by inappropriate colligation as a result of this.

You can see where all this is going and I’m not going to go through the whole composition but, as I explained to her, this language was not “effective” because it did not communicate what she wanted to, because of the words she was choosing, how she was using them and also because of the register. These are all things that, at a C1 level, you need to be able to do.

Two Major Problems

By this time the poor student was nearly in tears and I was feeling very depressed too, because there were two major problems here:

1) she did not have a good monolingual dictionary, despite the fact that I had recommended several. As soon as we started looking at her “problem language” in the Longman Contemporary Dictionary of English (the online version, in fact) all these problems were clear and she began to see what I was talking about. She needed to learn how to use a dictionary well, and yet, this is something we do all the time in class, so for me, as a teacher, this means there is no guarantee that students sitting in my lessons will actually benefit from what I’m teaching them to do;

2) She chose words, which were often false friends etc. and she was convinced that they were correct. One example of this was the word “structure” which can be used in italian to mean the company or firm etc. In her case it referred to a ski resort, and she wrote “The director of the structure” which does not really work in English. When I showed her that this was unnatural and we looked at structure in the dictionary she said: “But I had no idea! How do I know when something has the right meaning or not?”

This is the crux of the matter and it is very difficult to answer. My answer is that enough exposure to a language teaches you what is appropriate and what isn’t, but I’m not sure that this is always true. This student told me that she read widely in English but she read for the ideas and didn’t really notice the language, so I suggested reading first and then taking a page or so every now and then and analysing the language. Part of me, however, wonders whether there are simply some people who are interested in the way language words and others who are not. I was watching an Austrian detective series, for example, the same day and something in my mind noticed that they used the verb “recherchieren” and without even realising it, I was thinking, “Would that be used in Germany or South Tyrol?” It comes naturally to me to question these things, but does it come naturally to everyone? If it doesn’t come naturally to you, then you simply have to train yourself to do it, but I think that many of my students who have been through a traditional style of school system do not believe in the value of these things. They think they need to do a lot of grammar exercises and practice tests and then they’ll be alright, which is rather sad in university language students.

An hour later my student was thoroughly depressed at the thought that this composition would not have passsed the test either and when I asked her what she had learned she said that she had learned not to discount simple words, and to get a better dictionary.

I felt extremely drained after this and felt the need to write about it because I feel as though I have failed her in some way. This was someone who was willing to study, who told me that she uses English every day in emails at work, but I had not been able to help her prepare for her exam. One of the most difficult things for a teacher to do is to chip away at student beliefs such as the sacrosanct nature of the grammar exercise, and all you can do is keep on going in the hope that some will understand the message.

So, what can failure and suffering teach us?

We all know the value of passing a test, but failure can teach us something too. In this case the student has failed her exam but she has learned some important lessons about how she approaches another language. In my case I failed to communicate my message to her in class, but I helped here in my office hours, and the whole episode has led me on to think about the process, so that I can use it in an exemplary way to others.

Failure inevitably leads to suffering but suffering in itself has lessons to teach us as well. ON a personal level, if I never suffer then I don’t appreciate so many of those little pieces that go together to form the amazing mosaic that is every simple moment of the day. If I never have to live without “hot water” for instance, I don’t appreciate how wonderful it is to have hot water readily available when I have a shower.

On another level suffering helps us to understand what other people are going through, and if we have never suffered ourselves then we cannot develop any real empathy. I know what it means to fail a test, so I can understand what my student is going through. Empathy is essential in a teacher, and not only, because it is by understanding what somene is going through that we can start to help them to come out of it.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, but everything begins somewhere. I don’t know if my student has really understood what she needs to do for her exam, or whether I have been able to help her, but both her and my failure have taught us something as has the suffering.

Sorry to go on at length about this but I felt the need to write it down and share it to work it through in my own mind. I’d be really interested to hear other people’s take on it too.

 

“How to Pass Exams” a distance learning course on Udemy

I haven’t actually blogged for a while, unfortunately, which is largely because I’ve been busy developing a new distance learning course entitled “How to Pass Exams” on Udemy.com.

The Reasons for this Course

I decided to develop this course for my students because we spend a lot of time concentrating on language, but not so much actually on developing study strategies or revision strategies. One of the key problems for those about to do an exam is motivation during study time. We start off feeling motivated but keeping that motivation going over a period of time is another matter, so this course also looks at ways of maintaining your level of motivation. The other killer is fear, which is our companion all the way through the course “Am I good enough?” “What will the examiner be like?” etc. etc. This reaches its peak generally in the days just before an exam so there are some tips and anecdotes here as to how to deal with these feelings.

How is the Course Organised?

The course is a type of experiment. If you know me and my work you will know that I have taught in many blended learning contexts such as WizIQ or in my university courses but this is my first experience of creating a complete distance learning course. I wanted to have something that my students could access freely and work through as and when they wanted to. The course is organised in short screen cast videos made to highlight the main points of a topic and these are followed by worksheets in the form of PDFs that learners can download to their computers, tablets, smartphones etc. and work through at their own pace. The PDFs include a series of activities and links to useful sites and references so that those who are interested in a particular topic can go into it more thoroughly. If you are interested in working on memory techniques, for instance, in the section on memory you will find useful links to further reading and study as well as some simple exercises to do straight away.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Udemy

Udemy is an excellent platform and those developing courses can upload both videos and other files easily as well as linking to material you develop on other sites such as YouTube or Vimeo. The PDFs are displayed in a reader which is highquality and allows students to scroll down the document easily as well as dowloading a copy for their own use.

The site also has a “notepad” feature where students can pause the video they are watching, for instance, and take notes. They can then download these dotes directly onto their computers too, which is a very useful feature. There is also a space for asking questions. Instructors can access the course once a week, for instance to answer questions and students can ask whatever they want to.

You can also schedule and run live classes on this site, which I have yet to do… that will be the next adventure.

There are, however, a few disadvantages as well. The main one is that it is sometimes difficult to navigate the site. If you look for a course in the “discover courses” section using tags such as “exams” or “passiing exams” or “education”, all of which I had added as tags for my course, you do not find it, and you find a whole selection of courses that are not necessarily connected to what you want to do. This is a prblem that I hope will soon be worked out as it has been mentioned to Udemy several times and they promise that they are working on it.

If you want to find my courses, the best way is simply to follow the link above (at the beginning of this article) or to search for me as a person in the Udemy search box. If you search for “Sharon Hartle” you will find my page and you can access the course from there.

Anyway, the course is up and running so now I hope that it will be useful to whole generations of students so, if you are a student, or is you are about to start preparing for an exam, or if you have students who would be interested, please join the course. It is absolutely free of charge, but I would appreciate hearing people’s comments.

Keeping an eye on the Big Picture but don’t let it terrify you!

From Microsoft Clipart

Keeping an eye on the Big Picture but don’t let it terrify you!

I’ve noticed recently how a lot of us want to learn everything straight away, and my students, despite the fact they are all intelligent young people become very despondent when they don’t see results immediately. I sympathise because I’m exactly the same: if I start learning a new language, or to play a musical instrument, for instance, I want to be able to use it to communicate articulately after just a few days!! This is a tall order indeed. Of course, we need to keep an eye on the big picture, which is to become the latest virtusos guitar player, but it is also important to focus on the small steps we are taking to reach that goal. so it made me think when I was reading an article on Learning, as we are fond of saying, is a journey and each journey consists of thousands of small steps, each one just as valuable as the next.

Goal Setting and Rewards

This is why setting goals and rewarding yourself as you go is so important. The thinking behind portfolios reflects this practice and it is widely used in all sorts of areas. To give you an example which is not related to language learning, I know that the only time I lose weight is when I am motivated enough to set  daily goals and give myself weekly rewards if I reach them (not a bar of chocolate, or course :-) ) Of course, I need to think that I want to lose 5 kilos overall, but that does not mean I can’t celebrate losing half a kilo or even 200 grammes along the way.

Exams are important but so is learning

For many of my learners this is a difficult practice to get into. Universities tend to stress the importance of the exams and the results without highlighting the process along the way. This puts all of us under a lot of pressure to perform well, and leads both teachers and students into focusing on the exams and exam strategies, rather than on learning the language, but most of these language students did not actually choose to study languages because they want to “pass exams”. They want to be able to travel, and work with the languages they are studying or some of them have a love of language itself or literature ( a few). All this tends to “get lost along the way” if life is overclouded by “exams”. After all, an exam should simply be a measure of your level, and not something that exists in its own right, but, of course, we have gone far beyond that and exams can mean the difference between getting a job or not… It’s hard to ignore this. And yet, I firmly believe that the way to success is made up of small steps, and that if you reward yourslef for each of these small steps then the final goal will appear on the horizon in next to no time, because you will be too busy learning the language, and improving your own competence, to be worried about that destination which seems to be so far away from you. So, if your learners listened to a podcast and understood the main ideas this week, when they couldn’t do that a month ago, this is what they should be celebrating. If they have learned some lovely new collocations then they should have fun using them and celebrate the new language they are learning now, at this moment.

Well, that was my thought for today, and now I’m off to celebrate the fact that I learned how to group the icons on my iphone screen. Another small step on the journey towards mastery. :-)

Control versus Accuracy in Cambridge Exams

Is accuracy no longer invited to the ball?Is Accuracy no longer invited to the ball?

For years one of the criteria for assessment on Cambridge Speaking exams was accuracy of grammar and lexis at varying degrees depending on the level. Now, accuracy seems to only be welcome in the global achievement descriptor and has been upstaged in the other criteria by “Control”, but what exactly is the difference?

We have just been spending quite a lot of time discussing assessment criteria for Cambridge exams as the annual meetings are taking place at the moment where speaking examiners meet and do tests together to standardize.  One of the points that came up in my meeting last Saturday was this control vs. accuracy issue.

Looking at what candidates can do rather than what they can’t do

In recent years we have all started to think more about what candidates can do rather than what they can’t do, but many language teachers find it very hard to shift away from what is, in fact, an extremely normal reaction: to see the errors students make and try to help them stop making them.

In an exam situation though we have to be careful not be in the position of not seeing the wood for the trees. We see the errors and inaccuracies because they stand out, but we don’t see what the candidate can actually produce. This is not a new idea but it is one that is quite hard to get across or even accept. What happens for instance when someone listens to another person? Is is all too easy to miss good language production because it is easy to nderstand and to focus, rather, on the anomalies or inaccuracies.

Some, then, think that control is the same as accuracy but with a different name. In fact, I don’t think it is, and various different degrees of control are mentioned in the criteria so that a candidate would be given one mark for “sufficient control” of the grammar to be able to complete a task and a higher mark for “good control”. This might mean, that in a test like the Key English Test (A2) where candidates are asked, in Part Two, to ask each other questions, an utterance like this would show sufficient control to complete the task:

“Tickets? How many pounds they cost?”

The question form, of course, is not accurate, but there is enough control both of the lexis and the grammar to be able to get the meaning across at an elementary level. What “control” then means to me (I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong) is a sort of half way house between not being able to communicate and being able to communicate perfectly, a goal not many of us ever reach, in fact. It means looking at the candidates discourse as a work in progress and seeing how much or little he or she can use effectively, rather than identifying a list of errors. At higher levels, of course, more control would be expected but this still means that hopefully examiners will be looking at what candidates can do and not how many errors they are making.

What about higher levels?

Here, of course, is the rub. What counts as control at one level may not be the same at a higher level where the discourse is extended, the message being communicated more complex, and therefore, there is all that much more room for lack of control, but the principle, I think is the same. Small non-impeding inaccuracies should not be over.penalized and more emphasis should be placed on the range of grammatical and lexical resources that are used. After all, I recently saw some examiners getting all hot and bothered about a candidate at a B1 level who had misused “funny”in a written test, and this made such an impression on them that they entirely missed the modal verbs the same candidate had used such as “I won’t be able to…” or “I really had to…”

So, I’m afraid I think the answer is “yes” accuracy is no longer so welcome at the ball, and should at least be accompanied by an awareness of control.