Tag: Lesson planning

Competency-based planning and assessing

Competency-based planning and assessing

Earlier this week, I attended a workshop on competency-based (or competency-oriented) planning and assessing held by Dr Stefan Brall at Trier University, and would like to share some of the insights here.

The workshop was aimed at university-level teachers from various subject areas, and so concentrated generally on Competency-Based Education (CBE). According to Richards and Rogers (2001), the principles of CBE can be applied to the teaching of foreign languages (-> CBLT: Competency-Based Language Teaching), making the topic of interest to ELT professionals.

What is a competency?

In everyday language, we talk of people being ‘competent’ when they have the knowledge, qualification(s), or capacity to fulfil the expectations of a particular situation. They have the ability to apply the relevant skills appropriately and effectively. In the area of education, then, these skills are the individual competencies that students need to acquire and develop. Another important distinction here is between declarative knowledge, the theoretical understanding of something, and procedural knowledge, the ability to actually do it. In language teaching, I would argue, our focus is necessarily on the procedural side of things, on getting students to be able to actually communicate in the target langauge. The overarching goal of  CBLT is for learners to be able to apply and transfer this procedural knowledge in various settings, appropriately and effectively.

Literature on CBE explains how the approach can enhance learning, by

  • Focusing on the key competencies needed for success in the field
  • Providing standards for measuring performance and capabilities
  • Providing frameworks for identifying learners’ needs
  • Providing standards for measuring what learning has occurred

What are key competencies?

In the realm of tertiary education, a useful study to look at here is the Tuning Project. This is an EU-wide study which explored the most important competencies that students should develop at university. Although the specific ranking of the competencies may be debated, some of the capabilities that came out as very important include: the application of theory, problem solving, the adaptation of procedural knowledge to new situations, analytical thinking, synthesising information, and creativity (Gonzalez & Wagenaar, 2003). These kinds of skills are those often found at the top ends of taxonomies of learning. Compare, for example, with Bloom’s taxonomy:

bloom

Other taxonomies of learning use comparable sequential units to describe cognitive learning. For example, the SOLO model (Structure of Observed Learning Outcome, see Biggs & Tang, 2007) includes a quantitative phase of uni-structural and multi-strucutal learning (e.g. identyfing, describing, combining), and then a quantitative phase of relational (e.g. comparing, analysing causes, applying) and extended abstract learning (e.g. generalising, hypothesising). Seeing these important skills in a hierarchically organised scheme highlights how they build upon each other, and are themselves the products of mastering many sub-skills or competencies.

In language teaching, people have long since spoken of “the four skills”, i.e. skills covering the oral, aural, reading and writing domains. To this we might also add learning competencies. In CBLT, language is taught as a function of communicating about concrete tasks; learners are taught the langauge forms/skills they will need to use in various situations in which they will need to function. Scales such as the Common European Reference Framework for Languages help to break down these skills into distinct competences, whereby learners move up through the levels of mastery in each skill area, from elementary performance in a competency to proficient performance.

cefr

Competency-based Learning Outcomes

If we take scales of learning as the foundation for our planning, then, formulating statements of learning outcomes becomes quite a straightforward process. We will of course need to know the current level and needs of our students, especially in terms of competencies still to be learnt and competencies requiring further development. Associated with such learning taxonomies, we can easily find lists of action verbs which denote the skills associated with each developmental level of thinking skills. Based on the SOLO model, for example, we might find the following verbs:

Level Verbs
Uni-structural learning (knowledge of one aspect) count, define, find, identify, imitate, name, recognize, repeat, replicate
Multi-structural learning  (knowledge of several, unconnected aspects) calculate, classify, describe, illustrate, order, outline, summarise, translate
Relational learning (knowledge of aspects is integrated and connected) analyse, apply, compare, contrast, discuss, evaluate, examine, explain, integrate, organise, paraphrase, predict
Extended abstract learning (knowledge transferred to new situations) argue, compose, construct, create, deduce, design, generalize, hypothesise, imagine, invent, produce, prove, reflect, synthesise

Based on our understanding of students’ current learning levels, students’ needs, and the general framework within which our lessons/courses are taking place (in terms of contact time, resources, etc), and with these action verbs, we can then formulate realistic learning goals. In most cases, there will be a primary learning outcome we hope to reach, which may consist of several sub-goals – this should be made clear.

For example, an academic writing course aimed at C1-level students (on the CEFR) might set the main learning outcome as:

By the end of this course, students should be able to produce a coherent analytical essay following the Anglo-American conventions for the genre.

A couple of the sub-goals might include:

  • Students should be familiar with Anglo-American essay-writing conventions and able to apply these to their own compositions.
  • Students should understand various cohesive devices and employ these appropriately within their writing.
  • Students should understand the functions of Topic Sentences and Thesis Statements and be able to formulate these suitably in their own writing. 

Formulating clear learning outcomes in this way, and making them public, helps students to reflect on their own progress and may be motivating for them, and helps teachers to choose activities and materials with a clear focus, as well as helping to devise assessment tasks and grading rubrics.

Competency-based Assessment

Of course, most teachers will need to aim for economical assessment, in terms of time and resources. As far as possible, CBE advocates on-going assessment, so that students continue to work on the competency until they achieve the desired level of mastery. Competency-based assessment may thus require more effort and organisation on the part of the assessor – but it is able to provide a more accurate picture of students’ current stage of learning and performance.

Take multiple-choice tasks, for example; they can be marked very economically, but in reality they tend only to test the lower-level thinking skills, which may not have been the desired learning outcome. To test competency-based learning, we need to base our assessment tasks on the learning outcomes we have set, perhaps using the same action verbs in the task instructions. The focus is shifted to learners’ ability to demonstrate, not simply talk theoretically about, the behaviours noted in the learning outcomes. Still, especially in the realm of langauge teaching, there are some tasks we can easily set in written assignments which will also allow us to assess the higher levels of competencies more economically than oral presentations or practical assignments. If our learning outcome is the ability to apply a theory, for example, we could set a question such as ‘Describe a situation that illustrates the principles of xyz‘. Or, if we want to assess whether learners can discuss and evaluate, we might set a task like ‘Explain whether and why you agree or disagree with the following statement.‘ These kinds of tasks require learners to apply their acquired or developed competencies on a more qualitative level.

To enable objective assessments of students’ learning, we will need to devise a matrix based on the various levels of mastery of the competencies detailed in the learning outcomes. As a basis, we might start with something like this:

Grade Description
A An outstanding performance.
B A performance considerably better than the average standard.
C A performance that reaches the average standard.
D Despite short-comings, the performance just about reaches the minimum standard required.
E Because of considerable short-comings, the performance does not reach the minimum standard required.

For each sub-skill of the competencies we are aiming for students to achieve, we will need to state specifically, for instance, which ‘short-comings’ are ‘considerable’, e.g. if the students cannot demonstrate the desired level of mastery even with the tutor’s assistance. Also, it is important in CBE and CBLT that students’ performance is measured against their peers, especially to ascertain the ‘average standard,’ and not against the mastery of the tutor.

To return to the essay writing, example, a student’s composition might receive a B grade on the sub-competence of using cohesive devices if they employ several techniques to create cohesion in their work, but occasionally use one technique where another might be more effective. A student’s essay might receive a D grade on this competency if they repeatedly use the same cohesive device, or employ the techniques indiscriminately and inappropriately. An E grade might mean that the student has not tried to employ any cohesive devices. In this manner, the primary learning outcome is broken down into sub-skills, on which students’ performance can be objectively measured using a detailed grading matrix.

In a nutshell, then, CBE and CBLT aim for ‘Yes we can!’ rather than ‘We know’. Competency-based teaching and learning have become a staple in further education and language instruction in many places around the world. If you would like to implement the approach in your own classrooms, I hope this post has given you some useful insights on how to do so!

References

Biggs, J. & C. Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Maidenhead: Open University, 2007).

Brall, S., “Kompetenzorientiert planen und prüfen”, Workshop at Trier University, 21.2.17.

Gonzalez, J. & R. Wagenaar, Tuning Educational Structures in Europe: Final Report Phase One (Bilbao, 2003)

Richards, J.C. & T.S. Rodgers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Cambridge: CUP, 2001).

“What is the CEFR?”, English Profile, Cambridge University Press, http://www.englishprofile.org/the-cefr, accessed 24.2.17

How to choose an ELT textbook

So you need to choose a new textbook for your class? It’s no secret that the market is full of shiny, colourful, attractive-looking books… but which one is right for you and your learners? Here’s a quick guide to finding out…!

Before looking for potential textbooks and collecting inspection copies, whoever is going to be involved in choosing a textbook should be clear on the following points:

IMAG0276

– What level are the learners (realistically) and what level do we want to get them to?

– How long is the course? How much time do we have to work with the textbook?

– Will we want to supplement a textbook with our own materials? Or use supplementary materials that go with the book?

– What is the focus of the course? What skills should be trained? What language should be introduced/practised?

– Will the textbook only be used in class? Or also for homework tasks?

 

Once the above points have been clarified, you can go on the hunt for potential textbooks. Most publishers offer complimentary inspection copies to teachers, you can often order these online or by contacting the local representative of the publisher in your area. Try to collect a handful of textbooks to choose from. When making the actual decision, ask yourself the following:

– What do other teachers/reviews have to say about each book?

– How much do the student’s books cost? Is it reasonable to expect the learners/school to pay this much?

– Do the exercises really suit the level the learners are working at?

– Does the book’s approach to ELT match the teaching methodology preferred by the teachers involved in the course? And the philosophy of the school?

– Do the activities and methodology suit the learning styles and expectations of the learners?

– How do the topics covered relate to the learners’ needs and interests? And to the teacher’s interests?

IMAG0275

Probably after considering all the questions above you’ll have a couple of textbooks which make the ‘final round’ of decision making. If possible, now would be a good time to try them out. Of course, it’s not always possible (in fact, probably rarely!) to try out the books with the actual learners they are intended for, but here are some other ideas which help (probably in order of effectiveness):

 – Test one unit with a similar class: You can photocopy a couple of pages, or make a worksheet or OHT with some of the book’s information and exercises, and use them in a similar class. Then you can judge whether the level and methodology suits the kind of learners you have at your institution, and your teaching style.

 – Ask similar students to review the books: Perhaps the learners who have previously taken the class you are planning for, or at least learners who are working at a similar level. Ask them to try out a unit or two by themselves and to do a quick review – perhaps you can provide a little questionnaire to focus on the points you’re interested in – to see how well the book comes across, from a learners’ perspective.

 – Work through a chapter: Take the learner’s role and read through a unit or two, doing all of the exercises. You can then see whether the activities, for example, are clearly set up, or repetitive, and whether any answers given match what you would expect students to produce.

 – Read other reviews: A standard search engine will probably help here, or book sellers, blogs, etc. See what other people are saying about the textbook – but (if possible) focus on reviews written by those working/learning in a similar setting to your own.

At some point, you’ll have to bite the bullet and make a choice. Following the guide above, will (I hope) help to guarantee your decision(s) are good ones and the text books chosen are appropriate and work well in the class your planning. You might also find it helpful to elicit feedback from your class during the course –  then you’ll know for next time where you went wrong, if at all.

One thing I have learned from working with various textbooks – it is almost impossible to find one that perfectly fits your class on all levels. But do not despair – you can always supplement it with your own materials. And passing on your feedback to the publisher can also help to improve what’s on offer when you have to choose new textbooks in future!

Are Detailed Objectives Really Necessary in Lesson Plans?

Lesson planning is usually a key component on English Language teacher training courses.  However, practising teachers rarely draw up such detailed plans as they are taught to on training courses. Thus questions arise as to whether it is really necessary to describe course, lesson and activity aims in such detail and what the benefits of this practice might be. 

The background literature is full of statements aboout how beneficial detailed lesson planning is, and mostly regard it as a vital part of teaching. Here are some of the most pertinent comments:

Bailey (1996, p.18): “Lessons are intended to help students accomplish the objectives of the course and program.”

Woodward (2001, p.2): characteristics of a ‘good’ lesson/course include that Ss and T are aware of what there is to learn and of why they are doing the chosen activities

Williams & Burden (1997, p. 82):“teachers first need to be clear why they select [an] activity and then help their learners to see the value for them.”

In order to provide some answer to the question which forms the title of this post, beyond theoretical perspectives found in the literature, I undertook a small-scale action research study and would like to present a summary of my findings, to provoke further consideration and discussion of this topic.

My study was based on teaching EFL to advanced learners on English Studies degree programmes at Trier University (Germany). I kept a developmental record including detailed tabular lesson plans for language lessons, my post-teaching reflections on these lessons and the success of the activities, plus student comments from post-lesson feedback.

From my collection of reflections in this record, the findings can be summarised as follows:

Why include aims in lesson planning?

  • it helps teachers organise their thoughts
  • it increases teachers’ self-confidence
  • it provides a yardstick to help evaluate materials
  • the teacher can evaluate tasks’ effectiveness/contribution to aims
  • the long-term value of skills and language taught is concretely considered
  • it helps to highlight the links between the lessons of a course
  • it thus prevents the course/lesson from being an end in itself

Why not?

  •  it is time consuming
  •  it may be a waste of time if need to change course goal
  •  it may lead to inflexibility

Conclusion

Generally, what I’m saying is that considering and contemplating the overarching aims of a course, lesson, or activity, and the relationship between these, IS NECESSARY, and is more important than the actual form the lesson planning takes or when it is done.

I don’t wish to advocate that we, as teachers, should always formulate the aims using staid old statements e.g. “by the end of the lesson, learners will be able to…”, as these are often quite unrealistic when you think about them. I mean, in just one lesson, they’ll be able to ‘do’ something or ‘know’ a language point? Maybe your lesson is just an introduction to the language point, or a bit of practice or repetition, but to truly ‘learn’ and ‘know’ something and be able to do it, we would all need more than 1 lesson!

So what I’m saying is, a ‘plan’ doesn’t have to be a long, typed up document for scrutiny by someone else. Indeed, ‘planning’ can be everything – scrappy post-its, discussions over coffee with a colleague, or typing up a scheme of work schedule. But I do believe that writing down can be very useful, in any form, especially at beginning of your teaching career.

Indeed, what my little action research study has really found, is that trainees’ books such as that by Harmer  are definitely pointing new teachers in the right direction when they say that “[t]he actual form a plan takes is less important than the thought that has gone into it; the overriding principle is that we should have an idea of what we hope our students will achieve in the class, and that this should guide our decisions about how to bring it about” (2001, p.311).

This post is a very brief summary of the following article, due for publication shortly:

Fielder, C., ‘Are detailed objectives really necessary in lesson planning?’ TTT Journal (expected Dec 2013)