Tag: writing

Writers’ Block Busters

Writers’ Block Busters

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We desperately want (or need!) to get something finished – an article, a manuscript, a set of materials, whatever we’re writing – but our brain just feels bereft of any ideas or information. Either that, or our grey cells are buzzing, but shooting around so many random thoughts that we can’t focus on putting together whatever it is we’re trying to write. 

I write ELT materials, and also articles for teaching magazines. And sometimes I stare at my screen trying to write them; or trying to write anything, really! But over the years, I have come up with a little list of things that can help me overcome this block when I’m writing, and so I thought I’d share it here (along with some loosely related anecdotes!):

Go outside – do some weeding in the garden, go for a jog, walk the dog, feed the birds, whatever! Get some natural daylight and a bit of light movement. There are several benefits to this, I’ve found – the extra oxygen and the vitamin D from the sunlight are great boosts, but also the monotonous action of walking/running or pulling out weeds seems to allow space in the mind for other thoughts to come together. Note: You should have some note-taking tool handy for when inspiration hits! I remember walking home from the uni library whilst I was working on my MA dissertation, and connections and arguments I’d spent all day trying to express coherently suddenly appeared in my mind, so nicely formulated that I stopped, dumped by bag on someone’s front wall, and grabbed out my note pad to write it all down!

Have a shower or brush your teeth – don’t take this tip personally! I’d never really paid attention to how often my colleagues or I said “In the shower this morning, I was thinking…”. Or how often I suddenly had a flash of inspiration whilst my electric toothbrush was buzzing along my pearly whites. Maybe it’s the monotonous or automated action thing like walking, or the lack of distractions from the phone, internet, etc., but something about these personal hygiene routines helps me to get ideas or join the dots in things I’m working on.

Watch/read/listen to/talk about the news – read the non-headline stories. Just like topics of conversation, I often find ideas for ELT materials, articles, and so on in a news story that I wouldn’t normally have looked at. I subscribe to a news magazine and have learned about so many interesting new topics that aren’t in the headlines, and have been able to use several of them in my language teaching materials or classes. It surprises me (in a positive way) over and over how things related to topics I’ve just read about come up in other places – in conversation, on social media, in lessons, etc. Seriously, I once wrote a worksheet based on an article about protests against replacing the carpet at Portland (Oregon, USA) airport – people had the pattern tattooed and took ‘footies’ (selfies of their feet) with the carpet. Students found it hilarious, and the text had some great vocab and collocations with colours. And the next week, our last teaching assistant who’d just headed back home to… you guessed it… Portland, posted his own footie on Facebook and all the students could see the carpet for themselves!

Clear out a cupboard – tidy your desk, sort out your wardrobe, organise your sock-draw, sort your cosmetics into little baskets, whatever! Clearing up clutter can have an amazing subconscious effect and free up some “brain space” to get some new ideas or tackle difficult tasks. I don’t say this because I have any sort of strong belief á la Feng shui or Marie Kondo; I have just found that knowing things are orderly in the physical world, helps me to bring order to my mental world and get on with the task at hand.

Do chores that need less than a minute – send that email, pay that bill, file that document, empty the dishwasher, whatever! This one works similarly to the cupboard-clearing, I think: Even the smallest items take up space in our mental to-do lists that would probably be best used for something else. I find it best to “clear” these from my to-do list first thing in the morning, so they don’t distract my focus from what we’re trying to write, but they can also work well if I’ve reached a dead-end in my inspiration or writing.

Get creative/Play a game – with your children/partner/flat mates (if available!) or online; the more imaginative the better! I know that writing IS creative, but what I mean here is some other kind of imaginative or creative pastime. I like to bake and to do colouring (because when I work at home during the day there is no partner/child/flat mate I could coerce into helping me play a creative game!), but I guess anything that activates different parts of the brain and gets synapses firing is good for enabling new ideas to come together for whatever you’re trying to write.

So, those are my top tips – let me know if you try them and find them helpful. Maybe you also have your own ways to bust writers’ block which you can share in the comments below!

My LTSIG Talk: Using Multimodal Learner-Driven Feedback to Provide Sustainable Feedback on L2 Writing

My LTSIG Talk: Using Multimodal Learner-Driven Feedback to Provide Sustainable Feedback on L2 Writing

Time for a little advertising! 😉

On October Thursday 5th October at 4.25pm UK time, I’ll be giving an online talk as part of the LTSIG /OllREN online conference and would be delighted to see you there!

LTSIG Presentation Clare Maas

Exploring efficient ways to give sustainable feedback on L2 writing is important because providing meticulous correction of language errors and hand-written summaries can be time-consuming and often seems less effective than desired. For feedback to be sustainable (i.e. effective long-term), it should be formative, interactive and impact on students’ future work (Carless et al 2011). Thus traditional, hand-written feedback practices may be inefficient at effecting sustainability. Integrating technology into feedback delivery has been shown to have potential in alleviating the situation, by stimulating students to engage with feedback they receive and enabling dialogues about their work.

Combining work into feedback on L2 writing with ideas promoted in higher education, I devised the Learner-Driven Feedback (LDF) procedure, where feedback is given by the teacher, but learners ‘drive’ how and on what they receive feedback: they can choose between various digital delivery modes and are required to pose questions about their work to which the tutor responds.

In this talk, I will summarise some recent literature which supports both the use of technologies such as email, audio recording, and text-editing software features, and responses to students’ individual queries in feedback procedures, before practically demonstrating LDF. I will refer to my own recently published article on LDF in EAP, and discuss my evaluation of its application in my teaching, providing compelling reasons and practical suggestions for its employment in various language teaching contexts. These discussions will also explore potential mechanisms underpinning the efficacy of multimodal approaches to making feedback more sustainable, in order to further aid teachers in making informed choices pertaining to their specific class groups. This includes topics such as learner autonomy, motivation, receptivity, learner-centredness and individualisation.

The talk is thus a combination of practical demonstration and theoretical background, of interest and relevance to a broad audience.

 

Reference: Carless, D., Salter, D., Yang, M., Lam, J., 2011. Developing sustainable
feedback practices. Studies in Higher Education, 36, 395–407.

Writing an ebook with students

Writing an ebook with students

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My students have written an ebook!

You can read it for free here.

From an ELT perspective, this ebook is the result of a semester-long CLIL class, with project-based learning and a real and motivating outcome! If you want to find out how we did it, this post is for you!

Context

Our class was on British cultural studies, aimed at master’s level students of English Studies. This class aims to promote language learning and learning about content, in this case a particular British cultural topic. Usually, students are expected to do one oral presentation and one piece of written work as the assessment for this class. Only the other class members see the presentations, and the individual teacher is the only one who reads the essays, in order to grade them.  I’d say this is a pretty standard set up.

Background

Last summer, a colleague and I revamped our British cultural studies classes to move towards project-based learning. In 2016, our students hosted an exhibition open to staff and students a the University, which you can read about here. It was pretty successful, though the students involved found it a shame that all their hard work was only seen by a limited audience. Of course, the audience was a lot less limited than usual, but that’s what they said anyway…!

And so I came up with the idea of producing an ebook this year, which could then be made available publicly. I had seen other organisations use smashwords, and read about how easy it could be to publish a book through that site, so that’s what I thought we should do. I chose the umbrella topic of Britain in the Nineties for our focus, and 23 students signed up. I provided an outline for the class, which included a general module description, assessment requirements for the module, a provisional schedule for the ebook (to be sent to publish in the last week of semester!), and a selected bibliography of recommended reading on the topic.

Our semester is 14 weeks long, with one 90-minute lesson of this class each week. So how did we manage to produce an ebook in this time?

Weeks 1-3

In the first three lessons, I provided a video documentary, an academic article and a film for students to watch/read as a broad introduction to the topic. In lessons, we collected the main themes from this input (key words here: politics, music, social change), and discussed how they were interlinked. Each week, a different student was responsible for taking notes on our discussions and sharing these on our VLP for future reference. In week three, we rephrased our notes into potential research questions on key topic areas.

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At the end of each lesson, we spent some time talking about the ebook in general. As the semester progressed, the time we spent on this increased and resembled business-like meetings.

Week 4

By this point, students had chosen topics / research questions to write about and discussed their choices in plenary to ensure that the ebook would present a wide-spread selection of topics on Britain in the Nineties. The students decided (with my guidance!) to write chapters for the ebook in pairs, and that each chapter should be around 2000 words, to fulfil the written assessment criteria of the class. Writing in pairs meant that they automatically had someone to peer review their work. To fulfil the oral assessment criteria, I required each writing team to hold a ‘work in progress’ presentation on the specific topic of their chapter. I had wanted to include these presentations to make sure I could tick the ‘oral assessment’ box, and because having to present on what they were writing would hopefully mean they got on with their research and writing sooner rather than later!

Weeks 5 & 7

The lessons in these two weeks were dedicated to writing workshops and peer review. We started both lessons by discussing what makes for good peer review, and I gave them some strategies for using colours for comments on different aspects of a text, as well as tables they could use to structure their feedback comments. These tables are available here. Regarding language, these are post-grad students at C1 level, so they’re in a pretty good position to help each other with language accuracy. I told them to underline in pencil anything that sounded odd or wrong to them, whether they were sure or not. If they were sure, they could pencil in a suggestion to improve the sentence/phrase, and if not then the underlining could later serve the authors as a note to check their language at that point.

In week 5, we looked at different genres of essay (cause/effect, compare/contrast, argument, etc), and how to formulate effective thesis statements for each of them. This focussed practice was followed by peer review on the introductions students had drafted so far. By this point, the students had decided that their chapters could be grouped thematically into sections within the ebook, and so did peer review on the work of the students whose chapters were going to be in the same section as their own.

In week 7, we reviewed summaries and conclusions, and also hedging language. Again, this was followed by peer review in their ‘section’ groupings, this time on students’ closing paragraphs.

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Weeks 6 – 11

Almost half way through the semester, all writing teams were working on their chapters. In the lessons, we had a couple of ‘work in progress’ presentations each week. Further to my expectations, the presentations did an excellent job at promoting discussion, and particularly prompted students to find connections between their specific topics – so much so, that they decided to use hyperlinks within the ebook to show the readers these connections. Some students also used their presentations to ask for advice with specific problems they had encountered while researching/writing (e.g. lack of resources, overlaps with other chapters), and these were discussed in plenary to help each writing team as best we could. The discussions after the presentations were used to make any decisions that affected the whole book, for example which citation style we should use or whether to include images.

Week 12

In week 12, all writing teams submitted their texts to me. This was mainly because I needed to give them a grade for their work, but I also took the opportunity to give detailed feedback on their text and the content so they could edit it before it was published. I was also able to give some pointers on potential links to other chapters, since I had read them all. I felt much more like an editor, I have to say, than a teacher!

In the lesson, we had a discussion about pricing our ebook and marketing it. To avoid tax issues, we decided to make the ebook available for free. One student suggested asking for donations to charity instead of charging people to buy the book.

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This idea was energetically approved, and students set about looking into charities we could support. In the end, SHINE education charity won the vote (organised by the students themselves!) I dutifully set up a page for us on justgiving.com: If you’d like to donate, it can be found here.

 

At this point, we also discussed a cover for the book. One student suggested writing ‘the Nineties’ in the Beatles’ style, to emphasise the links to the 1960s that some chapters mentioned. We also thought about including pencil sketches of some of the key people mentioned in the book, but were unable to source any that all students approved of. Instead, students used the advanced settings on the google image search to find images that were copyright free. A small group of students volunteered to finalise the cover design, and I have to say, I think they did a great job!

Week 13

During the lesson in this week, the ebook really came together. Some of the students were receiving more credit points than others for the class, based on their degree programme, and so it was decided that those students should be in charge of formatting the text according to smashwords’ guidelines, and also for collating an annotated bibliography. I organised a document on google docs, where all students noted some bullet points appraising one source they had used for their chapter, and the few who were getting extra points wrote this up and formatted it into a bibliography.

Formatting the text for publication on smashwords.com was apparently not too difficult, as the smashwords’ guidelines explain everything step-by-step, and you do not need to be a computer whizz to follow their explanations!

Week 14 and beyond

This week was the deadline I had set for sending the ebook for publication. After the formatting team had finished, I read through the ebook as a full document for the first time! I corrected any langauge errors that hadn’t been caught previously, and wrote the introduction for the book.  This took me about 2 evenings.

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Then I set myself up a (free) account at smashwords.com and uploaded the ebook text and cover design. Luckily, the students had done a great job following the formatting rules, and the book was immediately accepted for the premium catalogue! (*very proud*)

 

Another small group of students volunteered to draw up some posters for advertising, and to share these with all class members so we could publicise the ebook on social media, on the Department’s webpage, and in the University’s newsletter.

Et voila! We had successfully published our ebook in just 14 weeks!

Evaluation

I’m so glad that I ran this project with my students! It honestly did not take more of my time than teaching the class as ‘usual’ – though usually the marking falls after the end of term, and it was quite pressured getting it done so we could publish in the last week! In future, I might move the publication date to later after the end of semester to ease some of the stress, though I do worry that students’ might lose momentum once we’re not meeting each week.

The students involved were very motivated by the idea that the general public would be able to read their work! I really felt that they made an extra effort to write the best texts they could (rather than perhaps just aiming to pass the class). This project was something entirely new for them, and they were pleased about their involvement for many reasons, ranging from being able to put it on their CV, to seeing themselves as ‘real’ writers. They have even nominated me for a teaching prize for doing this project with them!

Sadly, one student plagiarised. Knowingly. She said that she was so worried her writing wouldn’t be good enough, so she ‘borrowed’ large chunks of texts from an MA dissertation which is available online. Her writing partner didn’t catch it, and was very upset that their chapter would (discreetly!) not be included in the ebook. He was very apologetic to me; and probably also quite angry at her. If the reason she gave was true, it obviously rings alarm bells that I was expecting too much from the students or didn’t support them enough. I will aim to remedy this in future. It could, of course, just have been an excuse.

Also, some other students reported feeling that this project demanded more work from them than they would normally have to put into a class where the grade doesn’t count. Maybe this is because writing in a pair can take more time and negotiation, or maybe they also felt stressed by having to write their text during term time, rather than in the semester break when they would normally do their written assessments. Overall, though, the complaints were limited and often seemed to be clearly outweighed by the pride and enjoyment of being involved in such a great project!

I’m really pleased with how this project panned out, and would recommend other teachers give it a go! I’m very happy to answer any questions in the comments below, and for now, I wish you inspiration and happy ebook-project-planning! 🙂

 

 

Academic Writing Skills & “Just in Time” Teaching

Academic Writing Skills & “Just in Time” Teaching

I’ve been looking back over my notes from IATEFL 2017 to find inspiration for another blog post. I’m a bit late now to just summarise talks, but I’d like to come back to one of the questions that was posed at a talk I attended. It was “Building bridges: the disciplines, the normative and the transformative” by Catherine Mitsaki. 

Catherine’s talk looked at the EAP/Genre-based and Academic Literacies models of academic writing instruction and assessed the pedagogical potential of the different approaches, whilst sharing her experience from teaching for UK and international students. As I said, I don’t want to summarise her whole talk here, just one key question she raised. Students from her classes gave feedback suggesting they would prefer to have been taught the specific academic writing skills required for their assignments (within subject classes) right at the time they were working on those assignments. Catherine calls it “just in time” teaching, and she asked us what we thought.

I have to say, I can’t embrace the “just in time” teaching concept fully when it comes to academic writing. There is just too much that students need to know. It might be more appropriate if students entered university programmes with a strong foundation of writing skills, which could then be honed by focussing on the relevant points and skills for each assignment. But this is usually not the case, at least not where I work. I always feel I’m squashing in a huge amount of input and practice into our essay-writing modules, and they run for 14 weeks! With all of the competencies that are involved in producing good academic writing, I find it is much better to give students the chance to digest the input and practice applying the skills to their work over a period of time so that everything can really ‘sink in’. They need time to practise actually transferring the transferable skills we’re teaching them, especially at undergraduate level!

Also, as Catherine pointed out, “just in time” teaching would seem to contradict Academic Literacies models which aim to promote criticality towards established norms as a productive way of growing academically. As she puts it in personal correspondence, “There is no room for questioning well established models if one is struggling to deal with the norms as they are.”

So I’m not convinced that doing what students want or think is best (easiest?) for them is the best approach here. Perhaps a better option is explaining the rationale for our writing courses to the students, in an attempt to increase the receptivity to the classes we teach.

What do you think? Could “just in time” teaching work where you are?

Making Marking Colourful

Making Marking Colourful

Anyone who’s been following my blog and conference presentations for a while will know that I have a healthy obsession with marking and giving feedback on L2 students’ essays! This is partly due to the huge numbers of essays I have to mark each term, and the number of new marking techniques this allows me to try out!

Having just finished (phew!) marking a class load of B2+ level discursive essays, I’ve got time to share some ideas on using different colours for marking and giving feedback, which may serve to make it more effective, and, if not exactly fun, at least somewhat visually pleasing!

You might have seen or heard about my talk on ‘Marking Writing: Feedback Strategies to Challenge the Red Pen’s Reign‘ where I discussed a variety of ways to make marked work seem less, well, red. Red is the colour of aggression and warnings, so I’m not sure why it has come to be the typical colour for giving feedback on students’ work. Looking back at some work I’ve marked before, I just see a sea of red, used for everything – even ticks for good aspects of writing! This time around, then, I decided to use different coloured pens to show different kinds of comments. Language errors were corrected in red, good aspects were ticked or commented on in green, and other advice or comments (e.g. on content, structure or referencing) were written in blue. Even just at first glance, these papers look a lot more balanced in terms of feedback given, and can hopefully avoid that sinking feeling when students get their work back. Some have even told me that this kind of visual distinction of comments helps them to engage with the feedback as they can go at it aspect for aspect. So, for an easy way to make marking more colourful and potentially helpful for students, just add two new colours to your usual stationery repertoire, and off you go!

If you have more colours to hand, or are marking work electronically, another colour-coding approach I’ve used before is a bit more specific. Here, I use different colours to mark different categories of language mistake. You can also do it with highlighters (or the highlighting function in your word-processing programme). For example, pink is incorrect vocabulary, blue is incorrect verb form, green is for other grammar problems, and orange is for punctuation mistakes. You can vary your colours and categories as relevant to your learners and their writing. I suspect that this kind of colour code makes it even easier for students to work through the feedback they receive, and also serves to highlight the most common problem areas in their work – which will be useful for you and them! Definitely worth a try, if your pencil-case allows!

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A final idea I’d like to share is one I’ve borrowed from Sandy Millin. This colourful approach focuses on priority areas for review and improvement. After marking all of the langauge errors in a student’s text, pick three areas of language that you feel need the most work, e.g. prepositions, vocabulary, and word forms. Then pick one colour highlighter to show each of these three areas – highlight all of that category of errors in the student’s text, and highlight the words/phrases in your feedback telling the student what to work on. I’ve included excerpts of images Sandy provided to show what this would look like in practice.

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I’ve recently used this kind of colour-coded feedback with advanced-level students to highlight why I’ve made the suggestions I’ve added to their work. For example, I might suggest more formal vocabulary items or add in hedging phrases. I then write in my feedback comments something like ‘Try to use more hedging to avoid overgeneralisations’ – I highlight the word ‘hedging’ in yellow, and then highlight all of my hedging suggestions in yellow throughout the student’s text. Students have told me they liked this because it made them realise that they hadn’t necessarily made a mistake or done something wrong when I added a suggestion on their text, but could see why I’d added it and how it might improve their writing. And so, if your staionery budget is not yet exhausted, I’d recommend investing in some highlighters and trying out Sandy’s approach, too!

SO what have we learnt? Well, marking doesn’t need to be dull, and it definitely doesn’t need to be a red-pen-only affair! These ways of including colour in marking students’ work can alter how students percieve the feedback they’re given, and may in the long run make it more effective – and thus more worth our valuable time! 🙂

What Postgraduates Appreciate in Online Feedback on Academic Writing #researchbites

What Postgraduates Appreciate in Online Feedback on Academic Writing #researchbites

In this article, Northcott, Gillies and Coutlon explore their students’ perceptions of how effective online formative feedback was for improving their postgraduate academic writing, and aim to highlight best practices for online writing feedback.

Northcott, J., P. Gillies & D. Caulton (2016), ‘What Postgraduates Appreciate in Online Tutor Feedback on Academic Writing’, Journal of Academic Writing, Vol. 6/1 , pp. 145-161.

Background

The focus of the study was on helping international master’s-level students at a UK university, for whom English is not their first/main language. The study’s central aim was investigating these students’ satisfaction with the formative feedback provided online by language tutors on short-term, non-credit-bearing ESAP writing courses. These courses, run in collaboration with subject departments, are a new provision at the university, in response to previous surveys showing dissatisfaction among students with feedback provided on written coursework for master’s-level courses. Participation is encouraged, but voluntary.  The courses consist of five self-study units (with tasks and answer keys), as well as weekly essay assignments marked by a tutor.

The  essays are submitted electronically, and feedback is provided using either Grademark (part of Turnitin) or ‘track changes’ in Microsoft Word . The feedback covers both  language correction and feedback on aspects of academic writing. These assignments are effectively draft versions of sections of coursework assignments students are required to write for the master’s programmes.

Research

The EAP tutors involved marked a total of 458 assignments, written by students in the first month of the master’s degrees in either Medicine or Politics. Only 53 students completed all five units of the writing course; though 94 Medicine and 81 Politics students completed the first unit’s assignment.

Alongside the writing samples, data was also collected by surveying students at three points during the writing course, plus an end-of-course evaluation form. Focussing on students who had completed the whole writing course, students’ survey responses were matched with their writing samples which had received feedback, as well as the final coursework assignment they submitted for credit in their master’s programme, for detailed analysis.

Findings

Analysing the feedback given by tutors, the researchers found both direct and indirect corrective feedback on language, as well as on subject-specific or genre-specific writing conventions and the academic skills related to writing. Tutors’ comments mostly refered to specific text passages, rather than being unfocused or general feedback.

Student engagement with feedback was evidenced by analysing writing samples and final coursework: only one case was found where ‘there was clear evidence that a student had not acted on the feedback provided’ (p. 155). However, the researchers admit that, as participation in the course is voluntary, the students who complete it are likely to be those who are in general appreciative of feedback, thus this finding may not be generalisable to other contexts.

In the surveys, most students’ reported feeling that the feedback had helped them to improve their writing. They acknowledged how useful the corrections provided were, and how the feedback could be applied in future. Moreover, comments demonstrated an appreciation of the motivational character of the feedback provided.

Summing up these findings, the researchers report:

It appeared to be the combination of principled corrective feedback with a focus on developing confidence by providing positive, personalised feedback on academic conventions and practices as well as language which obtained the most positive response from the students we investigated. (p. 154)

The students’ comments generally show that they responded well to this electronic mode of feedback delivery, and also felt a connection to their tutor, despite not meeting in person to discuss their work. As the researchers put it, students came to see ‘written feedback as a response to the person writing the text, not simply a response to a writing task’ (p. 156).

Take Away

The findings from this study highlight that simply using electronic modes of feedback delivery does not alone increase student satisfaction and engagement with feedback on their written work. Instead, the content and manner of the feedback given is key.

From the article, then, we can take away some tips for what kind of feedback to give, and how, to make electronic feedback most effective, at least for postgraduate students.

  • Start with a friendly greeting and refer to the student by name.
  • Establish an online persona as a sympathetic critical friend, ready to engage in dialogue.
  • Don’t only focus on corrective feedback, but aim to guide the student to be able to edit and correct their work autonomously, e.g. provide links to further helpful resources.
  • Be specific about the text passage the feedback refers to.
  • Tailor the feedback to the student’s needs, in terms of subject area, etc.
  • Give praise to develop the student’s confidence.
  • Take account of the student’s L1 and background.
  • Eencourage the student to respond to the feedback; especially if anything is unclear or they find it difficult to apply.

This post is part of ELT Research Bites 2017 Summer of Research (Bites) Blog Carnival! Join in here.

What library research skills training do EAP / undergrad students really need?

What library research skills training do EAP / undergrad students really need?

Colleagues and I have long since been aware of the lack of proper research and appropriate source use in our students’ EAP and academic essays. We decided to offer a one-hour workshop on researching in the library at our university, and enlisted the help of an expert – the library representative for our subject area.

We thought it was a great idea!

But students were not so impressed. And their work didn’t improve much, either.

After the session, students’ feedback centred on the following points:

  •  the session was quite like a lecture, but not very interactive or with any opportunities for them to try things out for themselves1000px-Logic_Gates.svg.png
  •  they were bored and confused by the explanation of possible search filters they could implement with Boolean search strings
  • the MLA Bibliography they were introduced to “only gave them references but not the actual articles”
  • that “there weren’t (m)any books on their topic”
  • the searches of databases etc. don’t work “properly” at home.

So what do students new to library research really need to know?

  • What an academic text is. (I recently asked MA-level students to bring in an academic journal article on our overall topic, and many of them turned up with texts from news sources like BBC, or from magazines like Time!)
  • The fact that searching a database of academic texts is not like an internet search; i.e. you shouldn’t ask the catalogue your question (“Ok google, what are the differences between British and American spelling?”), but search for keywords or tags related to the topic.
  • The fact that their specific topic may only be dealt with in a chapter within a book, which may not be searchable (unless the library has digitalised contents pages) and so they may need to search for more general terms.
  • The difference between bibliographies and databases.
  • The fact that many published sources are not available for free on the internet and so you can only access the full texts if your institution subscribes to that publication and you access it through their server. (Yes, this might mean, dear students, that you will actually have to physically go into the library!)
  • The difference between reports of original (empirical) research and meta-studies or other summaries, and the importance of reading the primary work.
  • The importance of using up-to-date sources, especially in areas where research and understandings have developed significantly in recent years.
  • How to use keywords  / tags, and articles’ abstracts, or skim-reading, to judge a source’s relevance and appropriateness for their work.
  • That something is not a fact just because it has been published – most academic work is about stance!books-1015594_960_720.jpg

And so, I’ve come to the conclusion that a one-hour session might not be the best way to introduce students to the academic research community. A quick introduction to the specific institution’s library is a good idea, but that this clearly needs to be further supported within our teaching.

Over to you!

What kinds of tasks and activities do you get your students to do to help them to develop and train their researching skills? Please leave your ideas and tips in the comments below!

Reading Support Worksheets for EAP

Reading Support Worksheets for EAP

Much is said in published literature about the necessity of EAP students reading authentic academic texts, and also about providing scaffolding and support for them to do so. I believe lecturers and academic tutors teaching their subject content in English and/or on a CLIL-based approach will also need to help students digest the readings for their classes.

Still, I often hear complaints from teachers that they set preparatory reading, but then found in the lesson that students were unable to discuss or work with the ideas from the reading, despite their claims that they did actually read the text. 

One way I’ve found to help students engage with the texts they are asked to read, then, is what I call ‘Reading Support Worksheets’. 

Reading Support Worksheets can help students to focus on the parts of a text or the ideas and concepts mentioned, so that they are better prepared to discuss or work with these in their lessons. Also, directing students’ attention to what the tutor deems the key concepts, the things they want to focus on in their lessons, the reasons they chose this reading text, can ease the load on students to comprehend every detail in a text and perhaps ease their frustration at the time and effort needed to do so. 

So how do I set up a Reading Support Worksheet?

I divide the text into manageable, logical sections, and pose questions or set quick tasks to guide students in the notes they should make whilst reading each section. Here are some of the question and task types I’ve used so far:

  • What is the central claim presented in the introduction?
  • What are the guiding questions and approach that this article is working with? How are these justified?
  • Paraphrase the quote by xyz.
  • Summarise the overall argument / point of paragraph xyz.
  • What do these abbreviations stand for: x, y, z ?
  • Give examples of xyz’s categories.
  • Copy the diagram/table on page x and add two more examples of your own.
  • Define xyz’s concept of xyz in your own words.
  • What are the key terms used by xyz?
  • On page x the example “xyz” is used to illustrate xyz. Explain the claim/theory/concept in your own words and add an example.
  • Note the break-down into 5 steps/categories here. 
  • Contrast xy’s idea/claim/theory with yz’s.
  • What is an xyz? Why is this important to understand?
  • Draw a diagram to illustrate xyz.
  • How to xy’s categories/ideas/key terms relate/compare to yz’s?
  • Make a time-line in note form, charting the development of xyz.
  • Name and describe in your own words two views on xyz.
  • What is special about xyz’s model?
  • Outline some of the measures taken to address xyz.
  • What are the reasons stated to support the claim that xyz.
  • Draw a flow-chart illustrating the structure of this section of the article.
  • How is the data presented in this section? What central claim is the data used to support?
  • What data analysis method was used in this study, and why?
  • For each graph in this section, write down I) what it plots (i.e. what the x-axis and y-axis show) and II) what trends are illustrated by the data presented.
  • What do you know about the “xyz” mentioned here? (If not much – find out more!)
  • Extension: Choose one source from the bibliography of this article to read as your next source on input on our topic xyz.

I believe that this type of scaffolding helps the students to get to grips with the content of a text at a mainly descriptive level, leaving activities which require higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation for the lesson time.

Of course, the number of questions or tasks should be suitable for the length of text – remember, students should have the feeling that the worksheet is helping them to digest the text, and not adding extra work!

In EAP, questions or tasks can be added to get students to focus on the langauge or other academic skills as they are demonstarted in the text. For example:

  • Write the bibliography entry for this text.
  • Why do you think the title of this section is pluralised?
  • Find transition words/phrases in this section that show xyz. Note their position within the sentence.
  • Find synonyms in this section which mean x, y, z.

Why not try it yourself? You can share your questions/tasks in the comments below, and let me know how it works out with your students!

Introducing #tleap

Introducing #tleap

TLEAP: Teaching & Learning in EAP

Issues in EAP Discussion Group

tleap

#tleap is an active online community of EAP professionals who discuss issues and share ideas regarding English for academic purposes. The members are EAP teachers and others who are interested in this area of language teaching, from adjunct tutors to full-time lecturers, and even materials writers and policy makers. The purpose of the #tleap community is to discuss relevant pedagogical, logistical, and research-based issues with others, and to give those involved in EAP a voice that may otherwise go unheard.

#tleap evolved from the #EAPchat Twitter hashtag set up by Tyson Seburn, Adam Simpson, and Sharon Turner, and has now spread across a variety of social media platforms, also thanks to Kate Finegan, to enable and encourage wider participation. You can join in for free here:

Twitter: #tleap

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/tleap/

Google+https://plus.google.com/communities/114679086713772400315


#tleap hosts biweekly discussion on Facebook: A focussed discussion point is posted on the 1st and 15th of every month. Please feel free to add your ideas to it and share widely. If there’s something you’d like to discuss, please add to this list: http://bit.ly/1OnYoWM.

16831997_10154781603762489_7689240778587431825_n.jpg#tleap also hosts bimonthly discussion chats on Twitter- look out for the next one!

The chat and discussion archievs are freely available, along with more information on the #tleap community, here http://tiny.cc/tleap

#tleap thrives on the contributions of members! You can start a new post on any of the paltforms anytime you have a question or wish to share something relevant for the group. Comments are always welcome on all posts.  With any blog, research article, or question, you can also always add the #tleap hashtag to your tweets to get everyone in our community to notice and engage.

We would love to welcome new members to the #tleap community, so please join in and share #tleap with your colleagues!

We look forward to hearing from you!

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