« January 2011 | Main | March 2011 »

February 2011 Archives

February 3, 2011

When is a stone not ... important? (On course reviews)

A stone is unit of weight- about 6.4 kgs and the term is used mostly in the U.K. Most non-Japanese readers probably already know this.

I have been aware of the term since I was small- perhaps because my parents were British (I was born there myself, although I immigrated to Canada at age 1) and also because I watched my fair share of British football matches as a child. I weigh 10.5 stone. The Rolling Stones collectively weigh 51.7 stone. That's trivia. Please don't dwell on this stuff.

I'm bringing this up because the term 'a stone' appears in a dialogue in the textbook I use for my 1st year medical students- which is written using U.K. English. In the middle of checking symptoms for a fever a doctor asks a patient:
Have you lost any weight?

To which the patient replies...
Yes, I have. About a stone.

Whenever this passage comes up in class, I explain briefly what a stone is to my students, who would otherwise assume it equals the Japanese 'ishi'. I also tell them it's nothing to dwell on- I just want them to understand that particular passage clearly (EFL-heads will recognize this as differentiating between items of instrumental and intrinsic pedagogical value).

I'll get back to this 'stone' business later.

Anyway...at the end of my courses I always have my students fill out a 'Top 15' list. This acts as a review of key items learned in the class. Students select 15 important or memorable words, phrases, grammar patterns, social features, cultural elements, stylistic points that they have learned in my class. On the left side of the paper they write the actual item. On the right side they have to explain why it's interesting/important to them.

They are encouraged to list a variety of item types and to vary the pattern of explanation too. Otherwise, most would list concrete single-word items followed by the explanation that 'I didn't know that'.

This is always a worthwhile assignment. Even if you have recycled items introduced in the course and have an interconnected curriculum which develops in increments, with each lesson being absorbed into the next (as you should if you are teaching a course- as opposed to 'a bunch of classes'), students have a great tendency to forget much beyond the last two lessons. So this 'top 15' serves as a refresher. They are given time to write it up and are encouraged to go over the year's notes, texts and prints thoroughly. Not only does it stimulate memory but it helps to consolidate things they learned in the course. It helps to prepare them for final tests.

It also serves a diagnostic function for me, the teacher. By seeing what students consider memorable, important or interesting language I can see what I need to emphasize more, focus on less, or what I might explain better (some out-and-out blatant misunderstandings appear on this list). And that's where 'a stone' comes in.

Even though, I gloss over this item in that one lesson and tell my students not to dwell on it about two-thirds of them still list it in their top 15's. And not just on the list but damn near at the top of it too. This speaks to me- students are memorizing, or internalizing, trivia. They are overvaluing discrete or concrete points that have clear definitions but little holistic value in terms of internalizing the language.

I think there is a very human element in this. We can all remember Sugar Crisp jingles from the 70's or which Dick played Darrin first on Bewitched (York, not Sargent. Duh!) but have trouble recalling the concept of biomass or why Kant is considered such a colossus in European philosophy.

But I think there are some systemic educational factors that cause students to think in these 'discrete/concrete' item terms. The first is that too many tests still focus upon these as if they were the bedrock of English acquisition (and because they are considered 'objective'- but then again so is the order of Bewitched Dicks- and no, that is not an offshoot of the Franciscans). Moreover, teachers often approach lessons as a matter of teaching 'words', a pile of discrete facts, as opposed to the more nebulous but effective process of developing language skills.

This review paper allows me to let students know what really was important (by checking and/or commenting positively on the truly valuable points) and what will simply take up valuable brain space (simply by writing 'this is not important for your English' next to it).

Some type of course review is deeply, highly, strongly encouraged by myself (just watch the notion rocket into EFL-world fashiondom now!). Why? Because it (and yes, I do note the wicked irony of reviewing an article about course reviews):
1. causes students to go over all their class notes/papers again
2. brings forgotten or near-forgotten items back to mind
3. helps to consolidate or connect concepts learned or practiced in class
4. helps the teacher to understand more clearly what the students are actually focusing upon and to address it if the student seems to have trouble grasping the essential from the trivial
5. can effect your future pedagogy by forcing you to respond to cases of the type found in point #4

So, now that you've read this far, what do you remember most from this article?
A. The various merits of having a review class and assignment
B. That a stone equals 6.4 kgs
C. Dick York was the first Darrin

Damn! And I told you not to dwell on that!

February 9, 2011

Re-tests: How many chances do you expect to have?

“Sensei, I know I missed one third of all your classes, slept in most of the others, never completed a single homework assignment, mostly ignored other students in pair work or teamwork and scored 40% on the role-play test and 20% on the final paper exam. But I get to do a re-test! Is it OK if I write a one-page English report on my summer holiday experience in order to pass?”

“Why of course! Even though you have done virtually nothing in the class, have not improved your English at all, and have in no way indicated that you will be ready for the course at the next level, I will happily give you full credit if you throw together a one-page English report on any topic of your choosing the day before final grades are due. That should be more than enough to get full course credit.”

This scenario would be a wet dream for some students. Ah, re-tests! The academic repository of cheap redemption for conveniently “remorseful” miscreants. Tertiary education’s equivalency to deathbed conversions by Mafia dons. Obviously the re-test system can be abused and render the notion of having gone through a learning process, having completed the intellectual requirements of passing through a course, redundant. But I’m actually in favor of the whole notion of re-testing. With certain caveats, that is.

At my own university (and I believe that our system is quite standardized) 60% constitutes a passing grade. When classes actually finish and grades calculated (which is very soon if you are using some type of ongoing assessment) grades can be submitted. Those students who have over 60% will receive a circle (they'll see their actual score later), indicating no re-test is necessary. Under 30 means an automatic fail, an X, with no possibility of redress. A score of 30-60 produces a triangle, which means that the student must officially be re-tested (content and subsequent grading of course being entirely up to the individual teacher). More than three unexcused absences over the semester also constitutes an automatic fail.

Actually, these numbers in and of themselves mean very little. The notion that a student ‘got a 65’ doesn’t really refer to anything objective or concrete- unless that is your course evaluation consists entirely of discrete point factoids which cumulatively represent the entire level of attainment expected from the course. And, frankly speaking, if you are evaluating your English classes like that you are probably not tuned in enough to be reading the ELTNews website in the first place.

The problem is that there are certain students who do very little all year but suddenly become contrite when they realize they are in deep doo-doo. You want to fail them- not so much out of a sense of revenge or a raw desire to punish but because you have a sense of justice. Passing them despite having achieved so little cheapens the work of students who actually have made an effort. And word will soon get around that you are ‘easy’. A pushover pedagogue. More students in the future will try to get away with doing the bare minimum once a precedent is set.

But in order to have them bypass the re-test requirement and fail outright I have to score these students at under 30. And in ongoing assessment, with role-plays and team projects included in the scoring, it is hard to give anyone a 20 or 25. You could of course jigger the scores. There’s nothing nefarious in doing so. After all, one assignment may be very easy and everyone scores over 80 but that's only because you have made that assignment simple. It's relative to the task. It’s not an indicator of some sacrosanct holy writ from God above that the student is in some empirically verifiable sense an ‘A’ student. You can decide outright if the student hasn't met the requirements and duly give him or her a 29. No one (at least not at my university) will doubt you on this matter although you might well expect a visit from a teary-eyed student demanding to know why he got a 29% final grade when in fact you gave his classroom team presentation a whole 50%!

Teachers have varying feelings about re-tests. Some feel that if you didn’t make the grade the first time round, that’s it. How many chances do you expect? If you don’t make the grade first time around you repeat it next year. Simple as that. Standardized tests don’t give you a re-test if you fail until the next year/season that they are administered. Why should I?

And it's true that re-tests are meaningless when the re-test task is just a piece of busy work- the old 'Ok- write me a report' fob-off. In that case, the re-test serves only as a type of punishment and has no pedagogical value. A meaningful re-test has to connect to actual course content- to somehow fulfill the stated course goals. The popular notion that a student can or should pass by filing some last-minute report is the equivalent of the military, ‘Drop and give me twenty!”.

Actually, there are very good reasons why you should have several students do re-tests. The first is that if you think the student doesn’t know enough yet or hasn’t displayed the expected level of skill having a re-test motivates them to do better. Re-tests have diagnostic value too. If students know in what areas they performed poorly, where their weak points are, they can make amends and fix those leaks. And isn’t this what education is about- getting students up to the expected or required level? Being aware of, working and improving on their deficiencies?

Or perhaps the student simply bungled a major assignment. Maybe they approached it the wrong way, or they had some formal difficulties understanding what was required or expected, they didn’t quite get the gravity of the assignment. Such students deserve a chance to redeem themselves- and these students, unlike the few who are just lazy and think simply be being physically in the classroom that they should get an automatic pass, are truly grateful for the opportunity. They invariably learn something in the process.

And what happens to the true laggards? Well, they get their re-test and almost invariably they make a complete hash of that too. What did you expect? You haven’t paid attention to anything all year. So see you in the next one.

What policies or thoughts do readers have regarding re-tests?

About February 2011

This page contains all entries posted to The Uni-Files in February 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

January 2011 is the previous archive.

March 2011 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35