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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

August 16, 2013

Old Teaching Dog-- New Recipe Tricks for Evaluation

Despite having passed fifty, I must still be a teenager at heart because I am never completely satisfied with my lessons. Not a semester goes by without me altering a bit of methodology or classroom content, about the same frequency that my 17-year-old son changes his hairstyle (currently in Semi-Mohawk mode after a brief flirtation with Korean Boy Band).

So, although I'm not a big fan of using EFL blogs as a sounding board for classroom recipes, I can't help but think that three new tricks I've applied might help out someone somewhere. The caveat with these hints is, as always, that YMMV, but to be perfectly frank I got significant mileage out of them and therefore, SO CAN YOU.

1. Project Performance-- Involving the Other Students More

Most group projects require some kind of performance or end product presentation for evaluation (the so-called prestige stage). The problem is that if the teacher is evaluating them team-by-team or if each group does their bit in front of the entire class, it is not the best time and resource management. Why?

  • A large number of students will be passive for the entire class.

  • If they are waiting for their 'turn', they will probably not be watching or appreciating others but doing last-minute adjustment on their own piece.

  • If they have finished, they will get fidgety, wondering why they have to wait around while several others go through their routines. Why should they care about what the other groups do?

  • If everyone watches, it makes the performers all the more nervous. Hey, this isn't drama school!

What I do:
For a long time, I've held performances over two different class times and have students enter the class only with their own team. The others wait outside until called in.

Why that's not so satisfying:
No one else sees the other groups. Thus they can't evaluate their own relative strengths or weaknesses or learn from other teams' strengths or weaknesses. And students are definitely interested in knowing what others are doing.

How I revised it #1:
I always bring in two groups at a time. One performs while the others watch. This puts a little more pressure on both teams but does not entail the same degree of pressure as an in-front-of-the-full-class performance. It also means that both teams have to pay attention as an audience. How so? I tell the watching team that I will be asking them three questions about the performing team at the end of their performance and moreover, that this is a part of their grade. This guarantees that they pay attention.

How I revised it #2:
After all performances are finished I use the next class not only as a time for evaluation and feedback but also an organized 'sharing' session where members of all teams rotate with others explaining what they did (in English) and showing examples of their work. This satiates the curiosity of the others, allows for extended English practice with real and meaningful communicative language (both input and output), and also provides students hints about their own strengths and weaknesses relative to others.

2. Making Good Use of Semester Ending 'Filler' Classes

What I do:
Actually, this is more like what I don't do. I never, ever give the test in the last class-- mainly because then I will have no opportunity to offer feedback, and the test will have had no pedagogical or diagnostic function. The students will not learn what they did well or poorly at and will therefore not address the weaknesses nor reinforce the strengths.

Why it's not entirely satisfying:
After the test is done and feedback given I often feel the need to expand on or otherwise address some areas that need work. If the semester finishes in that next week, I can't do that. Also, having a major test at the end adds to the belief that the test is the ultimate goal of the course, the summation of all that is good and true. As teachers, the ultimate goal should be the learning-- so I want learning to continue after the 'final' test.

How I've revised it:
I do the (ahem) 'final test' with about three weeks remaining in the semester. So what to do with the final few weeks (after feedback)? Well, there are good, helpful, interesting lessons in my repertoire that would benefit students but they are not exactly what I want to be thought of as a basis for testing. So these I do post test.

But, but how can you hold the students' interest in these classes?
Easy. My grading is 35% (test 1), 35% (test 2), 30% for class attendance, homework completion, effort, and participation. I tell the students that these final classes will go a long way towards deciding that 30% 'effort' part of the grade. As a result, those students who had mediocre test results in particular have a vested interest in attending and actively participating in those semester-ending classes. Last chance to make that good impression...

3. Open-book Exams Don't Really Work

What I did before:
I routinely held open-book, open-note tests on principle. The principle applied was that memory should not be the only, or primary, skill measured and that open-book testing rewarded good note-taking, organization, and a holistic understanding as to how the course holds together. These are important skills and their development should be encouraged.

Why it didn't work #1:
In a word, 'kakomon' ("old tests") fetishism. Students are/were transfixed by old tests. If it was an open-note test they could get my previous year's test from their seniors and consult it during the current test. Although I change about 90% of my test items, it meant that that many just copied answers mindlessly, sometimes even though I had subtly changed the wording or the crux of the task.

What I did to revise them:
I forbade the presence of kakomon because it meant either mindless copying, provided them with an excuse not to study and prepare, or because they actually did poorly when lead astray by similar-looking, but in fact very different, questions and tasks.

Why that didn't work:
So, kakomon are now forbidden, ok-- but what's to stop you from jotting the old test contents down as a 'note', making it look like this was some of your regular class notes? Now, as you can imagine, the subtle scope for cheating is there. This lead to several "this isn't a normal class note, you just copied a kakomon!" confrontation scenarios, including one student (clearly guilty) who threw a monstrous hissy fit over the accusation (meaning that I had to explain and justify the practice before an inquiry board). Well, who needs that hassle?

I banned any mochikomi (desk top aids) outright. The thing is.. this in no way affected their performance! When having to rely on memory, although a little hard to justify pedagogically, they prepared for the test more fully and the results were even better than on the open-book, open-note tests!

I believe that their attempts at memory often included efforts to understand the contents holistically (which was explicitly encouraged when I gave my pre-test criteria handout) so two disparate birds appear to have been killed by this one methodological stone.

I'm always looking for variations and extensions to my teaching approach (kind of like old bands from the 70's re-mixing and re-recording their classic stuff) so any comments or suggestions you have on the above are welcome.

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First, thank you for sharing your experiences, and for the way in which you shared them. I liked the format: what you did, why that worked or didn't, what you tried next, and the results, etc.

I realize that you wrote this roughly a year and a half ago, but I thought that it might still be relevant to share with you how I do group and individual presentations. I, too, have tried many ways of doing testing and handling presentations, but this method is a keeper for me. It has brought me the most consistent and satisfactory success.

First, when doing presentation tests (whether individual or group), on test day at the start of the class, or just before, I usually allow the students to choose their order. I write the number of presentation slots on the blackboard and allow the students to fill in their info in whichever slot they like. There are always some students who would rather go first, in the middle, or last, and so this seems to make the most number of students happy.

Next, all desks are cleared of any and all distractions, and the first presenter goes outside the room and has 1-3 minutes to prepare, depending on the length of the anticipated presentation. That student brings their materials with them and practices however they like. The students remaining in the classroom sit quietly while they wait, but they are no longer allowed to use their materials in the classroom. Students quickly settle down and quietly think about their presentations. This creates a respectful mood for the presenters.

Once the time limit is up, I send the next student out of the room with their materials, and the first student comes in and begins their presentation as soon as they are ready. Because the student audience has already settled down, they tend to listen very respectfully.

Doing the presentations in this way allows the students to see most of their classmates' presentations, while also allowing a little equal opportunity last minute cramming. Because the students understand they will all have the same opportunity to review before their own presentation, they are much more attentive when listening and watching their classmates' presentations.

Now if only I could come up with a successful feedback/sharing/follow-up routine...

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