Category Archives: assessment

Academic Writing

Markin4, editing software for EFL/ESL teachers

Most of my classes are of the “Oral English” type, but I also teach some classes in which students are required to produce academic writing in English. At first, I assumed that my students were getting basic instruction in academic writing in their native language (Japanese) in other classes, e.g. their seminar classes. They probably are. However, I have discovered that they don’t have much of a grasp of references, reporting and citations. Basically, they either don’t quote anybody at all, or when they do, they don’t indicate where they are quoting and where they are not (although a sudden switch from pidgin English to something perfectly comprehensible is the usual indicator).

After much ranting from me, they are now beginning to refer to other writers, and to include the references at the end of their writing. I think their problem was partly a language one, and partly cultural: they simply did not know how to refer to another writer.  So I gave them some examples (with the help of this very useful website by Andy Gillett, UK), such as “According to Krashen (2003)”, or “Krashen (2003) writes that… ” and so on. Actually giving them examples seemed to increase the frequency with which they referred to other writers in their essays.

They are still not clearly signaling when they are referring to another writer’s ideas or words: they seem to think that bunging a couple of references at the end is enough. Reading several examples of such student essays prompted the following, earth-shaking insights:

  1. they may not have read any academic essays in English, which would account for a lot;
  2. they may not be familiar with the English academic or formal register;
  3. it might be of more help for their academic and linguistic development if they actually read (samples of) English academic essays, rather than reading a bunch of explanations about academic writing;
  4. #3 above seems kinda obvious after reading Krashen on the subject of language acquisition (the only way language is acquired is by lots and lots of comprehensible input).

I’ve been using a software program called Markin4 to correct and mark my students’ electronic files electronically. I use this because it’s quicker than doing it by hand (and when you’ve got 40 students writing assignments twice a week, you welcome anything that saves you time), and because I am teaching some students at a distance (i.e., they take the class but they don’t come to the actual classroom). It is very easy to install and use, and you can output the edited student writing as a RTF file and a html file. It is quite good, however it focuses on the sub-paragraph level of writing, and has no functions specifically for academic essays, so I started to look for academic-essay editing/evaluating software, and after ages and ages of backbreaking slog typing search items into Google and what have you, I can now announce to the world the results of my labours, thereby saving you, dear Reader, absolutely tons of man-hours of useless toil.

I came across StyleEase, and downloaded the free demo version. It works as a plugin for MSWord (or OpenOffice, I believe), and uses macros. I followed the instructions carefully about configuring MSWord to allow StyleEase macros to work, particularly as the ReadMe file states that problems with this are the most frequent problems encountered by would-be users of StyleEase. However… I was unable to get StyleEase to work, despite following all the instructions. So, too bad: out it goes. Perhaps you will have better luck (it could be that I am using a Japanese version of Windows and of MS Office, but frankly I couldn’t be bothered to spend more time tinkering to see if that was in fact the case: even if it’s free, if it don’t work first time like it should, then it gets the boot. Life is short).

Here’s another one: StyleWriter. This looks good, but the company, White Smoke, don’t offer a free trial download. I can’t tell from the brief popup video if it will do what I want. It also seems to come bundled with lots of stuff that I’m not sure I’ll need like lots of letter templates, and an “international dictionary”. (I also didn’t like the fact that I had to type in all my details before I could find out how much the damned thing cost.)

I also came across this useful list of software programs and the writing process, although it includes software designed for writing other than academic writing. In that list was a link to Merit Software and two programs called Paragraph Punch and Essay Punch. Both of these, you’ll be glad to know, have their own web pages which include a link to a price-list, for which Merit Software earns serious Brownie points. Both Paragraph and Essay Punches have online editions, and they also have free trial downloads (more Brownie points). I’ll be downloading these and test-driving them, so come back later to read my results.

Google search also brought up this interesting newsletter entry about an academic writing website by another British academic, Dr. Gavin Budge at Birmingham University. The newsletter gives the link to the actual website, a wiki called Writing for the Reader: I was not able to access the site from a university-campus computer, but from home, no problem. It’s all text-based, but it looks useful, and it seems to do what Dr Budge claims in the newsletter:

My interest in creating an essay-writing website stemmed from the perception that most books on essay-writing, while making a lot of sense to university lecturers, who already know how to write, tend not to make all that much sense to students, who typically seize on one or two pieces of essay-writing advice in a one-sided way because they have no grasp of the essay-writing process as a whole: common examples from my own experience include the student whose writing goes through incredible syntactic contortions in order to avoid using the word ‘I’ in any context whatever, and the student whose writing is unintelligible because they have replaced all key words with what they assume are more impressive ‘synonyms’ from a thesaurus. Truly understanding a book on essay writing involves appreciating that its writer has reduced the complex reflexivity of the actual writing process into an essentially linear form; but since such a representation of what is multi-dimensional by a one-dimensional line of argument is precisely what students who are learning about essay-writing have yet to learn to do, it is hardly surprising if they misinterpret essay-writing guides presented in the form of a book.

The wiki itself contains some good advice and each page is short (screen length). There’s a lot there, and I’m still exploring it. My only gripes so far are:

  1. There should be more graphics (tho Budge does use the Axion mindmapping software to add a few small graphics, I’m not sure how helpful they are)
  2. I’d like to see more examples of actual academic writing: I think it is reading lots of academic essays that allows people to “acquire” a good academic writing style; this, more than carefully worded examples, is what is needed, especially for students whose first language is not English
  3. how about using video? Maybe not to replace the text pages but to re-inforce them and to offer a different medium, and to break up the tedium of page after page of text.

(Budge links to three different mindmapping software programs. I discovered mindmapping in my last year of grammar school (sixth-form) while preparing for university entrance exams and A-levels: my dad lent me one of Tony Buzan’s first books.

  1. FreeMind
  2. CmapTools
  3. Axon Idea Processor (the one he ended up actually using in the wiki)

Another couple of interesting, academic-writing-related websites were these two online essay-evaluating services:

To be continued…

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Blogging with students (4)

Because the task I described at the end of my previous post, proved a little too challenging for my students, I re-cast it (see below). I’m trying to lead them to an understanding of web 2.0

What is good blogging?

  1. Visit this blog, then this one. Which is better (more interesting, more useful) do you think? Why is it better?
  2. Now visit this blog, then this one. Which is better do you think? Why is it better?
  3. Now visit this blog, then this one. Which is better do you think? Why?
  4. Now go back to the blog you chose in question 1. Write the answers to these questions on your blog.
    1. Who is the blog author?
    2. What is his/her name?
    3. Which country and town do they live in?
    4. Do you want to write a comment on their blog?
    5. Why (or why not) write a comment?
    6. Is it easy to write a comment?
    7. If you write a comment, can the blog author reply to your comment?
    8. Can the blog author contact you?
    9. How?

I followed this up with a quick look at the BBC websites which invite readers to post their photos and videos.

Here are some news photos for you to see from the BBC: 1, 2, 3.
Who took these pictures?
The BBC lets readers send in their photos (see here). What do you think about this idea?

I feel like I’m re-inventing the wheel here. Thousands of people have probably already put together a list of instructions and tasks for EFL students beginning blogging, and they’re no doubt all much better than my attempt. But I couldn’t find any suitable ones in an hour’s worth of Googling. If you know some, or want to collaborate, please drop me a line.

(Credit: a very warm thanks to Aaron and Sean for lending me their students’ blogs.)

Assessing student blogs

Searching for help with assessing student blogs took a long time. I first found Aaron’s summary on Dekita of Jill Walker’s list of what works and what does not.

In only one class at the moment am I using blogs. I’m having students write in their own blogs about news articles they find on the web. It has taken 2-3 months for students to get used to blogging and searching on the Internet, using their Bloglines aggregators to keep track of what their classmates are writing, etc. So I have not paid much attention to the actual content of what they have been writing.

Until now.

The class is about reading news items in English. It is not a writing class, and anyway I am not prepared to spend the hours trying to decipher and correcting their English. Students write in Japanese.

It is clear from reading just a random sample of students’ blogs that they do not have a clear idea of what to write. I ask them only for their summary of the news item and any comments they may have, such as why they chose this item, what they feel its import is.

Can you guess what they write? “I found this news article. It was interesting,” and variations.

Erm, I feel I should do something about this. What?

Giving students specific instructions has been working for me recently, both in terms of having students do sufficient work of a satisfactory standard, and in terms of cutting down on prep and post-prep time. So what kind of instructions should I give them?

I thought I recalled seeing something that might be suitable on Will Richardson’s blog, but, while I found some interesting things (who could not?), I didn’t find what I was looking for.

On Will’s blog, I found a link to Konrad Glogowski’s Blog of Proximal Development, which was one of the first to be in my aggregator, but which I stopped following a while back. In his post Making Assessment Personally Relevant I found two graphics that Konrad has used with this students to evaluate and help them self-evaluate their blogging work. I found both very useful: the Individual Progress Report and the self-assessment sheet.

Thanks, Konrad, for making these available. His post also gave me the idea of having students work on a long-term project, rather than looking anew for fresh news items each week.

I might also make a template for students to use when writing: probably a simple lsit of questions. This might also allow them to write (simpel) responses in English: they would just be answering the questions.

Slicing teaching

I didn’t think a great deal at first about Dan Meyer’s idea of teaching being an art/science that can be sliced into very (infinitesimally thin) slices, but as time went by I found myself using the concept more and more.
Here’s one thin slice that immediately helped me understand what Dan was on about:

In my first year, I realized I often phrased my instructions as questions, tossing out weak mandates like “Would you guys please get down to work now?” because I wanted to be liked. I worked at balancing kindness and firmness (“I need you guys to work quietly now.”) so that we could work and learn more.

After reading Other People’s Children, I reflected on the possible differences between Japanese pedagogical rhetoric (teacher-talk) and that of a white, Western, middle-class male. I reflected on this some more when a colleague returned me a short piece of Japanese I’d written and which he’d proof-read for me, saying, “Use the short form of the verb, not the long form. It makes you sound kinda feminine.” Hmmm. So I started implement that change in my teacher-talk right away. It seems to be working. At least, I notice when I lapse and don’t use it, I get these looks like “Does he seriously expect us to do this?” When I use it, there’s no debate.

Another “slice” is telling students at the outset of each class exactly what that session’s objective is. I did this last semester. I haven’t done it this semester yet. It’s easy for me to dream up good ideas like this; it’s harder to gather the data to then assess whether it’s a strategy worth keeping or not. Would a strategy like this translate into actual immediately measurable results? I didn’t gather any data (other than the usual semi-annual student evaluations which were no worse and no better than previous years), which in turn did not inspire me to continue this practice.

I’ll have to re-think my lesson plan so that it includes more regular assessments of teaching/learning objectives. The only trouble is… that’s hard work! (Damn!).

Blogging tips and assessment

Some useful tips on good blogging practice, from Idratherbewriting. Nothing revolutionary or outrageous, just common sense, but it works as a useful reminder.

#10 spoke to me: “archive by topic rather than date”, unless yours is a purely personal journal. “Date archives mean little to readers.”

Following his own tip of linking abundantly (#8), idratherbewriting includes links to some interesting sites. One of the first ones I clicked on (Creating Passionate Users) included this thought-provoking tip:

Parelli Natural Horsemanship sells horse-related products including saddles, bridles, ropes, etc. But you have to pay more to learn how to use them properly. Much, much more. Users are paying anywhere from $200 to $1000 for home-study kits including booklets and DVDs. Yes, horse training is not the same as using a project management app–clearly the markets and context are different–but the main point is the same–people place an extremely high value on quality learning and support materials… FYI: Parelli has one of the largest, most loyal passionate fan bases I’ve ever seen… Characteristics of World-Class User Learning Materials

1) User-friendly
Easy to use when, where, and how you need it.
2) Based on sound learning principles
i.e. users actually learn from it, not just refer to it.
3) Motivational
Keeps users willing to push forward to higher “levels”

The following pictures are some examples of how Parelli does this. The only thing you need to know to understand the examples is that the Parelli system groups a set of skills and knowledge into “levels”. Founder/creator Pat Parelli designed levels into his program based on the success of the martial arts belt system and video game levels. In other words, he knew that the levels –key achievement milestones with clear rewards–are more motivating than just, “here you go… keep going.”

Hmm, “just ‘here you go… keep going.'” In my EFL classes, am I offering more motivation than that? I’ve bookmarked the entry because there’s more in this post that I might use to improve my teaching.

(Check out the neat, simple, graphics Parelli uses, which exemplify blogging tip #5 “present your ideas visually”. They reminded me of another “tips” post by math teacher dan meyer on how not to use Powerpoint. Be sure to click thru the links. I love the post-it-photo-presentation. And Miranda July’s presentation using her kitchen appliances is hilarious.)

I got fired up about vocab acquisition after reading Paul Nation. I think vocab acquisition could provide some clear milestones for students. I also was impressed by math teacher Dan Meyer’s ideas on assessment, and his article on the subject got me thinking. One of the problems I think my students have with learning English is the apparent slow pace of progress and the difficulty in getting clear, “milestone”-like feedback on how they are doing. With motivated students, this isn’t a major issue (tho still an issue), but with students who a) are not sure whether they are interested in English or not, and b) will likely have almost no chance to use English after they graduate (and know it), little sticks and carrots like these become more important (and I can’t make up my mind if a “milestone” is a stick or a carrot).

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