Category Archives: objectives

Blogging with students (2)

This post follows my previous entry on Blogging with students.

Today I had another session with the one class I teach this year where we are using the Internet as an integral part of the class. Yesterday, I wrote a model blog entry in order to

  • encourage them to write in English
  • show them what I expect in a blog entry

Because part of this course is reading news articles in English, vocabulary-building is obviously key. Having attended a workshop given by the creators of Lexxica last year, I signed up for an account, created a group for my students and today had them take the Lexxica vocab assessment test, V-check. It is really quite impressive. I also invited them to play with the games and flashcards and to write a brief response on their blogs.

Apart from the course title, I have been given no directives, guidance or objectives for this course, which will not surprise those who read an earlier blog entry on instructional objectives and university EFL classes (in Japan). So I have to make my own.

Although it’s a little late (almost at the end of the first semester!), better late than never, eh? I’m making my own list, but I thought I would ask the students what they expected from the course. This isn’t as dumb as it sounds (really!). (If you agree this isn’t dumb, skip to the next blog entry).

Over 10 years ago, when I first started writing course descriptions (because there weren’t any), it was because I was interviewing English native-speakers for part-time positions and they kept embarrassing me by rudely asking “where’s the course description?” Imagine! I approached my Japanese colleagues about this, first to check that there weren’t any, second, to obtain guidance and third to see if the department could show consistency and fairness by creating course descriptions for all the department courses, not just those taught by English native-speakers (the furriners).

Guess what I found out, boys and girls? Oh, Japanese teachers don’t need course descriptions; they already know what to teach. How? From the course title.

So if it’s called “Eigo Hyougen” (English Expression), for instance, everyone knows that it’s a writing-in-English class to be taught mainly in Japanese and asking students to translate discrete, context-less items from Japanese into English. Got it? How come you didn’t know that? The joys of living in a high-context culture.

So you see, as participants since birth in this high-context culture, my students are likely to have a much better idea of what this class is than I do.

Asking them is also a smart move because, even if they don’t know, in this culture it seems that often the standard is what people expect; therefore, if I first find out what my students expect from this class, and follow that, I probably won’t go far wrong.

(An example: if a course has a title written in Roman script, and is taught by someone with a non-Japanese name, then it’s probably “Eikaiwa” (English conversation), regardless of what the course description says. I recently heard of the case where a university year-book was being produced and photos and short profiles were being prepared for all the teaching staff, of which there were quite a few non-Japanese, some of whom taught Engineering, some of whom taught English. Regardless, all the furriners had the caption “English instructor” pasted under their photo. They’re furrners, right? What the hell else they going to teach?!? What planet are you from?!?!)

Blogging with students

This post follows on from my post Assessing student blogs.

I created a blog entry and asked students to write their own blog entry using mine as a model. Here’s my model below. Any comments or suggestions as a model blog post are of course welcome. There are 6 points about this blog entry I pointed out to students:

  1. The topic
  2. The title, where I found it and a link to the original article.
  3. Flesh out some detail of the topic – the “what?”
  4. and of the people referred to in it – the “who?” – with links to resource websites (in this case Wikipedia in English and Japanese) so that readers who are unfamiliar with the names or references can find out more about them.
  5. Two key points of the article.
  6. A personal comment, in this case implying why I selected this article.

My blog today is about sport. It is about tennis.

I found this news article on the BBC website. The title is “Sharapova and Mauresmo go through”.

It is about the Wimbledon tennis championship, which is taking place now. Wimbledon (in Japanese here) is a suburb of London, and it is famous for the Wimbledon tennis championship (in Japanese here) which takes place there every year in June.

This article is about the Russian tennis player Sharapova (in Japanese here).

The article says that Sharapova beat the French player Severine Bremond 6-0 6-3, so she is still in the championship. Her next game will be against the Japanese player Ai Sugiyama.

I like tennis. I used to play when I was younger. I used to watch
Wimbledon on television every year.

"Attendance" and "instructional objectives" connection

Last year I blogged about taking attendance in Japanese university classes, particularly about the tendency by so many people in higher education in Japan to use attendance as a measure of achievement, or at least as a factor when calculating final grades.

I’ve been thinking about it again more recently, after reading Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, and I’ve found a link: vague instructional objectives which specify instructional procedure but not desired student performance (what students are expected to be able to do as a result of the instructor’s instruction) seem to often accompany this tendency to stress attendance in a certain number of class-hours as an important factor in calculating final grades.

When I think about it, it’s obvious: what else is there? If you don’t have a clear idea of what you expect students to be able to do as a result of your instruction, there’s not a lot left to go on when calculating grades except how many classes they’ve attended. Granted, if you need some actual figures, you can always drum some up by having a final exam and by giving students quizzes, or assigning homework and giving them a grade for that, and I suspect this is what a lot of teachers do: I’m guilty, too: I have given quizzes primarily for the (unspoken) purpose of having numbers I can calculate for a final grade.

In the afore-mentioned book, which I heartily recommend (it’s a very easy read, written in a breezy, humorous style), Mager writes,

Instructors function in a fog of their own making unless they know what they want their students to accomplish as a result of their instruction.

I was reminded of this today after watching an “open” class taught by a Japanese literature professor at the university. The only clear instructional objective I could glean from her explanation and from her published syllabus was “students will be able to pass the exam I set”.

In addition, there was no clear objective for this particular class; there was nothing for students to do except listen and take notes; there was no task, or any opportunity for students to participate.

I’m still a long way from making and adhering to clear instructional objectives myself, but it seems a most worthwhile professional objective at this time, although I’m surrounded by people who think the following is an instructional objective (says me with the sneer of the freshly converted):

Next year will be the 1,000th anniversary of the publishing of The Tale of Genji. This lecture series will survey the 1,000 years of history since the writing of the Tale of Genji to the present day, with that work of literature as a focal point.

This is what the instructor will do. What will the students be able to do as a result of this series of lectures?

OK, perhaps not all university subjects easily yield to such an approach; some might argue, with reason, that some subjects are studied for more intangible benefits. Yet surely there can be few subjects that might not benefit from the rigorous examination that is required when creating clear instructional objectives.

Instructional objectives in university EFL classes

On Harold Jarche’s blog, I found a post about a book called Analyzing Performance Problems. Thinking it might help me analyze why my students don’t “perform” (i.e. study, learn, practice) as well as I think they should, I borrowed it via the inter-library loan and read it. Fascinating. Helped me look at what goes on in my classrooms from a different perspective.

I then ordered Preparing Instructional Objectives by Mager (one of the co-authors of “Analyzing”) and was again fascinated. It forced me to examine the following

1) what are the students required to be able to do by the end of the course?

2) what are the skills required in order to be able to begin (undertake) the course?

3) what criteria attend the performance objective(s) (under what conditions will the learners be expected to perform)?

Mager gives examples of “instructional objectives” which aren’t: they are procedural instructions or refer to what the instructor will do, but make no mention of what the learners will be able (and expected) to do by the end of the course. E.g. “In this course the instructor will cover the Middle Ages, the Renaissance,… “

I take a look at the syllabi and course descriptions I have been given and the ones I have created. Uh-oh. Almost none refer to what students are expected to be able to do by the end of the course.

Topics are listed, and in some cases notions and functions, but not much that could be clearly labelled an instructional objective. No criteria are given, either. In other words, how am I expected to assess the students? In writing? With an oral exam? And if the latter, what kind?

In one case, I have been told I’m expected to give an oral exam at the end of the semester (next month), but no specifics are offered in terms of objectives or criteria.

Actually, that is not quite true. I have been given one unequivocal condition:

We also ask that during these final exam sessions, students not be allowed to leave early. Students can be given written work to keep them occupied while other students are performing their speaking tests, for example. Even if teachers cannot be in the room, physically, they are expected to provide work for the students to do to keep them in the classroom until the end of the class period.

A point Mager makes in his book is that, if instructional objectives are clear, this should leave the instructor free to achieve those objectives in his/her own way and his/her own time: if the objectives can be achieved in 6 hours instead of 10, great.

I have spoken with other instructors about instructional objectives, i.e. what are our students expected to be able to DO by the end of the course? Generally speaking, the Westerners are sympathetic to this approach whereas the Japanese are not and raise all kinds of objections. A recent one was, “what about the slower learners? Won’t they feel frustrated and badly treated if they are the only ones left in the classroom at the end while everyone else has left early?”

My interpretation: a class is a group. In a collectivist society, the group is paramount. In other words, the purpose of having a class is to create a group, and this is more important than actually learning anything. I recently met a student who was in my class last year; she said, “Everyone in that class still has a strong esprit-de-corps”. They all bonded. How nice.

I had this exchange last year with an older Japanese woman who was auditing one of my classes: I was asking why I am expected to take attendance in class, and why attendance is given such weight in Japan, pointing out that attendance was never taken at any university class I attended in the UK. I also gave my friend’s example: he had figured out early in his first year that lecturers were reading out info that was already in books in the library; he therefore studied the books and didn’t go to any lectures. He passed the final exam with flying colours. This lady was outraged: this seemed to deeply offend her sense of justice – it was unfair that he should be given the same graduating certificate as the others when he had not put in the equivalent time in class!

I have also experimented with such an instructional objective approach in a freshmen EFL class: there were 10 speaking tasks; students had to practice them until they could perform them satisfactorily. Part of the idea was to allow those who were superior in ability to finish early, because the administration forbade us from granting some students the credits for that class without taking the class, even if the pre-test showed that they were well above the target level of ability.

This experiment did not work well, as basically, students did not practice and simply goofed off. Despite repeated explanations (in their native language), they seemed to completely fail to grasp what we were trying to achieve. Instead they sat there, waiting to be taught.

This experience, together with administrative intransigence with regard to allowing students to “test out” of basic classes, re-inforced my belief that credits are awarded primarily for time spent in the classroom, this being the clearest “instructional objective” I have yet been given. Parents pay for so many hours in the classroom, and this is what teachers must provide. If a teacher misses a class, he or she is expected (in many institutions) to make it up to ensure that students are provided their full quota of 15 90-minute sessions per semester. I understand this, but I also chafe: it fosters a lack of clarity in terms of performance objectives. Apparently, no-one seems to have a clear idea of what students are expected to be able to do after their 15 90-minute sessions.