The Canadian university academic year has come to a close; all that stands between my students and their summer breaks are two final exams. All that stands between me and my summer break is heaps and heaps of marking (oh yeah, and the fact that I’m actually working straight through). As much as this year has flown by, it’s also given me a lot of opportunity to notice and reflect on myself as a teacher and a colleague. How do I contribute now? What areas do I need to work on? Thus, here is my list of reflections from this past academic year. Be careful that when you reflect you don’t see a perfect view. It’s much easier to summarise your year with a simple “There were some things that I could do better, but overall, everything was good.” That type of reflection can be deceiving if you don’t give it serious thought.
As a teacher
1. Preparation = a better lesson
Prepared materials vs no materials? There’s a certain debate over the effectiveness of both approaches; however, in the EAP context, especially one as integrated into a content course as mine, teacher-created materials is essential in providing customised activities for specific language aims. When you have content that doesn’t come from any ELT coursebook (or really, even when you do), you’d best put aside some time to think of how you want students to engage with it. No prep = a pipe dream.
2. Students aren’t just passes or fails
In a university context, when the stakes are high, it can be tempting to take a hands-off approach to teacher-student relationships because the more you care about them, the harder choice it will be to fail them if necessary (aside: failing those that won’t be prepared for the demands of a full courseload is necessary. If our students don’t succeed compared to direct entry students, our program won’t survive for long.) But this is nearly an impossible approach to maintain after 8 months with the same students and potentially 26 individual consultations with them. It also would be a shame. They’re all people with feelings and goals and dreams. The more you know, the more you can try to give them the tools to realise them.
3. Grading papers is subjective
When I’d receive essays back in university and got a 78, I never questioned it. I always accepted it as the absolute value of my ability, effort and ideas. Now, I know that grading open assignments is a lot less scientific than that. It’s not like you don’t know the general grade range of a piece of student writing, but beyond that, it becomes very subjective. What’s a 73 vs a 77? (To me, very little. To students, an important difference) If the pass for a course is 60 (as opposed to 50), is a 70 just a “safe pass” as opposed to a “good”? Then there’s the expectation you have of the ‘better’ students vs the ‘weaker’ students. I’ve found it necessary to cover the student’s name while marking. Beyond that, how much is a justifiable deduction for grammar? I’ve always struggled with that. In the end, remember, students will likely respond to the grade much the same way you did in university.
As a colleague
4. Open sharing is the key to collaboration
I’m lucky to work in an environment of constant resource sharing and collaboration. It makes lesson planning much easier for everyone. Of course, for this to be successful, everyone needs to contribute, perhaps not equally, but where they can. If how and what they contribute match up with their skills and interests too, even better. Encourage this type of group effort and show by example. One thing I’ve learnt is not to keep track of the amount of each person’s contributions. It’s not worth the emotion.
5. Too many cooks
Sure, collaboration and group effort is spectacular, but it can also lead to duplication of work and difficult decision-making. Without some discussion, a group of 5+ teachers, with the best of intentions, can create activities to share with colleagues, only to realise once sent and received, that much of the practice activities are duplicated. Similarly, if planning is the task at hand, having five people come to an agreement on an issue can be challenging, not to mention the fact that five personalities and conversation styles can conflict. Sometimes breaking workload and planning into committees with fewer brains isn’t a bad thing.
6. Try your patience
Yes, working with colleagues provides opportunity for sharing and collaboration, but it can also lead to conflict and irritation. We’re all human. It’s bound to happen. It’s ok. How you deal with it is what’s worth some contemplation. I must admit that my patience has been tried nearly to its max this past year. Attitudes, behaviour and even blatant error have crossed my path. At times, I’ve wanted to explode, but instead have calmly discussed my feelings when asked or just walked away (although I’ve let my feelings be known through body language I’m sure). For me, it’s still an area that deserves my attention.
Great, great post, Tyson. I’m in a fairly similar teaching context to you and this made for compelling reading. The questionnaires really gave me something to think about,too.
Genuine THANKS for this one.
So glad it appealed to you thanks to your context, Adam! It’s one of the first times I’ve used polls in my posts. I’m up to my eye balls in marking now. Soon, soon, soon I’ll be done marking and everyone will know their results.
Tyson – loved this. One of your best to date 😉 The polls really work for you.
Thanks Tony. It’s necessary to look back before looking forward. Part 2 will come soon.
thought-provoking. Though also at university in a slightly different context I recognise a lot of what you’re saying. We have now gone to the other extreme with assessment forms which indicate to the letter what students need to include in their essays etc. So extreme they have become more like a to-do/cross off list which discourages ‘real’ writing. Sometimes students fail though you know their work is good but they miss a couple of points in their work and others pass who have included all the necessary points but their essays are simply not that great. I think you shouldn’t worry too much about the differences in grades and would recommend making clear rubrics for yourself and not being tempted into a too finely determined system such as we have.
Sage advice from a futuristic-sounding extreme! Thanks, Louise. When we have written fairly straight-forward rubrics, I have noticed the same end occurring: passing just for correct inclusions and perhaps strong grammar. Ideas though? Weak. It’s hard to correctly value the different parts in a language course.
Having not yet taught in Canada i cannot say what the significance (weight/percentage) of the final exam is, or should be, but having been fortuitous enough to set my own syllabi in Japan, “the final” was always a small portion of the overall assessment. Depending on the class (Writing, Oral Communication, etc.) the percentages change, but most of the work had already been done by the end of the semester. I chose to use a combination of self-, peer- and teacher marking in most cases, and here’s a little hint for (non-writing) class paper tests: self marking. If the class period is 90 minutes, make the test about 75, and have then have the students mark them. Not their own, but anonymously, and even if there is a writing section, they can grade the others. Saves me a ton of time…
I agree that peer-marking works out well for more tests with more obvious answers, but ours tends to fall largely in some interpretation degrees, so that just didn’t seem to work, given the stakes.
Our mid-term and final exams tend to be about 20% of the semester itself, with many smaller assignments making up the rest. This allows for students to mess up one without destroying their final grades. On one hand, this is good, but on the other, it’s a lot more marking for instructors themselves–something I’ve begun to regret.
OK, understood about the interpretation factor. For my tests the bulk have been multiple choice and cloze; no guess work. And then I mark the writing sections myself. I find the students really appreciate knowing their mark right away, too, so most of them prefer self- and peer marking. Still, a big part of most teachers’ jobs is marking papers. Just gotta get in the zone, no distractions, and do it! Good luck this/next week!
Thanks Chris. It’s a full month coming up of marking end-of-year projects. It does come down to just doing it.
We’re all divided on the multiple-choice test type. On one hand, if we’re preparing students for the authentic tasks they’ll encounter next year, then we have to accept that some tests will definitely have that component. Yet doing so goes against really the type of comprehension we value. So, to be compromise, we often have one multiple-choice question mixed in: identifying the main idea of the text.
I know what you mean about the whole multiple choice test conundrum. I seem to recall you are teaching EAP, right? It’s so different here in Japan, although I have used some ESP texts for nursing and chemistry. I like your idea for the identifying main idea through m-c questions, though, works both ways. Off topic, but did you/are you watching any of the IATEFL conference? Their Pecha Kucha session was last night, hosted by a former prof, Jeremy Harmer. I hope they show videos! Ciao for now,
No, I haven’t seen any of IATEFL yet. I probably should (and will).