Class constructs: creating my own (part 1)

I blogged previously about the possibility of creating a construct for a short term class in order to keep teaching and testing in line with one another. There is also the advantage that your construct can be shared with students as a form of class goal, and activities can be justified to students in terms of it (especially if they are of the less fun variety). As a brief recap, a construct is a short statement of what you will teach and test, how you will go about it and the expected results and standards. In this post, I will document the first part of the process of creating my own construct.

At the end of the last post I looked at 4 areas that need to be considered in creating a construct. These were:

  • Assessment (& teaching) context (Students, institution, geographical location, purpose and score use and tester).
  • Assessment (& teaching) procedures (What students are expected to do in class and exams)
  • Construct definition (What do you mean by the terms used to describe your class – what is “English”, “Conversation” or “Speaking” for this class?)
  • Models and Frameworks (How can you justify the above with reference to clever people or yourself?)

In this post I will try to outline my thoughts on the first two areas.

Assessment and Teaching Context

A good place to start here is asking who my students are. In my case this also covers a lot of the geographical and institutional factors. Beautiful and unique snowflakes that they of course are, my lot do form quite a usefully homogenous group in two ways. Firstly, they are all Korean and are products of the educational culture here, and secondly they are all students at a polytechnic university. This allows me to make some guiding assumptions:

  • Their English education will have been largely reading and listening focused, and grammar and vocabulary will often have been decontextualized and almost always depersonalized. If they have encountered speaking they have not been especially successful in learning it. I’d venture to say that they have generally learned English as an academic subject rather than a language.
  • They are not taking English as a major, and so they are unlikely to be learning it out of a love for the subject (though this is possible). They are more likely to be learning it out of long-term pragmatic value, but in the short-term their grade is the most important factor. Their future careers are more likely to require practical, rather than perfect, English.

In terms of assessment purpose and score use, one or two things are worth considering. Firstly, I’m aiming to assess achievement not proficiency. In other words, someone who makes a great effort and improves from 0 to intermediate should theoretically score higher than an initially high-intermediate speaker who improves little. Secondly, assessment is not only in terms of exams, but performed continuously over the term through participation, quizzes, projects and 1:1 conversation. The scores have a very narrow use, which is assigning grades for the term. However these grades may dictate scholarships, so it is important that they accurately reflect effort and achievement.

One final consideration is who the assessor is. For the most part it is me, but I do feel that student views should play a part in assessment as well, especially in something as subjective as participation. I think allowing students to play a part in scoring themselves and others also helps to motivate them, as well as keeping complaints down at final grading time.

Assessment and Teaching Procedures

In assessing and teaching the course I want to take the notion of “conversation” as literally as possible.  By this I mean that the aim of the course will be to develop the ability to hold medium length conversations in English on a few topics, and we will learn to do this by having short conversations throughout the course, which will serve as a framework for practicing useful lexis, conversational skills and strategies and a little bit of grammar.

Given this aim it makes sense for the mid-term and final speaking exams to take the form of conversations. This will form the principal drive for the course, and students will be expected to apply what they have learned during class in the exams. The length of the exam is important, as it should be sufficient to pose a real challenge to students (or at least appear to).

Also significant is the number of participants. This is a really interesting question that I am still working on puzzling out. My preference in the past has been for 4 person speaking assessments. I believe that they pose a greater degree of challenge in terms of organizing turns and dealing with multiple inputs. They’re also practically much easier to arrange and going back to the length, I think that a 25 minute 4 person exam sounds more difficult than a 12.5 minute group conversation. The potential downside to this is that a lot of my classwork is done in pairs, though there is nothing to say that I couldn’t up group size over the course of a semester.

Another thing to figure out is the role of written exams. It is institutionally mandated that 50% of my mid-term and final exams is a written paper. What, then, is the role of writing in conversation? Listening might provide some of those marks, perhaps choosing the right answer to a question. The discrimination of similar sounds could also be included.  I also think that common errors that we point out in class should have a role. Finally, vocabulary and lexis in the form of gap fills will be important, as well as subtler shades of meaning that we talked about in class that simply won’t come up in a speaking exam. As far as possible, I would like to avoid grammar transformation exercises and reading passages. 

All of this and I’m only really through talking about final assessments. Ongoing assessments (quizzes and participation scores) should also be generally conversation based, and reflect the effort made to actually have conversations, on the basis that conversational skills cover a wide range of areas, and are probably subject to individual variation. It’s developing an individual ability to have conversations that I am most interested in during this course. Partly this can be taught directly in terms of strategies and language  but partly this is something that you figure out for yourself by getting involved. The course needs to both offer opportunities to do this and reward them when they are taken.

To bring this post to a conclusion, as I am already over my self-imposed 1,000 word guideline, my teaching and assessment aims should be to improve speaking as this is the area in which my students need most improvement. A conversation based approach gives an opportunity for personalizing the language as well as providing a reasonably well defined structure for assessment (see the next post). Conversation must form the basis for ongoing and final assessment of achievement on the course, with an emphasis on fluency and communication skills rather than accuracy (or complexity especially). The ability to deal with small group work is thought to be important, as is the ability to function in English speaking environments for a slightly longer duration.

In the next post I’m going to tackle my description of conversation. I hope you’ll be there to read it. In the meantime if you have comments, questions or suggestions, please leave them below the line.

Cheers,

Alex

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5 responses to “Class constructs: creating my own (part 1)

  1. Another very interesting post. One thing I noticed and have a question about: you wrote, “someone who makes a great effort and improves from 0 to intermediate should theoretically score higher than an initially high-intermediate speaker who improves little.” How does your construct account for the high-intermediate student who has plateau-ed and doesn’t show much improvement in spite of his effort? Does he get an ‘F’? Isn’t it easier to see a great deal of improvement if you start at zero and if the class is taught to beginner level than if you start at a higher level, especially if the class is taught to beginner level? (I hope my question makes sense and please correct me if I’ve misunderstood something about your construct.)

  2. Your question makes perfect sense, and I’m going to dodge it! That wasn’t a particularly good choice of words as it makes it sound like classes here are mixed ability. They’re actually levelled, so that situation doesn’t ever really happen. Also very few of the students who I meet speak very well at the start of the course, so there’s a lot of room for improvement regardless of initial ability. Apologies for the poor wording initially.

    If that situation were to happen however, I’d probably try to write a construct that defined improvement in terms of accuracy, fluency and complexity and find some way to assess improvement week by week if possible, but I think assessing it would be tough and probably just trying to make the best of a bad situation.

    A

  3. Hi! Conversation based assessments are less stressful for students. When it’s in the form of conversation, they can be spontaneous and comfortable. I focus less on accuracy but focus more on their interpersonal skills, whether they can recognize their mistakes, explain logically and recognize humor and sarcasm.

    • Hi Lauren,

      Thanks very much for the comment.

      I certainly agree with the less stressful part – my speaking exams have gone very well. I don’t assess accuracy either, but I’ve learnt from these exams that I would like to place a greater focus on interpersonal skills and spontaneity in the next ones. Sadly, I’m not sure mine are ready for sarcasm yet :)

      Alex

  4. Pingback: Reflecting on my speaking exams | The Breathy Vowel

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