Back to paper: supporting university student learning in the age of screens

Two years ago I had a particularly revealing experience in one of my classes. As I walked around monitoring student work, I noticed that at least two thirds of them were using their lap-top computer for purposes unrelated to the class. It was March, and many of them were editing drafts of their TFG (end of degree dissertation). Others were chatting on Whatsapp. Many were doing both.

Laptops abound in class!

Students sometimes come to class with the idea that they can sit through the session minding their own business and somehow make up for it at home, just reading through the Powerpoint presentation. That may be so in cases of traditional lecturer-centered instruction, but it is misled in the kind of student-centered learning scenarios recommended in this blog. And even more so when students are trying to process concepts and ideas in a foreign language, as in many EMI settings.

That same year, I visited PH Zug, in Switzerland, where I was initially surprised by my Swiss colleague’s use of a course package much resembling the ones I used in my student time in the 1990s. A paper package in the age of Moodle and e-campuses?

Sample pages from an ELT Methodology package used at PH Zug, Switzerland

Looking at its contents, I noticed that it offered a nice combination of theory, tasks and, perhaps more importantly, space and boxes for students to record their notes. I shared this with my colleagues back at Comillas and, while not moving away from Moodle-centered documentation, we have lately been handing out a number of worksheets such as the one below:

The rationale is simple. In an age in which students are reluctant to take notes, worksheets help students to have an outline of the class, as well as an opportunity (if not an obligation) to keep a record of their tasks and discussions – and this without the need to open the laptop. And even if the students choose to complete the worksheet in digital format (also available), the task-oriented nature of such documents help them stay focused, instead of drifting off.

Further, in EMI settings, we have found that the worksheet approach helps to scaffold group work, peer discussion and, especially, speaking in the foreign language during feedback stages.

As perhaps the most obvious con, this approach uses more paper…so let’s make sure our paper is recycled!

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Scaffolding EMI classes at university I: Pre-lecture activation

The following entries discuss some strategies that I have found to be consistently helpful during my years of experience with EMI at university. They address the fact, explained in another article, that teacher talk by itself tends to be less effective when both teacher and students are working in a language they are not fully proficient in.

These strategies fall under the general label of learner-centred instruction – what in Spain has been called metodologías activas. As I’ve written elsewhere, I generally believe that such methodologies tend to be more effective than traditional teacher-focused instruction (clases magistrales) with most students and in most scenarios.

  1. Pre-lecture activation tasks

If the class is to be cognitively demanding, it is a good idea to plan for some activation tasks. Students need to warm up, as it were, and connect with their previous knowledge of the topic discussed, in order to better understand what is coming.

In the case of EMI, students will also welcome activation of language: concepts that have already been discussed, or language items that will be useful to talk about them. Remember that learning in a foreign language (FL) requires an extra effort, as well as increased exposure to the target language – mainly, because the concepts are harder to spell, pronounce, and memorize than if they were taught in L1.

What are some possible activities? Structured brainstorms, review questions, problem-solving tasks…

kwlbrainstorm

KWL brainstorm  at the beginning of a unit

 

  1. Using authentic texts

Furthermore, learning in EMI contexts benefits greatly from offering the students multimodal inputs. That is, not just teacher talk + Powerpoint presentations, but also offering texts, video materials…

In my previous entry, I wrote about the language benefits of using authentic texts. Think whether you can expose students to authentic or adapted materials in your field: reports, technical sheets, textbook chapters, newspaper or magazine articles, TED Talks.

When doing so, it is advisable to set specific, manageable tasks. That is, instead of “read pages 7-18 before next class”, “read pages 7-18 and prepare answers to the following questions” / “identify the main reasons why….” / “make a list of the most important principles of…”

Homework reading can then become a pre-lecture task, and the class can start with feedback on the reading.

authentic text EMI

An authentic, yet heavily scaffolded text in the field of Economics

 

  1. Fostering occasions for peer collaboration – also in your classroom!

Peer collaboration is a very powerful tool. Research in education has suggested that  that peer explanation tends to be more effective than teacher explanation, and is especially valuable as a scaffold for weaker students.

peer collaboration

Students collaborate; the instructor monitors and assists as necessary

In the case of EMI, remember that the scaffolds need to be not only cognitive/content related but, also, linguistic. So, don´t be afraid to allow time in class for students to do tasks or solve problems in pairs or groups!

To continue with the example given before, students can read an authentic text for homework, prepare answers to some questions, and then you can begin the class with a brief period (10 minutes) for students to compare their answers, and maybe do a follow-up task, before you conduct the feedback and teach or clarify any content.

Tip – If you have very large groups, where oral feedback and reporting can be hard to manage, ask students for a written outcome. This can be submitted on paper or shared online (shared document such as Google Docs, or using apps such as Kahoot or Mentimeter).

Conclusion

After this discussion, let’s compare two possible sequences, a traditional instruction centered one, and a more learner-centered, “scaffolded” version

Instruction centered – little scaffolding Learner – centered, more scaffolding
Teacher explains content for the entire length of the class. Very few interruptions from students.  

Teacher sets a reading task for homework

Teacher allows time for students to compare answers

Teacher conducts feedback to the reading task. This feedback naturally leads to lecture-time, where the teacher clarifies areas of difficulty, introduces new concepts, etc.

Students take notes. Maybe some students ask for clarification. Students read the text and answer the questions.

Students compare their answers. Weaker students or students who failed to do the homework get a chance to ask for help.

All (or most) students get involved, as the teacher expects an oral or written outcome for each group.

All (or most of) the students are activated to the topic of the lecture and related English language items before the teacher-focused part of the class begins

 

What are your thoughts on these strategies? Do you think they can be effective in your own classes?

 

 

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English as Medium of Instruction (EMI) and Methodological Change

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Teacher talk in a foreign language – Use with caution!

Several years ago, a Spanish colleague who was teaching International Law to Spanish-speaking students in a university in Madrid, challenged my belief that instruction in EMI requires adapting one’s own teaching methodology.

“What do you mean I should scaffold the readings?” she asked. “I set the relevant texts, and it’s their students’ problem, not mine, to make sense of them.” Que se busquen la vida was the Spanish way of putting it.

In short, she saw the challenging of overcoming the language barrier as the students’ responsibility, exclusively, and found no need to teach her EMI course differently from how she would teach it in Spanish, both her and her students’ monther-tongue.

This short text provides a number of counter-arguments to this view, which I find is quite commonplace in EMI lecturers. It is based on my own experience teaching EMI courses and coordinating a team of EMI teachers. It is also supported by research in the field, by authors such as Emma Dafouz and David Lasagabaster.

The bottom-line is that traditional teacher-focused methodologies and instructional styles are less effective in EMI contexts than when lecturer and students are working in their L1 or a language they fully master. And, for this reason, it is my belief that most lecturers in most academic fields would gain from moving toward more learner-centered, collaborative learning methodologies that shift the attention away from teacher talk. Here are some reasons why:

1.- Teacher talk is less effective in English than in L1. Several studies have questioned EMI lecturers about the main obstacles of EMI, and many have identified the difficulty of interacting “naturally” and “spontaneously” with students.

Tellingly, one of these lecturers claimed that “for me, the biggest difference when teaching in English is that I find it hard to be spontaneous and (I believe) fun […] I can’t joke with the students, which for me is a way to keep them engaged.” (Dafouz, Núñez, Sancho y Foran 2007; cited in Dafouz 2015). Understandably, teaching styles that follow the “sage on the stage” paradigm will suffer more by switching to a foreign language.

2.- Teacher input is limited from language standpoint, and must be supplemented with materials produced by native speakers.

This is not merely a linguistic point, as it overlaps with the need for students to speak and write fluently and correctly about the subject content. This requires, for instance, effective use of academic vocabulary, lexical collocations…which are hard to master for non-native speakers.

Examples:

  • The use of the verb “conduct” together with the nouns “research” or “an interview” (lexical collocations)
  • The specific use of academic verbs such as “discuss”, “argue”, “implement”, “assess”, etc.

Teachers often share with students their own notes and Powerpoint presentations. This may come as an adequate support of content acquisition, but I believe that, for students to obtain the full benefits of EMI instruction, the course design should also provide ample opportunities for engaging with authentic and non-authentic texts (written and aural) produced by native speakers of English.

These texts can range from less to more technical, including newspaper articles and video reports, documentaries, news stories, textbook chapters, journal articles, lab reports…In turn, work on these texts should promote a more learner-centered instruction that will offer opportunities for discussion, problem-solving and so on.

3.- More profoundly, as Emma Dafouz argues (2015), courses are taught and learnt in a given disciplinar and academic culture, that might not be identical with the culture of the same course as it would be learnt and taught in L1. This is how the author represents it graphically:

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Source: (Dafouz, 2015)

 

In my experience as an EMI lecturer, it is worth it to offer students the chance of reading, say, academic essays and scientific reports published in English, as their genre requirements and conventions differ from the Spanish ones, and acquaintance with such genres are “a part of” learning those academic contents in L2. More so if we expect students to be able to speak or write in those genres as part of their coursework.

For instance, if we want students to write a Biology or Chemistry lab report in English, it makes sense that will have read, discussed and analyzed samples of lab reports published in English-speaking contexts, and not merely “translate” a lab report the way they would be done in the L1 contexts. The same is true of other academic / disciplinar genres such as debates, presentations or academic essays.

For all these reasons, as Dafouz (2015) argues, EMI lecturers would gain from promoting a more learner-centered teaching methodology, enhancing the role of the teacher as mediator of information. And offer a number of explicit scaffolds to support learners in mastering the course contents in a language neither them nor the teacher is fully proficient in. In another article I will be discussing what some of these scaffolds can be.

 

References

Dafouz Milne, E. (2015). Más allá del inglés: la competencia lingüística multi-dimensional como estrategia para la enseñanza en la universidad internacional. Educación y Futuro, 32, 15-34. The full text is available here: https://cesdonbosco.com/documentos/revistaeyf/EYF_32.pdf

 

 

 

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Seminars on EMI and CLIL at PH Zug, Switzerland

International visits and teacher mobility experiences are, without a doubt, one of the biggest perks of my job. They are enriching in so many ways, but perhaps foremost among them is that they make you see what you do back home in a new light.

In November 2018 I was lucky to visit the delightful town of Zug, close to Zurich, as part of the Swiss-European Mobility Programme. The visit was a short one – just two days of work, one of them devoted to visiting local schools, and the other one to teaching at the university.

captura de pantalla 2019-01-18 a las 11.03.46

During my day at PH Zug, I conducted seminar presentations on three topics:

  • The Comunidad de Madrid Bilingual Education Program
  • Scaffolding Instructional techniques for CLIL Primary Education
  • Effective scaffolding of learning in EMI higher education courses

It was definitely fascinating to try to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of such an ambitious CLIL program as the one we have in Madrid together with students and teachers who are working in a context where there are very limited CLIL experiences, mainly some EMI instruction in public high schools.

IMG_20181128_180312_314.jpg

With Dr Olivia Green, who kindly organized my timetable of teaching and school visits

It was also exciting hearing about how PH Zug’s gradual efforts at implementing EMI in teacher training courses is contributing to the university’s internationalization, and at the same time is welcome by the national German-speaking students.

More so, there is also some work being done on using French as a medium of instruction, and promoting French CLIL in German-speaking schools. I can’t think of a better way of promoting a true multilingualism and building bridges between the different language communities of such a diverse country as Switzerland.

In an age where the European integration project has come under attack, it’s inspiring to be able to enjoy experiences of international cooperation and sharing of ideas as the ones I enjoyed during my short stay in Zug.

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Who’s who at the college. What a great idea!

 

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Our Co-teaching experience: An assessment after year 1

In the previous entry, I was reflecting on the challenge of planning and delivering a university course in a truly collaboratively way.

Well, my colleagues Magdalena Custodio and Lyndsay Buckingham and myself just presented an analysis of our first year of co-teaching together, in the framework of Instituto Franklin’s 4th International Conference on Bilingual Education in a Globalized World, that took place in Alcalá de Henares on November 16-18, 2018.

You may find a summary of our theoretical framework, as well as a description of our experience and main findings here:

On top of improving our co-taught coursework this year, we hope to build a more systematic research framework and investigate what makes co-teaching a positive factor in our classes, and to what extent exposure to this strategy can influence teacher trainees in their professional growth.

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The CLIL Team!

 

 

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The need to go beyond an individualistic conception of teaching at university

I am currently in the process of planning a 4th year course on Content and Language Integrated Learning at Universidad Pontificia Comillas. Now, as you may know this is one of the courses I’ve been teaching for the last 5 years, and pride myself on contributing, albeit modestly, to my students becoming effective CLIL subject teachers.

Well, the special thing this year is that I will be teaching the two sections of the course together with two other teachers – not splitting sections into sub-sections as originally planned, but following a team-teaching strategy. That’s spending a lot of time together in class, but using the extra humanpower (so to speak) to better monitor student’s individual and group work, provide better feedback, and have an alternative vision to the leading teacher’s.

Now, this is bound to be challenging and, in all cases, more work for the three of us. But, the more I think, the more I feel it will help overcome my limitations as a teacher and, why not, send a strong symbolic message to the student teachers who’ll benefit from our work.

We teachers tend to be individualistic – our method, our students, our classroom (with our doors conveniently shut, of course). At CES Don Bosco, my previous institution, I was lucky enough to teach the same teacher trainees over a period of three years. This was useful in so many ways, and one of my targets was to develop some language and teaching skills across several subjects and years: skills such as effective public speaking, lesson planning skills or basic language awareness. Effective as that might have proved, I feel that these and other skills would have been better integrated by students had my colleagues teaching in the EFL specialism and I managed to work in a more coordinated way so as to give students a greater sense of continuity and cohesion in what they were being asked to learn.

And this is a shortcoming of the education we provide in many university programs: the fragmentation. I have been noticing during the last years -probably more since the advent of the new Grados (4 year degrees based on the European credit transfer system) and their semester-long courses, that many (maybe most) students don’t naturally make connections between what they learn in different, yet strongly related, courses.

Once, a colleague of mine complained to me that her students were terrible at delivering presentations. Surprising, I thought, as those same students had done terrific work on public speaking with me just a semester before. More recently, teaching Comillas Translation students, I have noticed how hard it is to get them to cite their sources consistently when writing an essay or an assignment, and closely follow a citation guide (APA, in this case). They will do it, eventually (they need it to pass), but more often than not in the next course and with the next teacher they will revert to their high school ways unless being explicitly required to follow the criteria they learned with me. And this, of course, requires coordination between the teaching staff.

The moral of all this? Well, of course it’s rewarding to be valued by what happens in your class. However, you can still hold on to your unique teaching style and have a lot of fun in class while making some compromises so that students will not only remember you, but the whole “package” they received from the institution.

John Hattie sums it up nicely in Visible Learning for Teachers (2012, p.15):

Too often, we see the essential nature of our profession as autonomy – autonomy to teach how we know best, autonomy to choose resources and methods that we think are best, and autonomy to go back tomorrow and have another chance of doing what we have already done many times. […] We have good evidence that most, if not all, of our methods, resources and teaching do have a positive effect on achievement – and many attain greater-than-average effects. The profession needs to be embracing the notions of what it is to be successful in teaching, helping all in a collaborative manner [emphasis mine] to attain this excellence, and recognizing major effects when they are evident.

team chalkboard big

 

References

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

 

 

 

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Thinking Routines in CLIL

On 20 October 2017 I delivered a tall about Thinking Routines and CLIL teaching at IV CIEB Conference. For easy reference, I have published the PowerPoint I used on Slideshare – please find it below.

 

 

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