Thoughts on beliefs, feedback, and institutional constraints on curriculum

Kay Irie and Rachelle R. Meilleur discuss issues and events of interest to the LD SIG

Kay: In our previous dialogues in January and February, we talked about portfolio and evaluation which made me think about how teachers and students evaluate the class/course itself. The course evaluation by both teachers and students should be the basis of the course design and essential to the students’ and teachers’ motivation and satisfaction. Since there’s a talk about starting up a journal review in the monthly get-together in Tokyo, I thought I would try to read something on this topic for our Talking Points this month.

The article I chose is Student’s and teacher’s ideals of effective Business English teaching by Trinder and Herles (2013). In this study, the authors looked into the beliefs held by both teachers and students about “good” English and effective language learning, and what they think about the existing curriculum. The context is quite different from ours as this study is situated in a Business English program at Vienna University of Economics and Business, the largest university in Austria, where many students have working experience or a strong awareness of Business English lingua franca (BELF), and the participants were all advanced levels. Yet, the article points out issues common to many formal EFL instructional settings. It also gave me an opportunity to think about what my beliefs are about teaching and learning as well as how I haven’t been paying much attention to my students’ belief and expectation in my teaching.

One of the first things that resonated with me in this paper was the institutional constraints placed on the curriculum design. I’ve been developing and teaching courses in a large-scale unified curriculum with many aspects of the courses predetermined for teachers and students. It is indeed a quandary that exists in many formal teaching contexts. For example, in the program where I used to work, we had to give a unified exam across all levels of classes in the same course (approximately 7000 students per year). In the eyes of the university administration and the MEXT, they are all taking the same course so they had to take the same exams and be evaluated on the same grading scale. Since different levels use different textbooks, the exams end up looking like proficiency exams rather than achievement exams. As you can imagine, many teachers are frustrated with this evaluation system and students are discouraged. I wonder if you’ve experienced such stringent external restrictions on your classes and how you have coped with the situation?

Another point is also the accuracy and the feedback. Many students say that they love to be corrected or given feedback on grammatical points and pronunciation by their teachers whereas many teachers see too much emphasis on such corrective feedback. For writing classes, I asked the students individually how they want their feedback – correction, identification of errors using symbols or underlines, or no identification of individual errors but only comments. I asked students to identify the type of feedback they wanted for each assignment. If there was no request, I just underlined grammatical errors and places that needed to be rewritten. I did this based on my belief in the importance of choice and to meet the students’ different learning styles. But I don’t think I ever considered whetherthis practice of giving different feedback is perceived to be “effective” instruction by the students.

Rachelle: You raise several good points Kay. I too often wonder at the differences between what the students consider effective feedback, and what teachers actually do. Like you, I have asked students to tell me what they prefer, but there was never any strong consensus one way or another. Of course, the type of feedback we give in one type of class (e.g., writing) will differ from others. Like many of the teachers mentioned in the article, I refrain from singling out individual students in giving feedback, and generally do it in a more generic way to the entire class, or semi-privately to the student. This is partly an assumption based on teaching Japanese students, and I wonder if their preferences would differ significantly from the Austrian students? Or perhaps it has less to do with culture and more with language ability?

Kay: And perhaps personality and preferred learning styles, too. Many first year students don’t have any preference or opinion as they are likely to have never given any thought or opportunity to choose the kind of feedback they wanted when they were in high school. Now I look back, although I gave a choice to my students, I really didn’t explain enough about the purposes and desired outcome among the different types of feedback they could choose. I could have used it as a chance to raise students’ awareness about the role of teacher’s feedback and for the students and me to share our “secret” beliefs about the nature of language learning so that, as Sarah Cotterall (1995) said, we can “construct a shared understanding of the language learning process and of the part they [the students] play in it.”

Rachelle: Another issue with giving feedback is institutional constraints, especially for multi-skill classes like the ubiquitous “English Communication” classes that are prevalent in many universities in Japan. In my experience, both in my own classes and in discussing these issues with other teachers, although there is a desire to teach all four skills somewhat equally, generally the classes focus on speaking and listening while trying to cover a certain number of topics/themes throughout the semester. As such, while there may be regular feedback given from class to class, it may be on such diverse areas (reading, writing, pronunciation, speaking, etc.) that students do not really get a chance to internalize it.

Kay: I see what you mean. When there is no strong focus on any particular area, it is hard to give feedback systematically and meaningfully, isn’t it? I suppose you must tie them with tasks that lead to formal assessments.

Rachelle: Finally, I would like to address your first point about the constraints our institutions put on us and our students. I have experienced this both at the institutional level and the program level. At some universities in Japan, as well as at the university I taught at in France, all students had to take the same final exam, regardless of who their teacher was, and it has always resulted in tensions from the teachers, due to their differing teaching styles. Similarly, I’ve been in situations where students were required to get a certain score on the TOEIC in order to continue their program and/or graduate. While that tended to create a “teaching to the test” scenario in the classroom, I did not mind it as much as the program restraints, where often the final assessments were created by individuals who had no real training or background in what they were doing. To be fair, I am not saying that that is a requirement for creating large-scale assessments, but I do think it is important to take into consideration teachers’ concerns about the validity and fairness of the assessment, and not just force it on them in a heavy-handed manner. I understand the institution’s needs in having a standardized assessment, but as you’ve mentioned, it does not often match up with the needs of the students and teachers. The only way I have been able to cope with this type of situation is to ensure that I have enough of my own in-class assessments that let both me and my students know where they are at the local level.

How about you Kay? How have you dealt with these types of institutional constraints? Do you see any ways on how to improve the situation?

Kay: Teaching beginner-level students in the unified curriculum across all majors and departments was particularly difficult. Like you, I tried to set up tasks that encourage continuous effort over the semester for the limited portion of the grade allocated as teachers’ points. But I believe talking to the curriculum committees and expressing your dissatisfaction and providing constructive feedback do help. The program I was working for is making changes such as replacing an in-class midterm writing test on a designated topic to a process writing task and trying to incorporate unit listening quizzes in addition to the unified final exam. Changes are slow for a big program but I think it is important to keep talking among ourselves and to the institution about the need to change. I was talking to people at Sophia University who are involved in the massive curriculum changes they are currently making to the compulsory English courses. What they have found to be most effective is collecting data, some kind of evidence to support their points and proposal and to get the administration staff involved in the process. Since many universities now offer unified English curriculums for English language requirements, it will be interesting to talk about the process of changes and improvements which often require a difficult negotiation with the administration or the management.

As always, we’d like to ask you to share your experiences (and war stories!) both in and out of the classroom here on our blog.

Cotterall, S. (1995). “Readiness for autonomy: Investigating learner beliefs.” System 23, 195-205.

Trinder, R., & Herles, A. (2013). “Students’ and teachers’ ideals of effective Business English teaching.” ELT Journal, 67 (2), 220-229.

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