Adult Beginners: Reflecting on what helps them learn

Learning Strategies and Reflection for my Adult Beginner Students

This semester, teaching at the Canal Alliance in San Rafael, CA, I’ve undertaken a small Action Research project.  This is a report on the first few weeks.

The Challenge:

For years I’ve been frustrated by the fact that so many of my adult low-beginner ESL students don’t have learning strategies.  They don’t seem to know what they must do to learn.  For example, when I launch a five minute pairs speaking activity, practicing a dialogue with a partner, they will do it just once, and then sit and wait for me to call the class back to order and move on to the next thing. As I see it, they are wasting a precious opportunity to practice and internalize the material by changing roles or substituting target language, and practicing the dialogue again and again.

Dialogue on board

Profile of the Students

It’s not that they aren’t motivated to learn.  I have over thirty students, who are mostly Guatemalans in their twenties, young men and a few women. They work hard during the day, often doing demanding, physical labor, and then come to an 8-10 pm class twice a week.  Clearly they want to learn English.

Over the years, I’ve observed that this behavior seems to correlate with limited formal education in students’ home country.  When I noticed this phenomenon, it was the first time I really appreciated that one of the most valuable things we learn in school is how to learn. Those who attended school longer are far more likely to embrace the notion of practicing. They do so enthusiastically, and they learn. But the others I worry about, because I believe they’re not getting as much out of the class as they could.

How to Help Students Develop Learning Strategies?

For some time I’ve been thinking about what I can do to change these students’ behavior. But recently, while researching how to develop learner strategies and autonomy, I read something that made me completely question that goal.

In MaryAnn Florez’ article “Reflective Teaching in Adult ESL Classes,” a teacher is advised “to think of ways to facilitate and foster learner input rather than ways to change her practice to accommodate the learners’ reluctance to speak.”  This was an “ah-hah!” moment for me.  It dawned on me that I need to facilitate my students’ reflection and awareness of what helps them learn! And perhaps I should stop thinking prescriptively. I would need to open myself up to learning from the students, rather than being so certain that I know what will help them learn.

Raising Students’ Awareness of What Helps Them Learn

So I decided that I would focus on raising students’ awareness of what they’re learning, how they learn it, and what works for them and what doesn’t.  As I know from my own reflective practice, this is not a skill that’s learned in an evening.  I made this initial action plan for every class:

  • Write the name of each step of the lesson on the board, and draw students’ attention to them as we progress through the class.
  • At the end of class, have students reflect on whether each of the activities did or didn’t help them learn.
  • For the first few weeks, just work on raising awareness, theirs and mine.

We could discuss the lesson in Spanish, but it happens that this semester I have a handful of students from Vietnam.  Since I don’t speak Vietnamese, using Spanish wouldn’t be appropriate.  All of the students are beginners, so talking about learning in English isn’t practical.  So I have to rely on primarily non-verbal methods of communication for the reflection and feedback.

Steps on Board

Feedback from Students

At the end of each class so far, students have been completing a form with the same list of lesson steps as was on the board, and a Likert scale of three faces (smiling, straight face, and frowning). Written above the faces in English, Spanish and Vietnamese is:

This did not help me learn     ……………………………………………     This helped me learn   

Esto no me ayudó a aprender  ……………………………………………. Esto me ayudó a aprender

Điều này đã không giúp tôi được hiểu ……………………………………..…   Điều này đã giúp tôi học được.

Individual Feedback Form

I hesitated about whether to ask students to write their names on the feedback form.  There’s an argument to be made for anonymity:  they might feel “safer” expressing their true feelings if I don’t know who made the comments.  But I opted to ask for the names for two reasons:  one is it would show them I’m interested in each individual. Second, if I didn’t know who was responding, the data would be much less useful; I wouldn’t be able to correlate feedback with students’ performance, participation and proficiency.

Validating the Feedback

Initially, I needed to confirm that students understood the purpose of the feedback form and that the feedback they gave me was actually meaningful to them.  If most of them just checked smiling faces, it would be useless. To tell the truth, I wasn’t really certain how I would know if the feedback was “real”.  Fortunately, when I looked at the results after five successive lessons, several patterns emerged, which persuaded me that I was getting valid data:

Group Feedback on a Lesson
Group Feedback on a Lesson
  • Observation #1: There are clear tendencies: straight faces and a few frowns clump around particular steps in each lesson.  My Interpretations:  If they had been randomly or evenly distributed, I wouldn’t know whether the “data” was valid.  This continuity suggests that students really are expressing how they feel about the activities.
  • Observation #2: After each lesson, the steps that students score with straight or frowning faces are predominantly in the beginning and middle of the lesson, when students are encountering and clarifying new vocabulary and grammar.  As the lesson moves towards the final steps, where students use the target language in freer, more fluent, personalized activities (such as asking for and giving their telephone numbers) the smiling faces become more numerous.  My Interpretations: This rating pattern is repeated after every class.  So one interpretation is that the earlier steps of the lesson are more uncomfortable, because students are more tentative, unsure, and don’t feel confident with the new material, but as they internalize it and are able to use it with confidence, they rate the activities positively. Unfortunately, this would also mean students are indicating what they enjoy and don’t enjoy, which isn’t necessarily the same as what helps them learn.  Another possibility is that there is something about how I set up the encounter and clarifying steps which isn’t effective.  Food for Thought.
  • Observation #3: Contrary to my expectation, the twenty percent who always mark only smiling faces aren’t necessarily the most proficient. My Interpretations: Several ideas:  Some students really enjoy class, regardless of how challenging it is; some students just don’t want to “criticize” the teacher; some students are just going through the motions and aren’t interested in reflecting or sharing what helps them learn; some students have no idea what the feedback form is about.  Inconclusive.
  • Observation #4: During one class, I forgot a couple of essential practice activities meant to help students clarify and internalize the meaning of the new vocabulary before asking them to use it in an authentic, personalized task (making a family tree).  I also assigned an activity from the textbook which (I later realized) required vocabulary that they hadn’t learned yet.  Students were confused and weren’t able to complete the activities.  My Interpretations:  This fiasco was nothing to celebrate as a teacher. But in terms of students’ reflections on the lesson, their confusion and frustration was clearly reflected in their feedback on the particularly problematic parts of the lesson, which allowed me to unequivocally validate their feedback.  (And it proved  the importance of properly sequencing and scaffolding a lesson so that students have plenty of chances to clarify and practice before they have to use new target language independently.)
  • Observation #5: Students in tight, collaborative cliques mark their feedback forms differently.  For example, there is a lovey-dovey couple who practically sit in the same chair through class.  She marks 100% smiling faces, while he always marks a few straight faces for some activities.  Three Vietnamese students who always come together and converse a lot as they work in class also mark their feedback forms differently. My Interpretations:  I might expect these tight groups to either copy one another’s answers OR reach a consensus before marking the form.  The fact that they aren’t doing either makes me believe each person is reflecting independently on their personal experience.

So I’m pleased with the initial feedback process. I believe students are doing some meta thinking about their learning. And it was exciting when I realized that getting student feedback wouldn’t just tell me about what helps students learn; it would also give me valuable information about how effective my teaching is, and point out areas for further reflection!

Next steps:

I plan to continue the Feedback forms after each class.  Soon I will also try to get students to discuss the following in small groups, and then write their individual answers in their first language:

  • How they usually feel at the beginning, middle, and in the final activities of the class, and why.
  • Which generic types of classroom activities help them learn, such as matching pictures and flash cards, substitution dialogue practice, written fill-in-the-blank, etc. , and why.

Questions I still have:

  • Are students marking what they do/don’t like OR what helps them learn? Do they know there is a difference?  How can I tease the two apart?
  • What can I do to deepen their awareness, so we can find out more about why they feel the way they do?
  • How can I shift the focus to developing an awareness of what they are asked to do during class vs. what they actually do?

What do you think?

I would LOVE to hear from teachers who have ideas about getting meaningful feedback from low beginners, and helping them develop learning strategies!

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