As an English as a Foreign language (EFL) teacher in Taiwan, I was bombarded by the culture, language and customs of a new land but the real surprise was the way Taiwanese students performed in class. They were disciplined, polite, competitive and unresponsive to questions, but brilliant. I had to find new and interesting strategies to entertain and facilitate them in every class. Keeping abreast of the new teaching strategies of teaching EFL to Asian students was no easy feat. There were workshops and meetings I needed to attend and more often than not there was just not enough time to attend formal training seminars as these were usually conducted in other countries. Instead, I had to research these strategies on my own to keep my knowledge current.
Carl Rogers (1967) states, “we are faced with an entirely new situation in education where the goal of education, if we are to survive, is the facilitation of change and learning. The only man who is educated is the man who has learned how to learn; the man who has learned how to adapt and change; the man who has realized that no knowledge is secure, that only the process of seeking knowledge gives the basis for security…”
When I arrived at the College, I had gained some experience in the teaching field abroad but I had no training in teaching undergraduate courses and somehow got through the first semester of teaching by trial and error using the only method I knew at the time – teacher centered methods. Still questions plagued my mind during that time. Why don’t my students understand the contents of the lesson? Why do my students look so bored when I’m teaching? Why are my students failing their exams?
This started a journey toward facilitating adult learning and constructive approaches. Specifically, I wanted to know the best way to teach English and how to design activities for a more effective class. I discovered that many facilitators have developed new ways of ensuring effective learning in their classrooms by focusing on learner centered strategies and this launched an investigation. This action plan is birthed from the quantum leap I did to redesign and resculpt myself as an instructor.
A constructivist classroom is a learner centered classroom (Gray, 1997). In a constructivist classroom the teacher builds on the students prior knowledge and then “carefully orchestrating cue, penetrating questions, and instructional activities that challenge and extend a student’s insight” (Sadker & Zittleman, 2007, p. 217). Meyers and Jones (1983) continue by making two assumptions: students learn best during activity based subject matter and teachers need to use a diverse number of teaching styles to satisfy a significant number of students.
After much research and observations, I found seven principles proposed by Weimer (2002), that enhance student learning in my class. They are:
- Teachers do learning tasks less. I involved students in end-of-class summaries, problem solving, generating discussions and delivering presentations. I assigned students some of the tasks of organizing the content, giving examples, summarizing discussions, solving problems, and drawing diagrams, charts, and graphs.
- Teachers do less telling; Students do more discovering. I allowed students to quiz other students on the syllabus allowing all students to discover information about the course.
- Teachers do more design work. I concentrated more on designing activities that attract, motivate and engage learners.
- Faculty do more modeling. I assumed the role of a master learner and modeled the learning process by talking through the steps of solving a problem and sharing reflections on a topic.
- Faculty do more to get students learning from and with each other. I demonstrated the value of collaboration by creating small groups in class.
- Faculty work to create climates for learning. I created a climate of intellectual maturity, responsibility and autonomy.
- Faculty do more with feedback. I concentrated on delivering prompt constructive feedback to students.
Attention is also a necessary prerequisite for learning (Schunk, 2008). As a lecturer, I knew I needed to garner the skills of attracting and keeping the students attention if they expect the students to remain interested in classroom activities. I used inflection of voice, animated gestures and even dramatic skills to attract and retain my students attention. In addition, I used discussions, group activities, games, songs, videos, etc. and, according to Appendix G, majority of the Business Communication class agreed that they preferred these activities.
Also, in order for my class to remain lively and relaxed, I had to rearrange the seating to foster a thought-provoking environment. I found that arranging the class in circles or a horseshoe formation made discussions and group activities easier. A seating chart helped me to identify the students quickly. I made sure to place students who had difficulty in a particular area with students who were strong in that area.
Assessment strategies include observations, group work, dramatic presentations and homework assignments. Also, daily revision was done at the beginning of each class where I encouraged the students to answer from prior experience instead of the textbook. The use of various instructional techniques/materials, such as dialogues, flashcards, charts, graphs, music, telephone, videos, television shows, role plays, simulations, seminars, panel debates, case studies, discussions, slides, lectures and cooperative group work, demonstrations and brainstorming, all enhanced the learning process. This is evident in every lesson taught except lesson eight when the students did a mid term exam.
The culminating activity for the semester was a career seminar which was very entertaining and interesting. I invited a representative from a well known company to speak to the students about work ethics and choosing the right career. The seminar helped the students to understand how to communicate more effectively and how to display appropriate behaviour at work.
For the final assessment, each student should show expertise in areas such as, developing a website, developing an advertisement for the product, interviewing employees, conducting business meetings, marketing the products, registering the company and writing a business plan.
While reflecting on this question, I thought about my perception of teaching and why I wanted to be a teacher. Realistically, one’s efforts will not always be rewarded and I have to face the fact that not every student will appreciate my effort to present a good lesson. After reading Learner-Centered Teaching (Weimer, 2002), I finally had a new awakening. “I came to realize that the classroom environment I created ended up being a place where I could succeed and do well,” Weimer discovered (p. 3). After much research, I found the principles outline by Jones (2007) to be very effective to increase students’ learning in class.
The first thing I did was to ensure that my students were prepared for class. One reason for preparation is for teachers and students to understand the schools’ policies and regulations. After getting my timetable for the semester, I was also given the objectives and expected outcomes, and the course outline for the class. In the first class, I made sure everyone had a course outline and explained exactly what the course was about. Since I will be using learner centered strategies as the basis of my instruction, I took the time to introduce them to the strategies and explained its effects on student’s performance. Finally, I clarified any questions that they may have about the class.
To prepare for an activity, I ensured that I had all the right props for each class. I allow the students to form assessment guidelines for the activity and this helps them to feel more confident and relaxed. Less confident students may need an example before they begin participating (Jones, 2007). I would then take one or two confident students to demonstrate the activity or I would do the demonstration myself while the others watch and listen.
The Muddiest Point is an activity that is done in my class to prepare the students for the upcoming classes. They would write the information that they find the most confusing and exchange their handwritten notes with other classmates. The next class will be dedicated to answering these questions.
Discussions and Sharing
Reflections from Teacher’s Log:
‘I observed that only the students in the first half of the class would participate and this particular class was no different. It has been very challenging to get the students in the back of the class to answer questions. I know that favoring one half of the class is a bad practice of many teachers, so I tried my best to get the all the students to participate. I tried calling on the shy or introverted ones and coaxing the lazy ones. I avoided directing questions at the front of the class by walking around to the back so my presence could be felt there.’
The best discussions are when students use their own experiences and give opinions (Jones, 2007). Discussions are one of the best strategies to use to increase students’ learning. Students tend to do more discovering when they discuss theories and concepts that is relevant to everyday life. I usually divide the class into ‘buss groups’ and allow each group to debate issues or questions. Afterward, each group will present their findings to the class using dramatic techniques.
During discussions, I used the art of questioning very often. Questioning is the key in guiding learning and all teachers should ensure they are armed with the art of questioning. There are different levels of classroom questions as well as different strategies for using them in the classroom. The most widely used system is the Bloom’s taxonomy which proceeds from lower order questions, which requires students to remember, to higher order questions, which requires students to think.
Research shows that male students are asked more questions than female students however, personally speaking, I find that girls receive more questions than boys. One reason for this is because girls are more assertive and generally take more interest in the class than boys. In my class, girls are more competitive and desire to get better grades, hence they would participate more in class. And frankly, there are more girls in the class than boys so naturally more questions would be posed to them.
Role Play was a fundamental staple strategy in my class. My students found it to be fun and interesting. Role plays were usually done to further cement theories and concepts. Mini debates were popular in my class too. This tactic encouraged students to structure solid arguments and sharpen their instincts while defending a point.
Learning requires energy and even more so, unlearning and relearning. After experiencing learning and unlearning teacher strategies that could improve my students’ behavior, I’m led to conclude that learning occurs as a part of education or personal development that will result in a positive change of behavior.
Motivational activities arouse and maintain interest and are indispensable in every classroom. Activities that increase success and reduce failures increase motivation. Fewer motivational devices are needed for intrinsically motivated students than those who are extrinsically motivated (Ornstein, 1990). In addition, introverts are more likely to succeed in university than extroverts because social activities might distract extroverts from studying. “It was found that more direct influences on academic success came from a combination of motivation and well organized study methods” (Entwistle, 2009).
Reflections from Teacher’s Log:
‘During the first week, it was a bit challenging for me to remember the names of all my students. I realized though that knowing their names was advantageous, as identifying the unsettled ones by their names could curb disciplinary problems. I observed too that the students felt a sense of belonging and pride when I called them by their first names – they felt empowered. Donovan Thomas, in his book Confronting Suicide: Helping teens at risk, extrapolates that the educational system has failed at contributing to a student’s self esteem and self worth (2002). Teachers have been emotionally insensitive to children’s needs and aspirations and the same is true for adult learners. Some adult learners enter the college classroom with preconceived ideas and past failures from their previous experiences.
Interestingly, in my first class at the College, the students seemed relaxed and happy to see me. My initial thoughts were “this is going to be an easy class to teach”. For the introductory activity, I asked each person to tell me their names and something special about themselves. Interestingly, quite a few students said nothing was special about them. After a bit of coaxing, they relented but one student refused to answer. Subsequently, my thoughts were “if she doesn’t believe in herself, it will be very difficult for her to pass this course.”
Ornstein (1990) explains that an instructor can enhance intrinsic motivation by using a mixture of teacher centered and learner centered approaches such as, demonstrations; case studies; pictures and cartoons; personal experiences; problem based learning; exploratory and creative activities; charts, tables, graphs, maps; anecdotes and stories; contests and games.
An instructor can enhance extrinsic motivation by giving clear directions and expectations, enough time to complete each task, tasks that are appropriately matched to students’ cognitive ability, prompt feedback, frequent rewards, praise, linking past learning to present learning (McCombs & Miller, 2007; Schunk, 2008; Jones, 2007). Rewards were also used in classes to attract students and reinforce their learning .
Reflections from Teacher’s Log:
‘The second week fueled even more questions. The lesson began with watching a commercial and discussing the emotional and logical appeals the advertiser made in persuading the viewer to buy the product.
By this time, many students were excited to talk about the deceiving commercials that are on television. Later, the students were placed in groups and told to create a product and a commercial to present in class. The students agreed on a set of criteria to evaluate each presentation. They all engaged themselves in animated discussions as they brainstormed ideas for the commercial.’
I was very pleased over the next couple of weeks to see the level of participation from the rest of the students. As soon as class started, they became excited, clamoring to answer questions and to participate in the planned activities. Even though I had problems getting them to respond in an orderly manner, the interaction between students and teacher blossomed.
At times, it was really challenging to deal with the students’ enthusiasm and even though I reminded them to raise their hands when they want to respond, they were just too excited to remember. However, class was never disrupted or ended prematurely because of this. All classes were interactive as I tried my best to incorporate learner centered activities. Students participated in role plays, songs, interviews, games and a highly interactive research project where they had to create their own product line and present it to investors.
From observation, I deduced that most College students were confident and believed in their ability to perform well in school (high self efficacy). Few believe that they were not smart enough to gain straight A’s. They believed hard work pays off but they were not willing to do the extra work to perform well. Their self validation was very low and it was usually very difficult to motivate these students
Reflections from Teacher’s Log:
‘I immediately placed the class into groups and assigned a leader to each group. I noticed tension on the faces of some students but I ignored it, casting it off as first day nerves. I gave them a group activity but some students didn’t get along well with others in their groups and this caused some students to become disengaged. When it was time to present the activity, many students remained in their seats refusing to join their group members at the front of the class.
I was very disappointed with the groups’ indifferent attitudes toward presenting the activity. Moreover, I was peeved when a particular student shrugged her shoulders when I asked her why she didn’t participate in class. I was tempted to reprimand her but I held my tongue instead. I realized that I took their nonchalant behavior personal. During that class, I was thinking of the hours I spent preparing for the lesson and I was saddened to see that my efforts were not being appreciated. It seemed like I took more interest in their learning than they did.’
Lowman (1984) says no instructor can make students learn. Instructors cannot claim full credit when their students perform well, neither can they carry all the blame when their students fail. Fear of failure can also drive feelings of anxiety or attainment (Entwistle, 2009). It may also lead to the safer route of rote learning rather than attempting risky independent understanding.
Lowman (1984) explains by saying “instructors cannot be held responsible for the differences in ability students bring with them, but they are responsible for motivating all students, from the gifted to the barely adequate, to do their best work and to love the learning experience.”
The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning. This includes setting a positive climate for learning; clarifying the purposes of the learners; organizing and making available learning resources; balancing intellectual and emotional components of learning; and sharing feelings and thoughts with learners.
Various methods of assessments (formal and informal) can include cognitive coaching which is based on the idea of meta-cognition, self-appraisal and self-management. Performance Assessments should be used where applicable. This reduces the pressure normally associated with public performance or exams, as there is no pass or failing grade. Self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success.
It is also important to learn and be open to change. Knowledge is not static, it is constantly being created and hence there will be a need for a flexible curriculum. Content must be relevant to meet the needs of the learner. Content should seek to unveil rather than conceal truth. Although all educational institutions will be guided by their own philosophy, content should not be biased or seek to marginalize minority groups.
All in all, students should critically assess new information to gain new knowledge and insights, adopt a self critical attitude towards learning, learn how to learn from self and others, and participate in the decision making about learning through using learner centered strategies in school.
Research shows that learning strategies in the classroom results in higher student classroom achievement, higher active learning skills, higher intrinsic learning goals, higher motivation to learn, higher confidence in their ability to be successful learners and higher lifelong learning skills (McCombs and Miller, 2007, p.18). I must admit that when I entered the classroom I viewed myself as the authoritarian figure in the classroom. I must be in control; I have all the answers; Everyone must listen to me; I am the authority. I pity the fool who comes to the classroom with this mindset. After using these strategies, I realized that adult learning is about transformation of the students – transforming their attitudes, mindset, skills and beliefs.