June 24, 2007

Instructional objectives in university EFL classes

On Harold Jarche's blog, I found a post about a book called Analyzing Performance Problems. Thinking it might help me analyze why my students don't "perform" (i.e. study, learn, practice) as well as I think they should, I borrowed it via the inter-library loan and read it. Fascinating. Helped me look at what goes on in my classrooms from a different perspective.

I then ordered Preparing Instructional Objectives by Mager (one of the co-authors of "Analyzing") and was again fascinated. It forced me to examine the following

1) what are the students required to be able to do by the end of the course?

2) what are the skills required in order to be able to begin (undertake) the course?

3) what criteria attend the performance objective(s) (under what conditions will the learners be expected to perform)?

Mager gives examples of "instructional objectives" which aren't: they are procedural instructions or refer to what the instructor will do, but make no mention of what the learners will be able (and expected) to do by the end of the course. E.g. "In this course the instructor will cover the Middle Ages, the Renaissance,... "

I take a look at the syllabi and course descriptions I have been given and the ones I have created. Uh-oh. Almost none refer to what students are expected to be able to do by the end of the course.

Topics are listed, and in some cases notions and functions, but not much that could be clearly labelled an instructional objective. No criteria are given, either. In other words, how am I expected to assess the students? In writing? With an oral exam? And if the latter, what kind?

In one case, I have been told I'm expected to give an oral exam at the end of the semester (next month), but no specifics are offered in terms of objectives or criteria.

Actually, that is not quite true. I have been given one unequivocal condition:
We also ask that during these final exam sessions, students not be allowed to leave early. Students can be given written work to keep them occupied while other students are performing their speaking tests, for example. Even if teachers cannot be in the room, physically, they are expected to provide work for the students to do to keep them in the classroom until the end of the class period.


A point Mager makes in his book is that, if instructional objectives are clear, this should leave the instructor free to achieve those objectives in his/her own way and his/her own time: if the objectives can be achieved in 6 hours instead of 10, great.

I have spoken with other instructors about instructional objectives, i.e. what are our students expected to be able to DO by the end of the course? Generally speaking, the Westerners are sympathetic to this approach whereas the Japanese are not and raise all kinds of objections. A recent one was, "what about the slower learners? Won't they feel frustrated and badly treated if they are the only ones left in the classroom at the end while everyone else has left early?"

My interpretation: a class is a group. In a collectivist society, the group is paramount. In other words, the purpose of having a class is to create a group, and this is more important than actually learning anything. I recently met a student who was in my class last year; she said, "Everyone in that class still has a strong esprit-de-corps". They all bonded. How nice.

I had this exchange last year with an older Japanese woman who was auditing one of my classes: I was asking why I am expected to take attendance in class, and why attendance is given such weight in Japan, pointing out that attendance was never taken at any university class I attended in the UK. I also gave my friend's example: he had figured out early in his first year that lecturers were reading out info that was already in books in the library; he therefore studied the books and didn't go to any lectures. He passed the final exam with flying colours. This lady was outraged: this seemed to deeply offend her sense of justice - it was unfair that he should be given the same graduating certificate as the others when he had not put in the equivalent time in class!

I have also experimented with such an instructional objective approach in a freshmen EFL class: there were 10 speaking tasks; students had to practice them until they could perform them satisfactorily. Part of the idea was to allow those who were superior in ability to finish early, because the administration forbade us from granting some students the credits for that class without taking the class, even if the pre-test showed that they were well above the target level of ability.

This experiment did not work well, as basically, students did not practice and simply goofed off. Despite repeated explanations (in their native language), they seemed to completely fail to grasp what we were trying to achieve. Instead they sat there, waiting to be taught.

This experience, together with administrative intransigence with regard to allowing students to "test out" of basic classes, re-inforced my belief that credits are awarded primarily for time spent in the classroom, this being the clearest "instructional objective" I have yet been given. Parents pay for so many hours in the classroom, and this is what teachers must provide. If a teacher misses a class, he or she is expected (in many institutions) to make it up to ensure that students are provided their full quota of 15 90-minute sessions per semester. I understand this, but I also chafe: it fosters a lack of clarity in terms of performance objectives. Apparently, no-one seems to have a clear idea of what students are expected to be able to do after their 15 90-minute sessions.

2 comments:

Steve Herder said...

You're the "ironman" of blogging! I envy both your consistency in blogging and the tenacity with which you keep asking questions. I'm sure you're gonna find the answers to make it all worthwhile.

I'm gonna try again with a post a week. Just gotta make it a habit...somehow.

Cheers,

Steve

Harold Jarche said...

Too often, administrators measure the wrong thing because it's easier.

Gloria Gery tells a story about her boss who measured things like number of student days and classroom utilization. She realized that these measurements were useless and didn't tell you anything about learning or performance. She suggested "Why don't we weigh them? Let's add cost per pound to the measurement".

This shows how useless most metrics are. Gery suggested instead;

time to retrieval
time to understanding
time to performance
etc.