Monthly Archives: September 2010

Is this really how to get high student evaluations?

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Are you evaluated by your students? I am, and it is something that leaves me in a constant state of wonder. Despite the fact that my evaluations are generally positive – and I’m being modest, actually, they’re usually pretty good – I genuinely don’t know if I like the whole notion. There are several reasons for this, of which I’ll describe one in some detail. I think a good illustration of everything that worries me about student evaluation of my performance would be the time that I taught two classes for eight hours each per week. I’d contrived a situation whereby I’d teach one class on Mondays and Thursdays, the other on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I’d also contrived to be able to deliver the same eight hours in terms of lesson plans to the two classes. The way the classes fell meant that I’d teach one four hour block with ‘class A’ and then again with ‘class B’. I’d then do B first and repeat the four hour block with A. Apart form minor details like teaching one of the classes first thing after the weekend, they were pretty evenly matched in terms of what I taught them and when. Given all this, I’d imagine that my evaluations from the two sets of students would have been fairly identical. This, most emphatically, was not the case.

So, what affected their evaluation of me? Would it be a huge surprise to learn that the class in which more students failed was the one from which I received the lower evaluation? This perhaps sums up my concern at getting students to use an objective set of criteria to make such subjective decisions about their teacher. Nevertheless, this is the situation in which I find myself and which you might too during your career as a language teacher. Indeed, this was an issue raised by Naturegirl321, an English teacher in Korea (not China, oops), on the ELT World discussion forum. She describes her reason for raising the subject: ‘Mine weren’t what I expected, so I’ve been talking to teachers and trying to get some tips. Here’s what they’ve told me. Some are obvious, some aren’t. Some are just odd.’

The 16 point guide to getting good student evaluations

1. Dress up when you go to class.

2. Tall, handsome guys seem to get better evaluations.

3. Start class on time.

4. End on time or even a couple minutes early.

5. Don’t tell students their grades before they give you their evaluations.

6. Offer extra credit points.

7. Have student leaders.

8. Play a couple of games every once in a while.

9. Don’t play too many games.

10. Cancel classes the week before mid-terms so they can study.

11. Give students your cell and email so they can contact you.

12. Give an end of the semester speech on how they’re the best students that you’ve ever had.

13. Motivate them with candy, prizes, no homework, bathroom passes, etc.

14. Make small talk during the lesson so that you show interest in their lives.

15. Don’t be a hard grader.

16. Don’t take points off for the nitty gritty stuff.

As someone who is evaluated on a regular basis by a similar age group to Naturegirl321 (‘I teach uni kids, ages 18 to 23 mostly,’ she points out), a lot of the things on this list really upset me. Could the success of my evaluations really be based on such factors? Well, these factors might not be entirely universal, at least if some of those who responded are to be believed. Furiousmilksheikali, an English teacher in Japan (more on cultural context later), attempts to debunk some of the items on the list:

‘I think it will very often depend on the students. One thing I never want to do is to grovel before the students and I think that is a great way of losing all respect. Telling students that they are the best class you’ve ever taught might be fine if they genuinely are but if they aren’t then such obsequious lies are unlikely to get you in their good books and hopefully won’t do.

I’m sure there are also some students who will be happier the less work you give them, the earlier that you let them out of class and the freer the teacher is with giving them high grades. But if students are interested in their class, they might be annoyed at having less work or if they are paying for a lesson might be angry at being short-changed with five or ten minutes off here and there or the obvious corollary that handing out good grades to everyone devalues the grade.

Most of the things you have listed sound to me like they are applicable to students who don’t care about their subject and aren’t bothered about wasting their time or money. In which case, absolutely tell the students that you will give them an excellent grade on condition that they show you their evaluation of you first and it’s to your liking.’

So, while there might well be some students among those we teach who may base their evaluation of their teacher on the list given above, it appears that not all these factors are universally applicable. This cheered me up greatly. While I don’t want to be the kind of teacher who does what Shuize, another teacher in Japan, suggests, ‘You want good student evaluations? Try this: “I’ll be writing and grading your exams with these evaluations in mind … ha, ha… just kidding.”‘ I do consider myself a fair teacher who doesn’t set out solely with the intention of extracting a good evaluation from my students.

The list of points generated great discussion, with some of the points causing more controversy than others. Many people offered corollaries to the original suggestions, to which I’ve added my own thoughts.

Corollaries

1. Dress up when you go to class.

‘Our students usually dress more formally than the teachers. It’s a generational thing (and possibly economic, teachers being paid generally less than their parents).’

spiral78 in Europe

‘[This] is a given. I’ve spent too long fighting against the backpacker image that EFL teachers have in some parts. I can’t get taller, or less ugly, but I dress for professional work.’

Justin Trullinger in Korea

Dress appropriately. I don’t feel comfortable teaching in jeans and a T-Shirt, but many of my colleagues do. I don’t wear suits every day, but I dress according to what feels comfortable to me. Some of the scruffiest teachers at my place get great evaluations, but equally some of the smartest dressed do too. Dress according to your situation and this won’t affect your evaluation.

2. Tall, handsome guys seem to get better evaluations.

‘Nope. Enthusiastic, prepared teachers who care about the success of the students prevail over lazy (albeit) handsome males or females. It’s all about energy, focus, and caring.’

spiral78 in Europe

I’m unable to comment on this one.

3. Start class on time.

4. End on time or even a couple minutes early.

‘Absolutely agree… important in the real world too!’

spiral78 in Europe

Don’t be confused by students arriving a few minutes late for class; they don’t like it if you don’t show up on time. This point makes me recall my unhappiest evaluation. Even though I got a high score overall, I couldn’t understand why only 80% of the class had given me a top ‘grade’ for my punctuality (this was specifically to do with arriving on time) during a semester when I had never arrived even a second late for any class. Perhaps I was being too punctual. Who knows?

5. Don’t tell students their grades before they give you their evaluations.

‘Holding back grades till evaluations are in is pretty much blackmail. It would probably work, but I still couldn’t do it.’

Justin Trullinger in Korea

‘Dishonest: if this changes things, it’s unfair. One of the best groups I had last year was made up of students I’d failed the year before. I asked them why in the world they were suffering through me again – and the response was that they wanted to (crazy guys). They were great in year 2 and they all passed genuinely.’

spiral78 in Europe

Horrible, horrible, horrible. I know of colleagues who adopt this approach and who get very good evaluations as a result. I’m not saying that they are bad teachers, far from it, but this is a bit too much like holding a gun to someone’s head to get the response you want. If you’re doing this, it probably means you feel there’s something wrong with your teaching.

6. Offer extra credit points.

‘For what? If it’s something legit, then fair enough.’

spiral78 in Europe

This is even worse than the previous point. There’s something seriously wrong with any system that would allow this sort of thing to happen. Fortunately, I’ve never worked under such conditions.

7. Have student leaders.

‘We have a student group discussion leader for every class. It’s a given, and a challenge for them, and no extra points.’

spiral78 in Europe

I don’t know how you’d decide on such a thing. What the purpose be in terms of getting a better evaluation?

8. Play a couple of games every once in a while.

9. Don’t play too many games.

‘No games… ever. I’m no fun and avoid situations where I’m expected to entertain.’

spiral78 in Europe

I’ve had a recent run in with this issue and have commented in detail here. Basically, if you use GLALL (game-like activities for language learning), make sure explain exactly why you’re doing it so that your students understand the benefits.

10. Cancel classes the week before mid-terms so they can study.

‘They don’t have to study for your class too?’

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spiral78 in Europe

‘What do their other teachers do? If they do, I would probably too.’

Justin Trullinger in Korea

I think that this is simply a case of following policy. You can’t go canceling classes willy nilly, so make sure that you’re not doing something that could get you into serious trouble just to try and curry favour with your students.

11. Give students your cell and email so they can contact you.

‘Never in a million years. I give students my work email, but never ever my cell number!’

Sherri in Hawaii

I also feel that the million-year mark is one that I could easily reach without ever doing this. I have colleagues who are happy to share such information with their students and good luck to them. I’m available enough at my place of work to negate the need for this and I email them so often from my work address that it drives them mad anyway.

12. Give an end of the semester speech on how they’re the best students that you’ve ever had.

THAT would be a cheap lie and I’d never mislead students like that – except in the rare instance that it’s genuinely true that they are among the best I’ve ever had. Then kudos are real, and I always give them.

spiral78 in Europe

As with withholding grades until they’ve given you a good evaluation, there’s something about this which, if you don’t actually mean it, is just dirty. Unlike the way that the president of the Olympic committee always announces at the end of any games that it has been the best ever, I end my time with any given class by thanking them for the time, effort and commitment without overdoing it. Sometimes I’ll go a bit further if we’ve bonded above and beyond the norm, but I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable with over praising a group for my own reasons.

13. Motivate them with candy, prizes, no homework, bathroom passes, etc.

‘About candy… they’re adults. They can buy candy at the store across the street, same as I can, which makes me think that “candy in class” isn’t really about candy exactly. Is candy just a slightly more tangible form of praise? Or a way to make a game a little more fun and competitive? Or is it like context, a way of sharing? I don’t know. I don’t do candy. But I’m not opposed, if I thought it would improve the learning experience in my class. (From time to time. I am NOT spending a lot on this.) I really can’t believe it’s as simple as “today I brought you some chocolate,” and then they like you. There’s gotta be more to it.

Justin Trullinger in Korea

‘What ages are you teaching? NOT applicable in all cases! Mine have never had any interest in candy or bathroom/washroom/toilet passes (and in what case would a teacher withhold a pass to the toilet – assuming that a pass is needed!) ‘

spiral78 in Europe

I often bring candy into my classes and receive the odd jibe from my colleagues for doing so. My reasons are clear, though: with my classes starting at 8:40 in the morning, by about 11:00 my students are starting to flag and sometimes I see the need for a little sugar rush. I make it clear that, although I may frame the dishing out as a reward for asking a question, I’m merely trying to give them a little boost to see them through to the end of a four-hour block. As far as I’m aware, this has never swung an evaluation in my favour.

14. Make small talk during the lesson so that you show interest in their lives.

About small talk… some cultures are “high context” [and] some are “low context” (labels that refer to how much “context,” or peripheral information, is required to build relationships). I come from the US, which is relatively low context. (Looking back on college, I had a lot of profs that I knew NOTHING about… married, kids, hobbies? No idea.) Korea is fairly high context in comparison. People tell each other stuff. The need for context seems, to me, to be increased when dealing with someone as new and fascinating as a “foreigner.” They don’t see so many, you know? So it goes against that grain for me, but I do ask students about their lives (kids, hobbies, vacations) I also make a point of telling them an anecdote or two about my life in Korea or elsewhere, or mention my wife…they seem to need to know things like this, and to be more comfortable with me when they know them. I don’t disclose secrets, but….I’m married. No kids. Like cats and guitars. Hate shopping and getting haircuts. There’s nothing confidential in any of this. Nothing I need to share, but if it helps, I don’t mind.

Justin Trullinger in Korea

‘I’m not a counselor! Personal lives are off-limits except in the most general (or necessary) of terms.’

spiral78 in Europe

I’m not a great one for overly sharing my life with my students, but I’m happy to chat with them about any subject they wish to engage me in. As far as I’m concerned, if we suddenly break into conversation during a break about a subject they’re passionate about, great… what an opportunity for speaking practice. Do I go beyond what I feel comfortable discussing? No. My students are all my friends on Facebook (exploit this if you can) but I don’t suggest becoming their best friends for the sake of getting a good evaluation.

If you’re doing this just to get a good evaluation then you’re an evil, evil person. I chat with my students during breaks on whatever topics come up, but no more than I would in any equivalent social situation.

15. Don’t be a hard grader.

‘Ours have to fall within the median for the course. If one teacher’s marks are much higher (or lower) than everyone else’s, foul is called, and rightly so.’

spiral78 in Europe

‘Well, it depends. I don’t give free rides, but it’s important for teachers to stay within the expectations and norms of the situation they’re teaching in. Are you a hard grader? How do your grades compare with other teachers? If you’re failing more students on average, or given lower average grades, than most of your colleagues, well then yes. You probably want to consider how to rectify that. (If students are getting lower grades for a similar amount of work than in their other classes, or in other English classes they’ve taken, you’re going to be unpopular. Find out).’

Justin Trullinger in Korea

The first thing I lay down as the law of the land with my students is that I grade according to the criteria I’m provided with. If you start messing around with this you deserve to lose your job.

16. Don’t take points off for the nitty gritty stuff.

‘What is ‘nitty gritty?’ Spelling / grammar? We take off points for incomprehensibility, but so long as it’s comprehensible and in an appropriate formal register, we note errors, but they aren’t fatal.’

spiral78 in Europe

Again, the first thing I do is make it absolutely clear that I grade according to the criteria I’m given. If they claim that so and so teacher does such and such to help them, I demand proof and show them the academic regulations to which I comply. The fact is that students who fail may well be more critical of your grading, but abandoning specified criteria is like laying a minefield for yourself that you’ll know you’ll have to walk through: one day it will blow up in your face.

So, while some of the initial list seems more viable than other, these suggestions look to be far from universal. This leads me to the question: are there any universally applicable factors that will lead you to a great student evaluation? Some of us seem to think so. Indeed, ‘some things are universal,’ according to Sherri, teaching in Hawaii:

1. Start and end the class on time.

I used to work with a teacher who thought that the students would like it if he went over time (giving them “extra” time). They didn’t.

2. Treat all the students fairly.

3. Give students a clear idea of what you expect at the beginning of the semester and keep to what you said… don’t change mid-stream.

4. Give clear instructions and make sure that the students always know the purpose of the activity and how it meets your aims.

5. Grade fairly.

6. Praise students when they do something well and explain why.

7. Give students feedback when they did something incorrectly and help them understand how to improve it.

8. Return homework promptly.

9. Always be prepared for your class.

10. Know how to operate equipment before you use it in class.

This list makes a lot more sense to me and I’d hope that such courses of action woıuld be appreciated by any group of students. spiral78 builds upon these suggestions: ‘I’d also add something about respect for adult students. I basically treat them like adults – as we all do here – and they respond positively to this. This means that…

1. Of course they have each prepared for class (done whatever research and homework they were assigned) and they arrive on time and ready to work.

2. Of course they are each going to participate in the process of the class

3. Of course they take the class seriously and understand its value to them

4. Of course they know clearly exactly what they must succeed at to pass the course (we go over this explicitly in the first class).

5. Of course they make effective plans at the end of each class to prepare for the next one.

6. Of course they all want to succeed and understand that this takes effort on their part!

One further theme emerged from the discussion and that was the idea that the use of students evaluations to make decisions about the success of a given member of staff seems, to many, to be quite unfair.

‘Student evaluations should not be used to determine pay and promotion… I am glad I don’t work at a place where these guidelines would be much use.’

Sherri in Hawaii

‘I aim never to teach in a situation where student evaluations are key to anything.’

spiral78 in Europe

I was aware of the system when I started my current job and accept that I will be judged, at least in part, on the results of my student evaluations. If this is something you’d find unacceptable, make sure you find out if such a system operates before accepting a job. I’d hate to think that some of the things on the initial list would be going through students’ minds when they make their evaluations and put faith, hopefully not misplaced, in the fact that the majority will base their evaluation on the ‘universals’ mentioned by Sherri. I’d like to round off with a quote from Glenski, a teacher in Japan:

‘How to get good evaluations? Be a good teacher. Show up prepared and on time. Be fair.’


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How to prepare a teaching portfolio: Part 3 – Handing it in and beyond

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In the third and final part – leading on from parts one and two, as tradition dictates – of my mini series of posts on teaching portfolios I’ll be looking at handing in the finished product and what happens after.

9. Give yourself a break

Leave time between completing your portfolio and handing it in. OK, I know this is ideal world kind of talk, but make sure that you put your portfolio aside for a while and return to it later. You’ll be surprised by the number of small changes you’ll want to make, at least I was.

10. Hand it in… on time!

Is this too obvious? The chances are that if your institution has asked you to put a portfolio together that they regard it as being important. Don’t hand it in late. If you’re lucky, you’ll have been given plenty of prior warning about when you’re expected to hand it over. I had almost six months to get mine together and even with an early start and steady work I still had quite a bit to do in the days leading up to the hand in. You can’t do this at the last minute, you really can’t (by now I’m hoping that you’ve realised the words ‘cobble’ and ‘together’ in the title of the post shouldn’t be taken literally).

11. The interview

If the process is being done properly, the hand in will then be followed by an interview. Mt interview is scheduled for approximately one month after the hand in date. This is where I am right now. So, how will I prepare for the interview? Basically, my approach will be based around the fact that this isn’t for anything as fancy as gaining tenure, but it is a review of my performance during the past few years. Consequently, I’m looking forward to getting feedback on my teaching activities but I’ll also be using it as a platform from which to build a plan of what my goals should be for the coming years.

12. Resources

While looking into the process I fould a load of online resources. Perhaps the best was at Mary’s blog ‘The English Corner’ which, frustratingly, I discovered the day after I’d handed mine in.

Alternatively, googling ‘teacher portfolio‘ or ‘teaching portfolio‘ will deliver multitudinous links to teachers who’ve put their entire portfolios online.

If you’d like to chat about this with me in more detail, you can probably get in touch with me on twitter (I’m trying hard to heed my own warnings about social networking but the bloody thing is addictive), my twitter suffix is yearinthelifeof.

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How to prepare a teaching portfolio: part two – putting it together

Last time as you may recall I rattled on a bit about getting going with your portfolio, which is, to give it as brief a definition as possible, is a massively extended CV with attached documentation designed for a particular audience (my boss and the academic board in my case). Today I’m doing to focus on how I actually put mine together.

5. Collect evidence of your teaching genius

Start collecting illustrations that display what a wonderful teacher you are. At this point you might want to do something that I didn’t, which was to get a clear idea of exactly what you’re allowed to include. What I wanted to do was to include a DVD of materials and various other illustrations of my teaching, but found out at the last minute that this couldn’t be included and that everything had to be on paper. My ambition to save the trees goes unabated. Nevertheless, by thinking about the variety of things I could include at an early stage, I was (hopefully) able to create a portfolio that presents an authentic, rich and detailed illustration of who I am as a teacher. I’d suggest that, whatever you do at this stage, keep your evidence in a special, safe place away from your everyday teaching paraphernalia.

6. Select evidence of your teaching genius

This is where you start to get down to the nitty gritty. Reflect on what you have collected and think about what you’re going to include and what you don’t need. Like me, you might have to include a paper document that describes everything that you’ve done, along with any worksheets or materials that you’ve made that showcase particular aspects of your teaching. Like I mentioned, I wanted to include a DVD of materials and resources that would have offered a wider scope of possible illustrations than mere paper documentation. Nevertheless, working within the permitted parameters will always enable you to show off what you can do if you consider your achievements carefully.

7. Discuss your portfolio with friends and colleagues

By the time I was required to prepare mine, a lot of my colleagues had already gone through the process and others still were putting theirs together at the same time as me. Some had gone into amazing detail while others had taken a more economic route to completing their portfolios. Having the opportunity to share what I was doing with people who’d adopted these various approaches was invaluable. This early feedback, coupled with the opportunity to browse through what others had done, enabled me to incorporate ideas that I might not have thought about otherwise. There’s no shame in asking your colleagues for help!

8. Assembling your portfolio

Think about the organisation of your portfolio; will those reading it be able to follow it carefully? I was lucky in this respect in that I was provided with a point by point document with headings I was advised to use. Think about the way you organize things and don’t be frightened to play around with things until it makes the most sense. For me the most important part of my portfolio was my reflections section in which I described in detail all of my teaching activities. Without my detailed reflections the illustrations of my teaching would have been a random collection of documents.

So, that’s taken me from the point of being told that I had to hand in a portfolio to the point where I’d put it together. In the final part of this short series I’ll look at the hand in process and what comes after, together with giving you a lot of useful links for those of you who’ll have to do this in the future.

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How to prepare a teaching portfolio: Part one – getting started

I’ve been busy recently, as busy as anyone who has had to – as opposed to wanted to – put together a teaching portfolio will attest. It’s not that I wasn’t warned; I was told six months in advance when I would have to hand in my documents. It isn’t even that I wasn’t proactive; I got cracking as soon as I could and steadily worked on the portfolio over the course of half a year. Despite this, there was still a lot of headless chicken-like running around going on in the days leading up to the hand in. So, how did I do it? What did I do right? What did I do wrong? Here are, in pretty much chronological order, the steps I took in putting together my portfolio.

1. Why are you doing this?

For me this was an easy step. Wherever possible I like to avoid paddleless trips to shit creek, which is where I would have found myself, at least in job terms, if I hadn’t delivered a portfolio. In many ways I was glad to have this external necessity forced upon me, but there may be a different reason why you decide to start yours. If you’re about to start compiling your portfolio, the first thing I’d suggest you do is be clear about why and for whom you are doing it.

2. Read the guidelines

If there’s a particular procedure or set of instructions to follow, it really is best that you familiarize yourself with them before you even begin. You need to know what’s expected of you and this will make things easier in the long run. I was lucky in that I had a very clear document to work from and a very helpful member of admin staff to consult. Knowing what is wanted in advance will help you begin to get your head around what kinds of thing you want to include and make sure that you include everything that’s necessary. I made sure I did this and had a pretty good idea from the off of what my final product would look like.

3. Take your time

Don’t leave it until the last minute. Just don’t, alright! Compiling a portfolio takes time, several months in my case. Although I started as soon as I found out when I would have to submit it, I still feel that there were things I’d have retrospectively liked to have included. Fortunately, I’d kept a lot of the materials I thought would be relevant clearly filed but I still wished I’d put over stuff in.

4. Seek inspiration

If you can, borrow and read other people’s portfolios for inspiration. I was lucky enough that many of my colleagues had already gone through the process of compiling their portfolios and many were willing to share the ideas on what to include with me. In turn, I’m willing to help my colleagues in the future.

In the next part of this short series, I’ll look into how I went about collecting data, selecting what I thought was appropriate, what advice I sought and how I started putting it together.

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What would you do… if you had to sit this exam?

What would you do if you had to sit the following exam? Why don’t you give it a try? Sit yourself down with a nice glass of wine and slowly work your way through these questions…

Grammar

1. Give the past tense and past participle of each of the following verbs, dividing them into strong and weak; add explanations: tell, wake, buy, eat, lay, lie

2. Mark by an acute accent the accented syllable in each of the following words: subjected, hyperbole, microscopical, photography, contemplative, confident, confidant, pusillanimity, gangrene, tureen

3. Write down the abstract nouns connected with the following adjectives and verbs: precise, adhere, apt, predominate, optimistic, crystallise, negligent, hate, attain, detain, betray, ingenious, seize, charitable, zealous

4. Embody each of the following words in a sentence, in such a way as to shew that you clearly apprehend its meaning: commence, comment, commend, recommend; incredible, incredulous

5. Correct or justify four of the following sentences, giving your reasons:

a) I hope you are determined to seriously improve.
b) Comparing Shakespeare with Aeschylus, the former is by no means inferior to the latter.
c) I admit that I was willing to have made peace with you.
d) The statement was incorrect, as any one familiar with the spot, and who was acquainted with the facts, will admit.
e) It has the largest circulation of any paper in England.
f) The lyrical gifts of Shakespeare are woven into the actual language of the characters.

English Essay

Write an essay on one of the following subjects:

a) The effect of political movements upon nineteenth century literature in England
b) English Pre-Raffaellitism
c) Elizabethan travel and discovery
d) The Indian Mutiny
e) The development of local self-government
e) Matthew Arnold

English Phonetics

Make a phonetic transcription of each of the following passages, illustrating in the case of the passage (a) a careful pronunciation, in the case of (b) the pronunciation of educated persons in ordinary conversation:

a) But, whatever be the profession or trade chosen, the advantages are many and important, compared with the state of a mere literary man, who in any degree depends on the sale of his works for the necessaries and comforts of life. In the former a man lives in sympathy with the world in which he lives. At least he acquires a better and quicker tact for the knowledge of that with which men in general can sympathise. He learns to manage his genius more prudently and efficaciously. His powers and acquirements gain him likewise more real admiration; for they surpass the legitimate expectations of others. He is something besides an author, and is not therefore considered merely an author. The hearts of men are open to him as to one of their own class; and whether he exerts himself or not in the conversational circles of his acquaintance, his silence is not attributed to pride, nor his communicativeness to vanity.

b) “Ah, Mr Holmes. I am delighted to see you.”
“Good morning, Lanner. You will not think me an intruder, I am sure. Have you heard of the events which led up to this affair?”
“Yes, I heard something of them.”
‘Have you formed any opinion?”
“As far as I can see, the man has been driven out of his senses by fright. The bed has been well slept in, you see. There is his impression deep enough.”
“Noticed anything peculiar about the room?”
“Found a screwdriver and some screws on the wash-hand stand. Seems to have smoked heavily during the night, too. Here are four cigar ends that I picked out of the fire-place.”
“Hum! Have you got his cigar-holder?”
“No, I have seen none.”
“His cigar case then?”
“Yes, it was in his coat pocket.”

2. Describe fully the articulation of the various vowel sounds in the (ordinary) spelling of which the letter ‘o’ is used (alone or in combination) in the above passages.

3. Explain the terms: ‘glide’, ‘narrow vowel’, ‘semi-vowel’, and give two examples of each in both phonetic and ordinary spelling.

4. How would you teach a pupil the correct pronunciation of the vowel sounds in fare, fate, fat, fall, far?

5. Discuss carefully the articulation of the consonants in quite, huge, dreary

So, how did you do? Did you, like me, struggle dutifully with the grammar section (not that I think I would have passed), base your essay on Elizabethan times around what you can remember from the second Blackadder series, and then utterly abandon the test when you reached the phonology section? Good, I’m glad I’m not alone on that!

This, amazingly, isn’t an early version of the DELTA end of course exam, but rather the 1913 Cambridge Proficiency Exam. That’s right, non-native speakers were expected to be able to answer these questions. This leads me to the question… what the hell happened to our knowledge of language?

What does this exam tell us?

There are several interesting points that this exam raises.

Firstly, we can see that the differentiation between grammar and lexis was not as great as we imagined it to be at this point in history. Question three is clearly based around collocational knowledge of particular words, while question four works as a textbook example of asking what it means to know a word.

Secondly, we can see that not only was content based learning alive at the time but it was also thoroughly kicking. I dare say that those grading the essays would be looking for appropriate subject knowledge just as much as they would for accurate use of the language.

Finally, what the hell’s with all the phonetics? Why, I wonder, was it so much more important then than it is now.

Theories

1) We’re all getting dumber. Gordon notes:

The test is a good example of how our society has been dumbed down. Have a look at some old textbooks and you’ll see. I looked at a grade 4 British textbook from 1920 and it was equal to or more complex than my textbooks from university in the 90′s. What do you envision our tests will look like in 2100? Will anyone be able to handwrite or spell? Will we even teach languages or will it all be translated automatically? Will we even have more than 300 languages left by then?

2) Such testing is no longer relevant. spiral78 explains:

It’s not that we’re stupid; it is that some of the stuff they were testing for back then simply isn’t a priority in the modern world.

3) The people who knew this stuff died in the war. mmcmorrow (who shared this on the ELT World forum) notes:

I wonder how many of these examinees found themselves in opposing trenches a couple of years later? I hear that mustard gas plays havoc with your fricatives.

I would have done horribly if I’d had to take this exam, but then again I would have been the product of a drastically different education system. It begs the question of where we’ll be in a hundred year’s time.

Pleas etake the time to check out Martin ‘mmcmorrow’ McMorrow’s wonderful podcast site.

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Six reasons to be wary of social networking

While I was skiing a few months ago I observed a situation which made me feel old, well, at least found me pining for simpler times. Sitting a a table near me was a young girl phoning her friend to tell her that she was uploading her photos to her facebook profile and that she should take a look. This in itself wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for the fact that the friend in question was sitting at another table only a matter of a few yards away from her. I knew this as I was able to hear both sides of the phone conversation simultaneously. I’m not joking here, by the way; this really happened.

This clearly and rather horrifyingly – it is horrifying, just think about it for a minute – shows how our latest generation of students is being ever more exposed to social networking sites. The Internet now utterly surrounds us. When we are not on our laptops at home surfing the Internet we – by we I mean you – use ‘Smartphones’ and ‘netbooks’ to satisfy our – your – addiction to the new media. Even if you haven’t talked to someone in a decade, you know his or her entire life story by following their bloody Facebook page. It’s reaching the point where college students are demonstrating that there is a direct correlation between their social networking intensity and life satisfaction. Students who ‘use’ social networking now consider themselves more ‘satisfied’ with their ‘lives’.

Furthermore, young people use social networking websites to follow otherwise mundane topics such as politics. Students use the platforms as a place to discuss current events, as witnessed in the 2008 American Presidential Election. Students who were regarded as ‘less likely to discuss these issues in real life’ participated in discussion boards, surveys, and other interactive content. Isn’t this a good thing? Social networking sites now provide young people, in many cases, with their only contact with news, purely in soundbite form. This feels mighty dangerous to me.

Social networking sites have rapidly become a resource for people to share their own experiences as they connect with other users and their experiences. Such sites have become the contemporary human’s ‘third place’. This ‘place’, which used to be the pub or other such locale, can now be located at home and work (conventionally our first and second places). These sites have become an all too convenient way to connect with friends, family, and peers, to share photos, videos, stories, and let other users know what they are currently doing. This convenience is coming at an extreme price. Here are some ways in which we – you – are endangering ourselves – yourselves – with the overuse of social networks.

1. They encourage infantilism

I wrote reasonably recently about trying to overcome the difficulties my students have with dealing concentrating in class and getting them to actively think. These problems may well stem from infantilism, which is the persistence of infantile characteristics in one’s adult life. Similar to the way that babies or young children constantly need stimulus, many scientists fear this is exactly what is happening to the adult mind with overexposure to social networking websites.

2. They augment attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder

The other night I was watching the Tarkovsky masterpiece ‘Solaris’. This film, like Tarkovsky’s other, is characterized by extremely slow camera panning and prolonged focus on miniscule details. While watching it struck me how difficult it would be for my students to sit down and devote two and a half hours of their lives to this film. The have, quite simply, not grown up in an environment in which they have been required to focus for an extended period of time on one particular stimulus. The practice of logging on daily to see hundreds of new photos, comments, and user statuses have begun to take away our ability to keep our focus on something for more than an hour or two, making ADHD a very real and possible effect of social networking sites.

3. They lead to depression and loneliness

Social networks provide an outlet for the socially challenged to express themselves in digital form. However, the term ‘social networking’ genuinely misleads people into believing they are becoming increasingly social beings. Sitting in front of your computer for hours on end chatting with friends while playing bloody Farmville does not translate into the development of social skills. People become dependent on the technology and forget how to interact with the world around them. When interacting with someone through text messages, instant messaging, or email, a large segment of how humans interact with one another is gone.

4. They cause narcism

Narcism is the excessive love or admiration of yourself. This has become one of the largest problems associated with the development of online personas, especially in social network users. Social network sites seem to be enhancing self-entitled thinking and this is a very dangerous thing. This can negatively affect how we see ourselves, as well as how we treat and perceive others. The result of all this is that someone’s online personality may be completely different from their offline persona, causing chaos when their two lives interconnect. The negative impact of social networking sites is evident in online dating when the couple meets face-to-face for the first time. Frequently, their personalities do not match their self-written, narcissistic descriptions. It is much easier to type what someone wants to hear – and what you have actually started to believe about yourself – rather than telling the truth.

5. They are decimating productivity in the workplace

There are of course benefits to using social networks in the work community, especially if employees are promoting their business on the Internet. Examples might include posting new content to school or university profiles, adding pictures of work-related events, and interacting with potential students. Nevertheless, if you’re facing a performance evaluation, you should probably reassess your use of social media at work. I have colleagues who can’t control their Facebook use to the extent that they are frequently ten to fifteen minutes late for class because they are using this website. Social networking sites create too many distractions in the workplace and cost employers money. It’s estimated that employees are currently spending on average of 40 minutes per week on social networking sites while at work. While 40 minutes may not sound like a long time, over a one-year period it is costing employers in America alone in excess of $2 billion.

6. In some cases you may be risking your job

The likes of Facebook and MySpace are excellent resources for human resource managers because they offer revealing information about a candidate’s true ‘interests’. Most job seekers don’t bother to set their profiles to private, leaving an open door to their potential employers. Almost every profile contains embarrassing or compromising information to an employer, such as their political affiliation or religion (think about the culture you’re working in). Younger generations seem to have a complete disregard for their own privacy, opening doors to unwelcome predators or stalkers. Information posted on social networks is permanent. When someone posts pictures or videos on the internet they can go ‘viral’ (a word which apparently now has positive connotations). When the user deletes a video from his or her social network, someone may have already posted it on YouTube. People post photographs and video files on social networking sites without thinking and the files might reappear at the worst possible moments.

Is it all bad?

Some describe the likes of Twitter as being a great tool for research and inspiration. This is presumably because of the Medici effect of all the criss-crossing connections between users sharing conversations, ideas, questions and links. By attracting talented individuals from many different fields and cultures, the Medicis got all these creative people in contact with one another to trade ideas and collaborate. This intersection of concepts and diverse backgrounds kicked off the Renaissance, one of the most innovative eras in human history. Some claim we could see such resurgence in creativity thanks to social networking.

Nevertheless, the negative impact of social networking sites is profound. People are becoming increasingly dependent on their social networks and the internet in general. The use of smart phones and broadband Internet connections is widespread and is leading to increased dependency on social networks. The effects of social networking can be seen at work, in our classrooms and throughout society in general. Excessive use of the technology is creating antisocial and house dwelling citizens who lack social skills.

I’d be very happy to hear your rebuttals, and will leave you with this one thought: you don’t see the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise engaged in anything analogous to tweeting, do you?


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