Exams and learning

Is teaching getting people to do things or telling them about things ? Or if you can get them to do the right things, can you get them to realise things without telling them anything ? How do you work out what it is they need to know before they are in a position to realise something ? And where does development fit into that ?

Does developing the body of knowledge you need to pass the Module One exam count as development ? It feels very different from the development in classroom practice you hope someone goes through in Module Two, but then that should also be bolstered by the research for background assignments, so there is further development in the theoretical knowledge underpinning what a teacher does. What do you develop in Three ? Your understanding of some further areas, of how to write on a slightly larger scale, of how to pull conclusions out of a mass of data.This morning I read …

For about five years I taught psychology – including learning theory, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology and comparative psychology. One of my main reasons for leaving teaching was that I wanted to put what I knew into practice. That might seem odd, but it’s a great deal odder to find yourself in a classroom writing ‘Piaget believed learning should be exploratory’ onto a board while students obediently copy it down.

I was reading him because I think if I read more about learning and therefore understood it at a greater depth, I could design better courses to help people learn how to teach language more effectively – one too many loop in there for comfort.

When he says he taught people psychology it says ‘writing ‘Piaget believed learning should be exploratory’ onto a board while students obediently copy it down’.’ Is that teaching ? or lecturing ? Except that is probably a quick sweeping metaphor as the projects he talks about running in BP in current blog posts are all hands on, recognising the value of people needing to do things, not be told about things.

But many of my Delta teachers here say they have sat through lectures on communicative teaching at university. But if you don’t know what Piaget thought or what communicative teaching is, you aren’t going to find out by reflecting.  A lecturer could tell you, with some examples and possibly the odd check question, but then why not just read a book about it ? Will you understand it more clearly if you are asked to read / summarise / explain / evaluate something to and / or with someone else ? It will take longer. I think I would remember a lot better, but one lecturer could cover a lot of ground much faster than one of the classic mix, mingle, match, discuss style sequences I put together in sessions and in one of those you are likely to only get to know one corner of the material well (whatever it is you have been asked to focus on, contribute to the jigsaw).

So why do it that way ?

At the start of every Module One I face the same requests.

The teachers can’t instantly grasp what the exam entails, but it is completely natural to want to. There is a sample exam up in the Moodle, but it takes time to get across what elements of it are fixed and what parameters work around the questions.

The first two tasks focus on terminology, but not just knowing the terms, being able to explain what a term means and exemplify it. In a perfect world, in the same way that language learners would have wide ranging vocabularies because of all the extensive reading they do in their spare time, so language teachers will know lots of terminology by the time they sit the exam because of all the systems, skills and methodology they have read about, if only to prepare for the tasks in the rest of the exam. But then again, I also encourage my language learners to boost their vocabulary by doing something to actively learn items too (so yes, by analogy, learning terminology by rote would be feasible but the flash cards will have quite a chunk of information written on the other side).

Always after the big mingle activity that is intended to demonstrate the range of things they might be tested on in these terminology tasks, someone asks ‘Where can we get the list ?’ and I point out that the terms they just used were referenced on and came from Thornbury’s A-Z, The Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics or Crystal’s Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. And then usually someone asks, yes, but your list with these items on, where can we get that ? And I say I’m not going to give them the list and ask why and usually manage to get someone to say it is because they need to make their own list for it to be any use to them and that there isn’t ‘a list’ somewhere in Cambridge of terminology items that may come up. Though maybe there is, maybe I am being naive about that.

And the terminology problem (the great hunt to know what might be asked when in fact anything could be asked) is a microcosm of what feels like the exam ‘problem’. The exam is designed to force people to draw on a knowledge of language and of how skills work and of how methodology could work, to look at information, pick out what is important, what underlies things, where there are connections. You need to be able to name, but also to analyse, evaluate and synthesise what is there. There are syllabus areas and a lot of things you need to be able to do, but there isn’t a list of things you need to learn.

Doing a three month part time course with the exam as a goal at the end of it has a nice clear, clean feel about it. But actually, if it were me I’d do the exam preparation course, then do Modules Two and Three, then sit the next exam that was at the right time to fit with that. The only problem then being how to push yourself to put the study time in when the exam is a distant possibility. You have to be interested or it won’t work.

But it is interesting if you don’t have to cram, if you can read the parts you like, exercise new found skills of breaking down structure, learn new ways of looking at things (discourse analysis is often new for people doing the course). But then you don’t have a particular problem you need to apply it to that may be harder to organise, so the problem becomes the exam.

And that’s the other side – the approach that instinctively I don’t like, but which is always there to some degree and on some courses is the prevailing ethos – Delta Module One as an exercise in cramming. People making crib sheets. It just won’t work for some tasks (Paper 1 tasks 4 and 5 and Paper 2 task 4 really could have such a wide range of things in them that I really cannot see how trawling through old tasks would help) and there is no guarantee for P1 Task 3 or Paper Two Tasks 1 and 2 as they could actually put in things that were quite different from anything that has gone before (say a sequence from a writing book or a phonology sequence for the tasks on how and why a sequence fits together), but making the sheet helps some people and for some tasks there is a real sense of technique (P2 task 3) that seeing past answers definitely helps with.

And two people who have done well in the past have offered to give their notes / sheets / lists to me (I’m sure if I asked for this I could collect a lot more), but I have thanked them and politely declined. I really think they did well not because they had the lists but because they made the lists. And there are sometimes requests in the forums for this kind of list and still I don’t share (though I am pleased to say others are generous enough that lists do seem to get sent back and forth).

Why not just put all of this up in the course ?

One reason is because many of these lists are compiled from the old papers (there are only 5 exams with full reports publicly available as I write) and if they scour old papers to make cramming lists before they do the exam practice we provide they will have read and studied the same questions we are using to provide exam practice. They could do on to do it afterwards though. But that is a problem that will ease with time.

The more central reason is that putting up a list of things to learn suggests that the right approach to the exam is to memorise lists of things and I don’t think it is. I think it can help, sometimes, but actually doing the projects we have designed will help more. Equally, just doing the projects won’t mean you are prepared for the exam. In the alternative approaches project you will know how to teach using one method and why that might work very well (and you know a little about the other areas from reading or watching other people’s projects). Doing the lexis project will ask you to use your powers of analysis and learn about what you can conclude from concordances, but you will only actually know a lot more about two or three words, but the need to notice and articulate differences in meaning, lexico-grammar, style – those are all skills that would be useful in the exam and that you can take across to tasks. But if people do them in their group in the spirit of enquiry they are meant to engender, maybe they will get a sense of how they can learn together and from doing research and just a sense of how interesting the questions are.

How long does it take to learn a language ? To do what ? I still see so much I would like to know about English and am envious of those who use it better than me.. How long does it take to learn how to teach ? Same answer, surely you can only ever learn to love the questions.

Maybe I can make one of the projects how to make your own crib sheets (from the sources rather than from past exam papers). Though that bleeds into one of those other big questions that goes round and round in my head – how much help, support and scaffolding is too much …


2 thoughts on “Exams and learning”

  1. Thanks Guven – glad you were interested enough to read it. As someone going through that process now does any of it ring true to you ? I’m kind of hoping to use the blog to get feedback on the courses sometimes at some point in the future … haven’t quite figured out how yet.

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