Getting students to do more without checking

Often we need our students to do something but we are unable to check that they did it or we’re unable to check how well they did it. How can we deal with that situation?

For example, I often want my students to practice some language in groups. Right now with some freshmen college students we are learning how to do introductions. I want all of my students to participate in this practice but because there are so many students, I’m unable to monitor how well they are doing it or even if they are doing it wholeheartedly.

Sometimes students need a little pressure to do well. I put the students together into groups and ask them to not just practice but to make a role play of the activity. After sufficient time, I randomly choose a few groups to come to the front of the class to do their role play for all of us.

Because students don’t know which group will have to perform their role play, this puts a slight pressure on everyone to participate in the activity but the teacher does not have to check each groups work.

This approach can also be used for any activity like writing projects. I have done it for speaking projects, asking the students to create an mp3 on a group member’s mobile phone, and we choose a few group’s recordings to play for the class.

A score can even be handed out for these teams. Of course in scoring, you are not checking the whole class, only part of the class. But this should be fine if you repeat these types of activities throughout the semester and cover all of the students. One caveat is to not say that the ones who performed before will not perform next time as this causes them to slack off. Some students may have to perform and get scored more than others.

Can technology to improve health habits be used to improve study habits?

I study hundreds of these kinds of articles and often do further research into the white papers to get more details.

“Smart Phones Help Manage Chronic Illness” is an article about how smart phones are used to help remind people test their own blood sugar or blood pressure to manage their health. It’s easy to forget to do these things or to be a bit lazy about them.

To repeat, It’s easy to forget to do these things or to be a bit lazy about them. Hmmm, sounds like the problem a certain percentage of our students have about studying English. Continue reading “Can technology to improve health habits be used to improve study habits?”

Wisdom of crowds? Swarm scoring? Peer-to-peer assessment? Peer assessment honesty?

Last term I had my students check each others weekly quizzes. These quizzes were proctored in the classroom and had 9 questions and took a few minutes to answer and a couple minutes to check. This was beneficial for 2 reasons.

a. Through the process of going over the answers together, students got quick feedback on how they did.

b. The teacher had a quick assessment of how well each student understood the material.

Question: How honestly can we make peer-to-peer subjective checking in larger less controlled systems?

In this case, I am not referring to collaborative projects, team writing, etc, but I am referring to assessment that could be formative or summative.

Assuming the students have a carefully designed rubric to follow and that they are reasonably accurate in using it, how honest will students be in scoring each others’ works? Will they give a higher score than deserved? Will they help out a buddy with a higher score? While a teacher cannot eradicate cheating, what can be done to minimize it?

I know that as an IELTS examiner, I always knew that my scoring could be spot-checked by another examiner and if my scoring was off then I could be in trouble.

Imagine this. A student is given an assignment and has to do 3 things:

a. Produce some English (teacher could assign writing or speaking into an mp3) b. Score one other student’s English production c. Double check another student’s scoring

Students know teacher may or may not do a final spot check on some of the scoring. If the teacher finds the scoring off to an unreasonable degree, the student who scored off would have his own score lowered.

Game theory of cheating, cigarette advertisements and boarding buses

Malcolm Gladwell tells a fascinating story about the game theory behind cigarette companies and why they were happy when cigarette advertising was banned in the USA.

You see, the problem was that cigarette advertising was not so effective to win over new customers. The biggest problem was that if one company Continue reading “Game theory of cheating, cigarette advertisements and boarding buses”

Controlling cheating during quizzes and tests

It’s exam time again. I have added a multiple choice vocabulary test to my exam suite. I am doing it in the same way I have been doing my weekly quiz with the students. Controlling cheating is always a concern.

I have four classes so I made four tests. It wasn’t too difficult for a multiple choice test. I suspect that if I had only one test, by the time the last class of the day arrived they would be fully briefed as to the questions and answers.

Fortunately my classroom is very large and I can Continue reading “Controlling cheating during quizzes and tests”

Impulsive learning?

Don’t buy those chocolates!..No!…Oh, too late!…Yummy!…You deserve it!

You know how it goes. You carefully made a supermarket shopping list and followed it to a “t”. You avoided the aisle that had the cookies and all those yummy snacks. Gotta work on that diet! Good girl! You bought some extra vegetables, more salads are good for you. With a shopping cart full of healthy choices, it is now time to check out. You get in line at the cash register. Someone is ahead of you. You look around. Hmmm, look at those chocolates! Hmmm, your favorite ones! OK, just one little one. It’s a reward! You aren’t buying a big bag of chocolates! It’s OK! One is not going to hurt nothing! And what about one of those tabloid newspapers… Charlie Sheen said what?!!!

Gottha again! Yes, that’s impulse buying. They knew they’d get you. It was all part of a plan. Paco Underhill, author of “Why We Buy”, said that the American economy would collapse if everyone just bought what was on their shopping list. That is the power of impulse.

Here is how one bank is using the impulse hot-button, literally a big red button, to get people to save more:

Behavioral Economics: “I want to save right now!”
Watch the video from the bank:
MIT TechReview on Ideo’s role in this:

Can we use this power as teachers? Can we push the impulse hot-button of our students and get them to study English more?

Here is an idea that I would like to work on. My students in China are connected to everyone by QQ, a chat program similar to Skype or MSN chat. It is almost a fact that being Chinese = being a QQ user. They use it on their computers and on their phones. (Some of my students even QQ me while they are having a class with another teacher!) Your country probably has a similar popular chat platform. I’ve been doing a lot of experiments with QQ over the past year and it’s greatly helped me develop a “presence” with my students.

What if we used a chat platform that our students used to deliver content that would appeal to our students’ impulses? Something short. Something cheap on time, quick. Something catchy. Here is one example although you can probably think of many more and I’d appreciate you sharing your ideas on

What about Extensive Reading? The student gets a teaser like this:

“HI JOHN, READING IS GOOD FOR YOUR ENGLISH. YOU MIGHT LIKE THIS STORY: Jaws – Chapter 1 Night Swim. The shark moved through the night water without a sound. It swam towards the shore, with its eyes and mouth open. The woman began walking out towards the sea. The water came up round her feet. It was a warm June night, but the water felt cold. The woman called back. ‘Come and have a swim with me!’ But there was no answer from the man. She ran into the sea, and soon the water was up to her head. She began to swim. The shark was a hundred metres from the beach. It could not see the woman – it could not see anything in the dark water – but it felt the sea move. It turned towards the shore. PUSH ‘MORE’ TO CONTINUE THE STORY”

Perhaps 200 words by 200 words, the reader could continue through the story. He may be riding on the bus, eating breakfast, waiting for a friend, but doing something he would not ordinarily do. Learning English. Impulsive reading.

I’m interested in what other teachers might think about the possibilities of using technology and the dynamic possibilities of appealing to impulsive studying.

[1] I am not suggesting using copyrighted materials. Finding appealing materials would be another question to resolve. Jaws: Penguin Readers Level 2 (Penguin Longman Penguin Readers).

Benchmarking to David Letterman

This was showing for a few years in Hong Kong and we received Hong Kong TV here in Guangzhou. Every night David has to get and hold everyone’s attention. He has developed a routine for holding attention. He does the same things every night but changes the content of those things. First he stands in front of the audience and tells some jokes. Second he sits down and tell a funny story. Third he plays a game with the audience like “Name that meat!” Fourth he introduces Guest number 1 and they chat. Fifth he introduces Guest number 2 and they chat. Sixth a band comes out and performs. He does the same thing night after night but he changes the content of the routine.

How I use it:

Students hate just doing the book day after day. I often have to use a coursebook and have found some fun and interesting ways to use it which I will discuss later. But I have followed David’s example by dividing my class time up into sections and following a “routine of variety”. I often open with a short story of something funny that happened to me or my family.

I’ll then do a warm-up activity that not only involves their mind but also their bodies. (I believe that it is vitally important to really wake them up before beginning any kind of lesson and I won’t usually start until they are wide awake and their minds are churning.) Then we’ll dive into our book for a while. During the break I’ll show ten minutes of an English-English movie, stopping at the most exciting part and inviting the students to get a copy of the movie from me. After the break I may wrest a highly interactive groupwork activity out of the book or may make a speaking activity out of a commercial or film clip. Then wrap up the lesson with a summary of what we did and the magic question, “Did this help your English?”

Engineering an Experience! Want fries with that?

English lesson at Starbucks with two managers from McDonald's logistics company

Many teachers don’t know how to keep their lessons interesting when there is only a handful of students or maybe the class is one-on-one. Sometimes you notice the students’ eyes getting blurry from the book. But I have found that these tiny groups are so mobile there is no reason to keep them in the classroom.

As I mentioned before, I will take them on an English safari through Ikea. I also like to take them through a shopping mall or even an English bookstore. The bookstore is a universe of ideas and it is interesting to tour those ideas. Business people love hearing what you know about Jack Welch or the “long tail”. Even the “Economic Hit Man” provides an interesting business topic to discuss with your students.

My lessons are not always a tour of a shop, though. Sometimes we have a sit down lesson but why do it in a classroom? What kind of experience is that?

I met my students at Subway, the sandwich restaurant, and using a CNN article called “How China Eats A Sandwich” we learned about the crazy guy who started the franchise in China.[1]

Sitting in a McDonald’s we learned about their new makeover from a red and yellow kindergarten style into a cool jazzy décor from an article in FastCompany.[2]

KFC is not to be ignored. Munching on wings we learned about Warren Liu’s book on KFC’s secret recipe of success in China.[3]

Starbucks is a really teacher-friendly place. For the price of a coffee you can have a comfortable place for a two-hour lesson. My students and I were fascinated with an article about Starbucks called “One Cup of Coffee, 20 Experiences”.[4]

I reformat these articles by pasting them into a Word document, add a photo or two, put some of the new words along the side of the article and print out two or three copies. You can also simplify the vocabulary if it is much too difficult for your students. It is pretty fast. If you want copies let me know. These particular lessons are suitable for upper-intermediate level and advanced business English students.

The students get so absorbed into the experience, the ambience, the discussion of business concepts, they really forget that this is an English “lesson” yet they are using their English to communicate their ideas. Upper-intermediate and especially advanced level students need help in the nuances of expressing concepts, ideas, arguing and debating conflicting viewpoints.

Let’s think outside the box and even teach outside the book…way outside!