Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Busy Lives and Homework; Getting more than 90 min a week

Business English learners don't do homework.  Well, at least mine don't.  With only 60 or 90 minutes of English a week, making progress without self-study is like, well... you know. 

The root cause for this is misleading.  They will always say, "I don't have time because I am so busy."  But this is not actually true.  In reality, because English is a tool for work, studying English in their free time is the same as taking their work home.  At a time when everyone is talking about maintaining their work-life balance, English for work simply falls off the priority list.  But all hope is not lost.  By being open about homework and understanding how the student sees it, we can increase their involvement.

What can I say... I didn't do my homework either.
First, ask the learners sometime near the beginning of the course how much time they are willing to dedicate learning English outside of the the classroom. Enter some kind of informal agreement on dedication.

Then we need to understand the thinking of the learner. They will go through several stages...

1. They will test it. At this point, it is up to the trainer to say that this is a test. If the self-study experience feels like a burden or requirement with the corresponding negative emotions, it will not continue. The trainer should get feedback for the learner whether this type of self-study is enjoyable, challenging, and effective. Designing activities which fit learning styles is particularly important at this stage because they will find suitable activities more enjoyable.

2. They will look for reward. In the adult learning environment, this will be primarily peer respect. However, trainer respect can also go a long way. If the others see the respect they get for completing the homework, others will seek that reward. When one or two people complete self-study I like to give them the chance to shine in class. This could be simply by having the others congratulate (a little applause) them or by having the learners teach what they learned. It could be to set up activities which use the material to let these specific learners have an advantage (all will notice). The problem with this is that increasing levels of reward are needed. This is often where games and competitions come in.  Karl Dean has been kind enough to share some of the ways he builds rewards and games into his lessons and inspires self-study.  Please check out his accompanying blog post here.

3. They will expect to see progress.  At this point, the trainer's job is to build the self-study into the self-reflective process. This means including questions like, "What have you learned outside of class in the last two months?" It can also be done during a class feedback discussion if there is time. If the activities are not chosen well and the learners do not sense and acknowledge progress, they will abandon homework.

4. They will experiment further. Convinced now that homework can increase progress, they will begin to experiment. The trainer's role is to provide direction, acknowledge and spread this experimentation. Here it can be helpful to develop 'subject matter experts' (SMEs) within the group. For example, one student can be the verb tenses expert, one can be the financial vocab expert, etc. We can now beginning supporting this self-study by turning over parts of our lessons to our SMEs.
Each learner will move through or drop out of the stages at different speeds. One of the challenges I see is trying to adjust when the individual learners have different time committments and are at different steps in the process. I certainly haven't perfected homework, but I am getting better results using this theory.
By understanding these stages of thinking we can design and change our homework assignments.

Ah the horrible memories!  Grandfather helping the grandchildren
with their homework by Lukian Popov

This brings us to some general tips:
  • Start small, but with a concrete tasks.  Give them models of what should be done and guide them to completion.
  • Play with various types of homework to fit with learning style and preference.
    • Visual tasks (mind maps, pictures and colors, highlighting texts, graphically reworking class notes)
    • Auditory tasks (prepare a verbal review of the last lesson, podcasts, finding target language in listening files, writing dialogs)
    • Kinesthetic tasks (moving note cards, java exercises, going and 'finding' language, activities which make the language tangible)
    • 'The Old Guard' (gap fills, crosswords, matching, etc.)
  • Provide learners with a menu of homework.
  • Add a peer check to the homework, e.g. "Email all the participants your review of this article and five words you learned."
  • Do not make the next lesson hinge on their homework.  Always have a plan for zero completion.
  • Check the homework in class... this takes lesson time, don't underestimate the time.  For them the homework was more of a committment than attending the lesson.
  • Make homework a routine.  Perhaps not every lesson, but regularly (I prefer every other week).
  • Don't forget about the things we did 3-6 months ago.
  • Build buy-in with praise, attention, and demostrated progress.
These are certainly no magic bullet, but they are definitely more effective than simply handing out a worksheet with an answer key and hoping.  But who knows, maybe over time we can convince them that both of their personalities (work and personal) can benefit from speaking a second language.

1 comment:

  1. I do not know exactly how we can avoid homework, a few years after completing my masters degree , I thought I was done with homework little did it occur to me that my kids were just joining school and soon I will start helping them get their homework done! During our school time ,our parents were not the homework police and so should be the case today especially with all the resources available online to get homework answers from as compared to our time when we had to sit all day finding homework answers from books in the library. Thanks for sharing!