Kate Lister’s design narrative: A Project-based learning (PBL) English language course using smartphones
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29 March 2015
Title - A Project-based learning (PBL) English language course using smartphones
I am an English teacher for the University of Marburg (Germany), and at the time of the narrative (2013) I was teaching at the Modern Language Centre.
We have two long semester breaks in Germany, and the Modern Language Centre usually runs intermediate (B1) level English intensive language courses during this time. These are usually populated by students who have to improve their English in a hurry for a variety of reasons. I had taught several of the 2-week intensive courses before, and had always been frustrated by several factors:
1. I have been taught to use a communicative methodology. However, German students tend to be suspicious of communicative techniques of language learning; they enjoy communicative activities, but they don’t feel they are learning unless they can fill in textbook grammar exercises.
2. The atmosphere in the course was always stiff until the last couple of days of the course. Students were often disinclined to socialise or get involved; they often resented having to be there when all their friends were on holiday. At the end of the course, when they had to give spoken presentations, they would suddenly all bond with each other and the atmosphere would improve dramatically for the last day or so of the course.
3. Twenty hours a week of intensive English practise is hard going at intermediate level and it was difficult to keep students motivated and productive. Most of the motivation had to come from the teacher, and it is very draining to have to be a constant emotional cheerleader.
I had a lot of freedom in the design and implementation of the course, and I was part way through my dip.TESOL teaching diploma, so I was fired up with new ideas and methodologies. I decided to try and re-vamp the course.
The task I set myself was to try and create a new type of course that would:
-consist of tasks and activities that would, by their nature, motivate the students, meaning less emotional cheerleading from the teacher and more peer motivational support.
-utilise a communicative learning methodology, but would allay students’ suspicions that they were not learning enough.
-encourage the students to bond with each other much earlier in the course, hopefully resulting in a better learning atmosphere.
I planned to measure my success in two ways.
1. My own evaluation of the outcomes of the course.
2. The students’ evaluations of the course, as per the university’s end-of-course questionnaire.
One typical reason for students to start the course without much motivation is that their friends are all off on holiday during the semester break. With this in mind, I decided to add a travel theme to the course. Every day we would be “in” a different country, the warmer task would be geared around students guessing the country and the activities would be connected to it in some way.
Authenticity in activities
One problem with having a course theme is that it doesn’t often fit in with textbooks and learning resources available. With this in mind, I decided to include only authentic (real) resources in the course. Authenticity is a key issue in TESOL today, as many textbooks and pre-designed activities feel rather artificial and this is frustrating for students. The course would benefit more from my designing my own materials using authentic sources than patching things together from various textbooks and twisting my theme to fit the materials I could find. I also felt that the students be would probably be more receptive to communicative (less worksheet-based) tasks if they felt they were practising “real” English.
Project-based learning (PBL)
Authentic materials are best balanced with lots of oral/aural and communicative tasks; creating a lot of written activities based on new material is very time consuming for the teacher. With this in mind, I decided to try PBL, something I had read about in my dip.TESOL course but had not been able to use. PBL requires long periods of student contact; projects take time to research, put together and report on; and it had never been possible to do more than 20-minute stints of Task-based learning in my regular 90-minute classes. The intensive course classes are 4 hours long, so PBL was now an option. This would minimise my planning time and increase the communicability and authenticity of the activities.
One problem with PBL is that giving students a project task based on an authentic source requires the students to carry out research and work on their project in class. For this they need access to technology, and our classrooms only have one computer. Classrooms do, however, have wifi, and I was sure that the vast majority of the students would have smartphones. In case any didn’t, I decided to specify that all smartphone research must be done in pairs, necessitating one smartphone per two students.
Shared traumatic event
I was satisfied that my planned tasks would be communicative, motivational and should require less emotional cheerleading from me. My last aim was to get the students to bond earlier in the course. I analysed what had made students bond in previous courses; either simple longevity of the course, which wasn’t possible here, or the task of having to give a graded presentation to the class. I thought it might be the mild trauma of the presentation and the subsequent relief that made students bond, and so, with this in mind, I decided to present them with a mildly traumatic shared experience on day 3 of the 2-week course. I decided that the project for day 3 (India theme) was to write, act in and film (on smartphones) a Bollywood movie in 5 scenes, including a final dance scene, to be played to the class at the end of the day. This was a gamble - no one likes being filmed, many German students are not happy to make fools of themselves in public and are, rather like the British, often not big on dancing unless they’ve been drinking! The students could easily rebel and turn away from me, making the rest of the course very uncomfortable. I planned the activity and mentally reserved the right to cancel it on the day, once I had got to know the students a little.
The course was a resounding success, far beyond my expectations.
The course started like all the others had; with unwilling, demotivated students. Some students had a significantly lower level of English than the course required, leading to frustration among the students they were working with. One student was earmarked as unpopular from the first day, due to several personal idiosyncrasies that the other students did not respond well to. Another student declined to socialise.
My Bollywood movie task met with resistance at first (particularly from the PhD student), but even the most reluctant students eventually entered into it and the class ended with tears of laughter. More importantly, the bonding effect was extremely evident; the following day, the students started arriving to class 15-20 minutes earlier and sitting and chatting to their peers before the class started, something which had not taken place beforehand. I also noticed that students who had been less popular or who had lower levels of English were now accepted as part of the group and were included far more in general and social discussion.
Classes where the students have a bond are not only more fun to be in (both as a student and as a teacher), but they are generally recognised as having an atmosphere more conducive to learning (see, for example, Krashen & Terrel (1983), Moscowitz (1978), Lozanov (1978), Curran (1976), etc). I noticed the effect of this bond in the increased levels of student motivation in the classroom.
In addition, my travel theme was popular, and after the fourth day the students would start asking me where we were “going” that day. The authenticity of the activities and the PBL approach were appreciated by all, invoking positive reactions from the students in class and in the final questionnaire. Students loved using their smartphones in class, and they told me that using their phones made the lesson feel more fun and it made them feel less that they were in a class, and more that they were in a social setting with friends.
As the teacher, I noticed that the class atmosphere had more camaraderie and that the motivation levels were higher, and I had hoped for this. I was not, however, prepared for two other factors: firstly, the exceptional amount of effort the students put into their final groupwork project, the graded presentation, leading to some of the highest quality B1 presentations I have seen in 10 years of teaching; and secondly, the effusive praise of the course in the final questionnaire. The course received perfect scores for every part from all the students, and as the teacher, I know that the course was a long way from perfect and had a lot of room for improvement. The good feeling in the course, and the students’ satisfaction with the materials and the activities overrode everything else for them. Even many months later, running into the students in passing (Marburg is a small city), I was told voluntarily on four separate occasions by students that this course was the best English course they had ever taken.
I learned that camaraderie is far more important than I had anticipated. When a course is over, students don’t remember what they learned so much as how they learned it, and leaving a course with a positive feeling is intensely important in how they look back on and remember the course.
I learned that emotional cheerleading is not always necessary, but the teacher must set the example for the students to follow. The teacher’s personality is an important force in the classroom, but students motivating each other is far more powerful (and less draining) than the teacher motivating the students.
I learned that authentic materials and project- or task-based learning are very much appreciated by students. I have tried to apply this in as many other situations as I can.
I learned that students love using their smartphones in class, and that I love how this saves me preparation time. I have applied this to many other classes.
I learned how to set the stage for the students and then step back, facilitate, and let them take over. This allows them to take ownership of their learning and their motivation to learn.
This particular course was a success story, but this was due as much to luck as it was to planning or instinct. Many other of my ideas and experiments haven’t been successes. However, I learned not to be afraid to try new things, and that innovation is the key to progress.