Why is it so important to support learner commitment outside the classroom? How should you do it? Daniel Barber suggests some key things to consider.

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Supporting learner commitment outside the class

Are you feeling the pressure to go digital? Do you feel that your students might be missing out because you’ve heard the excitement from the Ed-Tech world about ‘blended courses’, ‘flipped classes’, iPads in classrooms and ‘virtual learning’? Don’t panic! First, you’re not the only one who feels this way. And second, before you jump on board the technology train, it’s worth bearing a few points in mind.

Understanding commitment

In a previous article about encouraging more independent practice, I argued that teachers need to look more deeply at learners’ language lives outside the classroom, where a huge range of language practice opportunities are waiting for them. But why should we expect learners to actually commit to more English when we aren’t around? Take a minute to consider which of these learners are more likely to keep studying and be able to complete their course of study:

  1. Someone who has signed up for a free six-week open online course.
  2. Someone using a vocabulary-learning app on their phone, costing $5, which states that just ten minutes a day is all they need to improve their English.
  3. Someone who has agreed to practise speaking English once a week on Skype with a language exchange partner.
  4. Someone who has paid to attend classes for three months with a teacher, as part of a group.

What do you think? What factors increase the chances that the student will stick to the plan and not give up? A financial commitment? The personal, face-to-face element? Flexibility? Ease of effort? Or even hard work? It is essential we understand the reasons students commit – and don’t commit – to learning if we expect them to take full advantage of emerging pedagogies.

What is certain is that the relationship learners develop with their teacher and classmates in school can be a positive force for a number of reasons: a good rapport encourages students to stay the course; students are more likely to do homework if they know their teacher has an investment in their progress, and they won’t want to let their classmates down, either; and we can’t ignore the simple truth that learning a language is hard work and the community of the class can provide the support learners need in this difficult endeavour.

Wouldn’t it be great if teachers could leverage the feeling of support and personal accountability they have helped create in the class so that students also felt supported and accountable in the anonymous activities they did online?

How teachers can help learners make a self-study commitment – seven ideas

To ensure that students feel just as committed away from class as they do in the group, we need to take advantage of the classroom community and extend it to self-study. Only then can truly blended learning take place. Here are seven tips for converting classroom accountability into greater self-study commitment.

1. You’ll have heard of a classroom contract, where at the start of a course you and the students sign a document that sets out everyone’s rights and responsibilities, the class rules, etc. How about extending this idea to rest of the students’ English language lives outside the classroom? Have them make resolutions about what they plan to do at home and how much. Get them to write it down and sign it.

2. Consider an online shared spreadsheet (Google sheets or similar) that shows a). how many hours of individual practice each student plans to do every week and b). whether they reach their targets or not. This way, students can see the effort they and their classmates are putting in. The good habits of the few can spread to the whole class. Of course, this could also lead to competitiveness and feelings of shame if students don’t keep up or if they do less than others. Be careful not to judge students, and discourage classmates from doing so. Remind the class that whatever they do outside class (set homework apart) is their choice, and only they can decide the right workload for their additional study.

3. There’s no reason the togetherness of the class needs to stop at the classroom door. Extend this sense of community by taking it online. Make use of the course or institution’s VLE (Virtual Learning Environment platform) if there is one. Get students visiting it regularly by posting encouraging messages yourself, recommending links they may like and mentioning it in class. Or you could set up a Facebook page to share ideas and keep in touch throughout the week. Praise them for tapping into other social groups, such as discussion forums in which they can participate, post questions and make other English-learning friends.

4. If at all possible, set aside time to speak to each member of the class individually. Talk about their goals and expectations, and ask them what they do away from class. Discuss the consequences of doing more or less English practice. Make sure students are aware of what doing the minimum – and the maximum! – means. This discussion could include achievements such as passing the exam this year or next, or achieving the goals they have set themselves. Remind them of their past achievements – the message needs to be: Yes, you can!

5. Hold students accountable. Keep a record of their out-of-class plans, and ask follow-up questions to find out whether they are doing what they said. Your interest in their progress can only encourage them further.

6. Act as a role model yourself. Are you learning any languages? Show them how you are accountable for your own development. Bring in the book you are reading to practise your L2. Why not invite them to interview you about the things you do outside class to learn the language?

7. Coach your students to be kind to themselves. Make sure that they don’t feel so pressured that they get angry or depressed when they don’t achieve all that they planned. Tell them that some failure is inevitable and it’s normal to sometimes let your good intentions slip. But also tell them that it is a mistake to then give up and say: I’ve already got behind, so why bother now? If a student falls behind, talk to them about it, remaining positive and realistic all the time. Say: OK, so you didn’t manage it this week. What do you think the problem was? How about trying less next week and seeing how that goes?

References

For more on the community of the class in flipped learning, see the flipped learning pillars outlined here: http://www.flippedlearning.org/definition-of-flipped-learning

For more on encouraging good habits, see language mentor Lýdia Machová: http://www.languagementoring.com