Design your own exam question

Photo taken from ELTpics by @eannegrenoble, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

This is a brief post to report on something that I came across on Twitter last year and finally tried out at the final exam a couple of days ago.

There was a tweet – unfortunately, I forget by who and I didn’t bookmark it – that described an intriguing tweak to written exams. Essentially, one of the questions was left blank and students could add any question that hadn’t been asked but they knew the answer or had studied for this. As I understood it, this was entirely optional and was an opportunity to score extra points.

The tweet seemed to garner quite a bit of attention and approval but for all I know the idea isn’t as revolutionary as all that; it might only represent a novel approach in my context, which is not exactly prone to experimentation, especially when it comes to exams. In any case, I knew at once this was something I was going to try in February.

This was the question I added to the last page of the exam paper:

Is there anything else you wish were included in the exam? Something you studied or know the answer to but that question is not in the exam paper? Write down the question(s) and what your answer(s) would be and you may be able to score extra points. Of course, it needs to be related to this course.

Because I’d left it entirely up to the students how many bits of information to include, if any at all, I didn’t settle on how many points they’d actually be able to score. I had this vague idea that the answers might help someone pass if they were short of a few points or get a higher grade if they were pretty close to the cut-off point. As the exam went on, for a short while I thought nobody would take up the option of answering the question and I was sorry the exam had only been scheduled to last an hour because I thought maybe there wasn’t enough time.

Eventually, about half the group did answer. When I read the answers, I realized I’d expected them to refer to the students’ takeaways from the course and say, for instance, things like “I’ve discovered some really effective spell check tools: X and Y” or “I’m much more confident than before about where I could/should use a semi-colon,” along with a sentence to illustrate this.

Instead, they mostly referred to items they’d revised in preparation for the exam, which is not surprising given how the question was phrased. The last unit online included a screencast in which I talked about what they could expect at the exam, so they were (presumably) all aware of what to focus on during revision.

There was a category of answers that clearly didn’t aim at getting a higher grade: one student included suggestions as to how the instructions could be worded more clearly in an exercise and another said they wished they’d been asked to write an essay rather than being tested on a number of discrete points (but then didn’t go on to write an essay, saying that they doubted this would impact on their grade in any way).

Overall, I was able to use those answers where the students had shared what they remembered about the course content to give them a higher grade, so I am counting the experiment as a success, though for some reason my impression is that the person who shared the idea on Twitter was a lot more enthusiastic than me about the results. I think I’ll be using the question again, although probably not on the very next exam date.

Have you used this type of question with your students? What was your experience? If you haven’t, do you think you might? Also, if you have any ideas on how the question could be improved upon (or the link to the original tweet – it might have been phrased much better there), I’d love to hear them. Thanks for reading!

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Looking back on 2018

I love year-in-review posts. They’re often a tad more personal than the usual ELT blog post in that they touch on areas of life outside of the classroom, which I always enjoy reading about. I’ve been following some folks’ blogs long enough to feel as if I know them in real life, so it’s great to read about their successes and challenges, and how they overcame/are dealing with the latter. Year-in-review posts can also be a useful reminder of things people have previously shared on their blogs or social media, but with the flood of news out there it’s often easy to overlook/forget bits of pertinent information.   

The idea for this post came from Sandy Millin’s blog, where you can also read which other posts inspired hers. I’ve adapted it a bit because a) it’s not December anymore, b) if I wrote about 31 points this would be completed in June, and c) I have nothing to say for some of the prompts, so I left them out.   

Your favorite activity from 2018

I haven’t taught offline much for quite a while now, so I’m going to go with an online activity which isn’t from 2018 but remains one of my favorites: the anonymous peer review. I wrote about how it’s set up in my course and which tweaks have been added over time in this post.

Most memorable story from 2018

This would have to be my visit to Athens in the spring. I hadn’t been to Greece before and it was great to have the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks there. One thing I’ll definitely remember the visit by is meeting one of my PLN in person – thanks for everything, Christina! Proof that the ELT world is indeed a small one is that in the brief time while I was in Athens the sixth BELTA Day took place and Christina was a presenter, so I was able to reminisce about the lovely BELTA people and previous BELTA Days without – hopefully – sounding too nostalgic.

the moment in 2018 you felt proud as a teacher

This isn’t classroom related but I’ve been adjuncting at the University of Zagreb since 2008, and a couple of years into this I was expected to qualify for the title of lecturer, which is the educational title lowest on the scale in the Croatian tertiary education system. Once you qualify, you hold this position for five years, after which you can go for re-election or try to move a step up the ladder. Last year I qualified for senior lecturer, which sounds grander than it is (especially if you’re still adjuncting – I expect I could soon be setting some kind of record), but was a bit of a proud moment nevertheless.

A new idea you implemented in 2018

The idea isn’t new but I finally got around to trying out badges. I’m still planning to create two more – for which I’ve more or less defined the criteria – by the end of the semester.

Your favorite teaching aid in 2018

A reliable board marker that doesn’t die on me halfway through the class.

The moment in 2018 when you felt proud of your student

There was definitely more than a single moment/student, but one that readily comes to mind is when a wonderful, very motivated and hardworking student – who recently graduated (or is almost there) – got a job at a place that inspires job satisfaction and looks good on their CV.

Your favorite teaching website in 2018

I don’t really have one. My favorite resource for everything teaching related is Twitter and I follow up on interesting info I come across by clicking through to whatever resources the person tweeting has linked to. These are, however, far more often blogs than websites like Edutopia or Teaching English. A quick look at some of my recent retweets suggests that I may have visited the EdSurge HigherEd website pretty often and I think this is explained by the fact that they cover topics of relevance both to my non-teaching (but still in the education sector) job and tertiary ed topics.

The person who inspired you in 2018

Some of my coworkers. I won’t single anyone out just in case someone from work ever reads this, primarily because many people there have been inspirational in a number of small (and not-so-small) ways and I don’t want anyone to feel left out.

Your greatest challenge in 2018

Overcoming impostor syndrome. Changing professions/working environments after such a long time did leave me with nagging doubts as to whether I was doing a good job, even if objectively I knew I was coping at least satisfactorily. Before I always used to be the one who had been doing that job forever when a new coworker came along and it was a challenge to be on the other side.  

Your strongest point as a teacher

Modesty dictates I say my students should be asked about this. But now I think about it, this really is a tough question. I’ve been teaching for 20 years so there are probably few things I’m hopeless at (apart from teaching YLs and teens, which I’ve never done). I hope I’m good at making students feel confident about their language skills. Let’s put it this way: I would be happy if that was how students felt.    

Your favorite teaching application in 2018

Definitely H5P, which I’ve written about here and here. I’m planning to try out more of their content types this year.  

The best CPD book you read in 2018

Readers of this blog know I occasionally do translations, so I think I’m justified in choosing this as a CPD book: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos.

Your greatest frustration in 2018

Probably the fact that I wasn’t sure if my non-teaching contract was going to be extended, as a result of which I thought it would be prudent to hang on to any work I’d been doing previously. This included proofreading/language-editing/translation work and online teaching, so I worked almost every evening and weekend for the first half of the year. Luckily, the contract was eventually extended.

One thing you want non-teachers to understand

That it’s normal for teachers to be on the lookout for things that will make their job easier. People in other professions do this too. It’s great that there are teachers who enjoy being immersed in PD opportunities 24/7 and who will always take the more challenging route, but that works for them and shouldn’t be seen as the norm every teacher should necessarily aspire to.

Your most memorable teaching experiment in 2018

This has got to be the workshop on academic writing I delivered for my coworkers. I asked for my PLN for ideas and input in this post and would like to thank everyone once again: I thought the workshop turned out pretty well. There was some talk at the time that we might have more frequent sessions for those interested, and not only on academic writing but other aspects of language, but that hasn’t yet come to pass, primarily because I haven’t done anything about it. I didn’t want to commit to something I might not have the time and energy to do properly.

your personal success in 2018

I’m not sure if the “personal” is meant to stress that I see this as a success only I contributed to/brought about (as opposed to being part of a team), but I’m going to interpret it as also referring to team successes. I wrote about being involved in AMORES project here and here. The project ended three years ago but in 2018 articles describing project results were published in two books. It’s great to see the project living on!

One thing you plan to change in 2019

If I were the least bit confident that there was a chance of this actually happening, I’d say I’d do more exercise. 

Your greatest discovery in 2018

I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but you know the timer app on your phone? Oh, okay, I know, Google Keep. ILovePDF? Nope, nothing revolutionary.

Thank you for reading! I hope it’s not too late to wish you a great year ahead and please let me know if you’ve done a year-in-review post – I’d love to read it!

Copy and paste for teachers

Photo taken from ELTpics by @mk_elt, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Last week I finally got started on grading and feedback in the latest iteration of my writing skills online course, and thought I’d do a brief post on my comment bank. Note to self: see if you can come up with a catchier title than “My comment bank”.

Last summer I was listening to an episode of the Professional Adjunct podcast, in which the hosts, Beth and Jim, discuss an article called “Ten Tips for More Efficient and Effective Grading”, originally published on Faculty Focus. I’m not a regular subscriber to this podcast, but the couple of episodes I’ve listened to have addressed various aspects of teaching online – the asynchronous kind, which I do.

When they got to point 2 – comment banks – I remember it only then dawned on me that I had in fact been creating a comment bank for a few semesters without having expressly set out to do so, or even realizing that was what I’d been doing. I mean, I teach English. I’ve used coursebooks with text banks in the back of the TB, so the concept is familiar. And yet the idea of a comment bank came as a surprise – not the I-didn’t-think-anyone-else-had-come-up-with-this kind of surprise, but more of an oh-I-have-something-like-that-who-knew kind.

I find this type of resource especially useful for asynchronous online contexts or whenever you need to give feedback on work submitted electronically. Once you’ve designed a course in an LMS that covers a whole semester, it’s likely to maintain a more or less similar structure for at least a couple of semesters. For instance, there will be a discussion forum in unit 1 – it may differ in terms of the reading the students need to do to take part, or in terms of the opening post – but they’ll still be taking part in a discussion and you’ll probably want to give them a grade and feedback on that.

I originally used to add comments under headings like “Unit 1, discussion 1” to a Word document, but after a while I switched to Google Docs as I can access the bank across devices. This morning, for example, I had an hour to kill on campus, so I used the office computer to add feedback – pretty convenient.

I have a rubric for each activity that I give feedback on, so if it’s a discussion, I’m looking for a minimum number of posts, minimum number of words per post, participation by deadline, relevance to topic – this is not in order of importance – and so I will usually first comment on how successfully the student has followed the rubric. This can be taken straight from the comment bank and requires minimal adaptation. Then, if there is anything specific to a particular student that I would like to address, I will add a personalized comment. I tend to end with suggestions on what to watch out for in the next discussion, and these are often from the comment bank as well, since they come up more often than you might expect. A case in point would be encouraging them to run a spell check on their posts and pointing them to a resource we have in the course where they can find more information on how to do that, should they need to.

A more recent addition to the comment bank has been marking sections of the text in different colors for convenience. There are at least 5 or 6 comments that I will be using and/or building on for an activity, so it’s far easier to find my way around if each is a different color. I wish I could say I was color coding them – it sounds more organized – but it’s nothing as sophisticated as that; I just mark them in different color so each comment stands out from the ones above and below.

So that’s it, really. It’s a significant timesaver, relatively simple to do – okay, it does take up a bit of time the first time around, but you’ll be tweaking it every semester anyway, so it doesn’t need to be perfect – and is very convenient if you’re doing your grading via an LMS. Plus I think it makes me look at student work more objectively and fairly, although that may just be wishful thinking.

Do you use a comment bank? Any tips you’d like to share? I’m particularly interested if anyone uses anything similar in a classroom environment.