Meeting students’ ever-changing, never-ending needs

The more I teach, the more I learn. Right now I seem to be learning (in the only way that I know how) that students have no idea what they really want.

This month I was assigned to teach a Business English conversation course to university students. The course is three weeks long and intensive: the students study TOEIC listening and reading for three hours and Business English for three hours. They live on campus and use English all day long. Week two ends tomorrow.

The other teacher and I got together before the program began in order to make a preliminary schedule. We decided to plan lessons as we went along, since we knew nothing about the students. We chose a business English book from a stack of options and decided to limit the content to one module per week. We added a group project for every Friday that the students could spend the week preparing.

Then the students arrived and everything changed.
We used the first hour of each class to give a needs assessment.

And thank god we did.

The initial placement interview did not give us an accurate picture of their abilities, but that was not the worst of it: As it turned out, only some of them were interested in business English. Others had been told that the conversation part would focus on TOEIC speaking. Most of them said they wanted homework and a final test at the end of the program, things we were not anticipating.

Our meeting that night focused on how to meet those needs. We re-made the schedule so that we devoted an hour to TOEIC speaking and an hour to BE, adjusting on the spot as necessary.

The first week went smoothly. The students responded well to the book and the added test prep. We kept it pretty easy for them. They loved the first group project. On Friday, we asked for feedback from all the students and were surprised by some of the responses. They told us that they wanted more TOEIC speaking and less book work. They said they don’t want homework. They said they wanted free conversation.

We went back to the drawing board again to meet those needs. We kept the book, knowing they would complain about having to buy it if we didn’t use it. We focused more on TOEIC speaking. We added conversation topics. We added an office hour every day to meet the needs of the students who were still not satisfied. We agreed to go over the feedback with the students to clarify those needs.

The next week was a disaster. The students who did not want homework suddenly wanted individualized and specific feedback on their half-a$$ed assignments from last week. This led to mini-lessons focusing on pronunciation, taking more time away from the book. Meanwhile, the students who’d wanted to study TOEIC more decided it was too hard and the book was more fun. The students who’d wanted conversation sat in silence. And I scrambled to create or borrow materials to help them find their voices.

To make matters worse, students from the other teacher’s class began appearing in my office hour to complain about him. Their complaints appeared to be legitimate (He’s not prepared for the class. He’s not giving any feedback on the homework. He’s not explaining why the information he gives about the test is different from what they’ve heard from previous teachers), but they didn’t want me to tell him.

Tomorrow we will ask the students for feedback again, even though they have been giving it informally every day. Perhaps we are gluttons for punishment. On the other hand, I really believe that I am here to teach the students, not the book. I can do that a lot better with their feedback, in whatever form. Then again, am I giving them too much freedom? Should they really be allowed to change their minds infinitely? What would you do?

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Comments

  • mikecorea  On February 15, 2013 at 1:25 am

    I said on teh ‘ol twitters that I didn’t have any advice. I am not sure that i do but I think you’ll allow me to ramble on here for a few minutes. I actually think I might have mentioned this in person but one thing I am into lately is sharing the collected feedback with Ss so that they can how different it is. For example 4 people said they love the warmers and 4 people said they hate them and 4 people didn’t say anything about them so I will continue along doing the warmers as planned.

    I don’t want to generalize tooooo much here but I wonder if there might be something about college (?) or Korean college students not having had much say in their education up till now so perhaps they are spoiled for choice and testing the limits of their newfound power. (I exaggerate but I think you can see what I am saying.) I guess what i am saying is that perhaps there is a need for some learner training on such things.

    In terms of feedback from students i am always reminded of the story I heard about a language school (In Spain?) where the bathrooms were always kept in terrible condition on purpose by the owners because students are always going to bitch about something so it might as well be that. Too far… ok..

    Some other thoughts:

    The homework stuff was great!
    I have no idea what free speaking actually means (and I am not sure who does. This suddenly strikes me as interesting research but not i am digressing from my digressions.

    Thanks for the interesting and thought provoking post!
    Score one for needs assessment and feedback, i’d say even it has perhaps not been as smooth sailing as you might have hoped.

    You asked, “Then again, am I giving them too much freedom? Should they really be allowed to change their minds infinitely? What would you do?”
    I am pretty sure I didn’t really answer these. In terms of the 2nd question i think they can change their minds as much as they want but that doesn’t mean you have to always follow these changes.

    Cheers,
    Mike

    PS- I smiled when I read the part about not planning too much in advance. I think somewhere in an alternate reality I am the type of person that really enjoys planning ahead. In this current reality, however, nothing burns me up more than wasting time planning and then having the rug pulled out from under me.

    (I mention this also as perhaps a slight defense of your colleague in that perhaps he appears unprepared because there are necessarily a lot of balls in the air. This is to say that it is easy to appear prepared when one does the same lecture every year but responding immediately to students’ needs/requests/desires/whims/whatevers is not always a silky smooth process.

    pps- As you (hopefully) are already well aware I admire and respect you a lot. This post is just one of the many reasons for this. It would have been all too easy to bitch about the situation but here you are sharing and wondering aloud. Very nice. Good work fighting the good fight.

    (Allow me to bitch for you, then. It is a shame that admin everywhere often can’t seem to do a great job labeling classes or letting customers/students know what they are or what they are about. I am starting to think that when a course is supposed to be all things to everyone it can easily become nothing to no one.)

    ppps- I think there is something interesting here about the role of the teacher. Sometimes it seems the teacher has to be “The Decider.”

    umm yeah.

    What else?
    I appreciate your belief in the power of feedback, which is one that I share. I sometimes think that it can just be a chance for a conversation and a chance to show students that we are listening even if we don’t follow or meet their requests.
    [I remember some course participants mentioning in final course feedback how much they appreciated how myself and an another trainer calmly went over their requests and said why we couldn’t/wouldn’t be doing some of the things suggested. I think this conversation was just as helpful]

    • livinglearning  On February 15, 2013 at 8:45 am

      Hey Mike, thanks for the comments. You touched on a few things I’ve been thinking about here, including the question of whether or not “decider” is one of my roles in this camp and whether, in the end, the students are still going to say I ought to have decided for them.

      Our conversation about feedback and what to do with it stayed with me while I was collecting feedback from the students last week. I typed it up and discussed it with each class and some of the things they’d said became clearer. They didn’t want *no homework, they wanted *less homework – things like that.

      I also want to clarify about my coworker. I defended him to the students in pretty much the same way you did, but I mentioned to him that the students might appreciate more feedback than “You’re all good.” His response: “That means I have to actually listen to their recordings.” (hehehe) Who knows how that’ll turn out.

      You’ve given me lots of food for thought. I hadn’t considered what sort of classes my colleague usually teaches. I also hadn’t considered that the students might benefit from some, um, strategies for making education-related decision-making. Something to think about and perhaps talk to them about in the future.

      And also, “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about.” comes to mind (re: your story about the bathrooms), but somehow, it’s just not ME.

      Thanks for your input and kindness.
      Anne

  • pterolaur  On February 15, 2013 at 1:45 am

    Anne I really sympathise! I’ve struggled with this a lot since I came to Georgia. On one hand it’s probably good because it means you’re reflecting on classes and focused on the students; on the other you get caught in a cycle of feeling that nothing you ever do in class is good enough, when in fact it’s fine or more than fine – it’s just that someone keeps moving the goalposts! (By ‘you’ I mean, like, everyone.) I guess it’s hard to go back now they’ve been given choices at each stage, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. There’s always more you can do, but you need a little space for yourself too. If you know you’ve done the best you can, that’s enough, and I guess the students will know that too even if they didn’t get everything they wanted. Breathe deeply and be kind to yourself ๐Ÿ™‚

    • livinglearning  On February 15, 2013 at 8:23 am

      Hi Laura,
      Thanks for commenting. It’s nice to hear from you and also to know that this happens to other people, too. Reading your comment brought two things to mind: first, English could really do with a second person plural pronoun (okay, I’m a geek. ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). And second, I wonder if perhaps I’m focused too much on the goalposts and forgetting about the game. After all, there’s no reason why I can’t keep doing what they ask me to do. It’s like teaching a dozen different one-on-ones at the same time but hey, I love a challenge. ๐Ÿ˜€

  • Ava Fruin  On February 19, 2013 at 2:52 am

    Hi Anne! Wow, I can SO relate to this! A couple of months ago I went into a classroom preparing to teach a class on academic presentations. Not only had students not been informed about the content and focus of the class, but their needs and wants were all across the board, from grammar to conversation, etc. It was really challenging, especially feeling like I wasn’t getting the support from admin or positive feedback from students. I did something similar to what you have done, checking in with students and changing plans along the way to address what they thought they wanted. Unfortunately, by the end of the class few students were attending, participating, or completing assignments on time, or at all. I felt really discouraged, but it was a great experience in practicing finding that balance between being flexible and being a doormat, as well as realizing what I can control (needs assessment, re-evaluating my plans, etc) and what I cannot (always meeting the wants and whims of every single student). Thanks so much for writing this, it is great food for thought and helped give me some clarity in hindsight of my experience in a similar situation. Hang in there, and keep up the good work, in the classroom and on this blog ๐Ÿ™‚
    Ava

    • livinglearning  On February 19, 2013 at 8:34 am

      Hi Ava, and thanks for your comment. Did you ever find that balance? Where is it? We’re now in the last week of my program and I’ve decided to go with my lesson plans for the week no matter who shows up unless they have something specific they want and everyone agrees. I sure have a lot of ideas of what I might do differently next time.
      Have a good week.
      anne

  • kevchanwow  On February 23, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Hi Anne,

    I don’t have much to add to the insightful comments above. I’m just the kid in the back jumping up and down saying, “Me too!” I think one thing I try to do here in my school which helps is to have the learners focus a bit in every lesson on what they did learn. A lot of dissatisfaction might come from students who just aren’t aware of what they DID get out of a class. So I do a three question survey at the end of classes:

    1. What were two things you learned in this class… (you want to use in future/ you don’t want to forget/ you think are important for your language learning)?

    2. Why did you ————— in class today (fill in the blank with an activity or exercise that the students did)

    3. What are two things in class you would change, why?

    A lot of times students opt out of question 3 or just write, “I enjoyed it all.” This quick reflection after class seems to cut down on the odd/random suggestions that students make.

    Kevin

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