Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the final article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she proposed improving listening skills as teachers to better support your students. This week, Zarina introduces cognitively-challenging tasks to engage and involve your students.
“Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.” Voltaire
When students are busy in an English class thinking about how to go about saying something, they can become weighed down by the need to produce perfect linguistic patterns. So they focus too much on accuracy, rather than really communicating. So how can we get them to communicate if they don’t have enough language? We set tasks at a low language level. This can, however, create another problem: these kinds of activities can fail to challenge learners cognitively. Although our students cannot yet express complex thoughts and ideas in English, they can of course do so in their native tongue (and possibly in other languages too), so the activities we give them need to bear this in mind.
One way of making lessons more intellectually stimulating is to introduce more variety. A new report in the UK by the Sutton Trust touches on research in cognitive psychology by Bjork and Bjork, which found that varying the types of task, practice and context of learning improves later retention, even though it makes learning harder in the short term. In other words, we can stimulate students with new and alternative ways to practise language, rather than sticking to the same type of activities.
It’s also useful to look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, which has helped teachers to monitor the level of difficulty of task types for many decades.
Have you tried applying Bloom’s Taxonomy in class? Here are a variety of activities based around the different stages of learning. They all use the same text – a blog entry written by an events organiser, taken from International Express Elementary. Download the text, then try out some of these activities for yourself.
Activity 1: Remembering
Remembering is the basic level of cognition, and this is a good stage to deal with new language. For example, if we look at Claudia Oster’s blog (exercise 5), the comprehension questions below the text are at the basic level of thinking because the answers can easily be found in the text and involve a simple referral and repetition. As the questions asked are cognitively unchallenging, any new language found can be easily dealt with at this stage. This is where the teacher is helping students to start with an equal footing – by establishing the main theme of the text and ensuring all students have understood new key words.
Activity 2: Understanding
Once your students have completed the above activity, you can move them on to the understanding stage: the second level of cognition. So, to return to Claudia’s blog, exercise 6 encourages students to skim the text looking for examples. In this case, they need to identify the expressions with do, have, make and take, and use these to complete the word maps on the previous page (exercise 3). Because the students have a second chance to understand the context, identify and select the correct examples, they will have moved up a level of cognition.
Activity 3: Applying
The next stage is applying, which involves using given information in a new context. This is dealt with in exercise 7, which asks students to consider additional collocations to the ones in the text. They have to choose a correct verb, where some of the phrases are from the text or similar to them, but others are new.
Activity 4: Analysing
Analysing involves comparing and questioning differing ideas. You could go back to the quiz (exercise 4) that appears on the previous page to Claudia Oster’s blog, and ask your students to analyse how stressed Claudia is, according to the quiz. Here is answer key:
Activity 5: Evaluating
In the evaluation phase of cognition you could ask students to decide if Claudia is going to burn out from her stressful job. Ask students to look at the advice given in exercise 1, and get them to decide on four pieces of advice they would give her. Ask students to work in groups, and get each group to evaluate the other’s advice in terms of how realistic it is and whether Claudia would be likely to act upon it.
Activity 6: Creating
Creating is the stage where something new is formed, designed and produced. To round off this series of activities, why not get your students to write a questionnaire? Ask them to work in groups of three or four to carry out a class survey of whether people find their work stressful. They must produce six questions with multiple choice answers. Encourage them to carefully consider what the responses might be in order to create good multiple choice options.
Make sure different group members taken turns at doing the actual interviewing. If you like, the others could video or record the process – or simply listen. You could ask learners to record the results in a graph, write a short paragraph, or present them to the class, depending on language level.
I hope the above has shown that it is possible to design cognitively-challenging tasks that boost understanding, and make learning interesting for students of all levels!
This is the final article in my series of six ways to boost classroom participation. I hope you have enjoyed the series, and if you have missed any of the previous articles, please visit the OUP website to catch up.
Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world (Greece, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, China, Peru and the UK, where she is from). Since 2000, she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina now spends her time divided between teacher training, materials writing, trainer training and presenting at conferences.
https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/pubs/EBjork_RBjork_2011.pdf Willingham, D. T. (2008).
What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?. American Educator, 32(4), 17- 25.