Friday, July 21, 2006

Vocabulary Notebooks Revisited

This year I introduced vocabulary notebooks into two of my classes (A university freshman English class and a Nursing School English class). As I wrote before, the primary reason for doing so was to encourage students to learn the words they encountered in class and also learn how to use them. Last year, I had observed that many students' notebooks for the classes consisted of a pile of handouts I had given them throughout the semester and some scriblings. These students received 10 and 20 percents on tests and one of the primary reasons was that they had no idea how to review for a test. I realized that I should be trying to help these kids develop study habits so I introduced vocabulary notebooks.

For one entry students can write the following information about a work:
1. the L1 meaning
2. A keyword or key picture.
3. the L2 word
4. Phonetic transcription
5. Part of speech
6. Derivations
7. Collocations
8. Sample sentences

To see an actual word entry from a student, please click here. In two weeks I will be presenting about this project at the zenkokueigokyouikugakkai or the Japan Society of English Education Conderence in Kouchi. There has actually been very little research done to investigate how students record words in their notebooks. At the conference I will be talking about the following:
1. Did the students use new word learning strategies develop through using the vocabulary notebooks?
2. Did students actually use the vocabulary notebooks, if so, how?
3. Through this experience, what tips can be given to teachers about the use of vocabulary notebooks?
4. What further issues of investigation have arisen from this study?

To prepare for this presentation, I will be periodically posting to this blog in the next two weeks. I hope I can finish by the time the conference roles around!

Tests that Encourage Students to Learn

As I have written before, I teach an English class at a nursing school (Please see the worst dialogue ever made for nurses for reference). This is my second year teaching the class. One of the problems I had last year was that about 10 of the 40 students consistently got 10 and 20 percents on tests and quizes. As a teacher there is nothing worse than having to mark a blank test page. I would always wonder why the student gave up on the class and what I could have done differently.
This year, although I have not stopped tests and quizes I have stopped marking them. Rather, I have the students mark them. After the students mark their tests and quizes I ask them to give them to me and I write comments on them. I have also told the students that I will not record their grades. The tests and quizes are designed to record how much they are improving and I want them to study hard so that they will improve.
The other day in the nursing school class we had a mid-term examination. The exam had 4 parts. I gave the students a time limit to complete each part and then we went over the answers together with the students correcting their own tests. Students then evaluated their own performance on the test and wrote about how they might be able to improve. A handful of students left one or two parts of the test blank. When we went over the answers, they did write in the answers and wrote in the comment section of their test that they did not study for the test and that they would study harder next time. Although not ideal, this is much better than receiving a blank test from a student.
I remember when I was studying Japanese. Whenever I was returned a graded test I would look at the score and never the teacher's corrections. The only time I would look at the comments/corrections of the teacher was if I had a good score. Because I usually studied hard for a test, and test scores were very influential on my course grade, a bad score was like a slap in the face. Now, I regret not looking at the tests because I had absolutely wonderful professors who wrote very helpful comments on the tests.
The point of a test should be to help the student determine how much of the class he/she had understood and to understand his/her progress. With grades, I believe, tests lose their value.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Danger of Focusing too much on Cultural Differences

This time of year is always very stressful for me. Although it is a busy time of year as I have a full courseload, research to present in August right after the semester ends, university committees to serve on, a 21 month son at home, and a trip to the US to plan after my presentation is finished, this is not a source of my stress. The source of my stress lies in the two weeks I devote in my "Meeting of Multicultural Educators" class at university to studying the "national values" of other countries. Professor Geert Hofstede, classifies national values into five dimensions: power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masuculinty vs. femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and long term orientation vs. short term orientation. Approximately 76 countries/ regions have been ranked on the degree to which they show characteristics of each dimension. For example Uncertainty Avoidance is defines as reflecting "the extent to which a society attempts to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty. Cultures that scored high in uncertainty avoidance prefer rules (e.g. about religion and food) and structured circumstances, and employees tend to remain longer with their present employer."(from Wikipedia (2006). Geert Hofstede.)
Many of my students, who are of course Japanese, seem to prefer structured situations to unstructured situations and hesitate to ask open-ended questions. Conversely, when I was a student in the USA it seems that a majority of the questions I was asked were open-ended. Furthermore, when a teacher asked a question to the class I would raise my hand and try to guess the answer even if I was only 50% certain that I knew the answer. In terms of uncertainty avoidance, Japan scores much higher that the US. Although Hofstede's theory is not without its critics and problems, I find it a fascinating way to look at the national cultures of various countries and also helpful. If a teacher knows that the students he will teach are more likely to handle open-ended questions differently than the students from his home country, he will not put his students in uncomfortable situations as frequently nor will he feel frustration when a student does not answer his question.
Nevertheless, when I study Hofstede's national values I start feeling melancholic; I am ready to jump on the boat and cross the Pacific to the U.S. Why? I think the reason is that I start to think too much of the differences between the U.S. and Japan and start feeling culture shock. My surroundings become unfamiliar and I develop the urge to be back in my familiar environment where peoples' behavior makes sense to me. After the two weeks with Hofstede end, I seem to get reaccustomed to Japan and stop thinking about the differences between it and my home country.