Virtual staffroom – ways to lower your demands without lowering your expectations

I was listening to a podcast a few months ago, and a sentence really stood out to me. It was about how to lower the demands on individual learners, or a whole group, without lowering your expectations of what you want them to achieve. I then started thinking about how this idea could be applied in the language classroom.

I work with private students, so I have a lot more freedom in terms of creating and choosing resources, planning lessons, working on desired outcomes, and choosing ways to ensure the outcomes have been met. I’m aware of that, but I tried to make the points here broad enough to be applied in other learning environments too.

How can you lower your demands, without also lowering the standard or your expectations of what you want the learner to accomplish? I’ve got three suggestions.

1. Think about your instructions

You’ve got a good idea for an activity, you explain what you want, and then you just get blank stares or everyone looks busy, but in the end nobody has done what you asked them to. What went wrong?

Instructions are important. They sometimes make the difference in terms of whether or not the job gets done – even if you think the exercise is easy and well within the learner’s capabilities.

If you make the instructions too confusing, too long, too full of detail because you wanted to be clear and helpful, the end result can sometimes be that you don’t communicate what you really want the student to do.

It could be that a student is being asked to read a long list of instructions in a language that is not their native language. I’m not saying you should provide everything in their native language first, but there is something to be said for lowering the demands by not filling out the instructions – either verbal or written ones – with unnecessary words and information that the student then needs to sift through and decide what’s important, before they can even begin to tackle the actual task. If they go down the rabbit hole of working out the definition of one of your filler words that didn’t actually add any value, you might have lost them completely because they got stuck on a minor detail instead of focussing on the big picture.

There are tasks that are intended to assess a learner’s problem-solving skills. However, especially if you’re working with learners who struggle to break down complex tasks into smaller steps, if completing those smaller steps is the goal, can you provide a checklist of things to be ticked off, or a chronological list of smaller, more manageable tasks? The overall expectation is the same – you want the learner to complete the main task. But you can reduce some of the pressure by giving them something to refer to along the way. Is there a logical progression through the steps to get to the end result? Is it clear what needs to be done first?

You can then reduce the amount of input if the learner grows more confident in breaking down the tasks for themselves. But I don’t want someone who struggles with prioritising and coming up with a plan of action to feel that they can’t do tasks in my English class, when I know they could do the task if they had better instructions.

2. When testing a skill, don’t let other things get in the way

A situation cropped up a few weeks ago in which a learner was being asked to create a presentation for an assessment. Although the content counted towards a small percentage of the mark, the main point of the test was the presentation document. The problem was that the topic was something that the learner really struggled with, and this in turn made it incredibly hard for them to put together a good presentation. What would usually take them an hour or so actually took them closer to 4. This was a learner that usually has no trouble speaking or writing, and the content itself was only a small part of the final mark.

This wasn’t one of my learners, but I wanted to mention it because it struck me as a prime example of the task being set up in such a way that the learner’s ability to succeed depended too much on a skill that wasn’t actually being assessed.

It’s like testing a learner’s speaking skills by asking them to listen to a bad recording of a conversation and then report on what they’d heard. Or it’s like asking a learner to read something written in terrible handwriting, and then to sumarise the main points in their own words. It’s not fair.

I’m not saying you’ll never have a situation where you want to test multiple skills, but I think there are times when teachers could be more focussed in terms of exactly what they are trying to assess, and not allowing other factors to muddy the waters, or placing additional demands on the learners that have nothing to do with the actual learning outcome.

If you have students who struggle with hypothetical concepts, base your examples on something real that they can relate to. Show them how the skill or point that you are trying to teach could be used in a real situation and they’re more likely to remember it!

I know a teacher who allows learners to go into another room and use their mobile phone to record speaking tasks. If the object of the exercise is to practice public speaking, this won’t work. But if it’s to practice speaking, and the learner ends up so anxious about speaking in front of the whole class that they feel unable to do it, making a recording in private still means they can achieve the goal of doing the speaking exercise. This won’t always be possible – but if the point is just to check their pronunciation, why not?

As a learner, I often struggled with writing exercises when we were expected to work in noisy classrooms. I usually got around this without anyone noticing because we often finished tasks at home. In my quiet bedroom, I could knock out a text in no time. It never came to light in exams either, because they were always quiet. But if you have learners like me, who have noise sensitivities, expecting them to think and function well in a noisy class environment will not always give you the best results.

Aside from that, just because some learners prefer group work, others find it more of a challenge than working on something alone. Both things are important, but I wanted to highlight the point that whilst some students love working in groups and find it easier than working alone, group work is not the easy option for everyone.

It’s tough when you have to make a classroom work with the resources that are available. There may not be a quiet place for learners to work. But if there is, why not let them make use of it? If it’s not an exam, does the piece of work need to be handed in at the end of the lesson, or could the learner have the option to work on it at home?

3. Is your way the only way?

I have always had a bit of a reputation for breaking rules. I’m not a chaotic, anti-rules kind of person though. I like rules. They help me to relax and have a sense of order. But if the rules don’t make sense, I follow them if I have to, but would sometimes rather tear them up and write better ones. I’m sure this made me a delight to teach (please note the sarcasm!)

But sometimes, the rules or the accepted way of doing things is not the best, most efficient, or only way of doing them. Especially if you have students who see things a bit differently from most of their classmates. Maybe one of your students will have a great idea, and the only reason nobody has ever tried doing things that way is that until now, nobody ever thought of it.

Also, for students with disabilities or additional needs, sometimes you need to think outside the box a bit to find a method that works for them. The fact that a learner might not be able to meet a learning outcome in the usual way doesn’t mean they can’t meet it at all with some adaptions to make the task more accessible or appropriate.

Sometimes it’s necessary for everyone to be doing exactly the same thing, or the class could descend into chaos. If there is going to be an assessment, it needs to be marked fairly. But if the standard way of doing things is preventing a student from completing the task or reaching the desired outcome for whatever reason, can the process be modified to empower the student to succeed, whilst they’re still being measured against the same expectations as everyone else?

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