The McGill Writing Centre, School of Continuing Studies
What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
I’ll focus my answer for this question on strategies for teaching English as a second language (ESL) because the majority of my teaching at McGill is with non-native speakers of English. I engage students in different ways, such as by ensuring that there is variety in the tasks they do. I also structure courses so that students can integrate content from their academic disciplines with language study because it’s important for students to practice using language that is truly relevant to them.
Another strategy is teaching students to notice patterns of language use. Let me give you an example. A student consistently uses a comma before the conjunction because. Generally, in academic writing, a comma before because is considered non-standard. Rather than showing the student a punctuation guideline from a writing handbook or website that addresses comma use, I suggest to the student that s/he search a few journal articles in his/her discipline for examples of a comma before because. There are generally few such examples. This sends a clear message to the student about comma use, one that is often more powerful than reading a guideline. We do the same kind of “noticing” with oral language. I’ll give you another example. A student mispronounces a key word when practicing for an oral presentation. The word is SPEcific, where capital letters denote major stress. In fact, the word is pronounced speCIfic. With guidance, I ask the student to think of similar words in order to find a pattern for pronunciation. These might be dyNAmic, probleMAtic, and characteRIStic. These words end with the suffix –ic, and they all have major stress on the syllable before the suffix. This pattern is generally—though not always—the case with words ending in –ic. Thus, the student can return to the word specific and apply the correct pronunciation. Students find this “noticing” strategy engaging because it’s novel for them and it’s empowering. It fosters their skill at being independent learners. This skill is particularly important since language learning is a life-long process, and students cannot—and should not—rely solely on a teacher and a classroom for their language learning.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
I use various techniques, both formative and summative. These might be in the form of papers—drafts and revisions, quizzes, presentations, in-class discussion, online discussions, posters, self-assessments, etc. As much as possible, learning strategies and assessments are designed to raise students’ awareness of sound uses of language. One example comes from my writing courses. I identify mistakes in students’ writing using typical editing symbols, such as vt (verb tense) and wf (word form). Students then have to figure exactly what the problem is and explain each mistake—in writing. They have to articulate an accepted language pattern or guideline. In essence, students have to attempt to understand the language problems my feedback has signalled before I step in with help. For example, a student writes, “There are evidences to support the claim that …” I write wf above the word evidences. The student investigates second language learning resources and finds that one doesn’t use the plural form of evidence. This noun is referred to as an “uncount” noun, one to which one doesn’t add an “s”. One refers to several pieces of evidence to signal the plural. The student learns the concept of the uncount noun, which is important since English has many such words. With this particular assignment, students are assessed on their ability to find explanations for their mistakes. To have students be graded on finding their own answers like this is a meaningful way for them to raise their meta-cognitive awareness of language—to see their weak areas, understand their mistakes, and develop their skill at finding answers to language questions.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
I teach academic English to non-native speakers of English and I teach methodology to Bachelor of Education students in the Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) programme. For the non-native speakers of English who take language classes with me, I hope the most important thing they learn is how to continue learning language on their own. Over a 13-week course, it’s a challenge for adult learners who have many demands on their time to change their language markedly. What can, and usually does, increase dramatically is students’ awareness of which aspects of their language need improvement and how to use strategies to foster improvement.
For the TESL students, I hope they learn how to be “intentional” teachers. I want them to learn the importance of acting with intention, of being aware that whatever they do in class as teachers is clearly intended to help their students achieve learning outcomes. When their own students ask them why they have to do a particular activity in class or for homework, my students should know why and be able to explain the rationale to their students. A fun part of working with the TESL students is that everything I do is up for scrutiny. I often ask the students to consider why I designed a lesson for them in a particular way or how it could have been done differently while still helping them achieve the intended learning outcomes.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
I’ll talk about the TESL students, the ones learning to be English second language teachers. Language teaching involves having learners do a lot of “hands-on” practice—this applies to both oral and written language. Typically, language teachers have their students engage in various activities that encourage students to practice. I don’t ask my TESL students to create these learning activities from scratch. Instead, I ask them to explore existing literature—which could be journal articles, books about teaching and even textbooks—in order to consider why learning activities have been designed in a certain way. Then, I ask them to adapt material they found in the literature to their own teaching contexts. Class discussion and assignments include questions such as, “If you changed one piece of the learning activity, how would it change what your students learn?” or “Why do you think the activity was designed as pair work rather than as group work?” Students are compelled to consider ways people learn and what the impact of designing learning materials can be on achieving desired learning outcomes. Discussions and assignments lead us to research in the field of second language education. It’s as though we work backwards from the learning activity, which is the product, to the rationale for its design, which is the methodology.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
I suggest that they not try to reinvent the wheel. There is very little that’s actually new in teaching methodology. One can be creative with existing learning materials, so I suggest they talk to peers to gather ideas. If possible, they should find someone, preferably in their discipline, who enjoys teaching and who wants to talk about teaching. Perhaps that person can become a mentor. If they can’t find a mentor, there are plenty of resources for new faculty members to develop in their teaching role. McGill offers some services; there are online communities that talk about teaching; and there are publications about teaching, often ones that are discipline specific.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
“Come to class, come prepared, participate, and start working on assignments early. Don’t do assignments at the last minute. Ask questions, and after that, ask some more questions.” I try to design my courses such that students are compelled to come to class in order to succeed and such that they are compelled to start working on assignments earlier rather than later. Where language learning is concerned, there is no shortcut to improvement: “Practice and practice regularly … even if it’s in the shower for ten minutes a day!”
Why do you teach?
For a couple of reasons. My undergraduate degree is in Modern Languages. I took courses to learn three different languages, but I didn’t have instructors who were skilled at teaching. So, one reason I teach is in order to contribute to improving the language education system in some modest way. I hope I can be the language teacher I wish I’d had. Another reason is that I enjoy learning—for me, teaching implies ongoing learning—and having unlimited challenges related to learning. I love the challenge of creating new courses and of tweaking my existing courses to make them as meaningful to students as possible.