The psychology of decision-making is not something you are likely to discuss in a CELTA or DELTA course. In fact, teacher training in EFL offers very little by way of behavioural science to aid our teaching. Well, other than these courses still including the well-publicised falsehoods of learner styles. I entered EFL after completing a Master’s degree in Science, thus you may understand my grievances for my absence of critical thought to question the credibility and reliability of learner styles. Being self-employed, I now seek reliable studies to inform my course design and teaching methods. By reading a segment of Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller, ‘Thinking, Fast & Slow’, I was able to apply his insights into decision-making to develop my teaching strategies and my students’ reading skills. This resulted in a student moving from band 5.5 to band 8 in IELTS reading in only 5 weeks. This is how I did it…
Use evidence-based studies to guide teaching
All of my teaching and interactions with students occur online, so it is not uncommon for me to receive hundreds of daily messages on social media asking; ‘How can I improve my reading score? How can I be fluent? How can I answer the questions correctly in the exam?’ Every teacher hears these questions daily, but responding online seems different than in face-to-face interactions. I just wasn’t happy with my ‘old reliable’ responses; ‘read the news every day, guess the meaning of words from the context, do practice tests’… and so on, and so on. I was bored with my answers and they were bored hearing them because they weren’t actually improving. I questioned if I actually knew how to help the students improve their reading skills beyond the strategies in EFL course books.
Deciding to read, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ was not to help my teaching skills rather it was just for interest. However, within a few chapters my whole outlook on teaching reading skills changed. It occurred to me that the complexities of reading as a process are not only impacted by the students’ language level, but more so by their decision-making abilities. Decision-making, in terms of psychology, is the cognitive process that results in a final choice among several alternative possibilities. These may be governed by the decision-makers own values, preferences or beliefs, which is crucial in a multi-cultural classroom.
I quickly realised that I had to share what I had learned with the students. To show them the reason why they get questions wrong, more importantly, I had to show them how to stop doing it. This book catapulted me into researching more evidence-based studies across psychology and neuroscience and within a few days I had designed a 5-week online training programme for reading skills. The course is aimed at B2+ students and is not specifically related to any English exam. Instead it is a training course to develop their metacognitive skills, awareness and use of strategies for reading and learning.
Experiment with strategies
Raising the students’ awareness of their learning is key, so I started the course by measuring their use of strategies. To do this, I created surveys by adapting Schmitt’s (1990) Metacomprehension Strategy Index (MSI) and Nordin et al’s. (2013) study on reading strategies. The surveys presented strategies to be used during the pre/while and post-reading stages. No students were aware of any of these or had knowingly used them, even in their L1.
The course was designed to allow for an in-depth analysis of each strategy presented by experimenting with different techniques. Each technique was governed by one of Kahneman’s insights to show students the connection between their perceived ability and their actual ability. Take, for example, a simple question:
If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets. How long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
The answer is not 100. It is 5 minutes. If you got this wrong, perhaps it is due to your need to answer quickly and you may also think; ‘Well, I was never good at maths.’ Thus, you have a negative impression of your ability. But by slowing down your need to answer, you would increase your chance of answering correctly and identify that you do have the ability. This, I found, is the same in the language classroom.
Use an alternative approach
Central to progression is the ability to identify our weaknesses. For our students to progress, I have believe that we need to show them how to evaluate theirs, especially in exam classes. Assessing problems at the language level is obviously important, but psychology has shown me that we need to look beyond the words and discourse to see what else could be governing errors. This is probably one of the reasons why I always had trouble understanding the reason schools give students practice exams on Fridays. It never made any sense to me (but that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the quiet time on Fridays). Alternatively, a better approach is to hold the practice exams on Mondays. Therefore, reflective practice and assessment of their choices and skills can take place during the week. By Friday, students may have a better understanding of the choices they made and an increased sense of confidence in their actual ability.
Overall, by allowing my teaching practices to be guided by evidence-based studies, I have seen great improvements. This has been achieved by demonstrating the malleability and neuroplasticity of the learner’s brain to the learner and introducing them to the science behind the complex process. In the interest of science, one learner’s IELTS scores is by no means conclusive of its impact. Yet, he was the only student on the course taking an English exam. The almost immediate increase in results shocked me as I feel it will take a lot longer for the benefits to manifest themselves or they may never be overtly recognisable to the learner. Nevertheless, seeing the impact of incorporating studies from different fields into my online classroom has been inspirational and I will continue to seek answers that will help all of my students to progress.
- Nordin, N.M., Rashi, S.M., Zubir, S.I.S.S. & Sadjirin, R. (2013) Differences in reading strategies: how esl learners really read. Social and Behavioural Sciences (90). pp. 468-477
- Schmitt, M.C. (1990) A questionnaire to measure children’s awareness of strategic reading processes. The Reading Teacher. pp. 454-461