Saturday, January 27, 2007

postal scrotum: Brian on EFL matters

Brian writes:


I just read your post about quizzical quizzes and troubles with electronic media and have two comments.

I teach at a university and am required to give first- and third-year students oral exams. These exams constitute part of the student's formal university grade, so my situation may be different than yours.

The first time I gave oral exams, I felt I needed to give each student the largest possible opportunity to demonstrate their English ability and so be accurately judged. I expected each interview to last five minutes but many went longer-- and this was with twenty students per class, so the later interviews were pinched.

A year later, I observed a coworker interview students at a rate of about one per two minutes. Upon listening, I found he gave his student only a few seconds to answer a question before he moved on to the next question on his list. If the student was way off in answering the question, he stopped the student and asked the next question. If the student didn't answer the first few questions, the interview was over.

I don't want to make it appear the teacher was 'phoning in' the interview (although that might be a good idea-- something to think about for my long commute); he was only being efficient. I realized that, in my interviews, I very quickly evaluated the student's ability and completed the interview to give the weaker students a chance to change my decision, but mostly for the sake of completion.

I inform my students in great detail what the oral exam will cover and require and I think a weak English speaker who was a diligent student could do very well. That is, I can't really say my exam purely tests English; it also tests other skills. Still, I feel that a short interview allows me to better evaluate and rank my students within their class (that dang ol' grading curve). With the longer interview format, I felt my criteria drifted too much and my concentration lapsed a few times over the sixty-plus minutes.

Anyway, my question here is, why not shorten your interview to fit them all in the time allotted? Do you feel a long or full interview provides a measurably better evaluation? This question also applies to your recordings; even if all were in one format, will you spent the time to listen to each recording more than once?

Regarding student recordings, I had similar experiences-- late students with weak excuses and a wide variety of formats. Still, I found the product very interesting and wish I had the recordings earlier in the semester as I was better able to recognize the students as individuals after seeing their projects. Colin Skeates, at the KOTESOL conference at your university, gave an interesting talk about video diaries. I plan to organize something of the sort for the spring semester and I will probably post about it.

In your situation, did you not suggest ODEO, or did they not listen? I know you have used their MP3 recording service and that seems the easiest way for a diverse group to make a uniform product.

BTW, I'm in the trenches with you; teaching makework classes during the university break, although mine are elementary school students.

Brian Dean
Kwandong University International Education Centre

I'm not sure how stable Odeo actually is, given my own bad luck in using it. I'm also leery of using the one-on-one interview strategy in class when I have nearly twenty students to interview within only seventy minutes: for a class that large, it's not a good idea to let the other 16-18 students simply sit around with nothing to do. That means, essentially, planning meaningful activities for them to do while they wait. Given that the teacher is occupied during the entire class with interviews, such "filler" activities would have to be of the self-directed sort-- things the teacher would not have to manage too closely. It's possible to find or create such activities, and perhaps I should have done so, but it's still a royal pain.

I find that lengthier interviews are better if I'm interviewing more for content than for language skills. For example, my freshmen had to tell me about the role they played in their group, as well as offer me a brief summary of the other students' roles.

Going multimedia isn't easy-- that's one thing I learned from this. Even though most of the students have the tech at home to do whatever I ask, actually getting them to do the job properly is another matter. A few practice runs before an actual oral exam might be a good idea in the future. In the meantime, I'm probably going to do face-to-face interviews for the freshmen's final exam. Far easier to implement. It's just a matter of concocting some while-you-wait activities for them.


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