Eyes on the Prize

‘To get where you want to be
You have to set a goal
And keep your eyes on the prize’

Bob Dylan

Simple, isn’t it?  Or is it…

There are 2 sides to motivating learners to work independently.  One is through assessment and the other is through engagement with the process and outcomes (the prize).  Let’s look at establishing the prize.

Working with learning portfolios, learners need to set goals, fill the portfolio with task output (e.g. voice recordings or pieces of writing) that prove by the end of the semester that they have achieved those goals.  We don’t have to adopt portfolios to borrow a little from portfolio philosophy to help us establish the prize for our learners.

There are different sets of prizes – long, short and medium term rewards.  Spend time getting to know your learners’ final aspirations for their careers or travel or social lives.  Get them to write down how having (some) English will help them work towards attaining those things.

Long term goals are life oriented – better jobs, the ability to chat up people they like on holiday:), understanding their favourite music, film or literature more profoundly.  Medium term goals can be a bit more strategic, such as passing the year end exams, getting to the next level, staying in the same group as their friends when they all pass. These can also refer to fluency and skills work, the ability to do something more accurately/fluently. Short term goals can be based around individual language points as well as subskills, e.g. skim reading articles quickly to find out if they are relevant or not.

What to do?

goalsSet some time aside at the beginning of the semester to identify and write down their long term and medium term goals.  Once they have done this individually, you can ask them to discuss in small groups and then as a a class to establish the priorities for the group.  You can use the more general version of the CEFR can do statements for this if you like.  Take a note of this and make a ‘Mission Statement’ for the class.  You could get them to do this as a negotiation activity if their level is high enough.  At mid point through the semester, you should do some mid-way counselling to see how well they feel the course is going.  Refer to the mission statement.  Do you and they feel they are moving in the right direction?  Have the group’s priorities changed since the beginning?  In which case, do you want to change the statement?

For shorter term goals, ask the students to complete the more CEFR can do statements at the beginning of the semester.  You may need to do this in the students’ L1 as they can be quite difficult to understand at first.  When you ask them to do this, don’t give them a binary decision for their response. i.e. not yes or no but more like ‘I can do this easily’, ‘I can do this well,’ ‘I can do this but I don’t feel very confident yet,’ I can do this with difficulty,’ ‘I can’t do this at all.’  This way you give them a graded progression through to full competence with a particular skill or language point.

Refer to these regularly and ask the students to consider which of the can-do statements have been addressed since the last time they looked.  Get them to reassess themselves on the relevant statements.  If they have made no progress, ask them why. Try and recycle this language point in your classes or give them back up work to do at home on the LMS.

Importantly, you should always highlight the link between the short term prize and how it helps work towards the longer term prizes.  After you do this for a while, they will start to think about this for themselves.  Rather than telling them, you can ask them:  ‘so, how does this fit in to our mission statement/long term goals.’  They may not get it straight away but persevere and it will help them keep their eyes on the prize and you can use this to help get them interested in completing activities they may otherwise not be very excited about.

Have you done any of this before?  How did it go?  Give it a try and let us know!

For more information on portfolios, have a look at the following links:

European Language Portfolio (ELP)

British Councill article on portfolios for language

How to create a portfolio with Evernote

The Consultants-E list of resources for portfolios


‘No one can cheat you out of ultimate success but yourself.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Assessment plays an important role in the Touchstone Blended Learner’s experience.  As with any other course of study it is used to establish students’ level of knowledge and ability before and after study, to review material and to teach.

Take this activity for example.  The learner is asked to listen to a conversation to answer the questions.  To help her, the audio script and a glossary are available, the students can check her answers and try again.  To many teachers, this might seem like we are providing ways for the students to cheat.  However, we are not really interested in how they get the exercise done but that they attempt it and what they get out of it.

The exercise is a type of assessment but it is not a test.  It is designed to give someone a chance to try and figure something out (the question), receive feedback on their performance (‘Check’) and try again (‘Start Again’), this time attempting to reconcile their prior understanding with the answers they are given.  In this way students are given the opportunity to learn.  This is called formative* assessment, whereby the assessment is used as a tool for learning and is part of a process.  End of term tests or a placement test are summative* assessments.  They are events at a given time in the academic year at which the student must prove their knowledge to the teacher.  This is a part of the same process but does not contribute to it in the same way.

In the Touchstone Blended Online programme, there is plenty of summative assessment in the form of Reviews, Overviews and Tests as well as the extra practice provided in the workbook.  These can be hidden and then made visible for a specified period to minimize information sharing between students, if that is a concern.  Tests can only be attempted once.

Formative assessment is a bit more subtle, especially with many students’ assumptions about the way they learn and how they are evaluated.  Many students think they should get the best marks possible on each activity and move on, which can often lead to superficial engagement with the material.  It is our job as teachers to train them to take best advantage of the resources available.  In the example above, students have 3 legitimate options to use the exercise:

  1. Listen, do exercise, check script, close script, listen again, revise answers, click Check, listen again, revise answers, check and submit
  2. Listen and read script at the same time.  Do exercise.  Listen and read again.  Check answers. Revise answers. Check and submit
  3. Read question, look up vocabulary in glossary, imagine conversation, listen, do exercise, check script or check answers, revise answers, check and submit.

All of the above demonstrate good learning strategies of self evaluation and self correction and will develop listening skills to some degree.  Number 2 has a focus on pronunciation, not unlike the voice recording exercises in the About You activities.  All of them rely on using the other tools at their disposal in order to successfully complete the task.  Try giving your students these 3 options and ask them to try the exercises in this way.  Afterwards, discuss which option they preferred and why.  See how well they remember the information the following week and discuss which is the most effective for learning.  This way you are not only training them to be more independent but also to use the resources more responsibly and not view them as simple ‘cheats’.  Some students will still not engage of course but it is important to train the ones who will try and give them the tools to start teaching themselves.

Try out these three options and comment on the results here.  What worked best for your students?  What do you think is the difference in learning between the 3 options?

See posts on motivation for more ideas.


*Formative – helping someone grow or learn

*Summative – summarizing someone’s current position

Fostering Independence

‘It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.’ Albert Einstein

Independence comes from a mixture of motivation and confidence, the will to learn coupled with a belief that they can do it.  Curiosity is in effect intrinsic motivation*, the desire to acquire knowledge for no benefit other than knowing and the satisfaction that comes with learning.  Curiosity exists in many of our students but to varying degrees and it changes over time.  Intrinsic motivation has been proved to result in deeper longer lasting learning when compared to motivation that comes from outside the learner e.g. by needing to reach minimum course requirements as is often the case with formal education.  The question is how do we develop this curiosity and maintain that motivation for the duration of a course, especially given how much control the learner has over their study time when doing the online components of a blended course.

How to Foster Independence

Find out what your students’ interests are, long term and immediate and relate tasks to this.  Perhaps you could give them a standing homework assignment to think about each activity they do and relate it to their future practice or their entertainment.  ‘What will this particular task help you to do in the future?’  Maybe it will help them socialise at conferences or arrange meetings or perhaps it will help them understand the creations of their favourite musician or film producer that little bit better, or even shop online a little easier.

Students come to us with all sorts of insecurities.  Maybe they weren’t very good at English at school and their teacher was mean to them.  Maybe they’re good at Maths and they’re told that people who are good at Maths aren’t good at English.  Maybe they’re OK at English but just don’t know how to go about improving it.  Maybe they have improved but don’t know how to measure that improvement without resorting to an external test.  We as teachers have a vast array of tools at our disposal to bypass these obstacles.

Let’s start with the classroom.  Independent study is important here too so start giving the students choices.  This doesn’t need to be too radical at first.  Let them decide who goes first in pair work.  Get them to make decisions within tasks e.g. in small groups students tell each other about a place they’ve found out about and the group decide where to go on holiday together.  When students are working in pairs give them options.  For example, if there are 3 discussion questions in the book, ask them to choose which one to discuss and then compare with another pair to see if they chose the same question and what their opinions were.  Follow this up with a discussion on why they chose the question they chose.  You might discover more of their interests this way and it gives you the opportunity to boost their confidence by validating their decisions and reasoning,   Make sure they can justify any decision they make or any answer they give.  Ask them questions that will lead them to the answer, rather than telling them things.

This way you are helping them to develop critical thinking skills.  You are giving them bite sized opportunities for regular small successes.  All of this helps to change an unconfident mindset and because you are not telling them the answer but asking them questions until they find it themselves, they find belief in their linguistic abilities and value in the processes of heuristic learning* and empowering them to delve into the online components of the Touchstone Blended course and make decisions about what to review and how to approach the self study

Allowing this kind of independence in your classroom might seem daunting to you as well, as it might seem like you are giving up your prime position of authority in the room.  Rest assured that this is only a fleeting sensation as your presence as guide and facilitator is just as important as your role as ‘bearer of knowledge.’  As you experiment with letting go of some of the control, it might be an idea to write down your thoughts and impressions after class.  Just choose one group to write about and at the end of two weeks, read back over your notes and see how your feelings about this have changed.  I’m sure you’ll find that they have.  You might want to get your students to do this too!

Fostering independence is a huge topic and there are lots of different ways to approach it so I will be returning to this from the angles of different kinds of evaluation and assessment and looking at Web 2.0 tools.  In the meantime, what methods have you used in the past to get your students to behave more independently?  How do you think these will translate to your online experience with Touchstone Blended Learning?


*Intrinsic motivation – motivation that comes from within i.e. the desire to learn for the sake of learning.  In our context it means studying English in order to speak it well.

Extrinsic motivation – motivation that comes from external factors i.e. the necessity to study in order to pass an exam.  It could mean studying English because it’s part of the compulsory coursework (not very motivating) or studying English to be able to work for a prestigious multinational company (very motivating)

*Heuristic learning – a process by which we learn by finding out the ‘truth’ for ourselves.  The teacher’s job is to guide the way but the student must discover the knowledge