Motivating students in a language class is a perennial problem, especially
for English proficiency teachers at our centre. This is because our students
have experienced failure communicating in English and thus, tend to have
low motivation towards the course. Also, students are often resentful
about taking an additional course to improve their language skills. Although
all of our students have been determined to be weak in English, their
standards differ—weak, weaker, weakest.
We have a good idea of how to teach these students. However, the question
that constantly engages us is how can we help our students learn better?
In “English for Academic Purposes” (EG1471), a compulsory
writing course for engineering students who fail the university’s
Qualifying English Test (QET), we have used the writing portfolio and
small-group learning to help our students learn. In Semester Two (AY 2001/02),
we studied the effects of these strategies and found that they had positively
influenced and motivated the students.
Portfolios and Small-group Learning
EG1471, a 48-hour, one semester course, focuses on improving students’
writing. Since research on writing portfolios and small-group learning
indicate that such strategies enhance learning, we used them in our course
with some adaptations to suit our needs. We assumed that if students found
these activities helpful and enjoyable, they would be more motivated to
learn and become better writers.
A writing portfolio is typically defined as a collection of a student’s
best work and implies that the student is able to discern good writing.
The following benefits and aspects of a portfolio are most relevant to
- Demonstrates the effort that the student has put into his writing.
This effort can be seen in the quality (and in some cases, quantity)
of work presented.
- Contains some student reflection. Students are used to receiving
our feedback but do not often reflect on their strengths and weaknesses
as writers. Reflection generated by a portfolio helps students focus
on areas that they have improved in and those needing more work.
- Requires students to be more aware of what constitutes good writing
as they need to put their best work in the portfolio. Thus, students
are ‘forced’ to become more analytical about writing in
general and their own writing in particular.
- Reflects the students’ understanding and knowledge of the effort
that went into their work.
We adapted the portfolio to meet some of our needs. Most importantly,
we asked our students to include ALL the work they did during the semester
in their portfolios. Unlike the typical writing portfolio, ours served
another purpose: since our students were not required to attend classes,
the portfolio was a record of all the work they did. To us, the amount
of work indicated the students’ level of participation and attendance
in the course.
At mid-semester, we asked the students to reflect on the progress they
had made AND on their behaviour with regards to participation and attendance.
This was part of our attempt to make the students aware of their responsibility
for their learning.
Finally, although the students needed to include all their work in their
portfolios, they still needed to select their three best pieces of writing
for a grade. While the teachers reviewed and gave feedback on everything
that was included in the portfolio, they graded only the three texts the
In small group learning two or more students work together to accomplish
structured common tasks. In carrying out these tasks, students use cooperative,
pro-social behaviour (i.e. collaboration, not competition). The students
are individually responsible for their learning (Millis, 1996)—knowledge
is created through interaction instead of transmission of information
from the teacher.
Nowadays, the value of small-group learning is generally accepted and
seen to offer many benefits. Those relevant to our course are:
- Development of higher-level learning and problem solving skills;
- Development of interpersonal and group skills;
- Enhanced practice hence improvement of communication skills, and
increased motivation for and enjoyment of learning.We used small-group
learning in the following three areas of students’ course work:
- Gathering ideas for their writing through brainstorming and discussion
of readings chosen by students;
- Discussing grammar problems; and
- Revising their writing through peer review.
Evaluation Portfolios and Small-group
We ascertained how students regarded portfolios and small-group activities
in terms of helpfulness to their writing and enjoyment as learning activities
by analysing five sets of data:
- Surveys of student perceptions;
- Student writing samples;
- Student self-assessment;
- Informal interviews; and
- Our own observations.
About 75% of our students found portfolios a helpful strategy for improving
their writing. However, only 50% indicated that they enjoyed the process
of keeping and putting the portfolio together.
Our interviews with students gave us more insight into their feelings
about the portfolio. Most students had a high degree of personal satisfaction
with their portfolios. They felt and could see that they had accomplished
a lot during the semester. Students also saw their problems and how they
overcame some of them to become stronger writers. This gave students a
great amount of satisfaction. Although they felt it was difficult to select
which work to be graded, the exercise was helpful as students had to use
all their knowledge about writing and it made them feel responsible.
As teachers we found that, firstly, portfolios are a good reflection
of our students’ work and effort. Those who worked hard (and attended
class regularly) had more pieces of writing and group work in their portfolios
than those who had not. Secondly, it was easy for us to see our students’
progress from the portfolios. All the work throughout the term was included
so we could compare work from the beginning and the end of the term. Thirdly,
even though many of the portfolios were rather ‘thin’ at mid-semester,
students rallied and pulled together mostly good portfolios by the end.
In the process of putting their portfolios together, students began to
feel good about what they were doing and many worked to develop complete
and attractive portfolios. The only negative aspect was that some students
had difficulty organising their work, thus making it difficult for them—and
us—to track their progress.
In general, our students found group planning and peer review helpful.
They also enjoyed the group reading activities. In particular, peers’
comments made the writers more aware of their reader’s point of
view and helped them in the revision process. The suggestions for improvement
were also welcomed because these revealed weaknesses the writers had overlooked.
Group grammar work was, however, the least favoured activity.
It was evident that students found choosing their own readings and topics
for discussion most enjoyable, though they sometimes found decision making
difficult. The light-hearted discussions helped the students relax. Even
when the discussions digressed, students noted that these distractions
helped them get to know each other better. The discussions not only exposed
students to other interesting points of view but also helped them gather
ideas and more examples to use in their writing. Also, the discussions
forced students to use English in class and consequently improved their
language skills. Although most of our students enjoyed and found these
small-group activities helpful, we observed that this was true of only
some groups and selected tasks (i.e. discussion of reading selections
and peer review).
Some difficulties in group work noted by students included attendance
problems; lack of group rapport; irresponsibility of group mates; inability
to deal with grammar questions and logistics.
Generally, we noted that successful groups had the following characteristics:
- Members were usually present in class and they generally came prepared.
Thus, they would usually be actively engaged in discussions or peer
review during the group activities hour.
- Members also tended to be friendly with each other, and generally
sat together in class. Whenever group exercises (e.g. a team oral presentation)
were assigned, they usually did better than the rest.
It seemed that the members’ positive engagement in their group
activities bred success, which then fuelled their desire to continue working
together as a group.
The use of the writing portfolio in EG1471 has been effective in instilling
student pride in their work. It gives them a tangible record of their
work (by showing the successes and failures) and consequently a clear
direction to follow towards becoming better writers. Small-group learning
activities can provide students who are poorly motivated with much needed
support in a writing class. Besides additional information and alternative
points of view, it can offer camaraderie through the difficult and often
frustrating process of writing.
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