Engineering education widely recognize an increasing need to equip students with effective study skills early in their university education and basic professional skills prior to graduation. These, however, are traditionally difficult modules to teach successfully to larger groups through traditional lecturing. Observations suggest a poor absorption rate from the students and thus a lack in their ability to benefit from these skills both personally and professionally. Specific techniques described in this paper can be easily integrated into most types of teaching material.
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Over the years there has been an increase in emphasis on ‘soft’ skills and particularly communication skills in the engineering programs. Reflecting both the demands of potential employers and professional bodies, as well as the creativity of course designers, modules such as first year ‘study skills’ and final year ‘professional skills’ have become more and more common. The greatest focus has been placed on fundamental topics such as presentation skills, effective report writing, teamwork, and time/project management. Whilst this change is certainly a positive one, these modules seem to be among the more challenging to teach and assess successfully, the criteria for success being that the student can understand the concepts presented, apply them using exercises, and demonstrate the resulting competence through assessment.
A modified teaching approach is required that addresses the professional students. The approach needs to add interest and obvious relevance; students need to feel that any guidelines presented can solve a pressing issue or concern that exists in their world. Above all, to be successful the teaching approach must be dynamic, interesting, practical and organized to manage tactically the attention span of the audience.
Modifying the approach
Keeping a large number of undergraduate students continually engaged is not the easiest of tasks, particularly considering the challenges above. It was decided that a different and more dynamic teaching approach was required to stimulate students in place of traditional lecturing styles based essentially on one-way communication. If students frequently had to respond, discuss, react or participate they would be far less likely to disengage or go to sleep! Allowing them to make mistakes in a supportive environment would also go some way to convincing them that they needed to improve their skills and were doing so by attending the learning sessions. Some might argue that a high level of interaction is only practicable with smaller audiences. Whilst smaller groups are indeed easier to manage this was found not to be the case, although an experienced lecturer is required who is willing to engage in open discussions and deviate from a detailed lecture plan if necessary.
Towards a task-based approach
Typically, a traditional ELT syllabus lists learning items in terms of structures, functions, notions and vocabulary which are then set in situations and which usually integrate a variety of skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking). This dominant approach has been characterized as product-orientated because it focuses on what is to be learnt or on products. The problem with this approach, as Nunan (1988) has pointed out, is that input cannot be equated with output and that teaching cannot be equated with learning. In short, what the teacher teaches is not what the learner learns.
Swan (2005) in his critique of task-based learning laments the polarization of attitudes in relation to recent discussion of language learning. On the one hand traditionalists argue in favor of a linear, atomistic syllabus design. On the other hand, hard-line task-based ideologues seem to exclude any atomistic activity in favor of all-or-nothing holism. Bygate’s distinction (2003, p. 176) between tasks and exercises helps to situate this debate. He defines ‘exercises’ as “activities which practice parts of a skill, a new sub-skill, a new piece of knowledge”. In contrast, he defines ‘tasks’ as “activities which practice the whole integrated skill in some way”. Bygate’s discussion (2001, pp.23-48) lends support to the idea that task-based teaching needs to be situated in a broad curriculum framework, suggesting that isolated tasks are not sufficient in themselves to promote learning. The implication drawn from such research and discussion is that units of learning that involve the strategic use of holistic repeated “tasks” and supporting atomistic “exercises” provide one means of avoiding narrow ideological positions.
A task-based unitary framework is therefore proposed here that leads to student-led holistic outcomes in the form of written reports, spoken presentations and substantial small-group conversations that lead to decision-making outcomes. However, due consideration is also given to the design of atomistic exercises within the framework. In her model for task-based learning, Willis (1996, pp.52-65) proposes a pre-task component, a task-cycle component (pre-task/task/post-task) and a language focus component. With regard to focus on form, Willis emphasizes the importance of a post-task report phase, which could be a written activity such as writing a polished report or a spoken public-report phase in which students can be encouraged to focus on accuracy and can be prompted to recast inaccurate forms. Other key stages for Willis that improve the linguistic focus of task-based learning are the planning stage during which the teacher can take on a role of language advisor. This 1996 framework by Willis has been influential. In his 2006 Asian EFL Journal (AEJ) conference keynote speech, for example, Ellis made extensive reference to it, adopting it as his basic framework.
Components of a Task
Tasks contain some form of ‘input’ that may be verbal (a dialogue/role play/reading) or, nonverbal (pictures/a gesture) followed by an activity, which is in some way derived from the input. This activity sets out what learners need to do in relation to the input. Tasks have also goals and roles for both teachers and learners.
Components of a ‘Task’ (Nunan: 1989)
From the above diagram, a task can be viewed as a piece of meaning focused work, involving learners in comprehending, producing and/or interacting in the target language.
Before taking up the task of converting the textual content into various tasks, the following points were noted and kept in mind by the investigators:
-The objective of the task must be stated very clearly
-The task must be appropriate for the level of the learners
-The task must equip the learners with the ability to apply classroom learning
in new situations.
-Tasks must be interesting and motivating to the students
-The form the input takes, must be clear to the teacher
-The roles of teachers and students must be specified clearly
-Through the task, learners must be encouraged to negotiate meaning
-The language that will be generated by the task must be predicted
-There should be variety and flexibility in the tasks
The following are eight well documented techniques that can be used flexibly to transform any ‘standard’ lecture into a more dynamic one. These techniques are summarized below.
An emphatic and captivating introduction
A successful training session must begin by creating a sense of urgency and somehow capturing the interest of the audience, usually by emphasizing the importance of the topic and its relevance. What rewards can be obtained by applying the content of the session? What pitfalls exist for those who lack the competence? However, it is important that in emphasizing the importance of a topic the presenter is not perceived as ‘finger wagging’. For example, ‘when you’re in industry you’ll have to . . .’ or ‘you won’t pass your final year project unless you learn to . . .’ are unlikely to prove engaging whereas ‘would you like me to help you get more marks for your lab reports without doing any more work’ is.
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Use of relevant examples and ‘storytelling’
Examples, stories and anecdotes turn theories and guidelines into perceived reality by providing a true-to-life basis for their application. They will also capture the full attention of most audiences. Use plenty of these – at least one for each principal point covered – and, wherever possible, focuses on real examples rather than hypotheses. Let students share their similar experiences.
Have students perform short exercises in groups to try out the application of concepts presented, followed by debriefing where each group reports its findings, progress and difficulties to the audience. Exercises of this type break up the session, increase engagement and can be easily conducted – even in a lecture theatre. They also force the students to admit their errors, even if these errors are not reported to the audience, and this helps to establish for them the fact that they have learnt something.
This is another interactive technique to provide stimulation and variation. Provide an open question and have students brainstorm in small groups (usually together with those sitting next to them) before beginning a discussion session.
It is much more effective to demonstrate an idea than to talk about it. Documentation could include some type of physical simulation, a simple game, or even a video clip. Role playing is particularly effective as it involves the students in an active way, provided that a risk-free and supportive environment is provided to those who participate. This in turn is dependent on the lecturer’s making sure that students are never embarrassed by ‘failure’ during an activity.
This is a ‘quick change’ and helps students to engage in a new activity or a new aspect of a topic. For example a quick show of hands: ‘How many people think… .?’
The mind break
Used to refresh the listeners’ attention span during more demanding presentation components, for example, ‘take a 2 minute break to chat with your neighbor before we move on . . .’
Facilitation vs. lecturing
Whenever possible, lean towards the process of facilitation rather than lecturing. Prompt the audience with relevant questions, challenges their ideas, and shapes an understanding based upon the responses and active discussions rather than reading a script. It is, however, important to be respectful towards students who give wrong or poor answers.
The techniques presented above provide some of the most important ingredients for an engaging lecture. They are well documented and widely used in isolation. Not all are applicable to all situations and types of material, and the next step is, therefore, to devise session plans into which they are woven appropriately. The choice of techniques will depend largely on the topic to be presented and to some extent the lecturer’s personality and individual style.
Perfect communication is near impossible in the classroom because it depends on many variables. However, if the teacher is to be successful, the content of his message should be clear in his mind and be put in suitable code and transmitted through appropriate media. There is need for a careful sequencing of ideas and the use of activities that is within the experience and understanding of the students. Whatever learning experience the students are exposed to, they should be allowed to practice it. Learning takes place through the active behavior of the students. It is what the student does that he learns and not what the teacher does. The teacher is only a facilitator of learning. The quality of learning that takes place in any situation, to a very large extent, is dependent on the effectiveness of the teacher’s plan and communication.
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