Sunday, November 29, 2020

Zooming on the silent minority – Reaching passive learners despite technology


[Zoom image*]

There is the maxim of 80/20 stating that 20 percent of your effort goes to achieving 80 of the results and vice versa. Besides being a translator, I am an English lecturer, with more than 25 years of experience teaching English to engineering students at the Braude College of Engineering in Israel. We strive to teach all first year students the four basic language skills, specifically reading, writing, speaking and listening. In teaching, given a heterogeneous class, the challenge is not reaching the vast majority of active and/or knowledgeable students but instead the minority suffering from passive behavior and weak backgrounds. The forced use of Zoom as the means of teaching has only made it more difficult to reach these students, forcing all teachers to reconsider how to impact those students.

To define the problem, every class has a certain percentage of students that suffers from both passive learning habits and a deficient background knowledge, creating the conditions for failure in terms of grades and, more importantly, a damaging lack of knowledge in the future. Passive students fundamentally accept their lack of understanding regardless of the psychological cost. In terms of behavior, they sit in class and seemingly pay attention but in fact understand very little of the lesson. They avoid asking questions in front of their peers, whether as a result of personality, culture or both, thus hiding their lack of comprehension. At home, on their own, they make an attempt to apply the taught material, generally with poor results as they did not understand it in class, but do not seek additional help. They often consult with students in the same boat because of a shared culture or to avoid appearing stupid to socially distant peers. This same behavior would not be academically disastrous if the students retained sufficient knowledge of the material from previous courses. However, in too many cases, poor schools combined with ineffective work habits have created a serious knowledge deficiency that requires extraordinary effort to overcome. Thus, these challenged but silent students either fail the course or continue on without the knowledge they require in the following courses and their future careers.

In normal times, i.e., physical classrooms, teachers can identify these students through observation and quiet interaction. Experienced educators quickly notice those students that tend to avoid participation and asking questions. A discrete assessment of student comprehension during class exercises by looking over the student’s shoulder or asking questions makes it clear that the student’s silence is not golden. In other words, the student neither understands nor is taking action to rectify that situation. Repeated occurrence should turn on a red light signaling that this student needs extra help. In this case, the most effective technique is a quiet conversation before or after the lesson in order to identify the specific problem and suggest solutions or provide additional opportunities for further explanation. In practice, the success of this method, granted partial, is premised on transmitting the feeling of “I care” to that student, which, in turn, creates the motivation to make a greater effort to work through the difficulty and fight fatalism. The teacher generally must mentor these students on an ongoing basis to fundamentally change the situation but any progress is important to the future of that student.

Zoom removes many of the diagnostic tools and limits the ability of the teacher to communicate empathy and assess understanding. A lecturer using Zoom sees at most some 20 faces regardless of the size of the class. Even that amount depends on the issue of forcing students to keep their cameras on, not a simple matter. Furthermore, only one student can talk at a time, with a short but annoying gap between the transfer of speech right to another student. Any  dialogue is public, limiting private conversation to a written from on the chat, far from an ideal manner to communicate. Even worse, it is impossible to glance at a student’s answers during an assignment, leaving the teacher completely in the dark in regards to the level of actual understanding. Break rooms of various sizes allow more personal communication. However, there is an interplay between the size and number of groups, i.e, the smaller the groups are, the more jumping from group to group is required, which eats up time. So, breakout rooms alleviate the communication issues to a certain degree but are far from being equivalent to being there physically. Even quizzes, considered a practical even if flawed method of knowledge assessment, often express nothing since the students can share knowledge or copy at ease sitting in front of their own computer. In short, in Zoom, teachers often throw the knowledge into the cloud and hope for rain.

I, like most teachers, have tried to learn from the successes and failures of last semester’s Zoom teaching. I have two groups of 30 students this semester. Already some six weeks into the semester, I have identified several students that are “out of it” and merely attend class. In several cases, I have asked them to talk to me on Zoom at the end of the lesson when everybody has “left”. The results in terms of communication and establishing a bond have been far from acceptable. I do not feel that these conversations have created any momentum in terms of changing the learning approach of the student. More successfully, I have been much less tolerant, on the verge of brutal, on early assignments regardless of their actual weight in the final grade. From the start, I have been returning compositions and assignments back to the students to redo, providing specific instructions on what to fix in a private email message. In a few cases, I have warned students that they are in danger of failing the course if they do not make more effort, again specifying what is required in the email. When they have applied the constructive criticism, I have quickly praised their effort, of course. This honest but less emotionally communicative approach, forced upon me by the requirement to teach in Zoom, will hopefully lead to better results at the end of this semester as compared to last semester.

Viewing my efforts this semester, I have been spending almost 80% of time on these passive students, which represent more than 20% as a result of the difficulties of Zoom learning. Strong students almost always survive but the goal of education should be to reach all those with the potential to learn, not only those with the current ability. It is distressing to know that intelligent people will have their ambitions stalled because they were unable to overcome the block of an ineffective learning strategy on their own. As the ad on UK television says, teachers can make a difference if we only can figure just how to do so.

*Captions are vital for the blind.

Image: Image by <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=5231389">Alexandra_Koch</a> from <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=5231389">Pixabay</a>

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