This is the second article of a six-part series on boosting classroom participation. Last week, Zarina took us through using peer observation to reflect on your teaching style. In this article, she considers a different challenge: what do you do about the nerves that can interfere with your students’ performance? This article aims to look at the presence of anxiety in our classrooms and what we can do to reduce it.
When a student gives an answer in a foreign language in front of their peers, anxiety is a reality that cannot be ignored. It directly interferes with the task in hand. It appears, almost gremlin-like; to want to disrupt the very activity or question the student has been asked to deal with. So what can be done? Here are some ideas.
Minimise the threat of direct questions
Be very careful about directing questions at specific students in front of a group. Before doing so, it’s usually better to allow learners to discuss their thoughts in groups or pairs. Don’t always ask your questions orally. You could give written questions to groups of students seated at different tables and get them to discuss their answers before they write them down. If the groups have different questions, you can rotate the students round the tables, so there is some movement in the class. Then, at the very end, the questions can be covered orally. Now everyone has had the chance to think and discuss answers before writing them down, it is not nearly as stressful to direct questions at particular individuals.
Create an atmosphere where errors become unimportant
Creating an atmosphere where errors become insignificant, and almost an expected part of the class, helps to lessen students’ fear. But how can we achieve this? Usually, if you introduce a competitive element to an activity, anxiety begins to take a back seat as students tend to focus more on winning points than on the stress of making mistakes. Why not devise a competition where students win points for correct answers, and there are no penalties for mistakes? Or, you could give one point for a reasonable answer and two points for a completely correct answer. This encourages greater participation, creates the mindset that there is (literally) nothing to lose, and reinforces the notion that fluency is more important than accuracy.
As teachers, we can also help by highlighting our own mistakes and making fun of them, so that errors are not seen as a terrible mark on what should be perfect language. When students make errors we need to ensure that we praise the very act of trying to provide a response in English. We need to nurture the idea that there is courage in risking losing face, but no actual loss of face.
Draw up some ‘House Rules’
Why not draw up a very explicit set of ‘House Rules’, and negotiate them with the class? For example, you could include things such as “Respect the opinions of others”; “Listen to others”. At the same time there need to be one or two rules that cannot be negotiated. For example, “No name calling”; “No laughing at the ideas of others” or “No ridiculing”.
Celebrate your students’ work
Displaying students’ work is another way of getting them to feel proud of their contributions. Why not put up poster presentations, flipcharts, or visual reminders of discussions? I have even used this technique on short courses and it is amazing how people respond to seeing their own work, handwriting and creativity in a public place. I find it also helps bonding within groups, with students praising one another’s efforts.
But what about the teacher?
Now let’s not forget the teacher in all of this. We suffer from stress and anxiety too, probably never more so than when we teach under observation. As we saw in part one of this series, observations between peers are extremely useful forms of reflective practice. Therefore, we need to consider ways of reducing the stressful side of this process.
As discussed, having a meeting before the observation can allay fears and ensure that the observer is going to comment on the things that you wish to receive feedback on. In addition, if you plan exactly how you are going to greet your students and introduce the lesson, it will reduce your anxiety at the start. A confident beginning will make you feel at home and relaxed with your students. Also, don’t ignore the person observing – make sure your students are aware of who they are and why they are there. It’s important your students understand that the observer is there to see how you teach, and not to comment on the performance of the class. This will lessen the anxiety of a ‘stranger’ being in the room and may encourage them to be sympathetic towards how you might be feeling. This all-round recognition of the situation will put everyone concerned at ease and you can then get on with ‘business as usual’. Remember that peer observation is a choice to help you, therefore there is nothing to lose. This also illustrates to your students that you are not afraid of making mistakes in front of your peers. A perfect way of teaching by example, don’t you think?!
This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here. Next week’s blog post will be exploring how you can get more out of your students by keeping different learning styles in mind.