Monday, 25 April 2016

EBEFL asks: Should we listen to students?

At IATEFL Silvana Richardson, Scott Thornbury and Chris Smith (2015) all made reference to student opinion.  

  • Smith carried out research on students' views of oral feedback and found that they really liked being directly corrected by the teacher and don't feel they get enough correction. He made the argument that we ought to listen to students and correct them more.*
  • Thornbury noted in a poll he had carried out that the major reason teachers continue to teach the grammatical syllabus is that they believe students expect it. 
  • Richardson reported that many schools claim students don't want NNS teachers and thus won't employ them. She asked 'is the customer always right?' and argued that we should try to educate students and get them to see the error of their ways. 
I think the idea that we should listen to students has an certain ideological appeal. It fits nicely with concepts like learner-centred teaching, autonomy, negotiated syllabus, and other fashionable terms. So it feels good, but is it a good idea?

I would expect most people would say 'it depends'. Should we listen to students for instance if they say:
  • the class is boring? 
  • they think I'm a wonderful teacher? 
  • there are too many tests? 
  • they feel stressed out? 
  • they want more grammar?
  • the material isn't very good?
  • they don't like the teacher?
  • they want a native speaker teacher? 
  • they want a male teacher
  • they want a white teacher

I have to confess at this point that I've marshalled students in defence of an argument I was making. I argued that "If student want to sound like their ideal of a native speakers (and many do) then that's fine. If they don't that's fine. It's their money." Yet In a talk I gave on student evaluation of teachers I concluded that we really shouldn't be paying too much attention to students' opinions on teacher quality as they're not experts in teaching and because research suggests their views are largely based on things other than teaching (how much they like the teacher, how attractive the teacher is etc, etc etc). 

So when should we listen to students, -only when they already say what we want to hear? 


*Smith's opinion was also based on a review of literature which showed oral EC to be effective.


  1. Truscott (1996) also makes the case that even though lots of studies show that students like, expect and demand grammar correction in their writing classes, if it's not an effective instructional strategy to improve grammatical accuracy (which he contends it isn't) than we shouldn't continue to include it in our classes. Our students come into our classes with lot of myths and problematic beliefs about language, language acquisition and language teaching methodology. It's up to us to set them straight, so to speak, by correcting counterfactual beliefs and structuring our classes such a way that they will provide the best and most effective environment for our students to develop as writers. They're not the experts on this stuff; we are.

    Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language learning, 46(2), 327-369.

    1. Sure, and Ferris disagrees ;)

      I'm curious though since people seem to use students when it suits them, if we could come up with a general principle for when students should be listened to?

    2. "...if we could come up with a general principle for when students should be listened to'"

      This is a bit like coming up with a general principle for when your spouse should be listened to!

  2. I have been recording learners talking about their lessons. I have been observing lessons and then interrupting them at key moments to get ss feedback.
    I have found that by having me in the lesson observing I can formulate really good questions and get specific feedback.
    I have been pleasantly surprised at how good some learners are at articulating what helps them learn. Their comments echo what we experts consider good practice, most of the time and teachers hearing it from the horses mouth in these lessons has been powerful and effective for after class feedback discussion!
    I think it is ridiculous to assume we know best especially as we are all coming from our own contexts with our own culture of teaching and learning.‪
    I think asking bad questions to learners and then putting their responses out as being representative of all learner opinion is not helpful.
    Asking good questions and involving tutors, learners and teachers in training in discussions about how learning takes place can result in very positive outcomes for everyone!
    I am still doing this research and will hopefully write up my findings in the coming months.

    1. Thanks for the reply. Allow me to play devil's advocate a bit, ok? You write "I think it is ridiculous to assume we know best especially as we are all coming from our own contexts with our own culture of teaching and learning.‪" So if the students said they learn best only with white NS teachers, we shouldn't challenge it? That seems quite a stretch to me.

      I'll be interested in seeing your research.

    2. I think it's not just about asking questions - it's about entering into a dialogue with the learners - which is what Nicola seems to be implying. If the learners say they want NS blond and blue-eyed teachers, teaching grammar from course books, then our next question might be: What makes you think that this is best? And take it from there. Better to ask lots of questions, than none at all. Think of it less as research, than as dialogic inquiry.

    3. Hi Scott,

      If a student said "I want a non-native speaker teacher" would we ask them questions? What I'm interested in is exactly which situations prompt us to challenge students and which which prompt us to pander?

    4. Hi Russ, I don't think it need be as black and white as 'challenging', on the one hand, and 'pandering', on the other. As I said before, it's a case of entering into dialogue with the learners, where - if there is mismatch in terms of expectations - this can be openly discussed and negotiated. My own experience, both as teacher and learner, is that - without some kind of feedback loop - there is a real danger of conflicting agendas emerging. The student who insistently wants translation and the teacher who doggedly refuses to provide it are unlikely to establish a mutual rapport. I also like to think that I am sufficiently flexible to accommodate a variety of learner expectations, even if they don't exactly match my own preferences, on the grounds - not that the customer is always right - but that, unless the customer is feeling comfortable with the process, a productive learning dynamic is going to be hard to achieve.

    5. Interesting, let's stick with the example you gave of "The student who insistently wants translation and the teacher who doggedly refuses to provide it". Now let's assume that giving translations has been shown to hinder Ss acquisition. The teacher knows this and explains it to the student but this student wants it anyway, -what should happen?

    6. First of all, there is nothing under the sun that has been conclusively shown to hinder second language acquisition in any irrevocable kind of way - there is always a margin of doubt even in the most robust studies. Secondly, assuming that the teacher wishes that the student continues learning, then the motivational benefits of having his/her preferences acknowledged must surely trump whatever benefits might accrue from the teacher sticking to his/her own position. QED.

    7. So are you saying that if students insisted on a grammatical syllabus the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks?

      Also isn't this problematic if the students insists, say, on having a native speaking teacher. Or are I'm misunderstanding your use of the word 'acknowledged'? Are you saying we should say 'I hear you' but not necessarily actually do the thing requested?

    8. If I was teaching one-to-one, I would certainly want to take my learner's expectations into account. If the learner wanted only grammar, I might try and talk her out of it, but I certainly wouldn't attempt to ride roughshod over her wishes. With a class, I'd want to do the same but the reality is that there may be a range of preferences, in which case I'd want to negotiate a compromise. This is the principle underpinning negotiated (or process) syllabuses. And Dogme, too, incidentally. Of course, if the learner(s) didn't want to negotiate but were happy to entrust me to make curricular decisions, then so much the better. But they shouldn't be able to say that they weren't consulted.

      But, since you seem to want to pin me down, let's take the hypothetical case that they demanded we use a coursebook. I would put the case against such a direction, of course, but if they were adamant, I might offer them a deal: Look, let's use the coursebook for a couple of weeks and then lets' do without if for a couple more. And then let's vote again. (I would of course be very confident that the vote would be in my favour!)

    9. Hi Scott,

      I had detected a certain bristling against this post and I couldn't for the life of me wonder what I had written which might have led to that. I didn't see the connection between Dogme and a negotiated syllabus when I wrote this. I was actually only thinking of my own disastrous experiments with trying to do a negotiated syllabus.

      Anyway, back to the discussion. I thin you've hit upon the point I'm trying to get at. That is if the students ask for something we think is wrong we would try to "put the case against such a direction" be it negotiated syllabus, textbooks or native speaker teachers. But should request the thing we think is best we might say "look, students are asking for X so we should give it to them".

      It's really a rather trivial point that I'm making. Just the seeming hypocrisy (myself included) of saying how important students opinions are, but then trying to change those opinions when they don't line up with our 'better judgement'.

      Am I making sense?

    10. Hi

      Hope you don't mind me butting in. Very interesting discussion. In a sense, I see where you're coming from Russ with the "seeming hypocrisy" but surely that only comes into play if you listen to people's opinions with the intention of changing them rather than understanding them (and subsequently seeing if it is possible to compromise and accommodate the opinions of that student). I think the course book one is a good example - I'd agree with Scott - if someone strongly believes something is good and you don't give it, they may actively resist the alternative approach (even if majority of research suggests it is more effective). With my students, they were constantly asking for exam practice. They just wanted tests that they could do at home. We resisted, saying that repeating tests ad nauseum wasn't the most effective way to learn. I finally gave in and their enthusiasm increased (as did their test results to be fair) - this then gave us scope to negotiate with them, introducing other ways to study that was more in line with what I believed were good approaches to learning.

      With opinions like the native teacher thing, it is a lot more tricky. In a way, this is a different area - this isn't a disagreement about an approach or way of learning English. If a student came to me and said, I don't like so and so because they are not Irish/English or whatever, first of all, I would consider this an important opinion. I think it is important because it could cause huge problems. In that case, I would engage with the student and talk to them about it. But I wouldn't really feel hypocritical as the reason for the discussion would be to see if ultimately I could accommodate that student (rather than considering it as me enlightening them). If the student remained opposed to the 'non-native' teacher, then really, in good conscience, I wouldn't be able to accommodate that student and would refund money. I couldn't accommodate them because to do so would mean devaluing a member of staff. But in other situations, as in the course book example, having engaged with the student, I do see a compromise and a way of accommodating that student to help them in their studies.

    11. Hi Russ. No, not bristling, just waving. ;-)
      Stephen puts it much better than I could.
      Btw, if you have access to back issues of ELT Journal, check out Davies A. (2006) 'What do learners really want from their EFL courses?' 60/1: 3-12.

    12. Hi Steven,

      Thanks for your detailed comment. You are suggesting, and correct me if I'm wrong, that we take each instance on a case-by-case basis?

      I suppose I was asking after an underlying principle because claims that we 'should listen to our students' seem a bit dubious when I've heard students say some awful things about teachers/other students etc etc.
      I suppose a doctor would listen to their patients but what would they do if the patient insisted on some kind of treatment the Dr. Didn't think was helpful? Actually I know that often Drs. just submit to the patients long as it's not harmful. And how much can we harm our students?
      I'm not sure there is an easy answer, but it certainly seems reasonable to listen to the students and 'try' to accommodate them where we feel they have a reasonable case.

      Ugh. I don't think I'm any less confused than when I started :)

    13. Thanks for the link Scott, I'll check it out now.

    14. Hi Russ,

      Had a very long waffly response but accidentally deleted it - probably just as well. So here’s another one….

      I'd say that yep, my point would be to take things on a case-by-case basis. But at the same time, you can have underlying principles that inform your decisions in each case. So for example, if a student and I disagree about a pedagogical approach, my guiding principle is that for a student to do well, they have to "buy into" the approach to learning. Sorry "buy into" is a bit of a naff way to put it but what I mean is that if they don't think the way you're teaching is good, then that'll get in the way of their learning. So if we discuss it and they still resist, my next question is can I accommodate them. And I've also found (e.g. with certain groups who are not mad keen on the communicative approach) that it's been me who was being dogmatic and inflexible, insisting on things in the classroom that students didn't really want because I thought they were for the best.

      I remember once a good few years back, a student's dad came in and wasn't happy with his son's performance. He was very critical of the classes, saying that we needed to do this and that, back in his day.... etc. It was really annoying to be honest as the son was doing quite well. But in that case, the principle was "how to help the son continue to do well". Considering that he was more than likely getting a lot of pressure at home, the accommodation as I saw it was to give the student some of the exercises that his father thought best (e.g. translating pages). My logic was that the son would not do well as the father wasn't buying into the way we ran the classes and had become vocal about it. I obviously didn't want to write the son off so I tried to find a way that the son would be able to tell his dad that he was doing "good work" and so get that bit of pressure off and feel more comfortable in the class - that he wouldn't be sitting there thinking - what are we doing this for, this is a waste of time.
      Like in your doctor example, I didn't think the dad's suggestions were particularly helpful. But I thought they were fairly benign (and in some cases, not bad) and far less harmful than the alternative of the son sitting through lessons he didn't have faith in for the next few months.
      But like you, I've also heard students say really, really dodgy stuff - I think that is a whole other thing. I would say that when people are suggesting listening to students it is more like in the example above. I don't think we necessarily have to have deep discussions if someone is saying stuff that is hurtful to others in the class (and ruining the class dynamic).

  3. Thanks Scott. I want to clarify my response was more related to the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning than the bigger issues mentioned in the original post.
    I currently work with in-service Diploma trainee teachers but also found that for pre-service trainee teachers it can help to create this kind of dialogue. course On a Cert course I asked learners to tell trainee teachers what "good" experienced teachers did in class which helped them with specific aspects of learning. For example, what helped them in how the board is used, how vocabulary is practised and recycled etc. It is this type of specific question I am exploring more than opinions about what first language their teacher should have.
    As Scott says by engaging in this type of dialogic inquiry we can help to address "bigger" issues too.

    1. What do you do when the answers they give contradict your ideas of what good teaching is?
      What do you do when the answers they give contradict other students in the same class?

    2. We discuss this after the lesson- tutor and developing teacher. It can help to rehash ideas from their reading on the course and it can bring it to life, more importantly.
      One of the criteria on the post lesson evaluation on the Trinity Dip TESOL assessment of teaching practice is about how the lesson reflected (or not) the teacher's beliefs about learning and teaching. The feedback from learners helps these developing teachers to confirm and question these beliefs and so hopefully make better decisions in the classroom in the future.
      I think making decisions about how to best respond to learners in class is one the most challenging things about teaching. Opening a dialogue with learners is not about pandering or challenging beliefs all the time. In fact encouraging reflection in learners about how they are learning is one really positive outcome of getting feedback and making it part of the learning process.
      These discussions help the teachers to consider all opinions and perspectives and to become more confident teachers.

    3. Encouraging reflection, -that's an interesting idea. So would you try something in class and then get them to reflect on how it went?

      I can't get away from the fact that human belief is so fickle and what if you as the teacher thought the activity was pointless and useless and they all thought it was fantastic? Well, I suppose at least they're having fun.

  4. If we believe learning is a two-way street, it stands to reason that both learner and teacher get to have their say. Each is the "expert" in their own field. As Nicola & Scott write, asking what lies behind a person's beliefs or opinions is key; it can only broaden the scope of learning and enable a richer exchange. So I think absolutely we need to listen to what Ss say about what's going on in the classroom. A person who feels they're not being heard won't learn as well as someone who is listened to and engaged with as an equal, albeit one with less knowledge of a language than the teacher.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I have a few questions :)

      1. What are students 'experts' in? Are you saying they are experts in their own learning?
      2. Are you advocating listening but then potentially ignoring what they say? (for instance if they say they learn best when the teacher talks for the whole lesson) In such a case won't they feel they are not being listened to? Or is it more a case of just the act of listening, even if we ignore them, is enough?

  5. You raised a very good point in the discussion and not easy to answer because it also depends on the teacher's beliefs and attitude. You should consider as well where the teacher works, and as you point out the students themselves and their expectation. Dialogic inquiry as pointed out already is something different from just ask questions and let students run the show. In fact, in a group setting, it's almost impossible to do so as we will be confronted with different views of how a language should be learned, preferences and interests. There is only two ways for us nowadays IMHO, keep the traditional model where the teacher/school knows it all and well... deal with it! Or share the floor and learn how to navigate (both students and teachers) in this negotiated space. This is not to say that the objectives of a course in a negotiated syllabus can't be there. It should/must! We have to have a clear idea where we want to get and plan the journey. In this more open and flexible model, there should be at least enough space for dialogue. Well, like I said. There is no right answer and whatever boat we decide to board, it will not come without storms.
    This year with my groups which I don't have to use coursebooks, things are much easier. I have been doing this for more than 4 years now. I am finally getting it right from the beginning with this particular course instead of achieving it by the middle of the year. ;)

    1. Thanks for the reply. Thoughtful as always.

      If your students all said they wanted coursebooks, would you switch back?

  6. Given we probably should listen to students whenever they have something to say (that's just a nice human thing to do), the real question is when should we act on what they say? Maybe when their statements are backed up with reasonable, rational support? What's that, you probably will ask...

    1. Hi Tyson,

      Yes indeed! The right question is 'when should we act' though I suppose I was using 'listen' in a shorthand sense (as in 'listen to your mother!')

      And yes you know me too well :) The whole crux of it for me is when should we act upon their wishes? Is it possible to come up with a criteria for this? And if it's not possible should we perhaps stop saying things like 'Let's give students what they want'?

  7. Hmm. Nobody has spoken the obvious yet, so I'll jump in. I'm surprised that nobody has fessed up to hiding the elephant under the sofa. Perhaps I need to do a lot more soul-searching...

    My answer is that we listen to students whenever it may have an adverse effect on the health of our business. Or at least that we are *seen* to be listening. The rest of the time, we ensure that we have recruited a body of staff in whose professional opinion we have implicit trust and about whom we can state with confidence that anything they are doing, not doing, saying or not saying in the classroom is of benefit to the student.

    1. I missed you!

      Your answer is a model of pragmatism that is so sorely missing from the idealism of much ELT discussion. ;)
      I think this is exactly the position of the management where I work currently. I would perhaps add also 'where it is feasible' as a condition as sometimes students ask for literally, the impossible.

    2. I take umbrage at the charge of 'idealism'. The point I made - or was trying to make - in my talk at IATEFL is that, if 50% of the 1000+ teachers canvassed in my survey believe that the grammatical syllabus persists because students want it, have they ever asked them? And if not, shouldn't they? Especially given that research (that other claimant on our professional attention) suggests that the grammatical syllabus is about as useful for planning the curriculum as is a Ouija board.

    3. Apologies Scott, it wasn't aimed at you ;)

      I didn't realise it was 'that' Scott either. I don't disagree with anything you've said here, all I wonder is if we DID canvas students and if they all said they DID want a grammatical syllabus- what then?

      The point I was trying to make above wasn't a criticism of you or Silvanna or Chris, it just struck me that sometimes it seems we say 'listen to students' and other times, when they say something we don't agree with we seem to think they need educating. It's not a very consistent approach.