Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

How to make your classes more cohesive

Rose Senior
Centre for International English
Curtin University of Technology
In a doctoral study currently being completed the presenter has established that experienced teachers working on intensive English language courses have a tacit understanding of group development principles. It appears that such teachers employ a range of strategies during the course of their daily teaching which encourage their classes to become cohesive and therefore easier to teach. The evidence suggests that in cohesive classes students relate more positively to one another and are more prepared to work collaboratively in small groups.

A number of workshops have recently been conducted in which language teachers have been given the opportunity to apply the principles of group development to their own particular teaching situations. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with many participants asking for follow-up sessions so that they can report back on alternative class management tactics developed during the workshop and subsequently tried out.

It is the purpose of this vignette to test the waters within the university sector. What kinds of class management problems are faced by academics in different disciplines? How useful would colleagues find it to face their classes armed with an understanding of the principles of group dynamics?


Introduction

In an earlier study which focused on experienced language teachers' definitions of "good" language classes (Senior, 1994) it was established that teachers defined good classes in terms of social psychological as opposed to pedagogic criteria. In other words, although there is a sense in which classes containing highly-motivated, high-achieving students are "good", at a more universal level there is a sense in which any class can be defined as "good", regardless of the abilities of the students within it. The criterion against which all the teachers in the initial study judged the quality of their classes was the level of cohesion which their classes had achieved: the degree to which they perceived that their classes had "gelled", "clicked" or "bonded".

All teachers are familiar with the phenomenon of the variability of classes: some classes somehow feel right and are pleasant and easy to teach, while others contain polarised student sub-groups, require constant cajoling and never quite take off. Although little research has been conducted into whether students who are members of the "good" or cohesive class groups learn more effectively, anecdotal evidence from both teachers and students suggests that being a member of a cohesive class increases the likelihood that learning will occur. It appears that students who are members of cohesive classes feel more at ease, relate better to other class members and are more willing to contribute to class discussions. Teachers, meanwhile, explain that they feel more comfortable when teaching cohesive class groups, teach more enthusiastically and put more effort into the preparation of lessons. It appears, therefore, that when classes operate in a cohesive manner both teachers and students lift their performance.

The preliminary study generated a question of interest to practising classroom teachers: is there anything that teachers can do to increase the probability that their classes will develop into cohesive groups? The answer to this question is strongly in the affirmative: athough the raw material in the form of the students membership of each class clearly cannot be changed, there are many strategies which teachers can employ to facilitate the development of class cohesion. Since each teaching situation is unique it is helpful for individual teachers to have a broad understanding of how small groups develop and function. In this way they will be able to monitor their class management styles and develop a range of group development and maintenance techniques suitable for the particular context within which they work.

Background

Since the research upon which this vignette is based was conducted with classes of adult English language learners a brief description of such classes will now be given.

Intensive English language classes for adult learners of English include the following: short courses for fee-paying overseas students (ELICOS courses); special programmes for migrant professionals (ECAPP courses); Bridging English courses (courses for overseas students who have been accepted by universities for undergraduate or postgraduate programs); Foundation Studies courses (courses for overseas students who aspire to enter the university to do undergraduate study); courses run by the Adult Migrant Education Program. All such courses have certain features in common. Most of them are of ten weeks' duration, although some run for a full semester. Classes normally contain between 16 and 22 students and are normally classified as intensive, with the students being together for between 12 and 25 hours a week. The students may find themselves studying in the same class group with the same teacher for 15 or even 20 hours a week. The classes typically contain students from a range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds, many of whom have relatively recently arrived in Australia.

Many of the activities in such classes require the students to develop their speaking, listening, reading and writing skills by working in pairs or in small groups. Typical activities require the students to absorb information from different sources, to synthesise key points, to share information with others (following the information-gap principle), to discuss issues and to solve problems in a collaborative manner. Students are also expected to perform regularly in front of their peers, doing role plays at lower levels and taking part in debates or giving presentations at higher levels. English language learning is therefore a communal activity, with students expected to engage in the learning process in an active and public manner. A significant number of students, however, have not previously been exposed to activity-based learning, being more familiar with an information-transmission model of learning (Biggs, 1994).

Teachers of intensive English language classes therefore need to know how to create classroom atmospheres in which students will relate freely to class members of different cultural backgrounds and will contribute readily to small group and whole-class activities. It is certainly not the case that students from east and south-east Asian countries are by nature shy and reticent; given the right opportunity and a supportive classroom climate a range of spontaneous behaviors and personality types will naturally emerge.

The analytical frameworks

In order to understand the complex and varied social processes which routinely occur in intensive English language classes two analytical frameworks from the discipline of social psychology were selected. The first of these, developed by Corey & Corey (1992) from their work in the field of psychotherapy, suggests that small groups go through four distinct phases in their progression towards maturity and maximum productivity: These phases, which are not rigid or sequential (since regression to an earlier stage sometimes occurs), include the initial (or tentative) stage, the transition (or difficult) stage, the working (or commitment) stage and the final stage. The second framework, outlined by Benne & Sheats (1978) and a useful means of understanding how therapy groups function, construes the notion of leadership in terms of the function which any group member can play in helping the group to progress towards the achievement of its goals.

The above frameworks were chosen because of the commonalities between adult learners attempting to master a second language in a classroom situation, and members of therapy or psychotherapy groups. Members of both groups find themselves in positions of extreme vulnerability. The thought of having to perform in front of one's peers under the watchful eye of a teacher or group leader is daunting at the best of times. The situation is compounded for language learners, who are required to operate in an unfamiliar language and within an unfamiliar educational context. The risk of making linguistic errors and of appearing foolish in public is therefore extremely high.

Ten facets of the class development process

A number of workshops have recently been run for teachers wishing to improve the levels of cohesion in intensive English language classes. In order to give language teachers a broad understanding of class group development principles the analytical frameworks outlined above were adapted to suit an educational context. Once they had become familiar with the principles outlined below the teachers in the workshops were given the opportunity to discuss their present class management strategies, to develop new ones, and to share their ideas and concerns with others. The ten facets of the class development process (Senior, 1997) are outlined briefly below.

  1. Breaking down barriers
  2. This facet highlights the importance of encouraging students to get to know one another on the first few occasions that a class meets. If a teacher does not bother to learn the names of their students, and does not acknowledge publicly the existence and individuality of the various students in the class, the students are likely to remain strangers to one another for the duration of the course.

  3. Creating the climate
  4. If students are to contribute in a spontaneous manner to whole-class discussions they need first to be made to feel at ease. A degree of informality in classes is therefore probably in order. Teachers need to understand how to create a feeling of comfort in their classes, while at the same time maintaining the expectation of high academic standards. This path is sometimes a difficult one to tread.

  5. Convincing the customers
  6. Initial feelings of scepticism about their teachers are natural amongst students. After all, they did not choose to be taught by a particular teacher and may need convincing that they are getting a good deal. Teachers need to understand that subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle challenges to their authority or expertise are a necessary part of the group development process; only when all students have confidence in the teacher can an atmosphere of cohesion develop. Teachers need to recognise when they are being challenged and know how to respond.

  7. Defining directions
  8. A delicately-balanced situation exists regarding the relationship between individual and group goals. On the one hand teachers need to create a general level of confidence, by handing out course outlines and showing the class that they have a clear idea of the overall direction of the course. On the other hand a stronger feeling of ownership of the course develops when individual group members have some input into the content and direction of the course. There are ways in which these two priorities can be reconciled.

  9. Harnessing the headstrong
  10. Most teachers have had classes in which certain dominant, strong-willed individuals have hindered the development of a mutually-supportive classroom atmosphere. Teachers need to realise that, provided their energies can be channelled in a positive direction, such students can be a great asset to any class. It is vital that teachers know how to manage these kinds of students and understand that repressive class management behaviors are a short-term and ultimately unsatisfactory solution.

  11. Establishing expectations
  12. Some teachers are so busy worrying about the teaching process that they forget that they are also responsible for the development of the social atmosphere within their classes. Students are quick to realise the levels of politeness and consideration for others which are expected and, if not pulled into line, may unwittingly behave in ways which are hurtful to others. Creating exclusivity by chatting and laughing in a language which not everyone in the class understands is a particularly divisive form of behaviour. Once norms of behavior have been established students will often spontaneously regulate the behavior of their peers.

  13. Recognising roles
  14. Teachers naturally tend to pay attention to bright, high-profile class members, directing questions to them and spending time responding to their comments and questions. It is easy to forget those students who sit quietly and unobtrusively at the back of the class and avoid catching the teacher's eye. Teachers need to understand that the way to draw reticent students into the communal learning experience is not to fire questions at them and try to force them to respond. Alternative strategies are more successful.

  15. Sustaining solidarity
  16. In classes which have been together for some time a common class culture develops. The students in the class, together with their teacher, share understandings about how the class operates and about how individuals behave. Teachers who have classes with constantly shifting populations become skilled at developing and maintaining class traditions in such a way that cohesion is maintained.

  17. Maintaining momentum
  18. Classes which have become cohesive do not necessarily remain so; many teachers have experienced the phenomenon of classes "running out of steam". When this happens it is necessary for teachers to re-energise their classes so that a sense of common purpose is maintained until the end of the course. Certain techniques can be used to achieve this end.

  19. Formalising farewells
  20. Students who have been together in language classes for many hours a week form strong bonds with one another and often wish to acknowledge in some way that the class is coming to an end - even if it is only taking a class photo or chatting about future directions during the final lesson. Teachers need to understand that this process also severs psychological dependency on themselves, leaving students free to move on and develop trust in subsequent teachers with different teaching styles.

Points for discussion

In the latter part of this session participants will be encouraged to share with one another and with the group as a whole the kinds of class management problems which they routinely encounter in the course of their daily teaching. Participants will then be invited to discuss which (if any) of the facets outlined above are useful headings under which to evaluate and where necessary to modify their own class management strategies.

References

Benne, K. & Sheats, P. (1978). Functional roles of group members. In L. Bradford (Ed.), Group development (2nd ed., pp. 52-61). La Jolla, CA: University Associates.

Biggs, J. (1994). What are effective schools? Lessons from East and West. The Australian Educational Researcher, 21(1), 19-39.

Corey, M. S. & Corey, G. (1992). Groups: process and practice (4th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Senior, R. (1994). An investigation into the nature of good language classes. Perspectives on the classroom. Adelaide: Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of South Australia.

Senior, R. (1997). How to develop group cohesion in classes of language students from diverse cultural backgrounds. Exploring language, multiculturalism and equity (pp. 233-239). Sydney: ATESOL, NSW.

Please cite as: Senior, R. (1998). How to make your classes more cohesive. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 305-309. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/senior.html


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