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Interesting Homework: Service Center Calls

I just got myself caught up on the “Challenge” homework submissions for my Listening & Speaking course, which is essentially an English Conversation course. Now, there are a few things to consider about English Coversation courses in Korea, and my students in particular:

  1. Leveling is nonexistent. This seems to be common in Korean universities: for some reason, administrators (and some professors) seem to be hostile to the idea that a student’s learning experience will be better if he or she is instructed with other students of the same level. This is something I’ve experienced even when it would be trivially simple to arrange — ie. when scheduling is not an issue, when the conversational English instructors volunteer to handle the level sorting interviews, and so on. Over the years, I’ve fought this and finally given up: the system is broken and nobody wants to fix it in the standard, normal way it’s done in language instruction worldwide. So you accept it, and find other ways of making it work.
  2. The students in my department are of a very high level. Not all of them, but so many of them that it’s a waste of time to do anything other than guided “free talking” with a bunch of challenges to push them out of their comfort zones, and exercises for the finer (cultural) points many of them struggle with. (And besides, while they’re supposed to be taking the course as sophomores, some wait till junior or even senior year.)
  3. Most students’ biggest complaint is that they are losing their English from lack of opportunities to use it in Korea. Not that they are very aggressive in seeking out those opportunities, but, well, they are busy undergrads. So I can help them with that a little.
  4. Students are extremely sensitive to — and critical of — grading that is in any sense subjective. After a lifetime of multiple choice exams, they are very concerned with “fairness” and sometimes will go so far as to accuse instructors of favoritism, unfairness, and so forth. This is especially likely with any evaluation that relates to a subjective mark; even with a clear grading rubric in front of them, some will cry foul.

With this being the situation, one thing I do is try to make all grades in my classes either binary or trinary: Pass/Fail or High Pass/Low Pass/Fail. People who get High Pass on everything get top grades. People who get Low Pass on everything pass… just barely. People who  get a mix, end up in betwee. Those who fail everything, well…

But to address the other issues (1-3) I need to be a little more creative. So in this particular course, every semester I have students formulate their own challenges for every individual; they come up with a single challenge, in a small group, and then we check them out, dump the stinkers, and arrange what’s left in a list. The usual is five challenges for a 16 week semester, with the challenges being formalized in Week 2. Students can submit one challenge each two weeks, but sometimes they have to redo them, or face setbacks.

The really excellent thing about this set of challenges is that everyone can do them — none of them is particularly difficult to complete, though there is a slight increase in difficulty with each successive challenge. But — and this is the genius thing — not everyone does complete them.

Since each challenge is a simple Pass/Fail grade — you complete it, or you get a redo… or you never submit it, in which case you cannot proceed to the higher-level challenges — there is no arguing about subjectivity. You fulfill the rules and criteria, you get a passing grade for the challenge and go to the next level. No arguments.

It’s a pain in the ass to lay out all the criteria clearly, but once you’ve done it, it becomes — very frankly — a question of students’ time management skills and commitment to doing the practice and exercises necessary to broaden their English speech use and experience. Which, if you ask me, is a better way of evaluating them, sans leveling, than pulling out a rubric and giving high grades to kids who mastered their nitpicky grammar better, and lower grades to those who didn’t get sent to supplemental (and expensive) English classes throughout their childhood.

The set of challenges I just went through was pretty funny to listen to: students had to call the service center for some electronics company, inquiring for opening times and directions on how to get there — after explaining some imaginary problem with their favorite gadget… and doing it all in English, of course. The students experienced a lot of the same things we expats are used to now: the service center personnel hanging up when we try to talk to them in English; very curt discussions (bordering on rude); a long wait while some random non-service-center guy who happens to speak a little English is summoned from some other office five minutes away. One student complained it took an hour to complete the assignment (of which she submitted only the last few minutes in recording form.)

I was thinking about suggesting more TEFL teachers in Korea give this particular homework assignment out: if service centers were constantly getting such calls, they might actually, you know, start making a priority out of hiring at least one bilingual staffer. But it was amusing enough for me to hear the same woman at the Samsung Service Center office in our neighborhood get progressively better at handling these kinds of calls from one day to the next.

Now I have to run before I am locked in the office building for the night…

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