Make It Practical: A Key Quality to Learning Effectiveness

Now having discussed learning effectiveness and the two qualities that account for it, let’s explore the second one of these qualities: making language learning practical. 




One of the most common questions language students ask is, “Why do I have to learn this?”. Few things are more frustrating for language learners than feeling like they are wasting time and energy on learning topics that they can’t see themselves ever using. More often than not, the topic or skill is important but presented in such an abstract way that the student cannot see the immediate practical value in learning it.

If you ask students why they drop a language course, the most common answers you are likely to get (besides lack of time and financial reasons) are: (a) The course methodology wasn’t working for them; and, (b) The course content was not relevant to their learning goals and needs.

In this article, we aim to address the issue of the course content not being relevant for the student. The way to solve this is by ensuring your curriculum is real-world relevant and highly practical.

Here are 3 recommendations:

1. Teach skills that are real-world relevant and easily transferable to non-instructional environments.

Students must be able to communicate in the real world, with different pressures, accents, words and environments. To make a curriculum real-world relevant, educators and online schools need to consider both the content and instructional strategies.

If the goal is to develop independent language learners and users, we need to apply strategies that encourage autonomy, inquiry, and collaboration. For example, peer-based learning, self-directed learning, student-created work, case studies, or project-based learning all nurture independence and ensure a high degree of interaction which are essential for using the language outside of the classroom. A good way to ensure that the curriculum is real-world relevant is to make it competency-based.

Competency-Based Education (CBE) typically refers to learning experiences where the focus is on mastery (of a specific skill or skill set). The key idea is that mastery should be achieved and demonstrated by the learner before moving on to the next skill. CBE models respect the student’s learning needs, it allows them to go at their own pace and creates opportunities to bridge gaps. It also ensures that students have a clear understanding of what the learning goals are throughout the course.

Contrast this to traditional curricula, where students progress to the next skill over time regardless of whether mastery is achieved and demonstrated. As the pace of the curriculum is predetermined, it forces a student to speed up or slow down which inevitably demotivates some learners and creates learning gaps at the end of each module for others. These gaps accumulate and make it harder for students to catch up as the course goes on.

Let’s take a popular topic in Business English, business meetings. If using a non-CBE model, the title would be descriptive, “At a Meeting”, rather than motivational. The unit would usually include a context-setting part that discusses meetings, whether they are useful, etc. Typically there is an associated vocabulary list relating to the different types of meetings or the different parts of a meeting. This is commonly followed by reading or listening to a dialogue simulating a meeting, etc.

Using a CBE model, the learning goal would be for the student to be able to participate in a meeting rather than talk about one. The title would instantly clarify the learning and motivation, e.g. “Participating Successfully in Meetings”. The vocabulary and grammar acquisition would focus on terms and structures that the learner will likely use when participating in a meeting. And comprehension and production would be focused on immersive activities which replicate the meeting experience inside the safe walls of an instructional environment.

Once the learner has demonstrated that they have mastered this competency, they are ready to participate in meetings in real life. Most importantly, they are aware that they are ready to participate.

2. Present content in a compelling way that grabs the learner’s attention

Sometimes helping students quickly grasp the relevance of what they are learning the content or exercise is all about the presentation. The best way to do this is by presenting a competency (i.e. the language competency they will have mastered at the end of the learning unit) rather than an abstract topic.

For example, it is not the same if we present a topic as “Food and Beverages” as if we present it as “Ordering at a Restaurant.” The former is an abstract theme; the latter is an actual competency that any language student will likely need to perform at one point, and he/she can immediately see how to use this in a non-instructional setting.

The same goes for grammar topics. More often than not, a teacher or a self-learning app will show a unit about, say, “The Present Perfect Continuous.” Many learners would debate internally why they need to learn this abstract, externally-imposed topic, and why now? Learners would likely be far more likely to engage with the grammar topic if it is embedded into a competency or situation they know they will be faced within a real-world setting, such as, “Reporting on the work you have been doing.”

We are not, by any means, implying that language students should not learn grammar. But if we present the Present Perfect Continuous as a functional tool (for example, to participate in an interview or business presentation) versus an abstract topic, the student’s perception of the topic changes entirely. Not only can they see how they can immediately apply it in a real-world context that is relevant to their goals; they will also be able to replicate this use in the lower-stakes setting of a virtual classroom or learning environment.

3. Develop instructional strategies that allow learners to apply the skills in the real world

Students often get into the trap of focusing on mastering language skills inside the safety of the instructional setting (virtual classroom or app) but that’s not the real world. In most cases, a student will be learning a language for the purpose of using that language in a non-instructional setting; on the street, at work, at an event.

The way to avoid this trap is to include one or more opportunities for the learner to immediately apply any acquired knowledge or skills to a real-life scenario when designing the curriculum.

Some of the ways educators do this is by including activities such as peer-based learning, self-directed learning, student-created work, case studies, and project-based learning. These activities encourage autonomy, inquiry, and collaboration and help learners to become more adaptable, confident and better equipped to use their skills outside the instructional environment.

For example, if you are helping learners with “Finding an apartment” in English, have the learner browse an actual real estate website from an English-speaking country, and connect with an actual agency or landlord to inquire about an apartment that they like. Succeeding with this activity would provide the learner with confidence, and proof, that they can use the language in a non-instructional setting, which is the ultimate goal.

Summary

Going back to the often asked question from the beginning, it’s safe to assume that if a student asks “Why do I need to learn this?”, we are probably doing something wrong. Making real-world relevant learning experiences the core of your curriculum is essential to make language learning practical and, in turn, keep students engaged.

To sum up how to ensure your instruction and curriculum is practical:
  • Teach skills that are real-world relevant and easily transferable to non-instructional environments.
  • Present content in a compelling way that grabs the learner’s attention. 
  • Develop instructional strategies that allow learners to apply the skills in the real world.
Do you have any other indicators or ingredients for making your instruction more practical?