Katherine Thornton, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan
Thornton, K. (2011). Learning strategy sheets: Supporting advisors and learners. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(1), 43-47.
Learning advisors working at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) in Japan are available for consultation on language learning matters with any students, who are all language majors, or members of staff who would like some assistance with their language learning. Consultations with advisors are entirely voluntary and take place predominantly in English, the working language of the Self Access Learning Centre (SALC), and the L2 of most of our students. Learners may either reserve a 30 minute session with an advisor of their choice, or visit the Learning Help Desk in the SALC, which is manned throughout the day by one of our 9 full-time advisors.
On a day-to-day basis as learning advisors, we are faced with a number of challenges. In a single day, an advisor may find herself talking to one learner about selecting appropriate resources for learning vocabulary, another about how to maintain motivation, and to yet someone else about how to evaluate their writing skills. In addition to being expected to respond quickly and appropriately to any issue a learner may choose to raise, we must be aware, as most of our advising takes place in our learners’ L2, to engage with the learner using language which they can understand, while still presenting our ideas and suggestions in a non-prescriptive way. Becoming comfortable with this degree of spontaneity is one of the most difficult aspects of an advisor’s development. Moreover, the learner often expects an easy fix to the problem to be provided by an all-knowing advisor.
A new advisor, or even a more experienced one, may feel uncomfortable cast in this role as an expert. While all advisors are educated to at least Masters level in either TESOL or applied linguistics and can be expected to be reasonably familiar with many learning strategies to share and explore with learners, this knowledge can take years to build up. We all have different areas of expertise and interest and so can sometimes find ourselves unsure of how to advise learners with specific learning questions.
Supporting Advising Sessions: Developing the Strategy Sheets
In developing our knowledge and understanding of learning strategies, the advisors at our institution have drawn on a number of sources:
1) Discussions with other advisors
2) Workshops or conference presentations from other professionals
3) The literature on learning strategies
One book, Rubin and Thompson’s (1994) How to be a more successful language learner, has been particularly helpful to me. Chapters from this book provide an excellent introduction to learning strategies, and I started to use these ideas to help me advise on strategies in sessions with learners. Among other things, it features short self-assessments of strategy use for learners and detailed descriptions of strategies, divided into each skill area.
Although this was a useful scaffold for myself as an inexperienced advisor, I started to feel uncomfortable as a gatekeeper of such knowledge. Why should advisors be the only ones with access to this material, choosing when and with whom to share it? However beneficial for ourselves, I considered this book to be unsuitable for our learners as a self-access resource and, along with my colleague, started to think of ways of making this information more accessible to them.
We decided to adapt the questions from the original self-assessment questionnaire, adding to them, making them more directly relevant to our students, and organizing them more logically, usually into pre-, during and post- learning sections.
After getting feedback from other advisors and revising the language and organization of the questions on each sheet, we finally produced six language strategy sheets relating to different skill areas (please see appendix for one example). Copies were made available in each relevant section of the SALC, and at the Learning Help Desk, where many advising sessions take place, and in advising rooms.
Each sheet contains 8 – 10 Likert scale questions about how often the learner uses that particular strategy, with key words highlighted in bold. By answering the questions, the learner can understand more clearly which strategies they already use and increase their awareness about ways to study that they might not have encountered before. As each strategy is presented in question form, the questionnaire could be regarded as a starting point for reflection and discussion and in this way we could avoid spoon-feeding our learners, something we were keen to prevent in our role as promoters of learner autonomy. As the strategies that may be discussed further are ones that the learners have selected themselves, rather than being presented by the advisor, the session can be more learner-centred. In addition, through taking time to read the strategies presented in the sheets, learners are relieved of the burdening of accessing such information through their conversation with the advisor. This is particularly beneficial for lower proficiency learners, who may find it difficult to process information through listening, preferring to read at their own pace. A final advantage of the sheets is the way in which they can help learners to become familiar with some technical vocabulary, which will aid their future interaction with advisors.
In an advising session
Once a learner, either independently or with help from an advisor, has identified an area of their language skills that they would like to work on, the advisor can provide the sheet for that particular skill and have the learner complete it during the session. Once it has been completed, the learner should be able to talk about the strategies they already use, and ones they may like to try. Here the advisor could model or explain strategies which may not be clear. The advisor can guide the learner into connecting the strategies with their goals, helping them select suitable ones for their own learning. In this way the sheet can lend structure to a session, aiding the learner’s comprehension and providing some support for a less confident advisor. By presenting a readymade list of possible strategies in one skill area, the advisor is relieved of the burden of both recalling multiple strategies from memory, and presenting them to learners in a way that does not overwhelm the learner. This is particularly useful if the student’s focus is not a specialty for that advisor.
In a classroom-based scenario
Learners choose focus areas (based on a previous needs analysis) and then complete the strategy sheet for that skill individually. Once completed they compare with a partner or a small group and discuss the strategies they already use and new ones they might like to try, based on their responses on the strategy sheet. The teacher can elicit popular ideas or model various strategies if necessary. A follow-up activity could be to try one new strategy for a period of time, document the process and reflect on its usefulness. This could take the form of individual diaries, presentations or class/group discussions.
Used independently by students
If the strategy sheets are made available in a Self Access Centre, or similar facility, students can read and complete them at their own pace. At KUIS, the sheets have been placed in each skill section of our SAC for students to take as and when they want to complete them. Simple instructions are provided, and readers are urged to find out more about the strategies by consulting an advisor. In this way, we hope to encourage learners who may want to visit an advisor, but are not sure what to talk about, to talk to us, using the strategy sheet as a starting point, or a scaffold for the interaction. While it is impossible to tell exactly how many students are using them, advisors do occasionally report learners coming to them who have already taken and completed a strategy sheet.
A Work in Progress
These strategy sheets are part of an ongoing project designed to provide more structure to advising sessions at our institution, and we are in the process of collecting feedback on how they are being used. Anecdotal evidence from teachers suggests that they may be very useful as a basis for classroom activities and discussion, and some advisors have reported using them successfully in advising sessions. Doubts have also been expressed, however, about whether learners using them without support from a teacher or advisor would be able to understand the strategies described, as they are in question form, or be able comprehend the sheets on their own. We encourage advisors and teachers interested in strategy instruction to adapt and use these sheets in their own contexts, if they think they would be useful. Any feedback to the author would be greatly appreciated.
Notes on the contributor
Katherine Thornton is the academic coordinator and learning advisor at the Self-Access Learning Centre (SALC), Kanda University of International Studies, Japan. She is president of the Japan Association for Self-Access Learning.
Rubin, J., & Thompson, I. (1996). How to be a more successful language learner. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.