It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it: Managing diversity of learning strategies in the language classroom

Authors: Vicky Davies and Mike Jones


This paper aims to examine the management of a diversity of learning strategies in the language classroom and looks at how past learning experiences influence current teaching practice.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


It is commonly held that successful language learners are those who are reflective and self-directed, able to use a range of learner strategies in effective and appropriate combinations. Nunan (1991) further classifies language learners into four categories: concrete, analytical, communicative, authority-oriented whose learning styles in terms of attitude, motivation, aptitude and previous experience are brought to bear in differing measure on the language learning experience. This paper takes as its basis the premise that language teachers too, as examples of successful language learners, can be categorised in terms of their learning preferences and that these will inevitably shape the approach adopted in the classroom.

An examination of the learning styles and preferences of a group of language-learners-turned-teachers (Davies and Jones 2002), revealed that there may be said to be two general categories of language learner - analytical and communicative - and by a process of natural progression, two categories of language teacher. The representative types of conscious and subconscious learner (Krashen 1985) can be further expanded to encompass the too-narrowly focused vision of the analytical learner and the freer spirit embodied by the communicative learner, with the corresponding characteristics being later mirrored in the teaching habitus. Whilst both types of learning have validity, exclusivity of one or the other can result in fossilisation of learning and ultimately teaching, in terms of an ability to reflect on one's own performance and to adapt to what is a constantly changing learning situation, in a curve of dynamic growth. In these days where the emphasis is on getting the learning situation right and modelling the learner, this research would advocate that the logical conclusion of such a process would be to model the teacher, not in a narrowing or prescriptive manner, but in a liberating and fulfilling manner allowing him or her to engage flexibly and with a lightness of touch, with the challenges of an ever- evolving learning and teaching situation, in accordance with the recognised pros and cons of personal experience. Without the ability, be it instinctive or acquired, to reflect on one's own learning experiences and recognise their intrinsic influence on professional practice, the teacher is likely to be out of step with the group being taught for at least some or even a considerable part of the time.

Reflection as reality

Our current research, following on from these previous findings, focuses on how the past learning experiences and perceived learning preferences of the original cohort of colleagues are incorporated into current teaching practices, so as to effectively promote active learning and an 'explicitly reflective approach to classroom activities' (Little 1997). Implicit, therefore is that teachers have a clear understanding of what is meant by the current terminology surrounding the notions of active learning and reflective practice, in terms, not only of their own learning experiences, but also of their contemporary professional approach. Perhaps surprisingly, the survey shows that there is a significant divergence of understanding of this terminology, hence corresponding divergence of the ways in which the interpretation thereof is executed in the classroom. Indeed, in some cases this variation of comprehension leads to a view that is somewhat at variance with the generally held precept: in the language classroom, particularly at graduate and post-graduate level it might be safely assumed that almost exclusive use of the target language by both teacher and students would greatly facilitate the 'active' atmosphere and the consequent honing of student skills. In fact, 20% of respondents indicated that the language of the classroom was English, and more than a third believed that the student had no part to play in the area of error correction, even at post-graduate level. One respondent posited the notion that 'all errors are targeted as learning opportunities', an attitude redolent of an authoritarian approach, borne out by the learning experiences and preferences of this particular teacher.
The understanding of the teacher as a reflective being was also somewhat skewed with regard to its widely accepted definition. Kuit, Reay and Freeman (2001), in a study resulting from a reflective teaching project at the University of Sunderland, note that the participants in the project when asked to define what a reflective teacher is gave typical answers such as:

  • is intuitive
  • is self-critical/ open to new ideas;
  • listens to students;
  • acts on evaluation;
  • is willing to change;
  • is self-aware;
  • cares, shares, prepares, has flair.

So far, so good, or rather, as the authors of this paper note, the snag is that these qualities are also those which would immediately spring to mind as being fitting descriptors to characterise a 'good teacher' - i.e. one who is not necessarily 'reflective'. Increasingly we observed that reflection was perceived as being the domain of the student, be it in terms of reflection on activities taking place, or simply as the impetus for change in teaching styles. There was little evidence that reflection was a self-motivated activity, nor that it fostered spontaneous creativity or experimentation within the language learning environment. The driver for change of approach was seen to reside firmly with student complaint or dissatisfaction; there was little suggestion that the teacher might be monitoring his/her own performance and seeking to change practice on the basis of an internally-driven and reflectively-informed impetus. This would appear to coincide with Kuit, Reay and Freeman's (2001) judgement that 'what was transparent right from the beginning of the project was that the process of reflective practice was and is difficult and sometimes painful'. Small wonder then that, if reflection is a hard thing to do within the relatively friendly cocoon of a like-minded group, it is well nigh impossible to do successfully on one's own and in isolation. The optimistic view surrounding the advent of QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) and ILT (Institute for Learning and Teaching) that the climate as far as the individual lecturer's approach to his/her own professional teaching practice has changed, would seem therefore to be tempered by reality. In the case of this study, it has to be seen that the quality of reflection on teaching is present, by no means consistently, and at best in the form of a patchwork quilt. The view of a conference participant quoted in Ball (1994) is certainly more congruent with our findings than is the belief that a real climate change has happened.

Often lecturers are only stimulated to evaluate critically their teaching practice in response to an external quality monitor. That is, lecturers are frequently reactive rather than proactive and feedback is being used only to inform the teaching rather than to inform the reflection that should inform the teaching. Reflection has become little more than a mantra rather than a model of practice.

Diversity in the classroom

How, then, do these findings dovetail with the notion of diversity in the classroom and, more importantly, the management of diversity? Three definite strands of diversity emerged from the survey, which, although congruent, are instigated by different sources.

The most striking form of diversity identified by the respondents was that of the mixed ability class, viewed as more problematic by teachers of more popular languages, and as the norm by those who have had to deal with smaller numbers over the years where such a classroom dynamic is more prevalent. The sense of mounting unease among the former group of teachers was palpable, almost rising to panic levels when the inconceivable - teaching ab initio students - was contemplated.

In the case of the students being served by University of Ulster languages staff, it is important to note just how much the target audience has changed in nature since a majority of the staff included in this investigation joined the ranks. The 'old' department was based very much round a literature/language degree. Today the balance has shifted such that most students are studying the language per se with some element of background and other unrelated studies, whilst literature is studied by a very small minority. Thus, whilst as young lecturers, colleagues were teaching a relatively homogeneous group of traditional language and literature students, they are now facing a much more diverse target audience.

What is more, one may confidently surmise that there are quite a number of third-level institutions in a similar situation. In the current climate of widening participation, this looks set to become more widespread. The need to reflect, develop and modify one's teaching has never been greater: whilst the mind may at least in theory, be willing, the flesh is certainly weak.

The second strand of diversity which emerged, was that of a perceptible shift in student motivation. In the view of our target group, motivation was seen as vital by most respondents - motivation is crucial, motivation is the absolute key - and in this respect these views tallied closely with the findings of Ditcher and Tetley (1999) from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. According to their study of the views of 238 academic staff and 264 students, it is 'self-motivation' which scores highest in the lists of both bodies as being the most important contributor to student success. Significantly it is also the lack of it that both staff and students see as being the most important factor in determining student failure. Today's language students no longer see the acquisition of language skills as an end in itself or as a tool to studying literature, they see the acquisition of language skills very much in terms of a key to a vocational end. Since the goal is a very different one, the nature of the motivation has changed in the students, but one cannot be confident that the lecturing staff have adapted to suit. What is more, if we acknowledge the existence of this considerable degree of inflexibility in teachers, how much more alarming is the potential situation, as the drive to widen participation increases. Widening participation coupled with and impacting on a broader and more multi-facetted language offering - as third-level language departments seek desperately to stem the tide of falling student numbers - will undoubtedly, therefore, further challenge a body of teachers who have already shown themselves to be loath to change their approach, or to be more precise, reluctant to invest effort and time in working at updating their own teaching practice.

The final aspect of diversity is linked to the concept of learning outcomes within the language learning context, including intention and fitness for purpose, since the new breed of student is interested primarily in a course which takes him/her as economically, and with as little effort as possible, to the goal of achieving an acceptable working knowledge of the language. In addition, the language strand of the course will also have to aim to impart the so-called study/transferable skills, a further area where the responses of several colleagues - with several exceptions, of course! - range at the less positive end of the spectrum, from a cautious acceptance of the need for them to a downright 'No'. In other words, 'I don't incorporate them in my language teaching'. All in all, as the demands of potential employers drive the third level into catering for an ever increasing diversity of learning outcomes, some colleagues will clearly have an even rockier path than others to tread if they are to update their teaching methods.

There is, however, evidence of some instances of real attempts to diversify the curriculum, or at least delivery, for the benefit of the 'new' students. A good example of this is the way in which foreign language colleagues are using video presentations in the target language as an important part of continuous assessment. Such active tasks help to develop the personal and transferable skills associated with presentations, so necessary in future employment, as well as the traditional skills of oral proficiency and the use of non-verbal communication to reinforce the message. Similarly, the increase in the use of self and peer assessment provides a considerable impetus to active student learning.


The results of earlier studies by Davies and Jones (2002) of the make-up of the target group again being studied here indicated that the cohort of teachers was widely differing in terms of its past experience and its approach to teaching as a job to be done. This meant, in turn, that just as the teachers had represented different kinds of learners, they had inevitably transmogrified just as naturally into so many different teachers, some of whom, at one end of the spectrum at least, had hardly modified the teaching styles they had essentially inherited from their own teachers. This finding of a high degree of variation in approach matches well with Bright's (2002) proposition that'It is well known, however, that teachers' practices do not always match their espoused goals'. She notes further that in their 1992 study of teachers' conceptions of teaching, Samuelowicz and Bain 'referred to this disjunction as 'one of the mysteries of higher education (p.110), and suggested that the issue was one that needed to be addressed in future research'. Certainly in the decade that has passed since Samuelowicz and Bain, little real and overarching progress has been made, to judge by the results of this survey. This is evinced particularly by the instances where respondents claim, for example, to aim to ensure that active student learning takes place in the classroom yet elsewhere reveal that they do not in fact know what constitutes 'active learning', or see a state of reflection as having been achieved in class, as long as it is being done not by the teacher but by the students.

We would thus also agree with Bright (2002) that:

Constraints on the transmission of belief to practice were acknowledged by Humanities teachers, but were perceived to be located in the established assessment system which was considered to be less than 'ideal'. There was no evidence, however, of learning goals having been modified in order to accommodate constraints.

This is indeed further grist to the mill of belief which holds that a true state of 'reflection on teaching' as a general approach is still far from having been achieved.

Nonetheless, the picture is not all doom and gloom. What is needed is a campaign of awareness-raising within Modern Languages departments which will enable language teaching staff at third level to raises their noses from the grindstones of the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) and QAA respectively, and pause and ponder upon the need for qualitative reflection on how the métier of teaching a foreign language will develop over the next decade. Some colleagues have clearly got the message, others are confused, and still others in the starting blocks.

Above all, the message must be rammed home that a post-graduate qualification in university teaching is not an endpoint, but merely a designated staging post on the lifelong trail to teaching competence. Knowledge of the subject has, equally, to be matched by and paralleled by competence in the actual craft of teaching and thereby facilitating learning in an educational environment where rapid change means that none of us can afford to be seen to be even chasing the game, let alone be caught off-side.


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Bright, P. (2002). Factors that enhance and impede good teaching: implications of staff development. Proceedings of the 2002 Annual International Conference of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) Perth, July 2002.

Davies, V & M. Jones. (2002). Language teacher, language learner: the chicken or the egg? In IATEFL News

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Samuelowicz, K & J. Bain. (1992). 'Conceptions of teaching held by academic teachers' in Higher Education 24: 93-111.