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Counselling involves talking through their strengths and weaknesses. It is an interactive process in which they are able to say how they feel about their learning, the course, and their teacher.
Why counselling is important
Traditionally, learners take courses, tests are set and marks are given. This is a fairly linear process.
- Counselling allows assessment to become more dynamic and interactive. It also gives learners a sense of ownership over the assessment process.
- By giving learners the chance to open up and talk about the state of their learning, you help avoid sudden unexplained dropouts, who perhaps feel that the course has passed them by. It may highlight strengths and weaknesses in your own teaching, so it is a chance for you to obtain feedback as a teacher as well.
Counselling is not a matter of simply sitting down and having a chat. Nor is it a therapy session. It’s important to decide in advance what you are going to focus on.
For example, perhaps you are working with a group of busy, upper-intermediate level executives, who are doing the course because they have been told to, rather than because they want to. They have other things on their mind and motivation is low.
In a situation like this, test performance might be quite poor if they have not spent much time revising. So you might decide to focus on the following in your counselling:
- Where they were at the beginning of the course versus where they feel they are now
- The barriers they feel exist in their learning and how to overcome them
- Their goals for the future and how they hope to achieve them in manageable, discrete steps.
What learners believe about learning
It’s important to note that some learners will find the idea of being included in the assessment process a little weird, especially if they have come from a traditional educational background. I’ve commonly encountered the belief - especially in Asia - that a teacher’s word is law and that test results are objective and more or less incorrigible.
To counter this, it’s a good idea to introduce activities throughout your course that encourage learners to focus on their own learning. One way to do this is through self-assessment, which I will cover later.
The other point is to be consistent. Your students will get used to counselling if you apply it consistently and thoroughly and if they can see good results.
In relation to the points above, you will find that people of different personality types and cultures give you different answers to the questions you pose during counselling. For example, if your learners feel that it is boastful to assess themselves positively, all of your results will show this kind of bias. Conversely, if a learner is over-confident, they will not be able to give you sincere feedback.
It takes a great deal of skill and practise to be able to manoeuvre through the barriers your learners will sometimes place in the way. I will now present some techniques you can use.
Formulation of questions
The questions you ask your learners during a session need to meet the following criteria:
- Be easily comprehensible
- Focus on the concrete rather than the abstract
- Free of bias - don’t use loaded questions such as, ‘do you feel that Jose was distracting you in class?’
- Elicit responses that contain specific actionable data- i.e. ‘what three things do you feel you want to improve over the next six months?’ rather than, ‘what do you need to improve?’ (to which the answer may be, ‘everything’)
- Goal setting. This technique was shown to me by a Human Resources expert and I have found it extremely useful.
- Ask the learner what the learner’s goals are between now and a date three, six or twelve months in the future (your choice of time frame will depend on the type of course). Goals might include achieving an IELTS score of 7.0, or improving ability to understand English language films
- Write these down on a specifically designed sheet, which the learner keeps a copy of in a safe place
- Ask the learner what specific steps they need to take to meet these goals - and write them down, with deadlines. You can suggest ideas of your own here and discuss them with the learner
- Now draw a timeline and mark the specific steps on that timeline
- Periodically, review how progress is moving
If you want to make this process very business-like, you can both sign the sheet, giving it a contractual feel. What is important is that the goals are treated seriously and that a plan is put in place to achieve them. The goal sheet therefore needs to be kept in a safe place and treated respectfully by both learner and teacher.
Framing and re-framing
This is an NLP technique. A ‘frame’ is, loosely speaking, the way you perceive a situation. During counselling, learners will often present you with negative frames. For example, they might tell you:
‘I find it impossible to understand English language movies without subtitles.’
The way they perceive this scenario negatively affects their ability to achieve the goal of watching films without subtitles. Psychologically speaking they see a brick wall. Re-framing is a simple technique.
Ask the learner,
‘Describe how you would feel if you could understand movies without subtitles.’
By doing this you will (probably) unlock a range of positive feelings and step beyond the brick wall. You can then begin the process of associating the watching of English movies with positive emotions.
You now need to lock these in. There are various ways you could do this. One is to draw a cloud in the middle of a brightly coloured piece of paper, at the centre of which is ‘I can watch movies in English’. The learner can now write down all the good feelings this would generate. They can now place this on their fridge, wall, or in another prominent place so they can focus on the positive aspects of achieving their goal.
Naturally, you will also need to create an action plan with your student to help them actually achieve their goals.
As counseling involves a certain amount of introspection, you can prepare learners for this by having them complete a self-assessment sheet. I’ve seen this done at the British Council in the form of ‘can do’ statements and I think this approach works well.
Basically, you create a series of statements related to the aims of the course that describe actual communicative abilities. For example:
I can talk about what I did in the past using the past simple.
You can then have various tick boxes such as:
- I can do this without help
- I can do this sometimes
- I feel unsure about this
- I can’t do this
Bearing in mind the cultural and psychological factors described earlier in this article, you can use a self-assessment sheet as the basis for a more personalised counseling session.
Celebrating the small things
Encourage your learners to write down what they have achieved in every class. These can be collected and brought to the counseling session. Learners will often be surprised at just how much they really have done.
All too often, learners drop out of courses because they feel their needs are not being met. This is not necessarily the fault of the teacher, but because they have never had the chance to talk about their progress, resulting in a feeling that they have never really ‘owned’ the course. Don’t let this happen to you! Integrate counselling into your courses and you will see the difference. Now, relax on my couch…
By Tom Hayton, Teacher, Business Trainer
First published in July 2009