A handful of students shuffle into my classroom just as the bell rings, some with eyes downcast, others glaring at me. Soon more will trickle in late. Another make-up class has begun. It doesn't bother me, because I know that within the hour most of them will be smiling and thanking me.
Current Remedial Classes for Failing Students
The subject of what to do about non-performing students is a controversial issue that lacks official clarity in most schools. In addition, the policies, written and implicit, are changing. However, this informal survey, conducted in December of 1998, will briefly sketch how some Kansai schools handle this problem.
Students take special make-up classes. Called sairishu, these are classes set up for failing students only, sometimes separating slow learners from non-attenders. At my school, Ritsumeikan, they are geared to independent study, meeting every other week for one semester, with a midterm and final test. They may be unrelated to the failed classes, however, and typically teachers receive little guidance concerning content.
Students repeat the same course the following year or semester. This popular solution is the choice of Saga University, Kyoto University, Kansai College for Foreign Language Studies (Kansai Gai Dai), Hanazono University, Kyoto Gai Dai, Kyoto Sangyo University and Nara University. Otani University and others give grades of Incomplete for non-attendance, to be made up the next year.
At Doshisha University, the Institute of Language and Culture administers all required English courses. From the inauguration of a semester system in April 1998, failing students have had to repeat regular courses rather than take sairishu courses. What happens to students who fail only the first semester of a year-long course, however, is unclear.
Students pass despite infrequent attendance or poor grades. Whatever the official policies, this option is most common in actuality, particularly at schools with falling registration levels. Sometimes students will be given a make-up test or a report to write, but eventually they are always passed. There have been cases of teachers having failed students only to face repeated pressure in the form of phone calls, letters, and fax messages from school personnel -- who often face pressure from parents in turn.
Students take intensive courses. During the summer or winter vacations, students may take short courses, tokubetsu hoshu, which may involve many hours of class work. For instance, failing seniors at Kansai Gai Dai must take a ten-day intensive course, six hours a day, 60 hours total.
At Ritsumeikan, several departments offer varied intensive courses of their own. Some have native speakers and Japanese teachers, some last three days, others are four or five. While the intensive courses have worked moderately well with other languages (e.g., French, Spanish) as well as other disciplines (math and biology), the intensive English courses may be discontinued: Intended for slow learners, not absentees, they are closed to students who have missed more than a third of their classes -- a majority of the failing students. In addition, the courses are costly, and test results indicate little improvement.
Students will not fail provided they complete assignments and pass the final test. This option is the official policy at Kyoto University and the practice at many others: Students do not have to attend classes. The teachers are free, however, to change the policy and require attendance.
Students who fail get no credits but do not need to repeat the class. Many schools have this policy for free elective courses. In the International Relations departments at Doshisha and Ritsumeikan, many of the English courses are optional and thus do not have to be repeated. However, the students have already passed special English entrance tests, perhaps the equivalent of the two-year required English courses.
Remedial Term-End Classes
For a number of years, I found the slower students in my ESL classes unreachable. While I could challenge the top students as I taught for the middle students, I never seemed to have the time to help those students who require more teacher time than any others. How could I help them enjoy English and find learning easier? In a way, I was reinforcing their past experiences of failure.
Then I hit on the idea of giving extra classes just for them. Most schools have a period for make-up classes at the end of each semester. Since most poor students are also absent a lot, it's reasonable to require them to attend an extra class. It motivates these students if the class is held before a final test or final assignment is due. By creating an encouraging, judgment-free atmosphere, I let the students know that I am on their side and working to help them. Remedial students feel more relaxed in a make-up class, since most other students are at the same level. Perhaps the best measure of success is that over half of these failing students have raised their grades enough to pass.
I announce that the make-up class is open to all students who wish to improve their grades. Consequently, attendance is mandatory only for those non-performing students who want to pass. The others who choose to come are often the best students, who are excellent helpers for their remedial classmates struggling to understand. Students are apt to listen more carefully to their peers' advice than to the teacher's, and partners who are better students can provide each non-performing student even more of the individual guidance they need.
I start the class by asking, "Do you want to pass this course?" They all agree they do. "Good. I want all of you to pass too, so let's work together!" I then review the material we have covered in past classes -- at a slower pace. I praise any right answers, pointing out how much they already know. Many of them have lost the handouts I gave them; I'm prepared with extra ones. Some of them have forgotten or lost their textbooks; I have a few extra they can borrow. Most of them have not turned in all of their assignments; at the end of the class we go over what they still must do to pass.
After we have reviewed the material they must know, and they have practiced with me and with each other, I usually give them a review game to play. I want them to see that learning can be fun too. Here are some of the games that I use:
Snakes and Ladders: Draw and number a grid of squares on A4 paper from 1 (start) to 45 (finish) and draw in some ladders and snakes between rows. Students go up the ladders and down the snakes. Next, label some of the squares "chance." Make a set of cards with "chance" on one side and review questions on the other. Five students can easily play at each board, tossing a die or coin to move a marker such as a paper clip or pen cap. Students can move ahead 2 spaces by answering the review questions, using their textbooks if necessary.
Concentration: To review vocabulary, make 2 distinct sets of cards (e.g., of different colors, or marked and plain) On one set of cards write the words; on the other write the matching definitions. Turn the cards over and mix them up. The first player turns over one of each kind. If they match, the player picks them up and takes another turn. If not, the player turns them over again and the next one takes a turn. Some students need to match all the words and definitions before playing. More advanced groups can be encouraged to make their own cards.
This approach might encourage lazy students to do even less in class. Why coddle students who need to repeat classes they haven't attended?
There is a difference between laziness and slow learning. Most lazy students don't show up for the makeup classes. It's important for all students to feel successful, whether they are seen as lazy or just can't learn quickly. As Pope (1975) commented about motivation and self-esteem, "Each learner must feel respected, dignified and successful as he attempts to learn the English language" (p. 140). Smith (1985) wrote that learning is "a process the child himself can manage -- providing the situation he tries to make sense of is potentially meaningful to him and he has access to the right kind of information at the right time" (p. 225).
Slow leaming students would be better off repeating a course rather than being pushed through at the last minute.
How often do Japanese students really improve their English by repeating? Each student enters school as a member of a single group, moves through the curriculum together with that group, and from admission is guaranteed graduation with that group. In these circumstances, students repeating classes are friendless and isolated. Many repeaters are again frequently absent and sit alone in class when they do attend. They are reminiscent of John Holt's (1990) student, Nell. When he asked her to redo her paper, which had too many errors, she returned with another paper, this time with twice as many errors and nearly illegible handwriting (p. 229). Seligman (1975) called this style "learned helplessness": The student cannot distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate responses to failure, consequently perceives it as something beyond control, and finally gives up trying altogether.
Stdents who do poorly in school should either get private counseling or drop out and try something else.
This solution works in Western university systems, but it is not feasible in Japan or in most countries where entrance examinations are the determining event in the students' careers. Students have traditionally worked hard to pass entrance tests, showing their willingness to sacrifice their youth and freedom for the social good. Success on the examination is expected to come with a payoff for this sacrifice. However, with the number of students decreasing, schools now are accepting students at a lower academic achievement level. This means a larger percentage of each class is in danger of failing. But schools which failed large numbers of entering students would be admitting their own failure to keep their part of the bargain: It's up to the teachers to deal with the problem, within the university.
I already have a lot of work to do. Why should I give myself more work and for just a few students?
Make-up classes actually involve less work in the long run. When the slowest students understand, the whole class can move along faster. More importantly, the slower students often disrupt dasses by coming in late or unprepared or talking in class. To have these students happy and on the teacher's side makes a difference to the atmosphere of the classroom and the mood of the teacher. Make-up classes can improve the learning situation for all and reduce teacher fatigue.
I return to my home country during the holiday periods. I don't want to stay in Japan during the make-up week. Also I don't give final tests.
This method works just as well if the last class period serves as the optional make-up class. As long as the class is open for all class members to attend, administrators should not be upset. The teacher simply has a review class and takes the attendance only of the failing students. The validity of tests as measures of improvement or achievement is also debatable and beyond the scope of this paper. Moreover, most teachers know several ways to measure achievement in order to assign grades.
My school administration pressures me to pass everyone, so students would have no incentive to attend extra classes.
The Monbusho policy (1998) has been changed within the last year. Previously, all schools were allowed to accept new students based on reported total enrollment. Therefore, repeating students cut down the number of new students that could be accepted. The new policy does not include repeating students in the base figure. Thus the more repeaters, the more paying students for the school. In addition, the Monbusho ruling has urged each school to become stricter with all students, and to gradually increase the amount of work required of them.
How to motivate failing students
As Williams and Burden (1997) pointed out, "No one approach to motivating learners is necessarily correct" (p. 130). There are various reasons why students fail courses. They may dislike English, having done poorly in the past. They may not like their teachers or first period classes. They may have become what Johnson (1992) calls the "fluent-but-fossilized intermediate" students (p. 180).
However, the general trend towards involving students more in their own education shows some signs of hope. The teacher and learner can negotiate goals and evaluation. Johnson (1992) describes a "tennis clinic strategy" which means "requiring the students to determine their own language needs" (p. 187) in a negotiation with the teacher. Williams and Burden (1997) describe "the mediating role of the teacher" (p.133).
Some research from the Netherlands (van Werkhoven 1990) and England (Hastings l992) suggest significant gains in student time on task from an attunement strategy in which underachievers and teachers set goals and work together. A Ritsumeikan teacher related the story of a sucessful make-up class in which the students wrote out on the first day why they failed and a schedule of when they planned to study English each week. During the course, the students wrote letters to the editor of their textbook and received gifts and a letter in return -- another example of teacher-student negotiation and a realistic project with positive results.
A well-known motivational technique is to make the content realistic or immediately useful. Make-up remedial classes involve a negotiation in which teacher and students work together to achieve the the concrete and immediate goal of passing the course. The teacher can take the role of helper or advisor to the students rather than judge or executioner. Moreover, students can achieve this short-term goal more easily than they can complete an entire make-up course.
In summary, the remedial make-up classes should encourage and motivate students. These classes should contain no new information; they are for clear and simple review material only. To afford each student enough personal attention, limit class size to 15. Bring an ample supply of spare handouts, textbooks, or other resources. Class should consist of a variety of activities, conducted at a slower pace, for at most one hour. Since these students find English difficult, it demands their intense concentration; therefore their attention spans tend to be short.
In conclusion, some current solutions to the problem create additional problems: Sainshu classes fail to build on previous classes; having students repeat a class neglects or even discourages their motivation. In many cases, such make-up classes, instead of empowering students or putting them in charge of their learning, may actually make them feel more like failures than before.
By using the make-up class or last class as a remedial class, however, teachers can help students they already know with material directly related to the courses that the students failed. In addition, students are at least externally motivated by the immediate possibility of passing the course. While one or two classes are hardly enough to reverse students' self-images, they seem to offer more than programs which may actually reinforce failure. With the new Monbusho policies and the introduction of the grade point average system, administrators and teachers will have to address the issue of non-performing students more urgently in the future.
Hastings, N. J. (1992). Questions of motivation. Support for Learning, 7 (3), 135-7.
Holt, J. (1990). How children fail. London: Penguin Books.
Johnson, H. (1992). Defossilizing. ELT Joumal, 46, 180-9.
Pope, L. (1975). Teaching remedial reading. NewJersey: BookLab.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development and death. San Francisco: Freedman.
Smith, F. (1985). Reading without nonsense. New York: Teachers College Press.
van Werkhoven, W. (1990). The attunement strategy and spelling problems. In A. van der Ley & K. J. Kappers (Eds.), Dyslexia '90. Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger.
Williams, M. & Burden, R. (1997). Psychology for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.