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4 Classroom observation: implications of a case study. Evaluation and sharing the findings to discuss future options

Observation is powerful. Its significance and role have long been the focus of interest inside and outside humanities. The Grimmean littlest son leaves home, learns a trade, and wins the kingdom because he observes the world and becomes empowered by what he learns from the experience. In the 1970s the social learning theory or observational learning in behavioral psychology gave new impetus to conceptualizing observation in education. Observation and the data it brings forth have been recontextualized since the 1980s and they have become one of the key agents of awareness raising and teacher development as well. In the most Hungarian schools model teaching behavior is the accepted norm and a crucial standard in mastering the trade. The significance of further professional development is denied on many instances. Self-observation may take place in order to enhance in-service teacher development as well as create an opportunitiy to challenge and solve frustrating and problematic teaching situations. Bailey, Curtis and Nunan define teacher development as an ongoing process of experiential, attitudinal and intellectual growth of in service teachers (2001). This approach emphasizes improvement and relies heavily on the awareness, or the culturally defined understanding of people's beliefs, of previous knowledge about teaching and learning. Gaining awareness of teaching is a prerequisite to teacher development as well as it is the primary aim of exploration. Learing more about someone's teaching does not imply that some ways of teaching should be preferred to others because they are better. The goal is to be open and to attempt to grasp a clear view of the dynamics of teacher-student as well as student-student interactions and rapport. Throughout their careers teachers establish, maintain and modify their own assumptions about the nature of teachability and learnability, nevertheless, very often these two concepts develop asymptotically. In an ideal case, when they explore teaching teachers test and reconceptualize teachability and learnability and assign in them a better articulated role to their learners, too. As Gebhard and Oprandy point out, "when we explore teaching, we simultaneously probe ourselves and the larger meaning of our endeavor" (1999, p. 4). Teacher and teaching become sources of data to be probed and understood in context. Five major techniques of data collection exist: 1) observation: self and others; 2) action research; 3) reflective journal writing; 4) supervision; and 5) conference with teachers. In this part of the manual we deal with the modes and implications of diagnostic classroom observation with special focus on the improvement opportunities provided by self-observation. We will also need your insights and creative thinking to imagine yourself into the position and situations of the described teachers to fully understand the potentials of this diagnostic tool.

First in this part of the manual you will read a short summary of a case study, which sums up what happened in an elementary school English as a foreign language class to show how without minor steps taken continuously to remain connected with the learners may lead to insurmountable discomforts in one's teaching practice. Of course in most schools and situations a teacher rarely ends up so demotivated and lacking resourcefulness as in the cited story. We will use this story to help you understand minor and major signs when intervention is necessary and unavoidable to maintain integrity. The remaining of the section will be devoted to a detailed analysis of a classroom-observation based self-improvement case study. Transcripts of the observed class will be provided to provoke further thinking and prove the diagnostic capacity of self-observation based action research.

Bailey et al. claim that self-awareness and self-observation are the cornerstones of all professional development (2001). Even though our usual aim in observation is to evaluate someone, it should rather be about offering a different way to look at teaching and learning. We can easily turn classroom observation to serve our needs to revitalize and rethink our current practices with the overall goal of solving some long-existing problem. Gehard and Oprandy define classroom observation as the "nonjudgmental description of classroom events that can be analyzed and given interpretation" (1999, p. 35). Guided, systematic, and focused observation helps conceptualize and deepen knowledge dealing with teaching and learning in general. If observation is seeing teaching through the lenses of the ‘other,' self-observation is the organized and regular recording of one's own classroom behavior for the purposes of earning a better understanding of procedures and meanings. Hearing, analyzing and interpreting the data from self-observation based action research provide the potential toward reinventing ourselves in teaching. Bailey et al. holds that "self-observation implies a professional curiosity-watching, listening, and thinking without necessarily judging (2001, p. 27). As the philosophical core of observation, Gebhard and Oprandy identify nine key assumptions (1999) of which we find the following five relevant to the purposes of the present research manual.

  1. "Take responsibility for your own teaching" can be self-evident if you want to improve. The first step is always recognizing that you have individual responsibility in the process.
  2. "The need for others" maxim holds that successful exploration requires perspectives other than our own. In the case of self-observation, the possible interviewing of the participating students may provide the fresh look.
  3. "Description as opposed to prescription" indicates awareness and plays a key role in the meaningful use of the data. In self-observation projects, processing the data may also involve "self-help-explorative supervision" (Gebhard, 1990, p. 163). Accordingly, the teacher reconstructs teaching based on awareness gained from observations of teaching.
  4. "A nonjudgmental stance" is very closely related to the previous category of favoring description over prescription. Judgments and judgmental position may be an easy obstacle to seeing what really happens in the classroom. Data collection methods, such as audio- or videorecording the lesson, transcribing recorded data, coding the interactions as well as studying the coding to recognize patterns of interactions are such systematic ways of handling the data and remaining objective.
  5. "Attention to language and behavior" means that recording the lesson and coding the data help both observer and the observed to focus on the events and interactions. The coding system also serves as a metalanguage to talk about teacing rather than sink back to the comfortable yet highly inferential and thus also judgmental position of general statements, words and phrases.
  6. "A beginner's mind" refers to exploring the classroom without preconceived ideas about what should be going on in there. The task seems enormous, how can I explore a classroom without preconceptions after having taught there for a certain amount of time?

Following the introduction about the power of observation consider the following story in terms of possibly using classroom observation for diagnostic purposes. A class of sixth graders, who learn English as a Foreign Language in four hours per week, has brought their middle-aged female teacher, Bernadette to a stage where she considers serious sanctions to punish her students for inappropriate classroom behavior and lack of interest and motivation.

Case: The class, consisting of 14 students, 5 boys and 9 girls, are doing a matching activity. In this task, learners have to work in groups and match nouns with verbs to create meaningful structures. The vocabulary items are provided on different colorful sheets of paper. Each group gets two sheets, one with nouns and one with verbs (compound or simple), e.g. find + gold; go + to the beach; make + noise; move + slowly. Once they finish working, Anna, the teacher asks her group to check the work they have done. While groups report their solutions, one girl keeps asking the question: “why is this solution?” It seems that Anna has a hard time keeping calm and patient in controlling her group. Another student then asks in Hungarian: “Mi volt az utolsó?” This question in the learners’ mother tongue becomes the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. At this point, Anna loses her temper, puts on a special face and uses very impolite, derogatory expressions such as: “Picinyeim, kérlek. Mi a túrónak kell így viselkedni?” The girls continue talking; checking their work half-aloud. Anna chooses to stay frozen and standing until 30 more seconds. In the grand finale of this story, the teacher decides to sit down behind her desk and starts thumbing her course book. Students go back and work on their tasks. When they finish, Anna mechanically runs through the responses and threatens the class that she would want to retire early as she finds no pleasure in teaching any more with such ungrateful kids.

The teacher here clearly has problems motivating her students and she thinks that students can only be task focused if they work quietly and do not question procedures, results or solutions. Her frustration will likely continue in other English lessons unless she seeks some form of intervention, perhaps an outside person visiting and observing her class and comment on what may have gone wrong. Her teaching style seems cooperative on the surface, yet she switches back to being authoritative when she thinks that she has failed in controlling the classroom. It is highly unlikely that one visit to her classroom would surface the issues as this visit is perhaps seen by her as a compulsory threat that she has to get through as quickly as possible, instead of regarding it as an integrated part of her teaching. Convincing her about the value of observation and diagnostic intervention-if possible-takes time and effort. In addition to the peer feedback she would have to be encouraged to reflect on what is happening in the classroom, precisely what upsets her to such an extent. She may also consider discussing it with her students and consider their reflections as well in the long term solution to the problem. She may gradually change her attitude to that of the reflective practitioner who discovers more about her own teaching by focusing on the locally based processes of teaching and learning (Schön, 1983).

Task: Think about the classroom conflict between learners and the teacher. Identify the issues that you think might have led to such misunderstanding. Do you think the students genuinely feel bad about the teacher? Or it is only that they are too restricted in most of their school activities and use every opportunity to express themselves and feel less tense as would be the ultimate goal of cooperative teaching and learning?

In Anna's case, she has problems with rapport, discipline, and the motivation of her students. She does not approach language teaching as the management of interpersonal communication through using the content and form of the foreign language (Cogan, 1995). Furthermore, she fails to see how the introduction of genuine, meaningful and motivating contexts for using English in the classroom would result in the lower anxiety level of the learners and their readiness to accept rather than challenge the teacher. She may however feel anxious about being visited and observed. It is actually two ways of conceptualizing the EFL classroom which are in conflict here. To avoid the chasm some form of diagnostic intervention would be needed immediately, which may run into some obstacles rooted in orthodox Hungarian teacher beliefs and practices.

The first question requires you to think about the classroom conflict between learners and the teacher. As Anna has readily available lines of scolding her students and she seems very tired of uncontrolled noise it is very likely that she does not want to consider the real age-related characteristics of her learners. First that they appreciate classroom activities with opportunities for group work, where they feel safe and more ready to share or discuss their solutions with peers rather than answer the frontal solicitation of the teacher. Anna seems to know this; however, she fails to fully implement group work with the accompanying noise and temporary chaos. Moreover, it is very unlikely that her students genuinely feel bad about Anna. They are too restricted in most of their school activities and use every opportunity to express themselves and feel less tense as would be the ultimate goal of cooperative teaching and learning.

Gebhard (1984) claims that in a number of second language teacher education contexts educators tend to limit them to giving the same reasons for doing supervision and to have the same supervisory behaviors in spite of the availability of a wide choice of supervisory behaviors. Although for a while external monitoring of teachers can be a source of providing feedback the ultimate goal should be an independent teacher capable of self monitoring and improvement. Based on his long discussions with teachers and doctoral students in Hungary's two teacher training programs, Gebhard identifies a few culture-specific issues why certain modes of teacher development in Hungary are difficult to apply (2003). The first issue is time. Gebhard's conversational partners talked about their overburdening which made it hard to focus on improvement and their unwillingness was chalked up to the little time and even less energy left for exploration of issues and development. Gebhard labels the second issue "comfort." Accordingly a number of teachers expressed their anxieties related to observation, that they did not feel comfortable with some other professional present in the classroom. Although some teachers are comfortable with observation and reflective practice, a large number of them are not. The third point concerns "teacher isolation." Most responding teachers felt that professional and collegial collaboration is almost entirely missing from Hungarian educational institutions. Accordingly, it would be difficult to ask a colleague, or trusted teacher friend to come, visit classes and discuss about diagnostic steps and opportunities. The fourth issue as an obstacle to self-development is often "trust," meaning that most teachers carry unpleasant memories of being observed during their teaching practice and need not only simple encouragement to tackle their aversions in the first place. They also mentioned that observation often equals judgment instead an opportunity to discuss teaching as a holistic experience. A few of Gebhard's respondents also pointed out that the still palpable Prussian heritage in Hungarian education makes it hard to switch to qualitative methods and reflexivity in evaluation. We would also add one source of discomfort with an outsider in the classroom and that's the anxiety felt over their knowledge and use of English in the classroom. Most of the teachers over forty years of age have spent only little time in English speaking countries let alone working in an educational context with native speakers. At the age of the internet and extended online opportunities to develop this should not be a huge problem, however, most teacher would refer to the previously revealed constraints fof further development, such as time constraint. With all such traditional misconceptions and dislike toward observation it is hard but not impossible to change the views of the Ms. Hermina, the teacher in the case study. In such education context self-observation is the less intrusive method and if the teacher is willing and ready to accept outsider views creative supervision may also bring up issues that supplement the teacher's reflections of her own context and approach.

Regarding its instrument, self-observation, however, requires a slightly different approach from traditional observations. External observers, even colleagues, would structure their description of the lesson on some formal list of categories, such as personality features of the teacher, preparation, English in the classroom, management, rapport and relationship with students, overall impressions. These are easy to identify and follow in the lesson, and the post-lesson conference should be about a genuine discussion of the findings of the observer with the observed teacher. One of the challenges in the case of structured observation would be the readiness of the teacher to distinguish these insights from negative criticism and handle them as starting points for further growth and development. In a Hungarian educational context, most practicing teachers feel that observation standards are not adaptable to the specific context and issue, but they are set by external supervisors. Supervision has served evaluative and assessment rather than developmental or diagnostic purposes. For teachers socialized into this role of observation it is hard to see the real potential of this method of action research. They often would want the observer-supervisor to give a full-length description of what they have "done wrong" instead of accepting constructive help or simply an initiative to think together about questions that concern the success of their teaching as well as individual professional satisfaction. Self-observation does not evaluate or assess teachers' aptitude for language learning rather how the usual practices in their English lesson bring less the required results.

In the following case study, you will read about a self-observation and improvement project in one of the combined cultural studies and history courses for undergraduate BA English major students. Following the description of the case you will find a list of coding categories with explanations and abbreviations used in the tabulated scripts. These keys are important to follow the events in the classroom and evaluate them from the perspective of successful communications in the tertiary classroom.

Case: The following case study is about course and teacher improvement through self-observation. Read the following background information to familiarize with the case and the environment of the action research.

The course:

The course is titled Introduction to Studying American Culture, and it used to be a hybrid of language practice and introductory cultural studies course. The course is meant to integrate content and language development for first and second year students. The aim of the course is to familiarize students with American cultural history through readings and discussions. There are three minor writing assignments, in which students have to prove how successfully students have mastered the language and content of the subject and how well they can argue their position. Moreover, there are two take-home exams and a final research paper with a theme of their choice for which they also submitted a prospectus. As for oral assignments each participant held one presentation chosen from the themes of the syllabus. The course texts were chapters from a collection of essays, titled Introdcution to American Studies (Third Ed.) edited by Malcolm Bradbury and Howard Temperley (New York: Longman, 1995). Selected readings are also used from Constructing the American Past: A Source Book of a People's History by Elliott Gorn, Randy Roberts and Terry Bilhartz (Vols. 1-2; New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Video and audio clips are also frequently used to illustrate some of the issues raised by the readings.


Altogether 21 students enrolled in the course, and thirteen were present at the time of self-observation and when the class was recorded. Most of the class time, apart from presentations, was devoted to discussing the readings and students were asked to bring their questions, which they rarely did. Instead of student questions most of the questions were asked by the instructor to provoke personal views, comparisons, and possibly interpretations of the material. In most classes group work was arranged to generate more discussion and thinking instead of the traditional student-teacher interaction. These small group discussions assumingly made participants more actively respond to each other's comments and feedback.

Research questions:

The classroom observation project seeks answers to two questions.

  1. How are opportunities possibly provided for students to develop their sociocultural compentence?
  2. How does the classroom interaction possibly block the development of their sociocultural competence?

The five aspects of coding data:

  1. Amount and ration of student-teacher talk
  2. Student initiated interaction
  3. Length of student utterances
  4. Content of student utterances
  5. Difference in communication related to primary and secondary sources.


The particular class was about the Great Depression of the 1930s and students had a discussion of the assigned chapter entitled The Thirties from the course textbook. To understand about how sociocultural competence may be developed in the classroom where English is used as a foreign language to talk about cultural content, we will sum up some approaches to the concept.

Approaches to culture

Defining culture is a complex task, since both its content and nature have to be examined. In this respect culture may be referred to as the complex entirety of the customs, ideas, values, art etc. that are produced and/or shared by one particular group of people, which may change over time but only if the majority of the members accept the changes. From a sociological perspective culture refers to the social heritage of a people - the learned patterns for thinking, feeling and acting that characterize a population or society including the expression of these patterns in material things (Wardhaugh, 1994). We understand culture essential to our humanness and some social scientists use the term "society" interchangeably with "culture", since culture lacks a life on its own and exists only with the people to enact it. The basic assumption behind the notion of culture is that human behaviour varies from society to society over the globe, which though makes defining culture more difficult, yet offers us the freedom to challenge essentialist approaches to it.

Culture in Applied Linguistics has inspired somewhat different definitions. In his widely quoted definition, Lado (1957) describes culture generally as the ways of a people which approach reflects the variety and inclusive nature of both the word and the concept. Richards, Platt and Platt define culture as the total set of beliefs, attitudes, customs, behaviour, social habit, etc. of the members of a particular society (1996). Wardhaugh interprets society as "any group of people who are drawn together for a certain purpose or purposes and a language is what the members of a particular society speak" (1994:1). In this last definition we meet the concept of language in a context which suggests that language, society and culture are inter-dependent. Byram (1989) takes one step further when he attempts to approach culture as an omnibus term (also Kaplan and Manners 1972:3). Though defining culture is attempted in a number of disciplines dealing with society and culture, the task seems, are notoriously difficult particularly in anthropology, yet, as Byram notes it is as good a label as any for the overall phenomenon or system of meanings within which sub-systems of social structure, technology, art and so on exist and interconnect (1989).

In their more recently published approach Adaskou, Britten and Fahsi refer to ‘four separate sorts of "culture" that language teaching may involve' (1990:3-4). The first category is an aesthetic sense of culture, including cinema, music and literature, in brief ‘culture with a capital C.' The organization and nature of family, home life, interpersonal relations, customs, institutions, work and leisure, and material conditions of a society - the sociological sense - means ‘culture with a small c'. The ‘conceptual system embodied in language, ... conditioning all our perceptions and our thought system' belongs to the semantic sense. Adaskou et al. (1990:4) classify ‘the background knowledge, social skills, and paralinguistic skills that, in addition to mastery of the language code, make possible successful communication' as the pragmatic (or sociolinguistic) sense. All these different meanings of culture are defined by and therefore centred around language. Therefore, the inter-related nature of language and culture has gained evidence from yet another angle.

In his approach to culture Sarangi finds it necessary to acknowledge in alignment to many scholars ‘that any definition of culture is necessarily reductionist' (Sarangi 1995, in: Holliday 1999:242,). Therefore, he suggests that two paradigms of culture be distinguished instead of what has become the default concept of ‘culture' referring to ‘prescribed ethnic, national and international entities' (Holliday 1999:237-264). In this taxonomy a ‘large culture paradigm' refers to culture that is by its nature vulnerable to a culturist -prone to excessive stereotyping- reduction of foreign students, teachers and their educational contexts. A ‘small culture paradigm', on the other hand, defines culture as small social groupings or activities which display cohesive behaviour. On the basis of these two paradigms our perceptions and interpretations of culture may be characterized as static (large culture) or dynamic (small culture), claiming culture as a means of investigation rather than as an end-product.

To sum up the information these definitions provide us with concerning the nature and content of culture, it obviously displays an enormous potential to be exploited in teacher education programmes. This discipline may be labelled Applied Cultural Studies, including applications of the target language culture through content areas such as anthropology, ethnography, cultural geography, literature and sociology as well as methodological issues on how to research and interpret such cultural materials.

The relationship between culture and language

The relationship of language and culture has been perceived in rather different ways through time. Vander Zanden finds language the most important set of symbols a human being possesses, which allows him to create culture and perpetuate it from one generation to the next (1988:63). Earlier it was assumed that learning the language should always precede learning the culture. The ‘linguistic relativity hypothesis', that every language cuts the world into dissimilar pieces, thus drawing our attention to different faces of experience, (Whorf 1956, in: Vander Zanden 1988) served as a breakthrough in judging the relationship between language and culture because it assumed direct link between the two. Many scholars, however, warn of the fallacy of the theory itself (Pinker 1994:60). Doubtless though it influenced much of the way we tend to think about culture and language. By the 1990's the axiom that ‘culture is the context for language use' (Lessard-Clouston 1996:198) has become widely accepted and exploited. Byram notes, for example, that

language pre-eminently embodies the values and meanings of a culture, refers to cultural artefacts and signals people's cultural identity. Because of its symbolic and transparent nature language can stand alone and represent the rest of a culture's phenomena, ... [it] cannot be used without carrying meaning and referring beyond itself, even in the most sterile environment of the foreign language class. The meanings of a particular language point to the culture of a particular social grouping, and the analysis of those meanings - their comprehension by learners and other speakers - involves the analysis and comprehension of that culture. (Byram 1989:41)

Another noteworthy aspect of the relationship between culture and language is the interdependence of communicative and cultural competencies. According to the findings of Manes and Wolfson (Wolfson 1986), ‘a single speech act may vary greatly across speech communities,' that is language exists primarily beyond the classroom where communicative competence, language and culture are all equal parts of successful communication. Buttjes claims that communicative competence has to be regarded as much more ‘than a purely linguistic decoding facility. Since language and culture are so intimately interrelated in the experience of both native and foreign speaker, cultural competence must be involved at all stages of such an encounter' (Buttjes 1990:55 in: Lessard-Clouston 1996:198). This is because familiarity with the background culture is the clue to understanding linguistic behaviour, or else as Saville-Troike (1983:131-132) points out ‘the concept of communicative competence must ... be embedded in the notion of cultural competence' (In: Lessard-Clouston 1996:198). The content of cultural competence defined here by Manes and Wolfson, Buttjes and Lessard-Clouston is refined and extended in Byram's definition of sociocultural competence. Byram proposes

to define sociocultural competence in terms of a content of which learners should be "aware". Furthermore, some parts of the specified content might appear to be "universal", although in fact they tend to be centred on the developed North, and have a tendency to be ethnocentric. In so far as the common framework is European, this is to be expected, but it is doubtless desirable to establish a potential for links with other developments, for example in North America. (Byram 1997:9)

For a better classroom application of the term, Byram suggests the following sub-competences.
  1. ‘Attitudes and values' refer to the affective capacity to give up ‘ethnocentric attitudes towards and a cognitive ability to establish and maintain a relationship' between native and target cultures.
  2. ‘The ability to learn' is identical with an interpretative system or cultural code (Guerin, Labor, Morgan, Reesman and Willingham 1992:249-250) which helps gain insight into yet unencountered cultural meanings, phenomena, expressions.
  3. ‘Knowledge' is defined as ‘a system of cultural references which structures the implicit and explicit knowledge acquired in the course of linguistic and cultural learning', which also considers the special needs of the students when interacting with native speakers of the target language.
  4. ‘Knowing-how' tends to integrate all the three capacities in ‘specific situations of bicultural contact, i.e. between the culture(s) of the learner and of the target language' (Byram 1997 14-20). Via the development of these four sub-competences the sociolinguistic ability, the knowledge of culture areas and the knowledge of culture analysis are emphasized.

To sum up a learner possessing sociocultural competence will be able to interpret and bring different cultural systems into relations with one another, to interpret socially distinctive variations within a foreign cultural system, and to manage the dysfunctions and resistances peculiar to intercultural communication, which we shall henceforth refer to as "conflict". (Byram 1997:13).


Implications of classroom observation data
The class started with the teacher asking for permission to tape-record the session. Audio-recording of the class happened after gaining the initial consent of participating students to being recorded. Students had to sign an audio-taping agreement to avoid personality rights violations and to make sure that they know the possible consequences and outcomes of such research. This is a very important aspect of all research and you always have to make sure to get the consent of your voluntary participants to avoid any misunderstanding later. It is also recommended that ways be found to familiarize class/research participants with the purpose of the research, the expected outcomes and how and when they can possibly learn about the findings. It can certainly be done through talking with students and explaining why it is important for you to gain data about your joint efforts. For a sample consent form see box below.

Sample Audiotaping Agreement

The November 19, 2010 class of Introduction to Studying American Culture will be audio-recorded for self-observation and teacher development purposes. Please indicate below your consent to audiotaping the November19, 2010 class by initialing in the space provided. If you do not agree, please write "I don't agree" in the same place and initial there, too. Thank you very much for your cooperation.


It is possible that not everybody agrees to being recorded or photographed. In that case other ways of classroom observation data collection should be chosen, e.g. inviting a colleague to take notes, taking notes by ourselves during class (if students are engaged in solving tasks) or after class, based on our memories. If a few students agree, they may be asked to take notes and reflect on the lesson as well. If we cannot record the lesson it is useful to have a detailed lesson plan with enough space to take notes, jot down things that come to our mind while teaching. This is of course a plan B that a teacher always wants to have for scenarios better or worse.

Now stop for a moment and think about the advantages of familiarizing the learners of the ongoing research.


  1. Think about the self-observation project and write three advantages of familiarizing your students with the goals of the project.
  2. Then write three disadvantages of the same question.
  3. We discuss the listed advantages and disadvantages in plenary.

Thinking of what to share with the participants about action research can help make you more conscious of the goals of the project as well as see the difficulties and the potential controversies and respond to the challenges. It does not only reveal our ability and willingness to reinvent ourselves but also display some of our vulnerabilities as teachers to our students and accept our right to be wrong. It is also a further option to share the recorded material with our post-primary learners and involve them in the teacher development project. Such an experience may add depth to our relationship with the learners as they also think critically of their own participation and learning process. Furthermore, all teacher development projects should note that exploration and development cannot be done in a vacuum. We need another person's perceptual filter to see through the looking glass. This is an opportunity for us to gain deeper awareness of our teachings and empower ourselves to know how to make our own informed decisions. There is little evidence that any one way of teaching is better than another in all settings. We need to collect and understand descriptions rather than follow prescriptions. Self-observation gets us the necessary data to engage in a meaningful dialogue with our learners, as well as to understand why we still do or do not do certain practices.

The following excerpts are coded as communicative moves and the coding explores the rules in our teaching, it helps generate alternatives and sees the extent to which rules are broken. Furthermore, it helps raise questions about preconceived notions. Coding is the formal analysis of the material to discover themes, patterns and ways of teaching. It provides insights into the subtleties and nuanced details of the classroom communication and practices. In the present study, utterances are perceived as communication acts and are evaluated along their direction, labeled as "move" and according to the content, labeled as "message." In square brackets, we provide the abbreviation we will use in the coding table for each type of source or target.

According to Fanselow (1987), a certain act of communication can be coded as a move and as a message. XXXhas a source and a target, and both of these may be the "teacher" [t], the "student" [s] or the "other" [s]. The teacher could be any one person who assumes the role of a teacher. A teacher can be a student who presents or teaches something to the class. It is therefore, not a strictly qualification- or age-related position. It is the person who aims to transmit some kind of information for further discussion, understanding or simply learning to the rest of the group. A student can be any one person on an equal basis with another. The other category accounts for communications from outside sources such as labels, books, video clips, cell phone calls etc. if the communication is responded to. On one level only four things are done in a classroom and according to the purpose of the communication there can be four types of communicative move: "structuring" [str], "soliciting" [sol], "responding" [res], and "reacting" [rea]. Structuring sets the stage to subsequent action and behavior. It is often manifested in the form of announcements, what will happen in the classroom and who is responsible for the events. Soliciting refers to setting the tasks by asking questions, issuing commands, making requests and require responses. When students reply to soliciting it is coded as responding, whereas reacting implies giving comments. Regardless of the length of a move, whether one word, or one hundred words it counts as one move. Moreover, the teacher may also react with a nod, a short statement of "very good" or a long explanation of the rules of the past perfect continuous tense the communication counts as only one reacting move. The classic pattern is when the teacher solicits, students respond, and the teacher reacts to conclude the set of moves. Move types can be combined along all these categories and so-called idiosyncratic moves may occur which distract students to an extent that the power of other moves is diminished. Altogether move type combined with information regarding source and target answer the question: What is being done?

Mediums used to communicate can be distinguished according to how they transmit the information. This way observation data and its analysis through coding allow us to answer the question: "How is it done?" The communicative moves may be coded as "linguistic" [l], "nonlinguistic" [n], "paralinguistic" [p] and "silence" [s]. The linguistic medium includes both written and spoken utterances. The nonlinguistic medium refers to noises, music, pictures. Paralinguistic medium involves gestures, tone of voice and movement. Silence is the absence of any of the so-far mentioned mediums.

A certain message can have different uses including receptive and productive activities. A receptive use is to "attend" [a]; whereas productive uses are to "characterize" [c], "set" [s], "reproduce" [d], "relate" [r] or "present" [p] the content toward the recipient. To attend certain information refers to its being read, tasted, touched, smelled and looked at in pictures. In this case mediums are simply attended, not produced in order to understand its content. To characterize certain content means to indicate that something is right or wrong, use category labels, comment about language or people. We can also use mediums to set content to form another category of use. Setting content, on the other hand, is communicating models or other items that are referred to by words such as this, that, it or one. Referents are never named but they need to be identified in order to know what the conversation is about. When one person uses any medium to set content, and another person repeats, imitates or copies the model, referent or example, the person is actually using mediums to reproduce content. E.g. copying a series of sentences from a blackboard, or copying down a telephone number from an advertisement on TV belong to this use of a certain communicative message. Furthermore, mediums can be used to make inferences and generalizations. When we develop explanations and require further thinking or try to find the main idea, we also use mediums to relate to content. To present the content means that we state information directly or ask questions.
Task: Think about the following communication and its coding. Try to locate the opportunity for opening up the dialogue about a historical event to make it meaningful and relatable for the students to think about their own lives.


Scene 1

Key: T=teacher; S=student; C=class; sol=solicit; rea=react; res=respond; La=linguistic audio; pe=present, elicit (ask questions for which the answer is already known); ps=present, state (give factual information); st=extended discourse; ce=characterize evaluate; d=reproduce; so=study other areas than language; fg=life general; p=procedure XX












T: Ok. There were two questions altogether. The first one was to think about ht egeneral nature of the Great Strike and the other one to define Social Darwinism on the basis of the text. By the way I wasn’t sure if it was Social Darwinism since I couldn’t find the slip I scribbled the questions.

S1 (female): Yes, it was.

T: So first of all what happened in this Great Strike?

[9 seconds pause]

T: I know the tape recorder is scary. If I were you I wouldn’t risk it either. [Teacher and a few students laugh] [10 seconds pause]

S1: And it started for example because of different standpoints from the part of the workers and from the part of the employers. So each took opposite sides in the work.

T: Mhm.

S1: So the strikers wanted fair wages and they destroyed railway equipment for example. But the employers didn’t agree with them.

T: Aha. And what happened in the background? Did it become clear from the reading?

S2 (female): Yes. Uhm. Some people recognized they had more power if they came together because all of them had similar problems. Their wages were not enough to buy products. The company feared the crisis and the power of these people. So they would send away the strikers.

S1: And there were lots of immigrants who could be employed instead of the people that were fired because of the strikes.

T: Exactly. The increasing availability of manufactured goods and the lack of financial means to have real access caused a lot of frustration and anger. A serious crisis of overproduction was on its way. So the whole situation resembled very much the Great Depression itself, which happened some fifty years later, but had somewhat similar roots. Of course the depression then did not become such a serious depression as the one in the 30’s but social historians argue that certain branches of the economy, like agriculture never really got out of their depressed state, which eventually did converge on the Great Depression. Then came the First World War that you could hear about in the presentation last week, followed by the Twenties that we also talked about. A period of illusory abundance from say the perspective of agricultural workers. So depression within the agricultural sector really lasted on and on in the first decade of the twentieth century and then in the twenties. And eventually it dissolved in the greatest depression ever. So in some sense the pattern that was set by the events that caused the Great Strike of 1877 was very similar to the one that occurred with the Depression of the 1930s. Yet in between the two periods the culture of consumption made its debut to recur once the Second World War was over.

[18 seconds pause]







The transcript reveals that in this scene students talked more (16 lines) than the teacher (14 lines). After a few seconds hesitation they came up with their accounts for the events in 1877. The content of the utterances was strictly focused there was only one off-theme remark about the impact of the tape-recorder, which most probably aimed to alleviate the tension both students and the instructor felt about the instrument and the fact that everything was recorded. The teacher started with a grand tour question (Rubin and Rubin, 1995) about the Great Strike of 1877 because students did not read historiography but only primary sources. Thus, the purpose of the question was to obtain broad overviews as to what extent students had familiarized with the cultural premises of the period. ADD ON QUESTION TYPES As a kind of probing the teacher asked two other questions and students were supposed to paraphrase the readings in their responses. The questions were closer to display questions than to genuine probing and were meant to be a kind of warm-up task. All interaction but one short laugh was linguistic. At one point (lines 42-50) the students carried on the discussion reacting to what had been said without teacher interference. This event broke the otherwise frequent teacher-student-teacher interaction and provided feedback about the communicative value of the speaker' comments. Once S1 finished her comment the teacher allowed no thinking time and the free-flowing conversation was brought to an abrupt end by a 29-line-long teacher monologue.

A quick look at the rest of the first part of the class (APPENDIX or OTHER TABLE?) shows that this reaction of the teacher was roughly twice as long (29 lines) as the two students' responses (altogether 16 lines). In her talk the teacher linked events and causes of the Great Strike of 1877 to those of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Drawing parallels between the two events could have offered opportunities for asking further questions or assign creative, thinking gap activities which could have connected learners' schemata or active story-based knowledge to the new information and unknown events in American history. These unfortunately went unexploited as the excerpt shows; moreover, as the teacher's uninterrupted flow of new information poured so much unknown data on students, it brought an abrupt halt to student willingness to venture with comments and insights. This is a potential danger of teacher monologues to which we will come back in a later section of the manual.

The transcript reveals (APPENDIX lines 141-259) that the teacher-initiate-student-respond pattern continued in this section of the session as well. There was a linguistic medium, and the content included only the current field of study except for two procedural remarks. Teacher talk was not predominant, 88 lines as opposed to 27 countable lines-WORD COUNT plus roughly the same amount of inaudible recording of student talk. Yet the ration is worse if we compare the teacher and individual students. There was no student-initiated interaction in this part of the session and the teacher and individual students and teacher utterances were always longer except when the teacher only asked one question. Responses became more evaluative; participants experimented with inferences and analogies (line 150), too. Discussion of the question as well as the first part of the class was terminated by a long talk on Social Darwinism as an example of applied philosophy. Both main questions were based on primary readings and all but one student utterance reached the length of three lines- INSERT WORD COUNT.

A short introduction to group work followed, the teacher distributed a question sheet containing four questions (APPENDIX LINES 285-291) and asked students to form discussion groups. Participants could use their notes, the readings, their smart phones, tablets or any outside source that they had at hand during the ten minutes of small group discussion. The rest of class time was devoted to conversing about he questions and related issues in a similar manner to the first part of the session. The basis of the discussion was an essay on the history of the period. Of all 69 coded communications only five did not focus on the subject that is the cultural history of the period 1880s-1920s in America. The content was procedural and the number of teacher monologues increased in this section. There were no references to personal life or to everyday practices in general, the link between students' schemata and the readings was entirely missing.


A: Think of three possible ways to connect the material described in Scene 1 to students life and concerns.

B: What activities other than discussion could have been used to make history more personally involving?


Possible implications of bad student-teacher talk ratio

Consequences of not relying on student schemata in bringing forth new factual information. History remains a cold, hardly accessible, archival inventory of facts with a huge number of dormant stories which could only be exploited if the teacher opens up the links between the past and the present with tasks that step beyond question-answer-question. Rosenzweig and Thelen argue that students of history participate actively and use the past intimately, regardless of cultural and national boundaries, if the pasts they use can be connected to intimate or private spheres (1998). The central issue in a fundamentally historical way of learning and understanding culture is participation v. passivity, active and firsthand engagement or mediation by others who had mysterious and distant agendas. If used in narrative embedding, artifacts, descriptions of the historic past invites learners to revisit their own experiences at other times and places, to imagine how they might have felt and acted, to reflect on how the earlier experiences or circumstances might have changed or been changed by those who had originally participated in them (Rosenzweig and Thelen, 1998). If we consider these events in American history as a sum total of life experiences that feed introspection, they will begin to live their own lives and help students understand the importance of learning to use the past on their own terms. Engaging more actively with these texts would also bring more different tastes as each individual puts her own story as a basis to understand someone else's story. The goal is to make such distant past a common resource and a way to understand our thinking better. Emphasizing the general features of specific historical situations makes their relevance trans-historical and trans-generational and allows students to become interpreters rather than just observers.


Read the transcript in Scene 2 and identify the parts that can be easily related to our lives today.

Explain your choices briefly.


This task is meant to get you engaged more deeply into the dynamics of using history as a meaningful content and think critically about why certain activities fail to involve learners.

Scene 2

Key: T=teacher; S=student; C=class; sol=solicit; rea=react; res=respond; La=linguistic audio; pe=present, elicit (ask questions for which the answer is already known); ps=present, state (give factual information); st=extended discourse; ce=characterize evaluate; d=reproduce; so=study other areas than language; fg=life general; p=procedure XX












[The four questions in discussion are:

1. Describe people’s feelings in the initial phases of the Depression.

2. Describe President Hoover’s strategy to face hardships.

3. Why did he fail?

4. What did he want to achieve? ]

Students work in groups for 10 minutes; their discussions are inaudible. Sometimes they laugh and speak in Hungarian. Short dialogues with the teacher, too, mostly to find out if they are heading the direction. The teacher walks from group to group. A late student comes in, joins one of the groups]. The teacher takes pictures of the groups to document setting and arrangements. It is slightly distracting.

T: I assume that most of you are ready to present your ideas. Let’s see what you have found so far.

S6 (female): Poverty, different breadlines and they were eating garbage, it was very humiliating. Unemployment was high. [10 seconds pause]. They were living in bad conditions.

S7 (female): They had financial problems, disappointment came with the government.

T: That’s right. What else can you mention about people’s feelings at the beginning of the Depression?

[7 seconds pause]

T: I just thought that, uhm, you could relate that to President Hoover’s strategy, if there was any such thing to cope with the severe social tensions created by these problems.

S5: [15 seconds inaudible recording; the student says something in connection with Hoover’s supporters, people with enormous economic power]

T: [10 seconds inaudible recording]. Hoover was a powerful president and had lots of rich and less affluent supporters. The main problem was that nobody in or outside the United States had ever faced such a serious economic depression. Plus they did not anticipate that it would last so long. Nobody on earth did. They had not speculated about how such an economic situation should or could be coped with.

[8 seconds of pause]

S8: (male, came late): And as far as I know it also has to do with the stock exchange.

T: Can you tell us more how the stock exchange may be involved in deepening a crisis like that?

S8: I’m not sure I can tell you how the stock market operates but…

T: No, no. Don’t tell us about the broker stuff etc. only how it may aggravate already exisiting economic problems.

S8: When the price comes up at the stock exchange it doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual economical power of the company.

T: You mean the actual producing capacity of the company?

S8: Yes. Usually the prices have more to do with the actual buying and selling power of the stock than the company’s production. And according to how the stocks are buying and selling, people may decide to buy only certain stocks because they also sell better. [10 seconds of inaudible recording]. People participate in the stock market not because they are interested in the company’s future but because they are interested in the money. And they immediately sell it once there are signs of recessions or change in export-import policy of the company.


According to the transcript students started a discussion without teacher initiative (lines 292-297). The use function of the communication that triggered student response is coded as "characterize-illustrate" and "characterize-label." Fanselow claims that soliciting responses such as "characterize and/or characterize-evaluate" require mental operations that are the basis of development in most fields and in much learning (1985). He argues that although communications coded this way require the type of binary choice we make every day outside classrooms, they occur less than 5% of the time in most classes studied (Fanselow, 1985). The statistics has proved true in the recorded class as well. There was only one instance (lines 292-295) when a student utterance could be coded as characterizing. After the response the teacher did not allow thinking time but assumed control and continued with a question, which reintroduced the teacher-student-teacher interaction pattern observed during the first half of the class. Eight of thirteen communications were coded as "recalling information, stating facts," two were questions to explore and two utterances belonged to the previously described "characterize" category. One question the teacher asked (lines 332-333) was a reformulation and expansion of a student response. EXPLANATION More

The student indicated as S8 in the transcript studies economy, too and he is especially interested in topics that involve discussions on economy. Later during the class he mentioned the name of John Maynard Keynes (line 412), and eventually wrote his research paper on Keynes's theory about the Great Depression. At that time he joined in and helped maintain the teacher-student interaction. In line 331 he made a mistake, used the adjective "economical" instead of "economic". This misuse of the term economical to mean economic occurred frequently in other discussions as well as in the written assignments. The teacher then decided to manage the mistake by repeating, reformulating and expanding. The example illustrates the complexity of the dilemma whether to interrupt or not at such instances. The pattern of interaction was mainly recalling and stating facts about the American economy of the time and the role of the stock exchange as a potential cause for the economic recession. The content was subject-related in a solely linguistic medium. The teacher continued with a 60-line-long talk on what it means to buy stocks on margin. In line 358 there was the actual question about the meaning of the term, and students were allowed to think for five seconds. Compared to an earlier situation when 18 seconds of thinking time was allowed, this short pause was possibly not enough for students to come up with their ideas before the talk continued. It ended with soliciting for factual information on laissez-faire capitalism and only one student could become genuinely involved in the discourse.


In the following scene identify how the teacher fails to involve the whole class in a discussion of relevant issues.

Scene 3

Key: T=teacher; S=student; C=class; sol=solicit; rea=react; res=respond; La=linguistic audio; pe=present, elicit (ask questions for which the answer is already known); ps=present, state (give factual information); st=extended discourse; ce=characterize evaluate; d=reproduce; so=study other areas than language; fg=life general; p=procedure XX












T: [to the whole class] Do you know who Keynes was or what his theory is about? I think it’s also mentioned in the chapter to some point. If I remember well it’s mentioned in connection with President Eisenhower that he believed in Keynesian economic system.

S8: He was an economist. I could tell about him in Hungarian.

T: Well, I guess for this class we don’t need to be so ultimately professional in the field of economics, so let’s stick to English. So Keynes. He proposed a theory for why the depression actually happened, and for this theory he became famous. If you are interested you can do your research paper on Keynes and the effect of his theory. But back to Keynes. He operated with the notions of balancing supply and demand as key elements in a nation’s, today global, economy. Of course the theory is much more complicated than what I tell you in a nutshell, but the balance of supply and demand is responsible for the success of the economy. Please let me know Bálint if I get something wrong.

S8: [Laughs] I will.

T: The theory claims that if there is no demand but there is oversupply, a depression will likely happen because of insufficient amount of profit is fuelled back into production and development. Keynes suggested that one way to tackle recession is by applying fiscal and monetary control. The government should take controlling measures by changing the amount of paper money or interest rates or issuing and withdrawing bonds etc. whatever is necessary. For example the Hungarian government may borrow money from us by issuing bonds that pay interest for five years and meanwhile invests that money in developing infrastructure to invite more foreign capital into the country. But it is always your choice. The whole theory is much more complicated than that. However, what Keynes claims is that the government should control economy because laissez-faire policy results in economic recessions. Probably the most important message is that if there are signs of recession the government should intervene and at least try to do something.

S8: And wha tit could do is urge us to buy more than it is necessary, to put money back in the economy. But it is not always positive I think because it makes people even more-money oriented. Then it is inconsistent whether the government really does what is in the interest of the people.

T: That is true. But it is mostly not told to the people directly. They just urge us to buy and consume more even if we don’t need it. And that is why I told you that the theory itself was disproved by another theory, and so fiscal policies may have to be given a different direction. It is also interesting to see that even though Roosevelt did try the Keynesian response, he used billions of dollars to boost the economy, to finance federal aid programs like the ones you have read about, yet it was only World War Two that pulled the United States out of the Depression. Of course it is very interesting to look at the reasons that eventually pushed the country into such serious economic crisis. On the one hand, it was the recession of the 1870s that was never really seriously taken and its prolonged presence for example in the agriculture significantly aggravated the tensions in the sector. There was no conscious agricultural policy to help people uhm regulate production. Local initiatives had no long lasting effects. Another reason for the recession was that industrial development was far ahead of consuming power and necessity. And the depression affected various social groups in a different way.


The coding and the transcript reveal that in the remaining of the class (lines 413-768) the dynamics of interaction changed, teacher talk (approximately 305 lines) was about six times the length of student talk (approximately 50 lines). Long monologues followed short student responses to teacher soliciting (see transcript). Pauses became shorter, and their lengths varied between 5 and 10 seconds. Of the coded 57 communications 25 were stating facts and recalling information, and these responses were given to 14 display questions. Only two exploratory questions occurred and all characterize-evaluate statements came from the teacher. Six communications had procedural content, the rest dealt with the subject per se. In this part of the class, student-initiated interaction was entirely missing. The class ended with setting the reading tasks for the following week.


Transcription, coding, description and analysis of the data from self-observation walk us through what happened in the November 19th class of the course Introduction to Studying American Culture. One of the two goals of the course is to develop the sociocultural competence of the students. Byram, Zarate and Neuner hold that a learner possessing sociocultural competence will be able to interpret and bring different cultural systems into relation with one another, to interpret socially distinctive variations within a foreign cultural system, and to manage the dysfunctions and resistances peculiar to intercultural communication which is referred to as conflict (1997).


On the basis of the transcripts, think about how the teacher’s frequent monologues hinder the development of students’ sociocultural competence.

Choose three examples from the text where the teacher’s communicative moves possibly block further interaction.

Select three student utterances that could be used as a starting point of genuine discussion, involving students’ own experiences and concerns.


Whenever the teacher included longer (10-18 seconds) wait-time students became more active. Longer pauses tend to help students think, relate to the topic and decide whether they want to contribute or not. No less important is the fact that the communication setting is unnatural as people sharing one mother tongue are forced to speak a foreign language. Coming up with the wrong idea, expressing it inaccurately, with a less native like accent are all risk factors not easy to overcome. Interpreting and evaluating also require longer thinking time than recalling rote-learned facts. The teacher can best help her students tackle these challenges with longer wait times, and meaningful props to encourage students and help them come up with meaningful utterances. Consequently, controlled longer pauses after open-ended questions allow participants to tackle potential language and content-related problems and assist students to switch to a foreign system of cultural references.

Mastering a foreign language means the willingness to relativise one's own cultural position and set of values and beliefs and this is possible through employing all different aspects of language use. The transcript shows that only listening and speaking skills were extensively used during the session. During group-work students could use written texts and jot down their ideas for later discussions, but that activity only took 10 minutes from the 90-minute-class and it was not about reading or writing entirely either. There were four students who did not participate in any activity except the group discussion. They may have decided to withdraw from participation because they were better at tasks, which required reading and writing as opposed to listening and speaking. Developing sociocultural competence however means managing the dysfunctions and resistances peculiar to intercultural communication, which is not restricted to listening and speaking. Such emphasis on oral communication can be one factor that blocks the development of sociocultural competence.

Despite the fact that the majority of students felt they had enough discussion and mentioned it as a positive feature of the course in their feedback, even a fast glimpse at the transcript shows the imbalance of student-teacher talk ratio. An especially striking feature is the frequently occurring teacher monologues. There are extended talks in which the teacher answers an earlier solicit fully or partially, reacts to student response or clarifies issues that she thinks might be important. There was only one reference to teacher monologues in the feedback when one student claimed: "I liked the most when you talked about a certain subject in class, which we couldn't read anywhere." As the student noticed such monologues can be a source of knowledge on the target culture, which according to Byram et al. (1997) also constitutes segment of sociocultural competence. Its presence in the class is problematic when it blocks student discussion. On the other hand, monologues could be an expression of teacher anxiety rooted in the fear that she loses control over the discussion. Accordingly, the role and impact of these extended talks depend on the circumstances under which they occur.

One feature of the monologues is that they reduce the amount of time available for students to think about the task and articulate their views. Looking at the nature of student responses reveals the little number of evaluative responses, which Fanselow argues play a crucial role in development (1987). The few such communication moves occurred while students and teacher were discussing primary sources. These materials require rather than offer interpretations, which develop an ability to produce and operate and "interpretative system" in which learners gain insight into hitherto unknown cultural meanings, beliefs and practices either in a new or a familiar language and culture (Byram et al. 1997). Comments about course readings also support this interpretation. Students felt the amount of reading was too much, yet they unanimously found primary sources and video clips interesting, whereas none of them found the course text, An Introduction to American Studies challenging.

Byram et al. also hold that sociocultural competence also has an affective capacity to relinquish ethnocentric attitudes towards and perceptions of otherness and a cognitive ability to establish and maintain a relationship between native and foreign cultures (1997). Life-related tasks would help bridge the gap between native and target cultures and provide opportunities to master descriptive categories conducive to bringing the original and foreign cultures into relation. The lack of activities involving students' life and life in general means in this particular class little space was allowed for comparison and realtivzation by means of life-related tasks.

Read the following on the uses of case studies:

Why Use Cases?

Many students are more inductive than deductive reasoners, which means that they learn better from examples than from logical development starting with basic principles. The use of case studies can therefore be a very effective classroom technique.

Case studies are have long been used in business schools, law schools, medical schools and the social sciences, but they can be used in any discipline when instructors want students to explore how what they have learned applies to real world situations. Cases come in many formats, from a simple "What would you do in this situation?" question to a detailed description of a situation with accompanying data to analyze. Whether to use a simple scenario-type case or a complex detailed one depends on your course objectives.

Most case assignments require students to answer an open-ended question or develop a solution to an open-ended problem with multiple potential solutions. Requirements can range from a one-paragraph answer to a fully developed group action plan, proposal or decision.

Common Case Elements

Most "full-blown" cases have these common elements:

  • A decision-maker who is grappling with some question or problem that needs to be solved.
  • A description of the problem's context (a law, an industry, a family).
  • Supporting data, which can range from data tables to links to URLs, quoted statements or testimony, supporting documents, images, video, or audio.

Case assignments can be done individually or in teams so that the students can brainstorm solutions and share the work load.

The following discussion of this topic incorporates material presented by Robb Dixon of the School of Management and Rob Schadt of the School of Public Health at CEIT workshops. Professor Dixon also provided some written comments that the discussion incorporates.

Advantages to the use of case studies in class

A major advantage of teaching with case studies is that the students are actively engaged in figuring out the principles by abstracting from the examples. This develops their skills in:

  1. Problem solving
  2. Analytical tools, quantitative and/or qualitative, depending on the case
  3. Decision making in complex situations
  4. Coping with ambiguities

Guidelines for using case studies in class

In the most straightforward application, the presentation of the case study establishes a framework for analysis. It is helpful if the statement of the case provides enough information for the students to figure out solutions and then to identify how to apply those solutions in other similar situations. Instructors may choose to use several cases so that students can identify both the similarities and differences among the cases.

Depending on the course objectives, the instructor may encourage students to follow a systematic approach to their analysis. For example:

  • What is the issue?
  • What is the goal of the analysis?
  • What is the context of the problem?
  • What key facts should be considered?
  • What alternatives are available to the decision-maker?
  • What would you recommend - and why?

An innovative approach to case analysis might be to have students role-play the part of the people involved in the case. This not only actively engages students, but forces them to really understand the perspectives of the case characters. Videos or even field trips showing the venue in which the case is situated can help students to visualize the situation that they need to analyze.

Accompanying Readings

Case studies can be especially effective if they are paired with a reading assignment that introduces or explains a concept or analytical method that applies to the case. The amount of emphasis placed on the use of the reading during the case discussion depends on the complexity of the concept or method. If it is straightforward, the focus of the discussion can be placed on the use of the analytical results. If the method is more complex, the instructor may need to walk students through its application and the interpretation of the results.

Leading the Case Discussion and Evaluating Performance

Decision cases are more interesting than descriptive ones. In order to start the discussion in class, the instructor can start with an easy, noncontroversial question that all the students should be able to answer readily. However, some of the best case discussions start by forcing the students to take a stand. Some instructors will ask a student to do a formal "open" of the case, outlining his or her entire analysis. Others may choose to guide discussion with questions that move students from problem identification to solutions. A skilled instructor steers questions and discussion to keep the class on track and moving at a reasonable pace.

In order to motivate the students to complete the assignment before class as well as to stimulate attentiveness during the class, the instructor should grade the participation-quantity and especially quality-during the discussion of the case. This might be a simple check, check-plus, check-minus or zero. The instructor should involve as many students as possible. In order to engage all the students, the instructor can divide them into groups, give each group several minutes to discuss how to answer a question related to the case, and then ask a randomly selected person in each group to present the group's answer and reasoning. Random selection can be accomplished through rolling of dice, shuffled index cards, each with one student's name, a spinning wheel, etc.


Tips on the Penn State U. website:

If you are interested in using this technique in a science course, there is a good website on use of case studies in the sciences at the University of Buffalo.

Dunne, D. and Brooks, K. (2004) Teaching with Cases (Halifax, NS: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education)


Case Study:

What Teachers Have Done: Examples of the Reflective Process

Here are how some teachers have worked through the cyclic reflective process. The first example illustrates what an ESL teacher did to explore the way she gave instructions7. The teacher videotaped her teaching and made short transcripts focusing on how she gave instructions and on what the students did afterward. She discovered that her oral instructions took about two minutes and that many of the students did not understand her instructions. During the start of the group activity, for example, some students asked each other -some in their native language- what they were supposed to be doing. Two students finally asked her to explain the task again. She ended up going from group to group to explain the instructions and it took five additional minutes before the students were all working on the task.

She reflected on her way of giving instructions and decided that she was not giving the students ample opportunity to comprehend her instructions and was taking up too much class time to make the instructions clear. However, she also saw some value in giving vague instructions; students were given chances to negotiate meaning with her, and to do this, they had to express their ideas in English. To explore different ways to give instructions, after talking with another to gain ideas she decided to try a few different thing, each on different days, and she taped and analyzed what happened when she used these alternative techniques. One day she wrote the instructions on the board and presented them orally. On another day she gave the instructions as a dictation, and on the third day had students paraphrase the instructions back to her. Through her analysis, she discovered that all three ways worked for this particular class. Although it took longer to give instructions, students displayed less confusion and began the task soon after the instructions were given. In addition, she discovered that it was possible to turn instructions into a language-learning activity.

Another example is an EFL teacher who explored her praise behaviors with preteenage children8. After audiotaping, she listened to the tape while tallying the number of times she praised students and jotting down samples of language she used to praise them. She discovered that she verbalized "very good'' quite often, and identified her frequent use of "very good" as being ambiguous to the students. Because she praised them so often, and sometimes when they gave wrong responses, she wondered if students knew she was praising them or accepting the praise as empty gestures. She also considered why she praised students and decided that praise was important for these children. She stated that praise, when genuine, can be a motivating factor. But if children cannot distinguish when and why she is praising them, it is useless. As such, she decided to implement small changes in her praising techniques. For example, she monitored her use of praise and verbally expressed it only when she was genuinely impressed. When students submitted written work, she put happy-face stickers on their work, but only when their work was considered outstanding.

After taping and analyzing her praise behaviors again, she knew that she used praise far less frequently and usually at times when students met her high expectations. She also analyzed the quality of the students' written work, and she concluded, after two months, that their work was genuinely improving. Some students even told her that they try harder because they want to see a happy face on their written work.

The next example is from my own teaching. While teaching an American literature course in Hungary, I wondered about the way I used questions in class. To better understand my questioning behaviors, I designed a tally sheet. I audiotaped my class, and using the tally sheet, I kept track of the targets of my questions (e.g., to an individual student or the whole class) and the content of each question (e.g., about students" lives, about people and places in general, about language, or about the content of the reading selection). The following tally sheet records what I found.

Tally Sheet: Content and Target of Teacher Questions

Content of questions                     To individual                     To whole class

Questions: Student lives                     //

Questions: People & places                                                          //////////// 

Questions: Language                          /                                           ///////

Questions: Material Content                                                           //////


During my analysis, I discovered that I asked twenty-eight questions during a twenty-five minute time period, that most of my questions were addressed to the whole class, and that twelve of my questions were about general places and people, eight about language, and six directly about the content of the reading.

Upon reflection, I was not surprised that I asked mostly whole-class questions, as I often did this intentionally. However, I was surprised that I averaged over a question per minute. This discovery was very useful. First, it gave me the chance to reflect on my questioning behavior. As a part of my reflection, I thought about how discussions go on outside classrooms, how all the participants not only answer questions but also ask them and react to each other's responses. Second, I was able to see that my questioning techniques dominated class discussion and prevented students from raising their own questions and reacting to responses. Third, I was able to systematically modify my questioning behavior.

In the next seminar, while audiotaping, I consciously asked less questions and attempted to achieve more discussion based on a single question. Also, after a student responded to one of my questions, I remained silent, or said, "uh-huh", in an encouraging way while looking at the other students. If no one reacted or asked a question, I paraphrased what was just said.

After audiotaping and analyzing this second seminar, I discovered that I asked less questions (twenty-six), that students asked each other questions (nine), and that students reacted to the responses of others many times. In short, I was able to achieve my objective, to have students discuss a reading selection in their foreign language.

The preceding examples illustrate how teachers have worked through problem areas in their teaching. A final example shows how a teacher explored her teaching simply to explore. The teacher, a native Japanese speaker, was teaching an introductory course in Japanese as a foreign language to American university students. She was interested in exploring he teaching simply to discover patterns in her teaching behavior. So she audiotaped her class, transcribed short segments of the class, and studied them for recurring patterns of interaction.

She discovered certain patterns of interaction in her classes. She found that most of her teaching consisted of drills and that she followed a lockstep way of teaching. She asked all the questions, the students responded, and she reacted to these responses. She also reflected on the fact that she asked display questions (e.g., questions to which she already knew the answers) and that the content of the lessons mostly concerned the study of language (e.g., learning about language rather than using language for a communicative purpose).

Based on her knowledge about patterns of interaction reflected in her classroom, the teacher decided that students did not have ample opportunities to communicate in their foreign language class. As such, she decided to make a small change in her teaching by doing the opposite of what she usually did. Instead of drilling students on language points, she planned to ask the students questions about their lives. She knew that some students were going on a trip to a nearby city, and she decided to ask them about their trip in the foreign language. As an afterthought, she decided to bring a map of the city to class. She audiotaped her teaching while posing these "life-personal" questions in Japanese, and then she transcribed parts of the class.

Classroom interaction changed dramatically. Students asked each other questions and reacted to each others' comments. The teacher and students asked questions that they did not know the answers to before asking them. Such query was not evident in the interaction in the earlier class.

What brought about this change in the interaction? The teacher's purpose was to do the opposite of what she normally did, to ask personal questions to see if the interaction would change in her class, and she did begin her lesson by asking personal questions about where a student went on a spring break. According to the teacher's analysis, this change was most likely a part of the reason why student interactions changed. However, the teacher also had students show her exactly where they went by using the map. This map also had the apparent consequence (which the teacher was surprised to discover) of allowing the interaction to shift from asking and answering personal questions to studying the map itself. In short, the teacher interpreted the reason for the emergence of student questions and reactions to be the combination of asking personal questions and using the map. It is interesting that that teacher had not predicted that the map itself would contribute to this change in the pattern. This discovery was quite incidental, and such discoveries are one reason to explore teaching.

My purpose in giving these examples of self-observation has been to demonstrate how teachers can explore their own teaching. However, exploration does not have to be limited to looking at what goes on in one's own classroom. It is also possible to explore teaching by observing other teachers' classrooms, the topic of the next section.

(Gebhard, 1996, pp. 27-31)

Case study:

How Did I Search for a Suitable Yoga Class?

A version of this chapter was published in The Language Teacher (special issue on .Second Language Teacher Education), volume 16, number 12. I would like to; thank the editor of The Language Teacher for granting me permission to reprint parts of the original article.

A number of years ago, while living in Hawaii, I decided to study Hatha Yoga. Being a novice and physically not very flexible, I was rather shy about joining a class; instead, I found a tutor. "How lucky," I thought, "no way to embarrass myself in front of other students." But, although I was not embarrassed and at first took the weekly lessons and daily home practice seriously, I soon quit, I guess I just could not handle all the directives: "Hold that pose for exactly 1 minute"; "Always meditate after you practice!"; "Change your bicycle peddles to rubber ones" You will destroy the nerves in your feet. Listen, these nerves are connected to every part of your body." Being young and a little rebellious at times, the day I quit I rode my bicycle in my bare feet, metal peddles and all!

I did learn to breathe, stretch, and meditate, however, and I liked the way doing these activities made me feel. Therefore, I continued my search for a class. Some months later, I joined a yoga class at a community center in Honolulu. At first it was engaging. The students came from all walks of life, and the yoga instructor never talked" Instead, he modeled the warm-up stretches and poses without a word. He would even exaggerate his movements letting the fifty or so students see each step in the process of getting into a particular pose. Some students seemed to follow him very well, getting into and holding poses as long as the instructor did. Others, like me, were lost. We had trouble getting into poses and could not hold them. I once tried to ask a student how to get into a pose, but he whispered that we were not allowed to talk. I had no idea if I was doing the pose correctly" Doing the pose perfectly seemed to be important, although no one ever said it was. Eventually, my solution was to stop, sit, and practice my breathing exercises a and meditation techniques. Visions of riding my tricycle in my bare feet would pop into my head. I soon stopped going.

My third attempt to find a yoga class was in Tokyo. I liked much about the yoga club I had joined. The hours were flexible, and the teacher and his assistants gave one-to-one instruction. The class even went on trips to Kamakura for sports competitions on the beach, which were always fun. But, the lessons at the club were always the same. The instructor would tell me to begin my routine and verbally correct me when I made an error, Each week he would explain a new pose, step me through it, have me practice it, and give me verbal feedback on whether I was doing it correctly or not. I did not mind the feedback. In fact, I wanted it. But, it was always done in the same way through verbal explanation, and I never seemed to: get the pose right. One time I asked the instructor to show me how he did the pose, but he explained it instead. Then, when I did not quite get the new pose right, he told me to listen more carefully. The harder I tried to listen, the worse I seemed to do. My meditations at the end of the sessions usually included visions of riding my bicycle in my bare feet"

My fourth try at finding a suitable yoga class was at il yoga center in Bangkok, and I was delighted. The center had beautiful wood floors and only three walls, leaving the front view open to a beautiful garden. There were pictures of people doing yoga on the side walls, and the back wall was lined with full-view mirrors in which students could watch themselves and others do poses. I also found the students and the instructor to be friendly and easy to approach. Most of all, however, it was how this instructor approached teaching that made all the difference for me and others I talked to in this class.

When I first arrived, I had a fairly high level of anxiety. After all" I had been through three previous experiences, all of which I had quit out of disappointment. I told the instructor that I could not get rid of this anxious feeling, and his response was exactly what I needed. I can still recall his words:

Everyone arrives with different abilities. Some can stretch easily and others can't. Some have balance. Some don't. I notice that you can control your breathing. Others still have to learn this. Everything takes time and practice. Let your yoga emerge. It will happen if you practice and pay attention to it.

I now realize that his nonjudgmental verbal and nonverbal behavior also helped to reduce my anxiety. For example, he did not tell (or nonverbally indicate to) a student that a pose is getting better (or worse), and he rarely used words such as "good' "'bad' "better,'' or "worse.'' Rather, he would point out a different way that a student could get into a pose or hold a pose longer. When I was learning to do a headstand and could hold the pose for only a few seconds, for instance, he simply tapped my elbows as I was getting into the pose, indicating that I should move my forearms further apart. It worked. I held the pose for minutes. More important, perhaps' he did not tell me I was doing the pose wrong or badly and then explain how I should be doing it, as instructors in the past had done. Likewise, when I was able to hold the pose, he did not tell me I was doing the pose better. This lack of judgmental behavior, I believe, made it easier for me to focus on doing a pose, as I did not have to get emotionally involved in the judgments.

Upon reflection, I also liked the variety of ways he gave feedback to students. He would try one way, and if it did not work, he tried another. For example, I remember expressing dissatisfaction with how l was doing a certain pose. So, the instructor did it with me, stepping me through it. When I still did not feel comfortable with it, he had me look at a picture of the pose, then look at myself in the mirror as I did it. He then asked me what the person in the picture was doing that I was not. I saw that my back was not arched in the same way, changed it, and felt much more comfortable with the pose.

My personal success in part resulted from the instructor's way of giving feedback. However, I also believe that I gained in my ability to do yoga because he provided opportunities for me to take responsibility for my own development, as well as showed me how I could do this. For example he taught me how to observe myself and others doing yoga in the mirror. He would point out that the mirror provided instant feedback on seeing the form of the pose, as well as a. way to become comfortable with myself as a practitioner of yoga. He also whispered that it is a great way to observe what others are doing.

Likewise, he gave me many chances to explore different aspects of yoga. He encouraged me to study the pictures he had on the walls of famous yogi in different postures. After a few months at his center, he invited me to join special Saturday morning demonstrations, for example, on how to clean, phlegm from one's air passage. From time to time he also gave me, along with others, chances to talk about yoga and doing yoga, benefits we seemed to be gaining, and problems we were having with certain poses. He also provided chances for me to read about aspects of yoga and to relate the ideas in the readings to my practice.

Because I had a consistent interest in learning to do different breathing exercises, for example, he lent me a book that included a chapter on the breathing practices of yoga. This chapter impressed on me that the way I breathe is a consequence of habit and that the purpose of practicing and mastering different ways of breathing is to have more control over the way I breathe and the consequences of this on my intellectual and emotional state. I also realized that I' could practice different breathing exercises anytime I wanted, not just at the yoga center and that it was possible to use breathing as a way to refresh myself physically and mentally even while walking down the street.

Something the instructor said also had a tremendous impact on how I see myself as a student and the way I approach the development of my yoga. When I told him that I was impressed by the way a particular student did yoga and that I wanted to become like him, he told me that there are correct and incorrect ways to do yoga, in that there are ways that bring benefits to the body and mind and ways that do not, but there are certainly degrees of variation in the ways yoga can be done and that this varies from person to person and comes from within the person. He added that my focus needs to be on observing how experienced practitioners do yoga so that I can take this knowledge inside myself, interpret how they do yoga, and relate this knowledge to my own development as a practitioner of yoga. The goal is not to be like them; it is to make use of their knowledge to build my own yoga values and practices.

In short, I believe that I learned to both appreciate and do yoga because of the multiple opportunities this instructor provided for me. Unlike the other yoga classes I had attended, he did not judge the way I did yoga as being good or bad, but rather focused on describing what I could do to change the way I do it. Likewise, he did not go through each lesson in a lockstep kind of way, but rather paid attention to the consequences of his actions on my unique way of doing yoga, for example, on whether or not I changed my yoga behavior to match my own concept of an ideal posture based on his feedback. He also focused on providing opportunities for me to take on the responsibility for my own yoga development by showing me how to use pictures and a mirror image as a way to observe, as well as to relate ideas to my own practice through reading and talk.

While practicing yoga with this teacher, I no longer had visions of riding my bicycle in my bare feet.

(Gebhard, 1999, pp. 2tl-215)



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