Chris MaresSmall Changes All the Time

by Chris Mares.


I am coming at this cold in the sense that I haven’t yet read John Fanselow’s book. But I will. However, I am a great believer in small changes. It fits in with one of my principles of teaching which I picked up from a mentor of mine, Ray Pelletier, who is both an excellent teacher of French and a miraculous chef. He once told me that as a teacher it is important to be consistent, reliable, and … wait for it – unpredictable.

I shall focus on the notion of principled unpredictability and the belief that this can positively impact student interest, engagement, and overall motivation.

For a long time, before class started I would write on the board the items I intended to cover during the class and at the end of class I would put a check next to the ones we had covered. Quite often I found that we didn’t cover everything I intended, though we thoroughly covered the goals I checked off. After a while, I sensed that some students were feeling that we weren’t achieving what I had set out to achieve. A small change I made was to not write what I intended to cover at the beginning of the class, but to write what we had covered at the end of class. I felt this was a small but positive change that helped motivate students.

There is no doubt that student motivation is vital with regard to successful learning outcomes. For this reason, as teachers, we must be mindful of this and do what we can to keep our learners engaged. One way to do this is simply to switch things up. For example, let’s say that when you correct students’ written work you highlight and correct every error. A change would be to focus on different errors. For example, only correct errors regarding prepositions, or articles, or verb tense. This draws student attention to a particular type of error and is less overwhelming and certainly less demoralizing. Another change might be to choose a random four lines, mark a box around these lines and correct all errors. Explain to students that the type of error you corrected will be similar throughout their paper. Next, have students mark another random four lines and have them try and correct their errors.

All teachers know that students, given freedom to choose, will gravitate towards the same seat and consequently end up working with the same partner or the same group. A small change that will shake things  up and create interest is to have students switch seats and form new configurations.  This can be done once a week or whenever there is a need to inject some new energy into the classroom. In order for this to work, it should be done regularly and not as a one off.

Teachers have a lot going on in their minds when teaching. Not only do we have to envisage the tasks and activities we want our students to do, we have to remember to take attendance, and think about what technology we may need. A way to mitigate this is through rotating delegation. Have one student take attendance for the week, another be your TA, another clean the board at the end of class, and another be responsible for ensuring desks are put back where they should be and that there is no trash left in the classroom. The following week have different students assume the same responsibilities.

A final area of small change with big potential big pay-off relates to our own professional growth.  In the same way that I promised myself I would read professionally for twenty minutes every day, I also made a pledge to try one new, principled activity a week with each of my classes. To do this I need to reflect on what we have done in class and why. I also have to google and ferret out an activity I haven’t done that will compliment what I am doing in class. Not only do students benefit from the surprise of a new activity, but I get to expand my repertoire.

And so we loop back to the beginning. Small changes can positively impact student engagement and motivation and also keep us, the teachers, in a state of positive mindfulness – and this is a good thing.


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Chris Mares

Chris Mares is a teacher, teacher trainer, and materials writer. He is director of the Intensive English Institute at the University of Maine, and has coauthored several popular ELT course books.

5 thoughts on “”

  1. Great ideas (and simple) Chris that will have an impact for sure! As teachers, we sometimes get stuck in our ways. Imagine how boring it is for our students to be so predictable.

  2. Love the “notion of principled unpredictability”, wonderfully illustrated with practical teaching tips for the classroom. Thank you for sharing, Chris!

  3. Love the way you make your lessons ‘unpredictable’ to enhance students’ motivation and engagement. I also appreciate your focus on continuous professional development for a teacher to keep himself up-to-date with new methods of teaching every single day. Thanks for these invaluable tips.

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