Posts Tagged ‘research’


In the last post, I looked at issues concerning self-pacing in personalized language learning programmes. This time, I turn to personalized goal-setting. Most definitions of personalized learning, such as that offered by Next Generation Learning Challenges (a non-profit supported by Educause, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, among others), argue that ‘the default perspective [should be] the student’s—not the curriculum, or the teacher, and that schools need to adjust to accommodate not only students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, but also their interests, and what motivates them to succeed.’ It’s a perspective shared by the United States National Education Technology Plan 2017 , which promotes the idea that learning objectives should vary based on learner needs, and should often be self-initiated. It’s shared by the massively funded Facebook initiative that is developing software that ‘puts students in charge of their lesson plans’, as the New York Times put it. How, precisely, personalized goal-setting can be squared with standardized, high-stakes testing is less than clear. Are they incompatible by any chance?

In language learning, the idea that learners should have some say in what they are learning is not new, going back, at least, to the humanistic turn in the 1970s. Wilga Rivers advocated ‘giving the students opportunity to choose what they want to learn’ (Rivers, 1971: 165). A few years later, Renee Disick argued that the extent to which a learning programme can be called personalized (although she used the term ‘individualized’) depends on the extent to which learners have a say in the choice of learning objectives and the content of learning (Disick, 1975). Coming more up to date, Penny Ur advocated giving learners ‘a measure of freedom to choose how and what to learn’ (Ur, 1996: 233).

The benefits of personalized goal-setting

Personalized goal-setting is closely related to learner autonomy and learner agency. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any meaningful sense of learner autonomy or agency without some control of learning objectives. Without this control, it will be harder for learners to develop an L2 self. This matters because ‘ultimate attainment in second-language learning relies on one’s agency … [it] is crucial at the point where the individuals must not just start memorizing a dozen new words and expressions but have to decide on whether to initiate a long, painful, inexhaustive, and, for some, never-ending process of self-translation. (Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000: 169 – 170). Put bluntly, if learners ‘have some responsibility for their own learning, they are more likely to be engaged than if they are just doing what the teacher tells them to’ (Harmer, 2012: 90). A degree of autonomy should lead to increased motivation which, in turn, should lead to increased achievement (Dickinson, 1987: 32; Cordova & Lepper, 1996: 726).

Strong evidence for these claims is not easy to provide, not least since autonomy and agency cannot be measured. However, ‘negative evidence clearly shows that a lack of agency can stifle learning by denying learners control over aspects of the language-learning process’ (Vandergriff, 2016: 91). Most language teachers (especially in compulsory education) have witnessed the negative effects that a lack of agency can generate in some students. Irrespective of the extent to which students are allowed to influence learning objectives, the desirability of agency / autonomy appears to be ‘deeply embedded in the professional consciousness of the ELT community’ (Borg and Al-Busaidi, 2012; Benson, 2016: 341). Personalized goal-setting may not, for a host of reasons, be possible in a particular learning / teaching context, but in principle it would seem to be a ‘good thing’.

Goal-setting and technology

The idea that learners might learn more and better if allowed to set their own learning objectives is hardly new, dating back at least one hundred years to the establishment of Montessori’s first Casa dei Bambini. In language teaching, the interest in personalized learning that developed in the 1970s (see my previous post) led to numerous classroom experiments in personalized goal-setting. These did not result in lasting changes, not least because the workload of teachers became ‘overwhelming’ (Disick, 1975: 128).

Closely related was the establishment of ‘self-access centres’. It was clear to anyone, like myself, who was involved in the setting-up and maintenance of a self-access centre, that they cost a lot, in terms of both money and work (Ur, 2012: 236). But there were also nagging questions about how effective they were (Morrison, 2005). Even more problematic was a bigger question: did they actually promote the learner autonomy that was their main goal?

Post-2000, online technology rendered self-access centres redundant: who needs the ‘walled garden’ of a self-access centre when ‘learners are able to connect with multiple resources and communities via the World Wide Web in entirely individual ways’ (Reinders, 2012)? The cost problem of self-access centres was solved by the web. Readily available now were ‘myriad digital devices, software, and learning platforms offering educators a once-unimaginable array of options for tailoring lessons to students’ needs’ (Cavanagh, 2014). Not only that … online technology promised to grant agency, to ‘empower language learners to take charge of their own learning’ and ‘to provide opportunities for learners to develop their L2 voice’ (Vandergriff, 2016: 32). The dream of personalized learning has become inseparable from the affordances of educational technologies.

It is, however, striking just how few online modes of language learning offer any degree of personalized goal-setting. Take a look at some of the big providers – Voxy, Busuu, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone or Babbel, for example – and you will find only the most token nods to personalized learning objectives. Course providers appear to be more interested in claiming their products are personalized (‘You decide what you want to learn and when!’) than in developing a sufficient amount of content to permit personalized goal-setting. We are left with the ELT equivalent of personalized cans of Coke: a marketing tool.


The problems with personalized goal-setting

Would language learning products, such as those mentioned above, be measurably any better if they did facilitate the personalization of learning objectives in a significant way? Would they be able to promote learner autonomy and agency in a way that self-access centres apparently failed to achieve? It’s time to consider the square quotes that I put around ‘good thing’.

Researchers have identified a number of potential problems with goal-setting. I have already mentioned the problem of reconciling personalized goals and standardized testing. In most learning contexts, educational authorities (usually the state) regulate the curriculum and determine assessment practices. It is difficult to see, as Campbell et al. (Campbell et al., 2007: 138) point out, how such regulation ‘could allow individual interpretations of the goals and values of education’. Most assessment systems ‘aim at convergent outcomes and homogeneity’ (Benson, 2016: 345) and this is especially true of online platforms, irrespective of their claims to ‘personalization’. In weak (typically internal) assessment systems, the potential for autonomy is strongest, but these are rare.

In all contexts, it is likely that personalized goal-setting will only lead to learning gains when a number of conditions are met. The goals that are chosen need to be both specific, measurable, challenging and non-conflicting (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 2-3). They need to be realistic: if not, it is unlikely that self-efficacy (a person’s belief about their own capability to achieve or perform to a certain level) will be promoted (Koda-Dallow & Hobbs, 2005), and without self-efficacy, improved performance is also unlikely (Bandura, 1997). The problem is that many learners lack self-efficacy and are poor self-regulators. These things are teachable / learnable, but require time and support. Many learners need help in ‘becoming aware of themselves and their own understandings’ (McMahon & Oliver, 2001: 1304). If they do not get it, the potential advantages of personalized goal-setting will be negated. As learners become better self-regulators, they will want and need to redefine their learning goals: goal-setting should be an iterative process (Hussey & Smith, 2003: 358). Again, support will be needed. In online learning, such support is not common.

A further problem that has been identified is that goal-setting can discourage a focus on non-goal areas (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 2) and can lead to ‘a focus on reaching the goal rather than on acquiring the skills required to reach it’ (Locke & Latham, 2006: 266). We know that much language learning is messy and incidental. Students do not only learn the particular thing that they are studying at the time (the belief that they do was described by Dewey as ‘the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies’). Goal-setting, even when personalized, runs the risk of promoting tunnel-vision.

The incorporation of personalized goal-setting in online language learning programmes is, in so many ways, a far from straightforward matter. Simply tacking it onto existing programmes is unlikely to result in anything positive: it is not an ‘over-the-counter treatment for motivation’ (Ordóñez et al.:2). Course developers will need to look at ‘the complex interplay between goal-setting and organizational contexts’ (Ordóñez et al. 2009: 16). Motivating students is not simply ‘a matter of the teacher deploying the correct strategies […] it is an intensely interactive process’ (Lamb, M. 2017). More generally, developers need to move away from a positivist and linear view of learning as a technical process where teaching interventions (such as the incorporation of goal-setting, the deployment of gamification elements or the use of a particular algorithm) will lead to predictable student outcomes. As Larry Cuban reminds us, ‘no persuasive body of evidence exists yet to confirm that belief (Cuban, 1986: 88). The most recent research into personalized learning has failed to identify any single element of personalization that can be clearly correlated with improved outcomes (Pane et al., 2015: 28).

In previous posts, I considered learning styles and self-pacing, two aspects of personalized learning that are highly problematic. Personalized goal-setting is no less so.


Bandura, A. 1997. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company

Benson, P. 2016. ‘Learner Autonomy’ in Hall, G. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching. Abingdon: Routledge. pp.339 – 352

Borg, S. & Al-Busaidi, S. 2012. ‘Teachers’ beliefs and practices regarding learner autonomy’ ELT Journal 66 / 3: 283 – 292

Cavanagh, S. 2014. ‘What Is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity’ Education Week

Cordova, D. I. & Lepper, M. R. 1996. ‘Intrinsic Motivation and the Process of Learning: Beneficial Effects of Contextualization, Personalization, and Choice’ Journal of Educational Psychology 88 / 4: 715 -739

Cuban, L. 1986. Teachers and Machines. New York: Teachers College Press

Dickinson, L. 1987. Self-instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Disick, R.S. 1975 Individualizing Language Instruction: Strategies and Methods. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Harmer, J. 2012. Essential Teacher Knowledge. Harlow: Pearson Education

Hussey, T. & Smith, P. 2003. ‘The Uses of Learning Outcomes’ Teaching in Higher Education 8 / 3: 357 – 368

Lamb, M. 2017 (in press) ‘The motivational dimension of language teaching’ Language Teaching 50 / 3

Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. 2006. ‘New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory’ Current Directions in Psychological Science 15 / 5: 265 – 268

McMahon, M. & Oliver, R. (2001). Promoting self-regulated learning in an on-line environment. In C. Montgomerie & J. Viteli (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2001 (pp. 1299-1305). Chesapeake, VA: AACE

Morrison, B. 2005. ‘Evaluating learning gain in a self-access learning centre’ Language Teaching Research 9 / 3: 267 – 293

Ordóñez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D. & Bazerman, M. H. 2009. Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting. Harvard Business School Working Paper 09-083

Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D. & Hamilton, L. S. 2015. Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning. Seattle: Rand Corporation

Pavlenko, A. & Lantolf, J. P. 2000. ‘Second language learning as participation and the (re)construction of selves’ In J.P. Lantolf (ed.), Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 155 – 177

Reinders, H. 2012. ‘The end of self-access? From walled garden to public park’ ELT World Online 4: 1 – 5

Rivers, W. M. 1971. ‘Techniques for Developing Proficiency in the Spoken Language in an Individualized Foreign Language program’ in Altman, H.B. & Politzer, R.L. (eds.) 1971. Individualizing Foreign Language Instruction: Proceedings of the Stanford Conference, May 6 – 8, 1971. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. pp. 165 – 169

Ur, P. 1996. A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ur, P. 2012. A Course in English Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Vandergriff, I. Second-language Discourse in the Digital World. 2016. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

All aboard …

The point of adaptive learning is that it can personalize learning. When we talk about personalization, mention of learning styles is rarely far away. Jose Ferreira of Knewton (but now ex-CEO Knewton) made his case for learning styles in a blog post that generated a superb and, for Ferreira, embarrassing  discussion in the comments that were subsequently deleted by Knewton. fluentu_learning_stylesFluentU (which I reviewed here) clearly approves of learning styles, or at least sees them as a useful way to market their product, even though it is unclear how their product caters to different styles. Busuu claims to be ‘personalised to fit your style of learning’. Voxy, Inc. (according to their company overview) ‘operates a language learning platform that creates custom curricula for English language learners based on their interests, routines, goals, and learning styles’. Bliu Bliu (which I reviewed here) recommended, in a recent blog post, that learners should ‘find out their language learner type and use it to their advantage’ and suggests, as a starter, trying out ‘Bliu Bliu, where pretty much any learner can find what suits them best’. Memrise ‘uses clever science to adapt to your personal learning style’.  Duolingo’s learning tree ‘effectively rearranges itself to suit individual learning styles’ according to founder, Louis Von Ahn. This list could go on and on.

Learning styles are thriving in ELT coursebooks, too. Here are just three recent examples for learners of various ages. Today! by Todd, D. & Thompson, T. (Pearson, 2014) ‘shapes learning around individual students with graded difficulty practice for mixed-ability classes’ and ‘makes testing mixed-ability classes easier with tests that you can personalise to students’ abilities’.today

Move  it! by Barraclough, C., Beddall, F., Stannett, K., Wildman, J. (Pearson, 2015) offers ‘personalized pathways [which] allow students to optimize their learning outcomes’ and a ‘complete assessment package to monitor students’ learning process’. pearson_move_it

Open Mind Elementary (A2) 2nd edition by Rogers, M., Taylor-Knowles, J. & Taylor-Knowles, S. (Macmillan, 2014) has a whole page devoted to learning styles in the ‘Life Skills’ strand of the course. The scope and sequence describes it in the following terms: ‘Thinking about what you like to do to find your learning style and improve how you learn English’. Here’s the relevant section:macmillan_coursebook

rosenber-learning-stylesMethodology books offer more tips for ways that teachers can cater to different learning styles. Recent examples include Patrycja Kamińska’s  Learning Styles and Second Language Education (Cambridge Scholars, 2014), Tammy Gregersen & Peter D. MacIntyre’s Capitalizing on Language Learners’ Individuality (Multilingual Matters, 2014) and Marjorie Rosenberg’s Spotlight on Learning Styles (Delta Publishing, 2013). Teacher magazines show a continuing interest  in the topic. Humanising Language Teaching and English Teaching Professional are particularly keen. The British Council offers courses about learning styles and its Teaching English website has many articles and lesson plans on the subject (my favourite explains that your students will be more successful if you match your teaching style to their learning styles), as do the websites of all the major publishers. Most ELT conferences will also offer something on the topic.oup_learning_styles

How about language teaching qualifications and frameworks? The Cambridge English Teaching Framework contains a component entitled ‘Understanding learners’ and this specifies as the first part of the component a knowledge of concepts such as learning styles (e.g., visual, auditory, kinaesthetic), multiple intelligences, learning strategies, special needs, affect. Unsurprisingly, the Cambridge CELTA qualification requires successful candidates to demonstrate an awareness of the different learning styles and preferences that adults bring to learning English. The Cambridge DELTA requires successful candidates to accommodate learners according to their different abilities, motivations, and learning styles. The Eaquals Framework for Language Teacher Training and Development requires teachers at Development Phase 2 t0 have the skill of determining and anticipating learners’ language learning needs and learning styles at a range of levels, selecting appropriate ways of finding out about these.

Outside of ELT, learning styles also continue to thrive. Phil Newton (2015 ‘The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education’ Frontiers in Psychology 6: 1908) carried out a survey of educational publications  (higher education) between 2013 and 2016, and found that an overwhelming majority (89%) implicitly or directly endorse the use of learning styles. He also cites research showing that 93% of UK schoolteachers believe that ‘individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred Learning Style’, with similar figures in other countries. 72% of Higher Education institutions in the US teach ‘learning style theory’ as part of faculty development for online teachers. Advocates of learning styles in English language teaching are not alone.

But, unfortunately, …

In case you weren’t aware of it, there is a rather big problem with learning styles. There is a huge amount of research  which suggests that learning styles (and, in particular, teaching attempts to cater to learning styles) need to be approached with extreme scepticism. Much of this research was published long before the blog posts, advertising copy, books and teaching frameworks (listed above) were written.  What does this research have to tell us?

The first problem concerns learning styles taxonomies. There are three issues here: many people do not fit one particular style, the information used to assign people to styles is often inadequate, and there are so many different styles that it becomes cumbersome to link particular learners to particular styles (Kirschner, P. A. & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. 2013. ‘Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education’ Educational Psychologist, 48 / 3, 169-183). To summarise, given the lack of clarity as to which learning styles actually exist, it may be ‘neither viable nor justified’ for learning styles to form the basis of lesson planning (Hall, G. 2011. Exploring English Language Teaching. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge p.140). More detailed information about these issues can be found in the following sources:

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. 2004. Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre

Dembo, M. H. & Howard, K. 2007. Advice about the use of learning styles: a major myth in education. Journal of College Reading & Learning 37 / 2: 101 – 109

Kirschner, P. A. 2017. Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education 106: 166 – 171

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, E. 2008. Learning styles concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9 / 3: 105 – 119

Riener, C. & Willingham, D. 2010. The myth of learning styles. Change – The Magazine of Higher Learning

The second problem concerns what Pashler et al refer to as the ‘meshing hypothesis’: the idea that instructional interventions can be effectively tailored to match particular learning styles. Pashler et al concluded that the available taxonomies of student types do not offer any valid help in deciding what kind of instruction to offer each individual. Even in 2008, their finding was not new. Back in 1978, a review of 15 studies that looked at attempts to match learning styles to approaches to first language reading instruction, concluded that modality preference ‘has not been found to interact significantly with the method of teaching’ (Tarver, Sara & M. M. Dawson. 1978. Modality preference and the teaching of reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities 11: 17 – 29). The following year, two other researchers concluded that [the assumption that one can improve instruction by matching materials to children’s modality strengths] appears to lack even minimal empirical support. (Arter, J.A. & Joseph A. Jenkins 1979 ‘Differential diagnosis-prescriptive teaching: A critical appraisal’ Review of Educational Research 49: 517-555). Fast forward 20 years to 1999, and Stahl (Different strokes for different folks?’ American Educator Fall 1999 pp. 1 – 5) was writing the reason researchers roll their eyes at learning styles is the utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on learning. The area with the most research has been the global and analytic styles […]. Over the past 30 years, the names of these styles have changed – from ‘visual’ to ‘global’ and from ‘auditory’ to ‘analytic’ – but the research results have not changed. For a recent evaluation of the practical applications of learning styles, have a look at Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M. & Tallal, P. 2015. ‘Matching Learning Style to Instructional Method: Effects on Comprehension’ Journal of Educational Psychology 107 / 1: 64 – 78. Even David Kolb, the Big Daddy of learning styles, now concedes that there is no strong evidence that teachers should tailor their instruction to their student’s particular learning styles (reported in Glenn, D. 2009. ‘Matching teaching style to learning style may not help students’ The Chronicle of Higher Education). To summarise, the meshing hypothesis is entirely unsupported in the scientific literature. It is a myth (Howard-Jones, P. A. 2014. ‘Neuroscience and education: myths and messages’ Nature Reviews Neuroscience).

This brings me back to the blog posts, advertising blurb, coursebooks, methodology books and so on that continue to tout learning styles. The writers of these texts typically do not acknowledge that there’s a problem of any kind. Are they unaware of the research? Or are they aware of it, but choose not to acknowledge it? I suspect that the former is often the case with the app developers. But if the latter is the case, what  might those reasons be? In the case of teacher training specifications, the reason is probably practical. Changing a syllabus is an expensive and time-consuming operation. But in the case of some of the ELT writers, I suspect that they hang on in there because they so much want to believe.

As Newton (2015: 2) notes, intuitively, there is much that is attractive about the concept of Learning Styles. People are obviously different and Learning Styles appear to offer educators a way to accommodate individual learner differences.  Pashler et al (2009:107) add that another related factor that may play a role in the popularity of the learning-styles approach has to do with responsibility. If a person or a person’s child is not succeeding or excelling in school, it may be more comfortable for the person to think that the educational system, not the person or the child himself or herself, is responsible. That is, rather than attribute one’s lack of success to any lack of ability or effort on one’s part, it may be more appealing to think that the fault lies with instruction being inadequately tailored to one’s learning style. In that respect, there may be linkages to the self-esteem movement that became so influential, internationally, starting in the 1970s. There is no reason to doubt that many of those who espouse learning styles have good intentions.

No one, I think, seriously questions whether learners might not benefit from a wide variety of input styles and learning tasks. People are obviously different. MacIntyre et al (MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Clément, R. 2016. ‘Individual Differences’ in Hall, G. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp.310 – 323, p.319) suggest that teachers might consider instructional methods that allow them to capitalise on both variety and choice and also help learners find ways to do this for themselves inside and outside the classroom. Jill Hadfield (2006. ‘Teacher Education and Trainee Learning Style’ RELC Journal 37 / 3: 369 – 388) recommends that we design our learning tasks across the range of learning styles so that our trainees can move across the spectrum, experiencing both the comfort of matching and the challenge produced by mismatching. But this is not the same thing as claiming that identification of a particular learning style can lead to instructional decisions. The value of books like Rosenberg’s Spotlight on Learning Styles lies in the wide range of practical suggestions for varying teaching styles and tasks. They contain ideas of educational value: it is unfortunate that the theoretical background is so thin.

In ELT things are, perhaps, beginning to change. Russ Mayne’s blog post Learning styles: facts and fictions in 2012 got a few heads nodding, and he followed this up 2 years later with a presentation at IATEFL looking at various aspects of ELT, including learning styles, which have little or no scientific credibility. Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries gave a talk at IATEFL 2016, Changing the way we approach learning styles in teacher education, which was also much discussed and shared online. They also had an article in ELT Journal called Learning styles and teacher training: are we perpetuating neuromyths? (2016 ELTJ 70 / 1: 16 – 27). Even Pearson, in a blog post of November 2016, (Mythbusters: A review of research on learning styles) acknowledges that there is a shocking lack of evidence to support the core learning styles claim that customizing instruction based on students’ preferred learning styles produces better learning than effective universal instruction, concluding that  it is impossible to recommend learning styles as an effective strategy for improving learning outcomes.



Every now and then, someone recommends me to take a look at a flashcard app. It’s often interesting to see what developers have done with design, gamification and UX features, but the content is almost invariably awful. Most recently, I was encouraged to look at Word Pash. The screenshots below are from their promotional video.

word-pash-1 word-pash-2 word-pash-3 word-pash-4

The content problems are immediately apparent: an apparently random selection of target items, an apparently random mix of high and low frequency items, unidiomatic language examples, along with definitions and distractors that are less frequent than the target item. I don’t know if these are representative of the rest of the content. The examples seem to come from ‘Stage 1 Level 3’, whatever that means. (My confidence in the product was also damaged by the fact that the Word Pash website includes one testimonial from a certain ‘Janet Reed – Proud Mom’, whose son ‘was able to increase his score and qualify for academic scholarships at major universities’ after using the app. The picture accompanying ‘Janet Reed’ is a free stock image from Pexels and ‘Janet Reed’ is presumably fictional.)

According to the website, ‘WordPash is a free-to-play mobile app game for everyone in the global audience whether you are a 3rd grader or PhD, wordbuff or a student studying for their SATs, foreign student or international business person, you will become addicted to this fast paced word game’. On the basis of the promotional video, the app couldn’t be less appropriate for English language learners. It seems unlikely that it would help anyone improve their ACT or SAT test scores. The suggestion that the vocabulary development needs of 9-year-olds and doctoral students are comparable is pure chutzpah.

The deliberate study of more or less random words may be entertaining, but it’s unlikely to lead to very much in practical terms. For general purposes, the deliberate learning of the highest frequency words, up to about a frequency ranking of #7500, makes sense, because there’s a reasonably high probability that you’ll come across these items again before you’ve forgotten them. Beyond that frequency level, the value of the acquisition of an additional 1000 words tails off very quickly. Adding 1000 words from frequency ranking #8000 to #9000 is likely to result in an increase in lexical understanding of general purpose texts of about 0.2%. When we get to frequency ranks #19,000 to #20,000, the gain in understanding decreases to 0.01%[1]. In other words, deliberate vocabulary learning needs to be targeted. The data is relatively recent, but the principle goes back to at least the middle of the last century when Michael West argued that a principled approach to vocabulary development should be driven by a comparison of the usefulness of a word and its ‘learning cost’[2]. Three hundred years before that, Comenius had articulated something very similar: ‘in compiling vocabularies, my […] concern was to select the words in most frequent use[3].

I’ll return to ‘general purposes’ later in this post, but, for now, we should remember that very few language learners actually study a language for general purposes. Globally, the vast majority of English language learners study English in an academic (school) context and their immediate needs are usually exam-specific. For them, general purpose frequency lists are unlikely to be adequate. If they are studying with a coursebook and are going to be tested on the lexical content of that book, they will need to use the wordlist that matches the book. Increasingly, publishers make such lists available and content producers for vocabulary apps like Quizlet and Memrise often use them. Many examinations, both national and international, also have accompanying wordlists. Examples of such lists produced by examination boards include the Cambridge English young learners’ exams (Starters, Movers and Flyers) and Cambridge English Preliminary. Other exams do not have official word lists, but reasonably reliable lists have been produced by third parties. Examples include Cambridge First, IELTS and SAT. There are, in addition, well-researched wordlists for academic English, including the Academic Word List (AWL)  and the Academic Vocabulary List  (AVL). All of these make sensible starting points for deliberate vocabulary learning.

When we turn to other, out-of-school learners the number of reasons for studying English is huge. Different learners have different lexical needs, and working with a general purpose frequency list may be, at least in part, a waste of time. EFL and ESL learners are likely to have very different needs, as will EFL and ESP learners, as will older and younger learners, learners in different parts of the world, learners who will find themselves in English-speaking countries and those who won’t, etc., etc. For some of these demographics, specialised corpora (from which frequency-based wordlists can be drawn) exist. For most learners, though, the ideal list simply does not exist. Either it will have to be created (requiring a significant amount of time and expertise[4]) or an available best-fit will have to suffice. Paul Nation, in his recent ‘Making and Using Word Lists for Language Learning and Testing’ (John Benjamins, 2016) includes a useful chapter on critiquing wordlists. For anyone interested in better understanding the issues surrounding the development and use of wordlists, three good articles are freely available online. These are:making-and-using-word-lists-for-language-learning-and-testing

Lessard-Clouston, M. 2012 / 2013. ‘Word Lists for Vocabulary Learning and Teaching’ The CATESOL Journal 24.1: 287- 304

Lessard-Clouston, M. 2016. ‘Word lists and vocabulary teaching: options and suggestions’ Cornerstone ESL Conference 2016

Sorell, C. J. 2013. A study of issues and techniques for creating core vocabulary lists for English as an International Language. Doctoral thesis.

But, back to ‘general purposes’ …. Frequency lists are the obvious starting point for preparing a wordlist for deliberate learning, but they are very problematic. Frequency rankings depend on the corpus on which they are based and, since these are different, rankings vary from one list to another. Even drawing on just one corpus, rankings can be a little strange. In the British National Corpus, for example, ‘May’ (the month) is about twice as frequent as ‘August’[5], but we would be foolish to infer from this that the learning of ‘May’ should be prioritised over the learning of ‘August’. An even more striking example from the same corpus is the fact that ‘he’ is about twice as frequent as ‘she’[6]: should, therefore, ‘he’ be learnt before ‘she’?

List compilers have to make a number of judgement calls in their work. There is not space here to consider these in detail, but two particularly tricky questions concerning the way that words are chosen may be mentioned: Is a verb like ‘list’, with two different and unrelated meanings, one word or two? Should inflected forms be considered as separate words? The judgements are not usually informed by considerations of learners’ needs. Learners will probably best approach vocabulary development by building their store of word senses: attempting to learn all the meanings and related forms of any given word is unlikely to be either useful or successful.

Frequency lists, in other words, are not statements of scientific ‘fact’: they are interpretative documents. They have been compiled for descriptive purposes, not as ways of structuring vocabulary learning, and it cannot be assumed they will necessarily be appropriate for a purpose for which they were not designed.

A further major problem concerns the corpus on which the frequency list is based. Large databases, such as the British National Corpus or the Corpus of Contemporary American English, are collections of language used by native speakers in certain parts of the world, usually of a restricted social class. As such, they are of relatively little value to learners who will be using English in contexts that are not covered by the corpus. A context where English is a lingua franca is one such example.

A different kind of corpus is the Cambridge Learner Corpus (CLC), a collection of exam scripts produced by candidates in Cambridge exams. This has led to the development of the English Vocabulary Profile (EVP) , where word senses are tagged as corresponding to particular levels in the Common European Framework scale. At first glance, this looks like a good alternative to frequency lists based on native-speaker corpora. But closer consideration reveals many problems. The design of examination tasks inevitably results in the production of language of a very different kind from that produced in other contexts. Many high frequency words simply do not appear in the CLC because it is unlikely that a candidate would use them in an exam. Other items are very frequent in this corpus just because they are likely to be produced in examination tasks. Unsurprisingly, frequency rankings in EVP do not correlate very well with frequency rankings from other corpora. The EVP, then, like other frequency lists, can only serve, at best, as a rough guide for the drawing up of target item vocabulary lists in general purpose apps or coursebooks[7].

There is no easy solution to the problems involved in devising suitable lexical content for the ‘global audience’. Tagging words to levels (i.e. grouping them into frequency bands) will always be problematic, unless very specific user groups are identified. Writers, like myself, of general purpose English language teaching materials are justifiably irritated by some publishers’ insistence on allocating words to levels with numerical values. The policy, taken to extremes (as is increasingly the case), has little to recommend it in linguistic terms. But it’s still a whole lot better than the aleatory content of apps like Word Pash.

[1] See Nation, I.S.P. 2013. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language 2nd edition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 21 for statistical tables. See also Nation, P. & R. Waring 1997. ‘Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists’ in Schmitt & McCarthy (eds.) 1997. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) pp. 6 -19

[2] See Kelly, L.G. 1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. (Rowley, Mass.: Rowley House) p.206 for a discussion of West’s ideas.

[3] Kelly, L.G. 1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. (Rowley, Mass.: Rowley House) p. 184

[4] See Timmis, I. 2015. Corpus Linguistics for ELT (Abingdon: Routledge) for practical advice on doing this.

[5] Nation, I.S.P. 2016. Making and Using Word Lists for Language Learning and Testing. (Amsterdam: John Benjamins) p.58

[6] Taylor, J.R. 2012. The Mental Corpus. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p.151

[7] For a detailed critique of the limitations of using the CLC as a guide to syllabus design and textbook development, see Swan, M. 2014. ‘A Review of English Profile Studies’ ELTJ 68/1: 89-96

In December last year, I posted a wish list for vocabulary (flashcard) apps. At the time, I hadn’t read a couple of key research texts on the subject. It’s time for an update.

First off, there’s an article called ‘Intentional Vocabulary Learning Using Digital Flashcards’ by Hsiu-Ting Hung. It’s available online here. Given the lack of empirical research into the use of digital flashcards, it’s an important article and well worth a read. Its basic conclusion is that digital flashcards are more effective as a learning tool than printed word lists. No great surprises there, but of more interest, perhaps, are the recommendations that (1) ‘students should be educated about the effective use of flashcards (e.g. the amount and timing of practice), and this can be implemented through explicit strategy instruction in regular language courses or additional study skills workshops ‘ (Hung, 2015: 111), and (2) that digital flashcards can be usefully ‘repurposed for collaborative learning tasks’ (Hung, ibid.).

nakataHowever, what really grabbed my attention was an article by Tatsuya Nakata. Nakata’s research is of particular interest to anyone interested in vocabulary learning, but especially so to those with an interest in digital possibilities. A number of his research articles can be freely accessed via his page at ResearchGate, but the one I am interested in is called ‘Computer-assisted second language vocabulary learning in a paired-associate paradigm: a critical investigation of flashcard software’. Don’t let the title put you off. It’s a review of a pile of web-based flashcard programs: since the article is already five years old, many of the programs have either changed or disappeared, but the critical approach he takes is more or less as valid now as it was then (whether we’re talking about web-based stuff or apps).

Nakata divides his evaluation for criteria into two broad groups.

Flashcard creation and editing

(1) Flashcard creation: Can learners create their own flashcards?

(2) Multilingual support: Can the target words and their translations be created in any language?

(3) Multi-word units: Can flashcards be created for multi-word units as well as single words?

(4) Types of information: Can various kinds of information be added to flashcards besides the word meanings (e.g. parts of speech, contexts, or audios)?

(5) Support for data entry: Does the software support data entry by automatically supplying information about lexical items such as meaning, parts of speech, contexts, or frequency information from an internal database or external resources?

(6) Flashcard set: Does the software allow learners to create their own sets of flashcards?


(1) Presentation mode: Does the software have a presentation mode, where new items are introduced and learners familiarise themselves with them?

(2) Retrieval mode: Does the software have a retrieval mode, which asks learners to recall or choose the L2 word form or its meaning?

(3) Receptive recall: Does the software ask learners to produce the meanings of target words?

(4) Receptive recognition: Does the software ask learners to choose the meanings of target words?

(5) Productive recall: Does the software ask learners to produce the target word forms corresponding to the meanings provided?

(6) Productive recognition: Does the software ask learners to choose the target word forms corresponding to the meanings provided?

(7) Increasing retrieval effort: For a given item, does the software arrange exercises in the order of increasing difficulty?

(8) Generative use: Does the software encourage generative use of words, where learners encounter or use previously met words in novel contexts?

(9) Block size: Can the number of words studied in one learning session be controlled and altered?

(10) Adaptive sequencing: Does the software change the sequencing of items based on learners’ previous performance on individual items?

(11) Expanded rehearsal: Does the software help implement expanded rehearsal, where the intervals between study trials are gradually increased as learning proceeds? (Nakata, T. (2011): ‘Computer-assisted second language vocabulary learning in a paired-associate paradigm: a critical investigation of flashcard software’ Computer Assisted Language Learning, 24:1, 17-38)

It’s a rather different list from my own (there’s nothing I would disagree with here), because mine is more general and his is exclusively oriented towards learning principles. Nakata makes the point towards the end of the article that it would ‘be useful to investigate learners’ reactions to computer-based flashcards to examine whether they accept flashcard programs developed according to learning principles’ (p. 34). It’s far from clear, he points out, that conformity to learning principles are at the top of learners’ agendas. More than just users’ feelings about computer-based flashcards in general, a key concern will be the fact that there are ‘large individual differences in learners’ perceptions of [any flashcard] program’ (Nakata, N. 2008. ‘English vocabulary learning with word lists, word cards and computers: implications from cognitive psychology research for optimal spaced learning’ ReCALL 20(1), p. 18).

I was trying to make a similar point in another post about motivation and vocabulary apps. In the end, as with any language learning material, research-driven language learning principles can only take us so far. User experience is a far more difficult creature to pin down or to make generalisations about. A user’s reaction to graphics, gamification, uploading time and so on are so powerful and so subjective that learning principles will inevitably play second fiddle. That’s not to say, of course, that Nakata’s questions are not important: it’s merely to wonder whether the bigger question is truly answerable.

Nakata’s research identifies plenty of room for improvement in digital flashcards, and although the article is now quite old, not a lot had changed. Key areas to work on are (1) the provision of generative use of target words, (2) the need to increase retrieval effort, (3) the automatic provision of information about meaning, parts of speech, or contexts (in order to facilitate flashcard creation), and (4) the automatic generation of multiple-choice distractors.

In the conclusion of his study, he identifies one flashcard program which is better than all the others. Unsurprisingly, five years down the line, the software he identifies is no longer free, others have changed more rapidly in the intervening period, and who knows will be out in front next week?


About two and a half years ago when I started writing this blog, there was a lot of hype around adaptive learning and the big data which might drive it. Two and a half years are a long time in technology. A look at Google Trends suggests that interest in adaptive learning has been pretty static for the last couple of years. It’s interesting to note that 3 of the 7 lettered points on this graph are Knewton-related media events (including the most recent, A, which is Knewton’s latest deal with Hachette) and 2 of them concern McGraw-Hill. It would be interesting to know whether these companies follow both parts of Simon Cowell’s dictum of ‘Create the hype, but don’t ever believe it’.


A look at the Hype Cycle (see here for Wikipedia’s entry on the topic and for criticism of the hype of Hype Cycles) of the IT research and advisory firm, Gartner, indicates that both big data and adaptive learning have now slid into the ‘trough of disillusionment’, which means that the market has started to mature, becoming more realistic about how useful the technologies can be for organizations.

A few years ago, the Gates Foundation, one of the leading cheerleaders and financial promoters of adaptive learning, launched its Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program (ALMAP) to ‘advance evidence-based understanding of how adaptive learning technologies could improve opportunities for low-income adults to learn and to complete postsecondary credentials’. It’s striking that the program’s aims referred to how such technologies could lead to learning gains, not whether they would. Now, though, with the publication of a report commissioned by the Gates Foundation to analyze the data coming out of the ALMAP Program, things are looking less rosy. The report is inconclusive. There is no firm evidence that adaptive learning systems are leading to better course grades or course completion. ‘The ultimate goal – better student outcomes at lower cost – remains elusive’, the report concludes. Rahim Rajan, a senior program office for Gates, is clear: ‘There is no magical silver bullet here.’

The same conclusion is being reached elsewhere. A report for the National Education Policy Center (in Boulder, Colorado) concludes: Personalized Instruction, in all its many forms, does not seem to be the transformational technology that is needed, however. After more than 30 years, Personalized Instruction is still producing incremental change. The outcomes of large-scale studies and meta-analyses, to the extent they tell us anything useful at all, show mixed results ranging from modest impacts to no impact. Additionally, one must remember that the modest impacts we see in these meta-analyses are coming from blended instruction, which raises the cost of education rather than reducing it (Enyedy, 2014: 15 -see reference at the foot of this post). In the same vein, a recent academic study by Meg Coffin Murray and Jorge Pérez (2015, ‘Informing and Performing: A Study Comparing Adaptive Learning to Traditional Learning’) found that ‘adaptive learning systems have negligible impact on learning outcomes’.

future-ready-learning-reimagining-the-role-of-technology-in-education-1-638In the latest educational technology plan from the U.S. Department of Education (‘Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education’, 2016) the only mentions of the word ‘adaptive’ are in the context of testing. And the latest OECD report on ‘Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection’ (2015), finds, more generally, that information and communication technologies, when they are used in the classroom, have, at best, a mixed impact on student performance.

There is, however, too much money at stake for the earlier hype to disappear completely. Sponsored cheerleading for adaptive systems continues to find its way into blogs and national magazines and newspapers. EdSurge, for example, recently published a report called ‘Decoding Adaptive’ (2016), sponsored by Pearson, that continues to wave the flag. Enthusiastic anecdotes take the place of evidence, but, for all that, it’s a useful read.

In the world of ELT, there are plenty of sales people who want new products which they can call ‘adaptive’ (and gamified, too, please). But it’s striking that three years after I started following the hype, such products are rather thin on the ground. Pearson was the first of the big names in ELT to do a deal with Knewton, and invested heavily in the company. Their relationship remains close. But, to the best of my knowledge, the only truly adaptive ELT product that Pearson offers is the PTE test.

Macmillan signed a contract with Knewton in May 2013 ‘to provide personalized grammar and vocabulary lessons, exam reviews, and supplementary materials for each student’. In December of that year, they talked up their new ‘big tree online learning platform’: ‘Look out for the Big Tree logo over the coming year for more information as to how we are using our partnership with Knewton to move forward in the Language Learning division and create content that is tailored to students’ needs and reactive to their progress.’ I’ve been looking out, but it’s all gone rather quiet on the adaptive / platform front.

In September 2013, it was the turn of Cambridge to sign a deal with Knewton ‘to create personalized learning experiences in its industry-leading ELT digital products for students worldwide’. This year saw the launch of a major new CUP series, ‘Empower’. It has an online workbook with personalized extra practice, but there’s nothing (yet) that anyone would call adaptive. More recently, Cambridge has launched the online version of the 2nd edition of Touchstone. Nothing adaptive there, either.

Earlier this year, Cambridge published The Cambridge Guide to Blended Learning for Language Teaching, edited by Mike McCarthy. It contains a chapter by M.O.Z. San Pedro and R. Baker on ‘Adaptive Learning’. It’s an enthusiastic account of the potential of adaptive learning, but it doesn’t contain a single reference to language learning or ELT!

So, what’s going on? Skepticism is becoming the order of the day. The early hype of people like Knewton’s Jose Ferreira is now understood for what it was. Companies like Macmillan got their fingers badly burnt when they barked up the wrong tree with their ‘Big Tree’ platform.

Noel Enyedy captures a more contemporary understanding when he writes: Personalized Instruction is based on the metaphor of personal desktop computers—the technology of the 80s and 90s. Today’s technology is not just personal but mobile, social, and networked. The flexibility and social nature of how technology infuses other aspects of our lives is not captured by the model of Personalized Instruction, which focuses on the isolated individual’s personal path to a fixed end-point. To truly harness the power of modern technology, we need a new vision for educational technology (Enyedy, 2014: 16).

Adaptive solutions aren’t going away, but there is now a much better understanding of what sorts of problems might have adaptive solutions. Testing is certainly one. As the educational technology plan from the U.S. Department of Education (‘Future Ready Learning: Re-imagining the Role of Technology in Education’, 2016) puts it: Computer adaptive testing, which uses algorithms to adjust the difficulty of questions throughout an assessment on the basis of a student’s responses, has facilitated the ability of assessments to estimate accurately what students know and can do across the curriculum in a shorter testing session than would otherwise be necessary. In ELT, Pearson and EF have adaptive tests that have been well researched and designed.

Vocabulary apps which deploy adaptive technology continue to become more sophisticated, although empirical research is lacking. Automated writing tutors with adaptive corrective feedback are also developing fast, and I’ll be writing a post about these soon. Similarly, as speech recognition software improves, we can expect to see better and better automated adaptive pronunciation tutors. But going beyond such applications, there are bigger questions to ask, and answers to these will impact on whatever direction adaptive technologies take. Large platforms (LMSs), with or without adaptive software, are already beginning to look rather dated. Will they be replaced by integrated apps, or are apps themselves going to be replaced by bots (currently riding high in the Hype Cycle)? In language learning and teaching, the future of bots is likely to be shaped by developments in natural language processing (another topic about which I’ll be blogging soon). Nobody really has a clue where the next two and a half years will take us (if anywhere), but it’s becoming increasingly likely that adaptive learning will be only one very small part of it.


Enyedy, N. 2014. Personalized Instruction: New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results, and the Need for a New Direction for Computer-Mediated Learning. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved 17.07.16 from

If you’re going to teach vocabulary, you need to organise it in some way. Almost invariably, this organisation is topical, with words grouped into what are called semantic sets. In coursebooks, the example below (from Rogers, M., Taylore-Knowles, J. & S. Taylor-Knowles. 2010. Open Mind Level 1. London: Macmillan, p.68) is fairly typical.

open mind

Coursebooks are almost always organised in a topical way. The example above comes in a unit (of 10 pages), entitled ‘You have talent!’, which contains two main vocabulary sections. It’s unsurprising to find a section called ‘personality adjectives’ in such a unit. What’s more, such an approach lends itself to the requisite, but largely, spurious ‘can-do’ statement in the self-evaluation section: I can talk about people’s positive qualities. We must have clearly identifiable learning outcomes, after all.

There is, undeniably, a certain intuitive logic in this approach. An alternative might entail a radical overhaul of coursebook architecture – this might not be such a bad thing, but might not go down too well in the markets. How else, after all, could the vocabulary strand of the syllabus be organised?

Well, there are a number of ways in which a vocabulary syllabus could be organised. Including the standard approach described above, here are four possibilities:

1 semantic sets (e.g. bee, butterfly, fly, mosquito, etc.)

2 thematic sets (e.g. ‘pets’: cat, hate, flea, feed, scratch, etc.)

3 unrelated sets

4 sets determined by a group of words’ occurrence in a particular text

Before reading further, you might like to guess what research has to say about the relative effectiveness of these four approaches.

The answer depends, to some extent, on the level of the learner. For advanced learners, it appears to make no, or little, difference (Al-Jabri, 2005, cited by Ellis & Shintani, 2014: 106). But, for the vast majority of English language learners (i.e. those at or below B2 level), the research is clear: the most effective way of organising vocabulary items to be learnt is by grouping them into thematic sets (2) or by mixing words together in a semantically unrelated way (3) – not by teaching sets like ‘personality adjectives’. It is surprising how surprising this finding is to so many teachers and materials writers. It goes back at least to 1988 and West’s article on ‘Catenizing’ in ELTJ, which argued that semantic grouping made little sense from a psycho-linguistic perspective. Since then, a large amount of research has taken place. This is succinctly summarised by Paul Nation (2013: 128) in the following terms: Avoid interference from related words. Words which are similar in form (Laufer, 1989) or meaning (Higa, 1963; Nation, 2000; Tinkham, 1993; Tinkham, 1997; Waring, 1997) are more difficult to learn together than they are to learn separately. For anyone who is interested, the most up-to-date review of this research that I can find is in chapter 11 of Barcroft (2105).

The message is clear. So clear that you have to wonder how it is not getting through to materials designers. Perhaps, coursebooks are different. They regularly eschew research findings for commercial reasons. But vocabulary apps? There is rarely, if ever, any pressure on the content-creation side of vocabulary apps (except those that are tied to coursebooks) to follow the popular misconceptions that characterise so many coursebooks. It wouldn’t be too hard to organise vocabulary into thematic sets (like, for example, the approach in the A2 level of Memrise German that I’m currently using). Is it simply because the developers of so many vocabulary apps just don’t know much about language learning?


Barcroft, J. 2015. Lexical Input Processing and Vocabulary Learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Nation, I. S. P. 2013. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ellis, R. & N. Shintani, N. 2014. Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

West, M. 1988. ‘Catenizing’ English Language Teaching Journal 6: 147 – 151

51Fgn6C4sWL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Decent research into adaptive learning remains very thin on the ground. Disappointingly, the Journal of Learning Analytics has only managed one issue so far in 2015, compared to three in 2014. But I recently came across an article in Vol. 18 (pp. 111 – 125) of  Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline entitled Informing and performing: A study comparing adaptive learning to traditional learning by Murray, M. C., & Pérez, J. of Kennesaw State University.

The article is worth reading, not least because of the authors’ digestible review of  adaptive learning theory and their discussion of levels of adaptation, including a handy diagram (see below) which they have reproduced from a white paper by Tyton Partners ‘Learning to Adapt: Understanding the Adaptive Learning Supplier Landscape’. Murray and Pérez make clear that adaptive learning theory is closely connected to the belief that learning is improved when instruction is personalized — adapted to individual learning styles, but their approach is surprisingly uncritical. They write, for example, that the general acceptance of learning styles is evidenced in recommended teaching strategies in nearly every discipline, and learning styles continue to inform the evolution of adaptive learning systems, and quote from the much-quoted Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008) Learning styles: concepts and evidence, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119. But Pashler et al concluded that the current evidence supporting the use of learning style-matched approaches is virtually non-existent (see here for a review of Pashler et al). And, in the world of ELT, an article in the latest edition of ELTJ by Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries disses learning styles and other neuromyths. Given the close connection between adaptive learning theory and learning styles, one might reasonably predict that a comparative study of adaptive learning and traditional learning would not come out with much evidence in support of the former.

adaptive_taxonomyMurray and Pérez set out, anyway, to explore the hypothesis that adapting instruction to an individual’s learning style results in better learning outcomes. Their study compared adaptive and traditional methods in a university-level digital literacy course. Their conclusion? This study and a few others like it indicate that today’s adaptive learning systems have negligible impact on learning outcomes.

I was, however, more interested in the comments which followed this general conclusion. They point out that learning outcomes are only one measure of quality. Others, such as student persistence and engagement, they claim, can be positively affected by the employment of adaptive systems. I am not convinced. I think it’s simply far too soon to be able to judge this, and we need to wait quite some time for novelty effects to wear off. Murray and Pérez provide two references in support of their claim. One is an article by Josh Jarrett, Bigfoot, Goldilocks, and Moonshots: A Report from the Frontiers of Personalized Learning in Educause. Jarrett is Deputy Director for Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Educause is significantly funded by the Gates Foundation. Not, therefore, an entirely unbiased and trustworthy source. The other is a journalistic piece in Forbes. It’s by Tim Zimmer, entitled Rethinking higher ed: A case for adaptive learning and it reads like an advert. Zimmer is a ‘CCAP contributor’. CCAP is the Centre for College Affordability and Productivity, a libertarian, conservative foundation with a strong privatization agenda. Not, therefore, a particularly reliable source, either.

Despite their own findings, Murray and Pérez follow up their claim about student persistence and engagement with what they describe as a more compelling still argument for adaptive learning. This, they say, is the intuitively appealing case for adaptive learning systems as engines with which institutions can increase access and reduce costs. Ah, now we’re getting to the point!













Adaptive learning providers make much of their ability to provide learners with personalised feedback and to provide teachers with dashboard feedback on the performance of both individuals and groups. All well and good, but my interest here is in the automated feedback that software could provide on very specific learning tasks. Scott Thornbury, in a recent talk, ‘Ed Tech: The Mouse that Roared?’, listed six ‘problems’ of language acquisition that educational technology for language learning needs to address. One of these he framed as follows: ‘The feedback problem, i.e. how does the learner get optimal feedback at the point of need?’, and suggested that technological applications ‘have some way to go.’ He was referring, not to the kind of feedback that dashboards can provide, but to the kind of feedback that characterises a good language teacher: corrective feedback (CF) – the way that teachers respond to learner utterances (typically those containing errors, but not necessarily restricted to these) in what Ellis and Shintani call ‘form-focused episodes’[1]. These responses may include a direct indication that there is an error, a reformulation, a request for repetition, a request for clarification, an echo with questioning intonation, etc. Basically, they are correction techniques.

These days, there isn’t really any debate about the value of CF. There is a clear research consensus that it can aid language acquisition. Discussing learning in more general terms, Hattie[2] claims that ‘the most powerful single influence enhancing achievement is feedback’. The debate now centres around the kind of feedback, and when it is given. Interestingly, evidence[3] has been found that CF is more effective in the learning of discrete items (e.g. some grammatical structures) than in communicative activities. Since it is precisely this kind of approach to language learning that we are more likely to find in adaptive learning programs, it is worth exploring further.

What do we know about CF in the learning of discrete items? First of all, it works better when it is explicit than when it is implicit (Li, 2010), although this needs to be nuanced. In immediate post-tests, explicit CF is better than implicit variations. But over a longer period of time, implicit CF provides better results. Secondly, formative feedback (as opposed to right / wrong testing-style feedback) strengthens retention of the learning items: this typically involves the learner repairing their error, rather than simply noticing that an error has been made. This is part of what cognitive scientists[4] sometimes describe as the ‘generation effect’. Whilst learners may benefit from formative feedback without repairing their errors, Ellis and Shintani (2014: 273) argue that the repair may result in ‘deeper processing’ and, therefore, assist learning. Thirdly, there is evidence that some delay in receiving feedback aids subsequent recall, especially over the longer term. Ellis and Shintani (2014: 276) suggest that immediate CF may ‘benefit the development of learners’ procedural knowledge’, while delayed CF is ‘perhaps more likely to foster metalinguistic understanding’. You can read a useful summary of a meta-analysis of feedback effects in online learning here, or you can buy the whole article here.

I have yet to see an online language learning program which can do CF well, but I think it’s a matter of time before things improve significantly. First of all, at the moment, feedback is usually immediate, or almost immediate. This is unlikely to change, for a number of reasons – foremost among them being the pride that ed tech takes in providing immediate feedback, and the fact that online learning is increasingly being conceptualised and consumed in bite-sized chunks, something you do on your phone between doing other things. What will change in better programs, however, is that feedback will become more formative. As things stand, tasks are usually of a very closed variety, with drag-and-drop being one of the most popular. Only one answer is possible and feedback is usually of the right / wrong-and-here’s-the-correct-answer kind. But tasks of this kind are limited in their value, and, at some point, tasks are needed where more than one answer is possible.

Here’s an example of a translation task from Duolingo, where a simple sentence could be translated into English in quite a large number of ways.

i_am_doing_a_basketDecontextualised as it is, the sentence could be translated in the way that I have done it, although it’s unlikely. The feedback, however, is of relatively little help to the learner, who would benefit from guidance of some sort. The simple reason that Duolingo doesn’t offer useful feedback is that the programme is static. It has been programmed to accept certain answers (e.g. in this case both the present simple and the present continuous are acceptable), but everything else will be rejected. Why? Because it would take too long and cost too much to anticipate and enter in all the possible answers. Why doesn’t it offer formative feedback? Because in order to do so, it would need to identify the kind of error that has been made. If we can identify the kind of error, we can make a reasonable guess about the cause of the error, and select appropriate CF … this is what good teachers do all the time.

Analysing the kind of error that has been made is the first step in providing appropriate CF, and it can be done, with increasing accuracy, by current technology, but it requires a lot of computing. Let’s take spelling as a simple place to start. If you enter ‘I am makeing a basket for my mother’ in the Duolingo translation above, the program tells you ‘Nice try … there’s a typo in your answer’. Given the configuration of keyboards, it is highly unlikely that this is a typo. It’s a simple spelling mistake and teachers recognise it as such because they see it so often. For software to achieve the same insight, it would need, as a start, to trawl a large English dictionary database and a large tagged database of learner English. The process is quite complicated, but it’s perfectably do-able, and learners could be provided with CF in the form of a ‘spelling hint’.i_am_makeing_a_basket

Rather more difficult is the error illustrated in my first screen shot. What’s the cause of this ‘error’? Teachers know immediately that this is probably a classic confusion of ‘do’ and ‘make’. They know that the French verb ‘faire’ can be translated into English as ‘make’ or ‘do’ (among other possibilities), and the error is a common language transfer problem. Software could do the same thing. It would need a large corpus (to establish that ‘make’ collocates with ‘a basket’ more often than ‘do’), a good bilingualised dictionary (plenty of these now exist), and a tagged database of learner English. Again, appropriate automated feedback could be provided in the form of some sort of indication that ‘faire’ is only sometimes translated as ‘make’.

These are both relatively simple examples, but it’s easy to think of others that are much more difficult to analyse automatically. Duolingo rejects ‘I am making one basket for my mother’: it’s not very plausible, but it’s not wrong. Teachers know why learners do this (again, it’s probably a transfer problem) and know how to respond (perhaps by saying something like ‘Only one?’). Duolingo also rejects ‘I making a basket for my mother’ (a common enough error), but is unable to provide any help beyond the correct answer. Automated CF could, however, be provided in both cases if more tools are brought into play. Multiple parsing machines (one is rarely accurate enough on its own) and semantic analysis will be needed. Both the range and the complexity of the available tools are increasing so rapidly (see here for the sort of research that Google is doing and here for an insight into current applications of this research in language learning) that Duolingo-style right / wrong feedback will very soon seem positively antediluvian.

One further development is worth mentioning here, and it concerns feedback and gamification. Teachers know from the way that most learners respond to written CF that they are usually much more interested in knowing what they got right or wrong, rather than the reasons for this. Most students are more likely to spend more time looking at the score at the bottom of a corrected piece of written work than at the laborious annotations of the teacher throughout the text. Getting students to pay close attention to the feedback we provide is not easy. Online language learning systems with gamification elements, like Duolingo, typically reward learners for getting things right, and getting things right in the fewest attempts possible. They encourage learners to look for the shortest or cheapest route to finding the correct answers: learning becomes a sexed-up form of test. If, however, the automated feedback is good, this sort of gamification encourages the wrong sort of learning behaviour. Gamification designers will need to shift their attention away from the current concern with right / wrong, and towards ways of motivating learners to look at and respond to feedback. It’s tricky, because you want to encourage learners to take more risks (and reward them for doing so), but it makes no sense to penalise them for getting things right. The probable solution is to have a dual points system: one set of points for getting things right, another for employing positive learning strategies.

The provision of automated ‘optimal feedback at the point of need’ may not be quite there yet, but it seems we’re on the way for some tasks in discrete-item learning. There will probably always be some teachers who can outperform computers in providing appropriate feedback, in the same way that a few top chess players can beat ‘Deep Blue’ and its scions. But the rest of us had better watch our backs: in the provision of some kinds of feedback, computers are catching up with us fast.

[1] Ellis, R. & N. Shintani (2014) Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. Abingdon: Routledge p. 249

[2] Hattie, K. (2009) Visible Learning. Abingdon: Routledge p.12

[3] Li, S. (2010) ‘The effectiveness of corrective feedback in SLA: a meta-analysis’ Language Learning 60 / 2: 309 -365

[4] Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M. A. Make It Stick (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014)

(This post won’t make a lot of sense unless you read the previous two – Researching research: part 1 and part 2!)

The work of Jayaprakash et al was significantly informed and inspired by the work done at Purdue University. In the words of these authors, they even ‘relied on [the] work at Purdue with Course Signals’ for parts of the design of their research. They didn’t know when they were doing their research that the Purdue studies were fundamentally flawed. This was, however, common knowledge (since September 2013) before their article (‘Early Alert of Academically At-Risk Students’) was published. This raises the interesting question of why the authors (and the journal in which they published) didn’t pull the article when they could still have done so. I can’t answer that question, but I can suggest some possible reasons. First, though, a little background on the Purdue research.

The Purdue research is important, more than important, because it was the first significant piece of research to demonstrate the efficacy of academic analytics. Except that, in all probability, it doesn’t! Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University at Vancouver, and Alfred Essa, McGraw-Hill Education’s vice-president of research and development and analytics, took a closer look at the data. What they found was that the results were probably the result of selection bias rather than a real finding. In other words, as summarized by Carl Straumsheim in Inside Higher Ed in November of last year, there was no causal connection between students who use [Course Signals] and their tendency to stick with their studies .The Times Higher Education and the e-Literate blog contacted Purdue, but, to date, there has been no serious response to the criticism. The research is still on Purdue’s website .

The Purdue research article, ‘Course Signals at Purdue: Using Learning Analytics to Increase Student Success’ by Kimberley Arnold and Matt Pistilli, was first published as part of the proceedings of the Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK) conference in May 2012. The LAK conference is organised by the Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR), in partnership with Purdue. SoLAR, you may remember, is the organisation which published the new journal in which Jayaprakash et al’s article appeared. Pistilli happens to be an associate editor of the journal. Jayaprakash et al also presented at the LAK ’12 conference. Small world.

The Purdue research was further publicized by Pistilli and Arnold in the Educause review. Their research had been funded by the Gates Foundation (a grant of $1.2 million in November 2011). Educause, in its turn, is also funded by the Gates Foundation (a grant of $9 million in November 2011). The research of Jayaprakash et al was also funded by Educause, which stipulated that ‘effective techniques to improve student retention be investigated and demonstrated’ (my emphasis). Given the terms of their grant, we can perhaps understand why they felt the need to claim they had demonstrated something.

What exactly is Educause, which plays such an important role in all of this? According to their own website, it is a non-profit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. However, it is rather more than that. It is also a lobbying and marketing umbrella for edtech. The following screenshot from their website makes this abundantly clear.educause

If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to describe one more connection between the various players I’ve been talking about. Purdue’s Couse Signals is marketed by a company called Ellucian. Ellucian’s client list includes both Educause and the Gates Foundation. A former Senior Vice President of Ellucian, Anne K Keehn, is currently ‘Senior Fellow -Technology and Innovation, Education, Post-Secondary Success’ at the Gates Foundation – presumably the sort of person to whom you’d have to turn if you wanted funding from the Gates Foundation. Small world.

Personal, academic and commercial networks are intricately intertwined in the high-stakes world of edtech. In such a world (not so very different from the pharmaceutical industry), independent research is practically impossible. The pressure to publish positive research results must be extreme. The temptation to draw conclusions of the kind that your paymasters are looking for must be high. Th edtech juggernaut must keep rolling on.

While the big money will continue to go, for the time being, into further attempts to prove that big data is the future of education, there are still some people who are interested in alternatives. Coincidentally (?), a recent survey  has been carried out at Purdue which looks into what students think about their college experience, about what is meaningful to them. Guess what? It doesn’t have much to do with technology.

(This post won’t make a lot of sense unless you read the previous one – Researching research: part 1!)

dropoutsI suggested in the previous post that the research of Jayaprakash et al had confirmed something that we already knew concerning the reasons why some students drop out of college. However, predictive analytics are only part of the story. As the authors of this paper point out, they ‘do not influence course completion and retention rates without being combined with effective intervention strategies aimed at helping at-risk students succeed’. The point of predictive analytics is to facilitate the deployment of effective and appropriate interventions strategies, and to do this sooner than would be possible without the use of the analytics. So, it is to these intervention strategies that I now turn.

Interventions to help at-risk students included the following:

  • Sending students messages to inform them that they are at risk of not completing the course (‘awareness messaging’)
  • Making students more aware of the available academic support services (which could, for example, direct them to a variety of campus-based or online resources)
  • Promoting peer-to-peer engagement (e.g. with an online ‘student lounge’ discussion forum)
  • Providing access to self-assessment tools

The design of these interventions was based on the work that had been done at Purdue, which was, in turn, inspired by the work of Vince Tinto, one of the world’s leading experts on student retention issues.

The work done at Purdue had shown that simple notifications to students that they were at risk could have a significant, and positive, effect on student behaviour. Jayaprakash and the research team took the students who had been identified as at-risk by the analytics and divided them into three groups: the first were issued with ‘awareness messages’, the second were offered a combination of the other three interventions in the bullet point list above, and the third, a control group, had no interventions at all. The results showed that the students who were in treatment groups (of either kind of intervention) showed a statistically significant improvement compared to those who received no treatment at all. However, there seemed to be no difference in the effectiveness of the different kinds of intervention.

So far, so good, but, once again, I was left thinking that I hadn’t really learned very much from all this. But then, in the last five pages, the article suddenly got very interesting. Remember that the primary purpose of this whole research project was to find ways of helping not just at-risk students, but specifically socioeconomically disadvantaged at-risk students (such as those receiving Pell Grants). Accordingly, the researchers then focussed on this group. What did they find?

Once again, interventions proved more effective at raising student scores than no intervention at all. However, the averages of final scores are inevitably affected by drop-out rates (since students who drop out do not have final scores which can be included in the averages). At Purdue, the effect of interventions on drop-out rates had not been found to be significant. Remember that Purdue has a relatively well-off student demographic. However, in this research, which focussed on colleges with a much higher proportion of students on Pell Grants, the picture was very different. Of the Pell Grant students who were identified as at-risk and who were given some kind of treatment, 25.6% withdrew from the course. Of the Pell Grant students who were identified as at-risk but who were not ‘treated’ in any way (i.e. those in the control group), only 14.1% withdrew from the course. I recommend that you read those numbers again!

The research programme had resulted in substantially higher drop-out rates for socioeconomically disadvantaged students – the precise opposite of what it had set out to achieve. Jayaprakash et al devote one page of their article to the ethical issues this raises. They suggest that early intervention, resulting in withdrawal, might actually be to the benefit of some students who were going to fail whatever happened. It is better to get a ‘W’ (withdrawal) grade on your transcript than an ‘F’ (fail), and you may avoid wasting your money at the same time. This may be true, but it would be equally true that not allowing at-risk students (who, of course, are disproportionately from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds) into college at all might also be to their ‘benefit’. The question, though, is: who has the right to make these decisions on behalf of other people?

The authors also acknowledge another ethical problem. The predictive analytics which will prompt the interventions are not 100% accurate. 85% accuracy could be considered a pretty good figure. This means that some students who are not at-risk are labelled as at-risk, and other who are at-risk are not identified. Of these two possibilities, I find the first far more worrying. We are talking about the very real possibility of individual students being pushed into making potentially life-changing decisions on the basis of dodgy analytics. How ethical is that? The authors’ conclusion is that the situation forces them ‘to develop the most accurate predictive models possible, as well as to take steps to reduce the likelihood that any intervention would result in the necessary withdrawal of a student’.

I find this extraordinary. It is premised on the assumption that predictive models can be made much, much more accurate. They seem to be confusing prediction and predeterminism. A predictive model is, by definition, only predictive. There will always be error. How many errors are ethically justifiable? And, the desire to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary withdrawals is a long way from the need to completely eliminate the likelihood of unnecessary withdrawals, which seems to me to be the ethical position. More than anything else in the article, this sentence illustrates that the a priori assumption is that predictive analytics can be a force for good, and that the only real problem is getting the science right. If a number of young lives are screwed up along the way, we can at least say that science is getting better.

In the authors’ final conclusion, they describe the results of their research as ‘promising’. They do not elaborate on who it is promising for. They say that relatively simple intervention strategies can positively impact student learning outcomes, but they could equally well have said that relatively simple intervention strategies can negatively impact learning outcomes. They could have said that predictive analytics and intervention programmes are fine for the well-off, but more problematic for the poor. Remembering once more that the point of the study was to look at the situation of socioeconomically disadvantaged at-risk students, it is striking that there is no mention of this group in the researchers’ eight concluding points. The vast bulk of the paper is devoted to technical descriptions of the design and training of the software; the majority of the conclusions are about the validity of that design and training. The ostensibly intended beneficiaries have got lost somewhere along the way.

How and why is it that a piece of research such as this can so positively slant its results? In the third and final part of this mini-series, I will turn my attention to answering that question.