Adult-level, noncredit ESL classes offered at adult school and community college campuses are often designated “open-entry/open-exit,” which means that students can come and go as they please.
In truth, because they are there voluntarily, students take their studies seriously and rarely abuse this privilege: if they stop coming to class, it is usually for a legitimate reason such as family or work commitments. In addition, that students may join the class whenever they can also has its advantages for them: they don’t have to wait until the beginning of the next semester (by which time they might very well have returned to their own countries) to begin study. So while the open-entry/open-exit model provides a lot of advantages to the student unable to commit to studying during a traditional semester, this model does also present unique challenges to the teacher. Fortunately, there are ways to meet these challenges and create a true learning community for students for the often short time there are in class despite the “revolving door” of students in and out of class.
Challenges of the Open-Entry/Open-Exit Model
Unstable Student Population
The first challenge to the open-entry/open-exit/noncredit model is it has by nature an unstable student population—the group of students the teacher has on Monday is not necessarily the same group that will be there at the next class on Wednesday. This of course has in turn a number of administrative and instructional implications.
An open-entry/open-exit class students are not taking for a grade is almost certainly going to be multilevel—students entering the class at different points of the course did not come from the same prerequisite course, as would be traditional, but from a variety of backgrounds and are at different instructional levels with different needs. This presents another challenge in instruction and assessment.
A class that is not for credit and which students can enter and leave at any point will also usually be nongraded. This is of course mostly a relief to instructors and students alike--no need to design, study for, take, and record quiz and other coursework grade--but it also presents a challenge for overall instruction: the point of assessment is of course to measure student growth: desirable for both student and teacher whatever the structure of the class.
These are indeed challenges for the overall structure and learning that takes place in the class. Fortunately, there are several methods to address these concerns.
Methods of Addressing Challenges of the Open-entry/Open-exit Class
Set Routine for Newcomers.
Routines are in general important for both teachers and students, to keep the class on track, but especially so in an open-entry/open-exit program. If the teacher has a set routine for greeting the new student, getting the course syllabus/information to her, and otherwise orienting her to the class, the class can proceed relatively smoothly when a new student or students enter the class.
Initial assessment is important to inform instruction: are students mostly one level, or are they scattered evenly throughout? What are some common interests: vocational or academic English, for example? Does a particular language skill need to be addressed: do most students need work on academic writing, for example, or everyday conversation? An informal initial assessment on the first or second class meeting, even if the class is noncredit/nongraded, helps enormously in choosing course materials and planning a tentative sequence of instruction.
Even if there is an overall course structure, as there should be, day-to-day flexibility in instruction and lesson plans, given that the student make-up can change from day to day, is required. So the activity you had planned to peer review each other’s essays, for example, or discuss a reading assignment, may have to change if the students who are in attendance did not complete this assignment. Having alternate activities ready, such as a set of journal or discussion topics, is helpful in this case.
While a multilevel class may seem at first to be a disadvantage to an open-entry class, it can actually be an advantage. A teacher’s first impulse may be to put students in leveled groups—having all of the more advanced students work together, for example—there are perhaps more advantages to having students work in multi-level groups. In multilevel groups, for example, there are opportunities for peer tutoring. The more advanced students can teach or model the material for less advanced students, and in explaining the material, the advanced students also further cement their own understanding.
What happens on those days when only five students show up because the other students are celebrating a cultural holiday or are taking care of a shared visa concern? This is a perfect time for students to catch up work on individual projects. If students are all working on an individual project of interest, such as researching career opportunities in the health field in the U.S., not only are they improving research skills, adding to their knowledge bank, and making valuable contacts, they can work at their own pace and when they have unexpected free time. Students can also share their learning with each other, raising everyone’s knowledge level.
In a nontraditional, noncredit class, traditional midterms and finals may be impractical, given the nature of the class and that students have not participated in the same sequence of learning. This is a challenge, but also a unique opportunity to engage in portfolio assessment. There are many different kinds of student portfolios: a common one in which students place representative pieces of their work, such as essays, over the course of the term. At the end of the term, they can be assessed or “graded” on overall development, more valuable than being judged against their peers’ work or a set of abstract standards, in most cases. Also, the instructor, instead of simply assigning a “B” grade, can write several individual comments on the portfolio: on its strengths, areas for development, and overall growth demonstrated—again, more valuable information than a single grade.
Certainly the ungraded, noncredit class presents unique challenges. But it also presents unique opportunities in terms of flexibility, peer instruction, and individualization of curriculum.
What is your experience with noncredit classes?
What are your suggestions for instruction?