Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Delta Module One: The Grand Finale

Well, our Delta Module One course finished last month, and I figured I really should say a bit more about it for those out there who might take it someday, or who are just curious.

Before I get into how the test itself was, I want to note a few things.

  1. It's important to separate Cambridge ESOL (which runs the Delta Modules) with The Distance Delta (who offers the online course through International House and British Council). The Distance Delta did a great job preparing us, especially considering the fact that it was entirely online. The course was well-structured, well-planned and well-run with solid tutors giving great feedback. I occasionally disagreed with the feedback (for example, I didn't get a point because I called some text 'engaging' - I was supposed to say 'creative, for the purposes of engaging the reader' - wouldn't that text then also be engaging? Dunno, I don't understand at all why not), but my overall impression was very positive. Occasionally I disagreed with feedback, but not because I disagreed with the tutor, but because I disagreed with the guideline answers for the exam - that's Cambridge's issue, not The Distance Delta's. I would recommend Distance Delta Module One in a heartbeat to anyone interested in doing the modular Delta.
  2. The test is too damn short, at least the first paper is. More on that below. Paper 1, in order to be a true, fair exam (if done in an outdated way), really needs to be more like 2 hours. As a result I feel the test - especially Paper 1 - lacks some construct validity. It's constructed so that getting too focused or "in the zone" or being the sort of person who needs to write out their bad ideas before they come to good ones (and can then go back and edit the bad ideas out), or the sort of person who knows a lot and wants to show all of it are all things that can be punished by not having enough time, and therefore not getting all the points they're capable of. It tests your ability to speed-write and have a specific kind of test-taking personality, not your knowledge of the concepts ostensibly tested. If that's not lacking construct validity, I don't know what is. And because I was a taker of that test and I have my doubts, it also lacks face validity! I don't think the score I will get is an accurate reflection of my ability...not at all. 
  3. I, however, understand why there are time limits: otherwise people would write whole theses in an attempt to get perfect scores, and the markers would have to go through all that, and discard probably quite a bit of faff. I just feel the time limits on Paper 1 are too short, to the point that they ruin the validity of the test.
  4. In the end I learned a lot, as well as having prepared for the exam, so I'd recommend this module to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of past ideas, concepts and research as well as current theories, trends and debates in ELT. That's part of why I'm disappointed that we probably won't be able to do Module Two this year.
  5. The test is not as scary as you may think when you begin to prepare - in the beginning it seems like those evil folks at Cambridge could test you on anything, and there's just no way to know what will pop up or how difficult it will be. In reality, they don't expect you to know everything, and there are limits on how difficult they will make each task. There are limits on how deep they expect you to go, or how deeply the tasks given will let you go. If they give you a task, there must be relevant things there to find and write about. Think of it this way: if you're playing Legend of Zelda, and Link is running all over the level board, looking behind trees or rocks or in rivers, the game creators are going to put things in that landscape for him to find. There will be coins and swords and clues and doorways and whatnot. They won't stick you in a little game-forest with nothing to find, and let you wander around looking behind bushes when there's nothing there. Like that, the exam creators left things for you to "find" as you do these specific tasks. Your job is not to fret that there's nothing to say, nor is it to re-invent the wheel (to use an old cliche), but it's to be Link and to find the things they want you to talk about, and why. If you look at it that way, it's really not that hard at all.
As for the test itself, it goes something like this:

Paper 1:

Part 1 - name five ELT terms from definitions provided

Part 2 - define four out of six given ELT terms
Part 3 - look at a class activity and list five things the students will need to know before they do it (taking their level into account)
Part 4 - some discourse analysis (relevant features of the text) followed by "grammar salad" - lots and lots of language analysis (too much, in my opinion)
Part 5 - authentic student-produced text (written or spoken) - write 3 key strengths and weaknesses of the student from the text and choose one to focus on, giving three reasons why (considering the student's level etc)

The test was not that hard, but the first part was rough. Not because it was difficult, though! I raced through the first and second part (where you have to list or define terminology), skipped part 3 because I wanted to take a good hard look at part 4 (BIG MISTAKE), and got so into part 4 - with so much to say about it even as I cut down my word count to bullet points and sentence fragments - that I lost track of time.

I looked up at the clock one moment and thought "crap, I have ten minutes, then I have to move on". I was in the zone. I had flow. I was killing it. Thoughts were coming to me like beautifully cut diamonds, and I raced to get them on the page. I was zoomed in like I'd chugged Provigil (I hadn't).

I put my head back down and kept chugging through Part 4, looked up again after "ten minutes" only to find that 30 minutes had passed! SHIT. I didn't have enough time to finish, so I did what I could (which was terrible work, because now I was nervous and freaked out, too) and didn't finish. Parts 1, 2 and 4 were grand, beautiful things. Part 5 was a mess; I may get a few points. Part 3 didn't even get looked at (it's worth fairly little, but still).

I blame myself for this - I'm the one who didn't manage time well. It doesn't matter that I didn't manage time well because I was too focused, all that matters is that it happened.

But I also have to add that this test is meant to examine your knowledge of relevant ELT practices and concepts and your depth of understanding, it's not meant to test how quickly you can speed-write or how quickly perfectly-formed thoughts can appear in your head and be jotted down on paper in neatly-packaged summaries. Or at least, it shouldn't test that, because what does that accomplish?

I've been saying this since before we took the test - an hour and a half is not enough time for everything they ask you to do in Part 1. It's just not. It's ridiculous. And I felt that way before I screwed up.

So what ends up happening is that people who really know the concepts tested who have either tendencies to get verbiose (*ahem*), or who benefit from time to edit and re-consider, or who just get really focused and think 10 minutes have passed when it's actually been 30 get punished not because they don't know the material (in fact, they often really, really do!) but because they were in the zone.

Why would you punish someone for getting a little too focused or having too good flow, and reward someone who muddled along and kept looking at the clock because the material was hard to grapple with? If I'd found the material harder I would have looked at the clock too!

The part of the test I finished? I killed. I put a gun to its head and made me give it all its money. I twisted its arm, gave it a wet willy and made it cry for mama. I sucker-punched it like a guy in a cheap dragon costume on the original Star Trek. I was the Incredible Hulk and the test was Loki (I don't know how to embed gifs here). HULK SMASH.

And yet, while I will probably still pass, I probably won't get a distinction or a merit. I do feel, based on the work I was able to finish, that I would have deserved one. Oh well. Life is more than the grade you get - I was just disappointed is all, because I know this stuff and I don't like that I'm being punished for knowing it so well that I stopped thinking about time.

That's why I think the exam lacks construct validity - I don't feel my score will reflect my knowledge of the concepts tested, but rather the fact that I was a little too focused for 20 minutes of my life.

Then there's Paper 2:

Part 1 - you're given a test with background information on what students it is given to and why, and you talk about strengths and weaknesses of the text, using relevant testing terminology as needed
Part 2 - you're given an excerpt from a textbook and you first write about the different indicated activities and their purpose/the intentions of their creators, considering your knowledge of ELT concepts. Then you list at least 6 key assumptions about language learning the textbook authors made in creating those activities.
Part 3 - you take more excerpts from the same text and talk about how they fit together with the previous ones
Part 4 - you're given an extract of some research, article, syllabus, comments, or theory from an educator and you are asked to unpack it using your knowledge of ELT history and other relevant concepts (usually things like giving feedback, the purpose for focusing on certain skills, giving instructions, historical and current theories and practices for language learning, dealing with errors, learning styles/multiple intelligences, that sort of thing).

This is the paper everyone thinks is so hard, and frankly, I disagree. Paper 1 is easier theoretically, but there's simply too much there to do a good job on any of it. Paper 2 has less to do, so if you're rock hard on your theory, then it's really not bad at all. You have time to actually think about what's being asked. I thought Paper 2 was great, and I'm pretty sure I killed it. It's rare, or may even be impossible, to get a perfect score on these papers, but I can't think of anything I wrote that I'd change now. I will get the highest score I am capable of on that paper. It is at least possible I'll get full marks, though unlikely.

I don't have much more to say about that one, because I wrote it out, did a golden job, had 5 minutes to look it over and everything before turning it in. 15 more minutes would have been great to perfect my answers, but I'm happy with the work I did.

In the end, I will probably pass. Brendan and I felt quite differently about the test - he got through every part and gave competent-but-not-brilliant answers (his words, not mine), and will certainly pass. I gave what I think are brilliant answers to what I finished, but didn't finish. Our scores will likely be quite similar. From one perspective, that's fair, as we're of similar intelligence despite our very different personalities. From another, that sucks, because dammit, I gave brilliant answers (or at least I think I did). Why should I get a score similar to others (not just Brendan - I actually have no idea what he wrote so whatever I say about it are his words) who muddled through and did each part well enough?

Oh well. One more month and we get our scores. We'll see then.

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