I enrolled into the course offered by the educational platform FutureLearn and developed by British Council. The course is titled ‘Understanding IELTS: Techniques for English Language Tests’. The course is being offered by the British Council team consisting of six educators based in different countries. The educators have extensive experience of preparing students for IELTS and know the best tips on how to successfully pass the test. Hence, the lead educator of the course is Alister Widdowson from the US and he is assisted by Neil McLaren from Slovakia, Tina Pole from Italy, Neeraj Dhanani from Spain, Freddie Gay from Colombia, and Karen Waterston from Spain (British Council 2016a). In the last 5 weeks I have completed assignments and watched video lectures dedicated to each particular part of IELTS, i.e. introduction to IELTS, reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Hence, the activity to be reflected upon herein is an online course aimed at improving comprehension of IELTS and knowledge of English in general.
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Understanding IELTS by British Council. Description
Since this is the first online course I have ever taken on the FutureLearn platform, I had to spend some time on familiarizing with the structure of the selected course and main types of assignments and lectures provided by the lecturers. Immediately after enrolling into the course, I had access to week 1 and the welcome page of the course. In fact, the latter was really helpful as the lecturers explained the way the course would be structured and how other students and I were expected to participate. Thus, the lead educator introduced Rob who is a video tutor of the course and presents all the topics, as well as gives some useful tips. Besides, I also visited the educators’ profiles as suggested by the lead educator in order to learn more about them and be able to recognize them during the course. As advised, I introduced myself in the comments section by indicating who I was, where I was from, and why I decided to join the course. It is necessary to note that I decided to be an active learner of the course, thus I participated in all conversations initiated by other participants and started conversation threads as well. This way, we could discuss our impressions about the course, ask and answer relevant questions, share experiences, and simply practice our conversational English. Our lecturers would often join conversations, which created a positive and supportive environment and even an impression that we had known each other for a long time. This feeling has fostered a positive attitude to the course, which is why I have never thought about quitting the course or skipping some tasks.
The overall purpose of the course is to equip participants with skills required for a successful preparation for and completion of IELTS. Since the course is offered by British Council educators, the skills trained during the course are highly valuable as these educators have first-hand experience with the test and develop tasks, as well as extensive experience related to preparation of students for the test. In turn, purposes of each week are slightly different as they focus on particular sections of IELTS. Hence, the purpose of week 1 is to introduce IELTS, present educators, and share feelings about the IELTS exam in particular and exams in general. The purpose of week 2 is to introduce the speaking section of the test and present skills required by exam takers to complete this section successfully. The purpose of week 3 is to introduce the listening section of the test and teach on the best ways of developing listening skills. The purpose of week 4 is to present the writing section of IELTS that is taken by students who have selected general training. The purpose of week 5 is to develop reading skills and show how the reading section of the test is arranged. Finally, the purpose of week 6 is to present the writing section for academic IELTS and equip participants with skills necessary to pass this section.
In general, experience of taking week 2 was similar to the experience of going through the rest of the weeks since all of them are structured in the same way with the only difference being the topic under consideration. Week 1 was the easiest one and did not envision any significant mental activities since it was introductory by nature. Each week of the IELTS test consists of several parts, including introductory video by Rob, the questions & answers video related to the section reviewed, explanation of the section format, and a video with the respective test section followed by a quiz offering a sample of test questions. Afterwards, the educators offer some tips for passing the reviewed test section with several articles on the assessment criteria with explanations, tips for preparation, and some useful pieces of advice. Usually, each block of articles and videos is followed by a discussion among participants and educators and a quiz aimed at checking comprehension of the material. Then, Rob presents some constructive ideas for practicing skills necessary to successfully complete different sections of the test. At the end of each week, Rob rounds up the week and reviews the most significant topics and issues covered. He initiates a discussion so that participants can share their experience of completing the week. The overall experience of taking the course has been pleasurable since I have learned a lot in a manner that promoted participation and evoked interest in the topic. Combination of several learning methods has been instrumental in successful completion of the five weeks and, just like other participants of the course, I feel a bit sad that the course will end soon.
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Before enrolling into the course, I felt a bit skeptical about the course outcomes and lessons I could learn from it as I had not taken an online free course before. However, I was reassured by the fact that the course was offered by British Council and by positive feedback I found in Facebook that was provided by previous participants. I was resolved to complete all the tasks, but still worried about motivation. The matter is that this course does not provide any scores for tasks and it is easy to mark assignments as completed and videos as watched without actually watching them. Therefore, I had to rely on intrinsic motivation for completing the entire course in a diligent way. As I decided that the course was extremely important for me and I had problems with understanding some IELTS sections, I valued the course and made myself adopt a positive attitude to the course. After enrolling and getting acquainted with the educators and some other participants, I felt confident about the positive outcomes of the course and motivated to be an active learner. The main reason why I decided to take part in this activity is the fact that I want to take IELTS in the nearest future and had been trying to prepare for the test on my own before enrolling in the course. Nonetheless, I felt that I needed some external assistance and advice. The fact that I could receive both from British Council educators working in different countries of the world excited me. I believe that these educators are perfectly equipped with skills and experience to assist prospective test takers like me. Besides, the course is of relevance to my personal development. In fact, one of the most important parts of my PDP consists in improvement of my English with a particular focus on listening, writing, and speaking skills, thus making a successful completion of the test a priority task for me. I have also included this course into my PDP as a means of improving English, thereby increasing my intrinsic motivation to study hard. Another reason why I was extremely eager to take the course is its importance for my future career. My career goal is to open a small business with the potential of growing, which would render all kinds of beauty services to women. The target consumer group of my prospective business consists of women from other parts of the globe and since English is the language of international communication, I need to speak it fluently. IELTS is necessary for verifying my language skills as it is accepted as a proof by international “Educational institutions, employers, professional registration bodies and government immigration agencies” (Cambridge English 2016). More than 2.5 million people worldwide take this test and I consider it to be essential for implementing my business plans (Cambridge English 2016).
Prior to completing the course, my assumptions on self-assessment were overly positive and I believed that the course would provide me with a better understanding of IELTS and its structure. However, I was a bit skeptical that the course would allow improving my skills in writing, reading, listening, and speaking. The matter is that I could not see how this could be done with a constant interaction between students and lecturers and without receiving feedback on the accomplished tasks from the latter. Thus, the major weakness of the course I saw at the very beginning was related to the lack of feedback and inability to measure my progress. The speaking module provides tips on how to accomplish tasks given in this test section, for instance, “Explain your answers by giving reasons for what you say” or “Ask for clarification if necessary” (Carrie 2016). Of course, there are examples under each tip, but the main weakness of this activity is the fact that students cannot know their progress on internalizing the skills taught when practicing the tips since they have no feedback from a tutor. Nonetheless, my initial attitudes have changed later in the course. I still see that the activity methods are not perfect, but now I realize that the main purpose of the activity is not to improve participants’ English, but to teach them how to do that on their own with a particular focus on a successful completion of IELTS. Now, I agree with the intended results in most sections and see the benefit of taking the course. For instance, tips like “Make sure you answer the question completely” on improvement of writing skills have been extremely useful while writing the present reflection paper (British Council 2016b). Similarly, the course has contributed to the development of my listening skills in particular through reliance on videos as the key mode of information presentation. Now, it is easier for me to understand oral speech, for example, while watching news or TV series in English than it was five weeks ago.
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Analysis of Learning
The most important information I have learned during the course under consideration include:
1) general knowledge of IELTS and its sections;
2) understanding of the writing section of IELTS;
2) writing skills necessary to complete general and academic writing sections of the test;
3) understanding of the reading section of IELTS;
4) reading skills necessary to complete the reading section of the test and improve reading comprehension in general;
5) understanding of the listening section of IELTS;
6) listening skills and their overall improvement;
7) understanding of the speaking section of IELTS;
8) speaking skills necessary to complete the speaking section of the test and their overall development.
With respect to generalizations and conclusions that can be drawn from the experience, there are several. Firstly, after completing five weeks of the course I can now conclude that IELTS is not as complicated as it seems and that each section should be practiced and prepared to separately. Secondly, it is evident that I can pass the test only after extensive preparation which may take some time since I want to receive the score within the 9th or at least 8th band score. Finally, skills obtained in the process of the course and tips learned to improvement these skills are definitely generalizable to other domains, hence meaning that they can help me improve my English and contribute to my real-life communication and other studies.
Application in Context-General
The two learnings that I consider to be the most meaningful in the given context and with account for my wish to pass IELTS as a part of the desired career and a need to improve my communication skills (necessary to establishing rapport and connections with prospective employees, business partners, and clients) include learnings #1 and #8, i.e. general knowledge of IELTS and improvement of speaking skills. However, it should be noted that all other parts are important as well and I have tried to dedicate the similar amount of time and efforts to mastering them. The first learning was based on my previous knowledge and assumptions. Before taking the course, I thought of IELTS as of sometimes extremely complicated and had a vague understanding of how separate structures are formed, but now I see the logic in structuring everything in this way. I also know what to expect from each section, which will reduce anxiety at the time of test taking and will not allow me to panic. The course has helped me understand wrongness of my previous perceptions and gain knowledge about the test in general. As for speaking, before the course I used to rush things, i.e. talking a lot, often without logical links and coherence, thus failing to answer the set question. I could not understand though how to improve that. After the course, I realize that it is necessary to first read the task and think about the possible answer for a moment, as well as structure it in my head in advance and follow it instead of haphazardly jumping from one idea to another.
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Personal, Career, Professional Development/Goals
As mentioned above, the course applies to my personal development and career goals. Hence, improvement of my speaking skills will significantly contribute to the development of my communication skills. Communication is an integral part of relationship building and maintaining, which is why I need it both in personal life and for opening my future business. Since my business will be service-oriented, I need to be able to speak English fluently in order to communicate with my clients, provide them with high quality services and avoid any confusion and misunderstanding. Therefore, this particular course will assist me in building a network of connections and a loyal customer base. In turn, successful taking of IELTS will provide me with a certificate verifying my English skills, which will allow me to open a business abroad and make me feel more confident about my skills and knowledge.
The first learning mentioned above was covered by week 1 of the course. Prior to taking the course, I dreaded taking the exam and panicked even at an idea of enrolling for the future test session. During week 1, I realized that this panic was unjustified and caused by my overall ignorance of the test. Overall experience with this learning was exceptionally positive as I finally discovered more about the test structure and found an infinite source of information. The matter is that I could participate in Facebook Clinics organized by the educators and have all my questions asked live (British Council 2016c). The first Facebook Clinic took place on October 18 and its transcript is available on the course page, which means that I can reread questions and answers I am particularly interested in at any time (British Council 2016c). Another important part of this week was presented in the quiz called my IELTS Journey that helped me clarify the purposes of taking the course and preparing for IELTS. The article titled “Don’t panic!” by Morgan (2016) showed me that I was not the only student panicking before the exam and provided me with some stress and panic relieving techniques. The only shortcoming is that it would be great to see several examples of full IELTS tests with answers and a detailed analysis of answers in order to see common mistakes and application of assessment criteria.
Another significant learning mentioned above is learning #8 concerning speaking skills. This learning was practiced in week 2 and its obvious strength is in covering the speaking section of IELTS. The educator presents a video in which he concisely and comprehensibly describes the three parts of the test (British Council 2016d). For instance, Rob tells that the first part of the speaking section takes 4-5 minutes during which “The examiner introduces him or herself, asks you to introduce yourself and checks your identity” and emphasizes that the test taker should answer questions as precisely as possible (British Council 2016d). This week also introduces assessment requirements for the speaking section with a particular focus on fluency and coherence, lexical recourse, grammatical range and accuracy, and pronunciation. With respect to my need to develop communication skills, such sections as pronunciation, fluency and coherence are the most important. Now, I know that for band 9 I need to speak “fluently with only rare repetition or self-correction”, “any hesitation is content-related rather than to do find words or grammar”, develop “topics fully and appropriately”, and speak “coherently with fully appropriate cohesive features” (British Council 2016e). The only criticism I have with respect to this learning is the focus on the test only and the lack of an opportunity to check the overall progress. It would be great to be able to record a sample answer to the speaking questions and receive feedback either from other participants or the educators to know how successfully the skills have been mastered. Irrespective of this shortcoming, the overall experience with this learning was positive.
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Overall, the course and the learnings have changed me. Firstly, they have changed my perception of the test and made me more confident about taking the test. For sure, I will no longer consider the test to be extremely complicated and vague as its structure has turned out to be clear and quite easily comprehensible. Secondly, I will not panic if suggested to take the test as I know what to expect and how to prepare for the test. Thirdly, I feel that all my skills have improved with listening skills being improved the most. Although it is difficult to assess how my speaking and writing skills have improved, they have surely become better and now I focus on definite questions rather than being overly vague. Finally, I have reconsidered my attitude to online courses. As mentioned above, I was skeptical about free online courses and their outcomes, but now I see the benefit of taking such courses and I am sure that they significantly contribute to the learning process and individuals’ personal and professional development. All these conceptual changes have occurred thanks to the course.
As a result, I feel more confident about taking IELTS and plan to take the exam in half a year. Hence, I have six months to prepare for the exam therefore I plan to practice for two hours at least twice a week. Each practice session will prioritize the development of particular skills, for instance, an hour will be spent on writing only, while the rest of time will be equally divided between other skills. Furthermore, I have started looking for English speaking clubs in order to practice my speaking and communication skills. Live communication will be extremely beneficial for my speaking competence and will additionally allow me to get acquainted with different people so that it would be easier to establish rapport with clients in the future. Another action I have started working is based on the search of other online courses aimed at language improvement. I have registered on Coursera and edX since these two platforms offer plenty of useful courses delivered by professors of world-known universities. So far, I have marked some courses that are closed to my wish list and I will be notified when they reopen. Withal, the course has been beneficial for me and I still have one week till its end. Besides, I have managed to put the learning into practice, but it is to be seen whether I accomplish my short-term goal of passing IELTS and opening a business targeting international clients.