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Campus inNizhny Novgorod

Programme which Automatically Creates English Language Exercises Invented by HSE Teacher

April 10th is the closing date for applications for this year’s Fund for Educational Innovation (FOI) competition. Alexei Malafeev, Associate Professor at the Department for Foreign Languages, HSE Nizhny Novgorod, explains how to create an interesting project and put it into practice. His programme for teaching English Exercise Maker won the FOI competition two years ago.

April 10th is the closing date for applications for this year’s Fund for Educational Innovation (FOI) competitionAlexei Malafeev, Associate Professor at the Department for Foreign Languages, HSE Nizhny Novgorod, explains how to create an interesting project and put it into practice. His programme for teaching English Exercise Maker won the FOI competition two years ago. 

Decide what the problem is and suggest ways to resolve it

One of the problems with learning English is the dreariness of articles and exercises in text books. It’s more interesting and motivating for students to work with ‘real’ articles but they need to be reworked to make them into useful exercises for learning grammar and syntax. It takes quite a long time to do this by hand. So why not have a computer programme to do the work? For quite a while I took several commonly used formats for exercises which are used in the international Cambridge exams, the Russian school leavers/ university entrance exams (USE) and others and I started to write a programme and test out the first versions.

It began with three kinds of exercises and now there are eight. For example, exercises where you have to insert the right form of a verb, find and correct grammatical errors, insert missing words, and so on.

Find your target audience

I think both teachers and students of English could be interested in my programme because you can use to teach yourself independently and check your answers against those the programme generates.

The programme is distributed freely for everyone (for non-commercial use)

Be realistic about your strengths

I’m an amateur programmer and taught myself several programming codes. I wrote the programme on Python - that’s my basic computer language and it’s fairly easy to learn, by the way. If you want to try programming but you’ve never done it before, start with Python.

Try out your project and pay attention to comments

Before the FOI competition I tried out my programme on students continually. Some exercises worked better, others not so well. I experimented all the time, made corrections, reworked the algorithm, added new kinds of exercises. 

Check the efficiency of your design

Measuring efficiency is easy and difficult at the same time. It’s easy to bring automatically generated exercises into class, test them on the students and see how they cope with them. But it’s difficult to formalise the process, to conduct strict experiments. I resorted to methods of expert evaluation and conducted a rather curious experiment. I gathered fellow English teachers (the first time from HSE and the second time from other organisations; 33 three professionals all together) and I asked them to try to distinguish the exercises generated by my programme from exam questions devised by Cambridge experts. Only a few of the experts managed to identify correctly and with certainty which questions were generated by the machine. I describe this experiment in more detail in one of my publications.

Probably, one of the main criteria for efficiency is that the programme should create interesting (in other words sufficiently difficult but solvable) problems and at the same time - on the basis of almost any English text (news and analysis, reviews, fiction, biography etc.)

Chose the right moment to present your project

I started working on the programme three years ago, just as an experiment: I was curious whether anything would come of it. I didn’t think then about who might use it or how. But when it began to work out well, I wanted to share it with my colleagues. It’s true, I waited until my project was already quite well developed, after I had been using the programme for several months with my students in class. 

Get your colleagues involved

I’m sure there is no need to explain why improving the quality of teaching, especially of English, is important. And several of my colleagues are already using my programme for teaching. Sometimes they send me letters with responses and suggestions. These give me great ideas about how to improve the programme and some of them have already been put into practice.

Applications for the FOI competition can describe original teaching designs for courses, seminars, practicals and other forms of active teaching. If your ideas don’t fit into any of the six given categories, there is a ‘free-style’ nomination. You can find more detailed information about the competition and how to apply on the FOI pages.