DO IT! Fostering creativity in exam classes

Back on 7th March I was delighted to be invited to host an online chat on the Teaching English Facebook page. The subject, ‘the keys to creative class activities’, proved to be a fertile one that brought about many questions and led to many ideas being shared. In fact, it has inspired me to write a series of posts on practical techniques for injecting creativity into our classes. Here we go, then, with a technique that will hopefully help you breathe a bit of life into exam classes.

What is DO IT?

Just a nice picture, that's all

Just a nice picture, that’s all

DO IT is a fantastically simple way of enhancing the creative thought processes that are perhaps overlooked when preparing for exams. The acronym stands for ‘Define’ problems, be ‘Open’ to many possible solutions, ‘Identify’ the best solution and then ‘Transform’ it into effective action. While this formula lends itself to problems that require a great deal of input and creative thinking, this same process can be applied to simple gap fill grammar exercises.

Applying it to our context

I’ve never worked in any educational institution that hasn’t used a gapped text to test learners’ knowledge of verb tenses. Whether that’s a good or bad thing isn’t something I’m going to discuss in this post, it’s just a fact. Consequently, I imagine many of you reading this are in a similar position. Let’s take a look at how we can apply DO IT to helping students crack this task! So, what are the steps involved?

Define’ the problem
There’s a gap in the text which needs to be filled with the verb in its correct form.

Be ‘Open’ to many possible solutions
Let’s identify every possible correct answer based on what we know.

Identify’ the best solution
Looking at our available options, which one works best?

Transform’ it into effective action
Fill in the gap

Ok, so this doesn’t sound particularly innovative or interesting, but you’re already on your way to helping your learners think about this task in a more creative way.

Where it gets a bit tricky for you as the teacher

To be honest, this is where you’re going to have to put in a little bit more work than making a set of photocopies to distribute among your class. It’ll be worth it, though.

Firstly, decide on your format. You can write this up on the board or maybe you could create a PowerPoint or other such presentation if the mood takes you. Secondly, break up your gap fill into smaller chunks. I’ll explain why in a minute. This might work best with an example. Consider this mini-paragraph:

Frederick __________ (work) in five different countries. He worked in Vietnam in 2003, China in 2005, Singapore in 2007, Malaysia in 2009 and Sri Lanka in 2011. He __________ (die) on 12th January and __________ (bury) several days later.

I think we could imagine our learners getting a task like this, so let’s see how we can make this into a DO IT activity. As I just mentioned, you need to break it up! Let’s see how this looks with just the first sentence.

Frederick __________ (work) in five different countries.

Now, apply your DO IT formula.

D: There’s a gap in the text which needs to be filled with the verb ‘to work’ in its correct form.
O: Let’s identify every possible correct answer based on what we know (works, is working, has worked, will work, has been working, worked, etc.).
I: Looking at our available options, which one works best? We can speculate, but it’s difficult to say at present.
T: This is too soon for us to take action!

Believe it or not, we’ve made good progress. The action of working on the ‘O’ has got the learners thinking creatively about this problem. Let’s see what they do now, with a little bit more information.

Frederick __________ (work) in five different countries. He worked in Vietnam in 2003, China in 2005, Singapore in 2007, Malaysia in 2009 and Sri Lanka in 2011.

How does our DO IT look?

D: There’s a gap in the text which needs to be filled with the verb ‘to work’ in its correct form.
O: Let’s identify every possible correct answer based on what we know, which is now more (works (probably not, given that the next sentence contextualizes Frederick’s experiences), is working (again, probably not for the same reason), has worked (possible… even probable based on what we know so far), will work (maybe… but look at the context again), has been working (possible), worked (again, possible), etc.).
I: Looking at our available options, which one works best? We can speculate with a bit more accuracy, but it remains difficult to say at present. Present perfect looks a good bet, given what we know about starting with a description of life experience before shifting to past tense to describe specific instances. Let’s wait and see, eh!
T: This is still too soon for us to take definite action!

We’ve now made good progress. We’re looking at the big picture and thinking creatively about what is and isn’t possible as an answer. Let’s now take it that final step.

Frederick __________ (work) in five different countries. He worked in Vietnam in 2003, China in 2005, Singapore in 2007, Malaysia in 2009 and Sri Lanka in 2011. He __________ (die) on 12th January and __________ (bury) several days later.

How does our DO IT look?

D: There’s a gap in the text which needs to be filled with the verb ‘to work’ in its correct form.
O: Let’s identify every possible correct answer based on what we know, which is now the whole picture (worked).
I: Looking at our available options, simple past is clearly the best.
T: Let’s take definite action and fill that gap!

Benefits of DO IT

This extremely simple technique activates, accelerates and strengthens learners’ innate creative problem-solving ability as well as stimulating the creation of diverse ideas. Learners often have difficulty identifying the bigger picture in exercises like this, and this exercise allows them access to the thought processes that native speakers go through when confronted with such a task.
Let me know how it goes

If you use this technique, please let me know how it goes for you. I’m always interested in hearing how activities work in different contexts.

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14 Responses to DO IT! Fostering creativity in exam classes

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  4. Cristina Gama says:

    Great way to explore the exercise.

    • Adam says:

      Thanks, Cristina. This is something that has always worked well for me. The major problem that learners have with such an exercise is ‘seeing the wood for the trees’ and this approach really helps.

  5. DO IT! Fostering creativity in exam classes http://t.co/CjidXq5WfM via @yearinthelifeof

  6. DO IT! Fostering creativity in exam classes http://t.co/a5zkrpnsbW via @yearinthelifeof

  7. Philip says:

    You might find http://www.learnclick.com useful for creating gap filling exercises online. It can also be used for assessment. The website provides detailed statistics of how your students performed and what answers they provided.

  8. DO IT! Fostering creativity in exam classes http://t.co/JtMwQQCStH via @yearinthelifeof

  9. @jaluribe says:

    RT @Priscilamateini: DO IT! Fostering creativity in exam classes http://t.co/JtMwQQCStH via @yearinthelifeof

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  11. Leanne says:

    I’ve read your approach but what I’m confused about is how to deal with the narrative tense in a gap fill as i’ve been caught off guard by the many possibilities of the three tenses, past simple, past continuous and past perfect. I’m drowning at the moment and would appreciate any ideas as I want to overcome this and have a clear way of teaching both the narrative and how to know which tense to use when especially in the sequence of events.Thanks to anyone who can help.Anon EFL Teacher in Spain.

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