© Robert A. Buckmaster 2020
Tasks, or activities or exercises all have costs and benefits. These should be evaluated to determine if the tasks are worth doing.
Only if the benefits outweigh the costs should a task be done.
There is one key cost which most people do not consider – this is opportunity cost. If you choose to spend time on one particular task e.g. a gap fill you are unable to spend that same time on another task e.g. writing an email.
The opportunity cost of any task you choose to do includes the cost of not doing other things which may potentially be more worthwhile.
So, we need to do a cost/benefit analysis of tasks and compare them with the choice of other tasks to determine which task would be best at which stage of learning.
A task may have benefits at a certain stage of learning and have fewer benefits at another stage.
For example, it might be worthwhile doing a multiple choice sentence completion task during controlled practice of a verb structure as this is during the early stage of learning about a structure. The utility of such a task will decline though and it will become a less useful task once the student becomes more familiar with the structure.
Other tasks, like asking the students to produce their own personalized examples, will become more pedagogically useful. The benefits of tasks will change at different stages of learning – the benefits are not fixed.
At each choice or decision about which tasks we use we need to ask ourselves:
• What are the benefits of this task at this stage of learning?
• Are there other tasks which are more suitable at this stage of learning?
• What are the relative costs of each possible exercise?
• What is the best choice of task at this stage of learning, considering the costs and benefits of all the possible tasks?
How do we evaluate costs and benefits though? What factors or dimensions should we consider?
Preparation Time vs Quantity/Quality of Output
We could consider the cost of a task in terms of the time required to prepare the activity and compare it with the quantity/quality of language output required of the students. This would give us the following matrix.
Tasks which appear in the high quality but high preparation time quadrant might be worth doing, especially if the task is repeatable with other groups (or with the same group) as this lowers the total overall cost. If it is a one-off task then you need to carefully think about whether it is worth spending the time on.
The quadrant you should avoid at all costs is that of high preparation time – low quality output. If you spending a long time preparing something which does not have good output in terms of quality or quantity, then you are wasting your time.
Complexity of Processing Cline
We could also consider the benefits of a task in terms of the complexity of processing required, in terms of a cline, from low to high complexity.
Remember that certain tasks will be appropriate at certain times; a simple matching task can be useful. But if all you are doing are multiple choice tasks and gap fills, then you are doing it wrong.
The students need to use the language in more high complexity tasks to show that they can recall the language and know how to use the target language appropriately and effectively.
Using ‘other people’s language’ vs using ‘your own language’
We can classify tasks in terms of whether they use ‘other people’s language’ or ‘your own language’. This is related to high processing complexity, obviously.
Tasks which use ‘other people’s language’ (e.g. sentence or text gap fills) are less pedagogically useful overall (but still appropriate at certain stages) than tasks which use the student’s own language – that is, personalized output.
It is essential that students move from dealing with the target language contextualized in ‘other people’s language’ to producing the target language in their own spoken utterances or in their own written texts as soon as possible; and then practicing such production.
If you keep practicing and testing the students with ‘other people’s language’ then you are keeping them at a Stage 4 (or maximum Stage 5 level) of knowing the language (see Thoughts On Knowing a Word (and Grammar)), rather than moving them on to a Stage 6 level of knowing. We want our learners to be at Stgae 6: where they know and can use the language for themselves and for their own purposes. Learners need to be given as much practice of this as possbile.