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If I’m not suffering, am I learning?

Bindi Clements is Instructional Design and Efficacy Manager at Wall Street English, and will be exploring some interesting discrepancies between what teachers and students think is ‘fun’. Join her talk at 17.40 in Room 10 to find out why these differences might matter for how we design learning experiences.

At around the time that the iELT18 conference theme of ‘Fun?! Delight and struggle in ELT’ was published last year, I’d recently joined Wall Street English. I’d obviously checked out our website when I was applying for the job, and had noticed that the idea of ‘fun’ featured strongly in how our courses for teaching English to adults were designed. (Bear with me – I promise this isn’t a sneaky plug!) Quoting from our website, in our centres you can ‘meet new people, have fun and practice your English’ and take classes with teachers who ‘make learning fun’. Mobile-friendly multimedia activities promise to make learning fun through ‘bite-sized, entertaining, sitcom-style lessons’. As ‘fun’ is at the heart of our method, this conference seemed like an ideal opportunity to delve deeper and ask questions around how much our students value ‘fun’, and what ‘fun’ actually means for our students and teachers.

So what’s so important about having fun while you’re learning? Here are just some of the reasons I was given by my colleagues for building ‘fun’ into our learning experience (and I’m sure plenty more will be discussed on Saturday!).

‘When students are having fun, they are more willing to try new things and are less afraid to make mistakes.’
‘A fun learning environment will make everything more memorable.’
‘Students will do activities more frequently when the activities are fun and engaging.’

These all sound like pretty good reasons for making learning fun. However, I’d also heard that some students had questioned whether they could learn from activities which just seemed too ‘fun’ (hence the title of my talk: ‘If I’m not suffering, am I learning?’). Do our learners perceive that they learn better when they are having fun? And if students do learn better when they are having fun, does what they think is ‘fun’ match what we (‘we’ being those who design the course materials, and our teachers) think our students find fun? Will students engage with activities because they are fun, and is this more (or less) important than whether they feel they are learning something from the activity?


In March of this year I had the chance to visit six of our centres in China (three in Shanghai, and three in Beijing). I observed classes, held focus groups with teachers, and interviewed students about both their use of the multimedia lessons, and the classes they attend in Wall Street English centres.

In terms of the online multimedia lessons, a lot of students did, encouragingly, tell me that they found watching the videos to be the most fun and enjoyable activities. However, this was by no means unanimous. Activities which I had predicted would be voted the least fun (because of the design, and because I thought they were rather repetitive) were in fact the most enjoyable for some students, largely because they felt they learned the most from them. Many even said that these were the activities they would most like to go back to and do again, despite identifying some UX issues that they thought could be improved.


Essentially, this group of students were telling me that even though the experience was not the most ‘delightful’, they were willing to put in the effort if they felt they were learning. In fact, the reason students most often gave me for naming an activity as ‘least enjoyable’ was not frustration with the activity design or user experience, but that the content was simply too easy for them, so they thought completing these activities was not an efficient use of their time.

I also talked to students and staff about the different types of classes we offer to find out what students found fun, and what teachers expected students to find fun. Teachers mostly thought that learners would most enjoy fluency-based classes and social events (no surprises there, as they are designed to be fun!), and believed that some students would find the more formal classes we offer, which assess the learner’s progress, more stressful and therefore less ‘fun’.

However, interviews with students turned up some interesting results. While for higher-level students we were pitching it right, some lower-level students offered different definitions of what they considered to be ‘fun’ from the teachers, which has implications for materials design and teacher training.

Join me at 17.40 in Room 10 to find out what we took away from this and to hear about the solutions we came up with. See you there!

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