Paper clips, potatoes and peer observation in the EAP class

I am currently in Sheffield where I will be teaching EAP for the next six weeks. Last week was induction week and I learnt a few interesting things that I would like to share with you. Today I will be focusing on Academic Speaking and seminar skills in particular. But, before I go on, what are seminar skills in EAP?

I am not going to give you a definition, just my experience. Students gather in groups and talk about ‘academic’ issues that interest them. They may need to meet up to discuss articles they read or topics they are interested in, talk about the progress of a project or presentation etc. Seminar skills sessions train learners to develop skills that will help them take part in these academic group discussions. These skills may have to do with turn taking, interrupting, asking questions, expressing an opinion, disagreeing and so on. Seminar skills classes during pre sessional courses give the students the opportunity to participate in these discussions in a ‘realistic manner’. To make it simple, seminar skills are like group discussions.

During induction week, I was in a group that was talking about how teachers can help learners during seminar skills and some ideas were shared. Focus was on how to get all the students to talk and not just one dominating the discussion. So, how can you get students involved?

Getting rid of the paper clips

This is something I have tried many times. The teacher gives each student the same number of paper clips and asks the students to place the paper clips in the middle of the desk when they make a contribution to the discssion. A contribution has to be an argument or a full sentence. Saying , ”OK” or ”You have a point” for example,  does not count. In fact, if a student just says, ”hmmhmm ” all the time s/he should be given more paperclips!

My experience: My students really enjoy this and they actually laugh a lot while handing in their paper clips. It is like a mini competition which gets all the learners involved. You can also try this with formulaic expressions you want your learners to use during the ‘seminar’. Of course, the problem with handing strips of paper with expressions and asking students to use them is that this does not necessarily mean that your students understand them or are using them correctly. That’s why I prefer paper clips and not strips of paper with set phrases on them.

The hot potato

Similarly, students take turns expressing their views on a particular topic and then throw a ball (hot potato) to a student who is ‘forced’ to say something. Once each student has said something (substantial) they sit down. Students who are still standing must make a contribution to the discussion.

Peer observations

Group your students in four and then four students stand over them (so eight students in each group. Four sitting/four standing). Give the students that are standing rubrics/assessment criteria or some sort of purpose. The group that is sitting takes part in the conversation. The group that is standing observes/marks, or takes notes of their classmate (each student is observed by one classmate). At the end of the conversation, the ‘observers’ give feedback to their classmates and tell them how they did. What they did well, what they need to work on. Then, the groups change roles.

Students enjoy this cause they get feedback from their classmates. They also become more aware of what makes good seminar skills (especially if they are given criteria/rubrics). Finally, they feel that they need to contribute more as someone is monitoring them.

Of course these activities/tasks can be used when holding a general discussion in any other ELT class.

I hope you liked this post. Feel free to share or add your own ideas in the comments section below.

Till next time….

Sheffield University ( Department of Music)

Sheffield University ( Department of Music)


8 thoughts on “Paper clips, potatoes and peer observation in the EAP class

  1. Hi Joanna,

    Thanks for the great ideas, I was wondering what to do with all the paperclips I’ve collected so now I know! I sometimes gives Ss paper with functions on that they need to try and perform during the seminar discussion so for e.g – agree and interrupt or clarify a point and partly disagree.

    Hope your course started well,


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Joanna,

    These are really awesome ideas. As with everyone else here I will also be stealing your paper clip idea! Hehe

    Have you taught a lot of EAP? Do you enjoy teaching it?




  3. Great ideas! Thanks.

    I have used the observation one, though I call it a fishbowl. Recently, I had two students complete a role-play and 2 students listen for “if” statements and write down what they said. We then discussed their usage of conditionals and how/when to use different forms. It’s a great activity that involves many skills.


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