What I Wish I Had Known – Choosing Courses

Now that my first semester on the Sookmyung MA TESOL course is finished, it is time to reflect on it! I intended to write this for my own growth, but as it contains many of the things I wish I knew before starting my MA course, it might end up being more helpful for others. If you find it so, then great!

Six months ago, coming into my MA TESOL studies, I only had vague ideas of what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to write a thesis (rather than do a practicum), and I knew I was interested in the use of L1 in the classroom. But when I was faced with my first course selection list, I was stumped for what to choose.

I don’t think this is uncommon for new MA students. Many of us have a vague area of interest, but primarily we’re there with the goal of getting an MA certificate rather than developing our knowledge in a certain field of research.

Naturally, for teachers in many areas the choices are clear – for example, if you work with (or want to work with) young learners, you go for those courses. My first choice was easy: Developing Bilingualism. My Korean wife was then pregnant with our son, Aaron, who we would love to bring up speaking both Korean and English. It was a no-brainer, and I haven’t regretted the choice.

But what if there are no courses on offer which fit your interests?

When I was faced with this issue, I really had no idea what to go for. Given the interests I voiced above, there was no clear choice for me to make. Here’s what I saw when I looked at the course list:

Approaches to English Grammar (dull and complicated)
Teaching Reading (everyone knows Krashen)
ESL/EFL Program Evaluation (I can tell if I’m teaching well or not, thanks)
Research Methodology (I need to find something to research first)
Theoretical Foundations of CALL (I already know how to use PowerPoint)

I had a vague interest in a couple of these, but not enough to guide my choice. In the end I chose the course that looked the least boring and the most practical for my current situation, Teaching Reading, in the hope that it wouldn’t be completely irrelevant to my interests.

Did I make the right decision? Well… Yes and no.

Yes, because I enjoyed the course and got a lot out of it.

No, because I had a fundamental misunderstanding of how an MA course works. So, here’s what I wish I had known when making my first course choices:

  1. Every Course Is the Same

Actually, of course every course isn’t exactly the same. However, very often the same up-to-date research acts as a base for each area of study. I didn’t expect it, but there was a lot of overlap in the underlying principles of the Teaching Reading and Developing Bilingualism courses, for example. In this sense, it almost doesn’t matter which course you take; you will get a good overview of the TESOL world.

The course you take rather defines which angle you will see the TESOL world from. Obviously one course about evaluation and another about reading aren’t going to cover exactly the same material, but the both have similar foundations; you’ll just be coming at it from a different perspective. So, look for the underlying issue in each course. If you can’t find one, check the course description or contact the professor who will be teaching it!

  1. Each Course Is a Springboard

Most surprising for me was that each course merely acts as an overview of a subject. I figured, having not long finished my undergraduate degree, that an MA would have a much narrower focus, and get into the nitty-gritty parts of each subject. This is not what the courses on an MA are designed to do. Rather, they give a broad, albeit deeper, overview of a field of research, and it is then up to you to identify an area of interest within that field to delve deep into through research assignments.

This means I came out of my Reading course having good general knowledge about Input in Second Language Learning, but a deeper knowledge of the acquisition vs. the explicit instruction of reading strategies. I came out of my Bilingualism course having a broad understanding of the current issues surrounding bilingualism, but I have a much deeper understanding of code switching.

This deeper research is what your assignments are for. Identify something interesting as early as you can, and look into it for yourself. If you can’t find anything of interest, then read more, more closely. Seriously: the more you read, the more interesting each subject will turn out to be, and the more likely you are to find something you want to research. The reading list you are given is a minimum, and the more extra reading you do the better.

And that is important because:

  1. The Courses You Choose Will Define Your Thesis

The assignments in each course are designed to allow you to research something that interests you, and to find something that you can research further for your thesis. They are, in a sense, mini-theses. However, because your assignments have to be related in some way to the courses you are taking, the courses you take will, in some way, direct what you research later. This is another reason for the courses giving such broad overviews – it exposes you to a lot of research, and allows you to identify something of interest to write your thesis on.

This effectively means that I have four chances to find something I want to research further – four assignments over two semesters (my thesis proposal is due before the 3rd semester starts). If I really get on it fast one of these assignments could even form the basis for my thesis, saving me a lot of work down the line.

So What Do I Conclude?

Choosing your courses is a really important decision, because it will be a large factor in deciding what you write for your thesis. However, each course is broad enough that, even if you find much of it boring, there will be something of interest in there, especially if you do some extra digging yourself.

I know people do MAs for various reasons, but personally I want to take my research to PhD level if possible. My MA, then, is practice on how to do research independently. If I’m not reading outside the set material and putting a lot into my assignments, then I feel as though I am wasting my time. I chose to study, so why do it begrudgingly?

In the end, having an aim has to be the most important part of postgraduate study. The course choices you make will not make or break your aims, but they might just take there in ways you couldn’t have anticipated.

Now to choose what to study next semester…

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