INTRODUCTION: I have found that many of my English as a Second Language students have had little experience in a formal educational environment such as college, and a high percentage of them are from cultures where students are expected to be passive and not participate in class. Some are unaware of their own responsibilities in the learning process and really seem lost. As a result of lacking good student habits, many fail and don’t know why.

To address this problem, I used Promise Teams with my intermediate ESL class for four out of sixteen weeks in the semester. I found that this activity helped many students modify their study habits and become more active learners. This activity could be done with any group that needs more self reflection on the actions necessary to create better academic results. It helps students not only realize what the good habits of successful students are, but also commit to practicing them. I allocated an hour for the first day, and additional brief meeting times spread out over four weeks, though it could be done in one or two weeks to fit a tighter schedule.  


  •  To raise awareness about the practices of successful and responsible students
  •  To promote a support community within the class
  •  To achieve a 90% success rate in changing student behaviors or habits


  • Handout #1: “Our Promises” (copied on different colors of paper) – appended below
  • A poster board labeled “Our Class Promises”
  • Tape or glue
  • Handout #2: “Our Team’s Track Record” (copied on different colors of paper) – appended below
  • pens, pencils, colored markers


1. Have students create teams of 4-5 and give each group a different colored Handout #1, “Our Promises” and tell them that the color will be their team color.

2. Explain: “You will all make a kind of contract today. Together you will decide on five promises that your team will keep for the next four weeks of class. These promises will be related to being successful, responsible students in this class. Write all promises as full sentences and use affirmative verbs. Make sure your ideas are very specific so that you can count each time your team members achieve them. For example, it would be hard to decide if members ‘have a good attitude’ every day, but it’s easy to see if they ‘ask a question in class.’”  Address any questions. (2-5 minutes)

3. Tell students: “First, spend about five minutes brainstorming for ideas. Try to come up with at least ten possible ideas so you can then choose your five best ones from that group.”  Visit the teams to see how things are going and to encourage specificity. (5-10 minutes)

4. Say: “Now, you have 10 minutes to agree upon and write up the five promises that your team would like to make about becoming responsible students in this class. You will all sign your paper when you finish. You are free to choose challenging ideas, but they should still be doable.” Address questions; then visit teams to offer help or clarification. (15-20 minutes)

5. Collect promise sheets, saying: “I will make copies of these so both you and I can have one. I will put your promise papers on this poster [show poster board titled ‘Our Class Promises’] and our class Website [if you have one]. Today, you can start practicing your promises, but we will officially begin next Monday, so come prepared.”  (2 minutes)

6. Next, tell them: “This is not a competition. Even though you are in teams, you will work together as a class to achieve your goals. If all of you can keep your promises at least 90% of the class periods in the next four weeks, we will have a movie party and take a class photo to put up on the Website with your posted promises. Give support and positive encouragement to each other so you can all keep your promises to be responsible students in this class.” (2 minutes)

7. Distribute the “Our Team’s Track Record” handouts on colored papers that match their team colors. Explain: “Each time your whole team keeps each promise for a day, put a checkmark in the boxes for that day. You are on the honor system. Every week one of you will be your team’s leader. The leader will bring the track record to every class and mark it for each day. Every week, you will decide on a different leader, and if you have five members in your group, one week you can have co-leaders.”  Allow for questions. Let them know you support their efforts and you’re sure they can succeed.  (2-5 minutes)

8. After class, make copies of the promise sheets on the same color paper as the original. Then place them on the poster board and class Website.

9. At the next class meeting, display the poster and give them their copies of the promise sheets. Remind them that the four weeks begin on that day. Since it’s the first day, you may need to allow a minute or two for them to get organized. Also, give them a couple minutes at the end of class to discuss and add checkmarks to their tracking sheets. As the days pass, this will all become routine.

10. Check their progress often to make sure they’re doing ok. Give teams some time (5-10 minutes) at the end of each week to look over their checklists and discuss what is going well or what can be improved. At the halfway mark of two weeks, have a short (5-10 minute) class discussion to make sure all is well.

11. On the last day of this project, ask the teams to sit together and reflect upon their experiences. Ask: “What went well? What was hardest? Which promises will you continue to practice in the future? What are the benefits of these habits?” (10 minutes)

12. After they converse in Promise Teams, have a whole class discussion about the above questions and offer your own feedback as their teacher. (10-20 minutes)

13. Tell teams to count their checkmarks to see if they achieved their goal of 90%. Write totals on the board. Congratulate them on their victory (or efforts) and collect their track record sheets to put comments on and return later. If they met their goal, announce when the movie party will be.


When I first handed out the promise sheets, there were a couple of groans, a few laughs and one “yea!” One complainer said, “Do I have to?” (to which another student said “shhh!”), but many seemed somewhat excited after I explained the activity. One said, “That’s a good challenge.”

When it came time to make promises, I needed to help them make specific and realistic commitments. For example, one team first wrote that they would be “friendly and respectful in class every day.” I encouraged them to be more specific so they could count the times they really achieve it. They came up with something quite different: “During these four weeks, we will each make one appointment with our teacher to talk about our class.”

Some interesting promises were “Visit our Website’s online exercises page three times a week…. Review our notes after class…. Meet as a study team before each Friday’s quiz…. Drink coffee before class.” (There was a sleepy boy in that last group).

Many times throughout the four weeks, I heard students reminding their team members to keep a promise. Once, things seemed to be getting negative for one group (although they were speaking a language I don’t understand, I could see the facial expressions), so I met with them after class. Three students were frustrated with one of their members who kept forgetting to bring his textbook to class. I helped them remember to try to be positive and encouraging.

On the last day, most of the teams were already looking at their track records before class. One student even had a calculator out to figure what 90% would be. We had a good discussion about their efforts, and when we totaled the numbers, we found they had actually checked 92% of their boxes. There was a big hooray and applause when the official results were announced. Many students said they felt proud of themselves. One student said that it wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be, and over half the students raised their hands when I asked who would continue to try to keep these good habits. We decided when to have our movie party, and one student announced, “Look good next time for our picture, everybody!”


Significantly, the class achieved the 90% goal of keeping their promises to be responsible students. I experienced such magical moments as seeing almost every student open a notebook at the start of class to take notes. Before, I had had to beg many of them to do so. One grumpy student told me she hated taking notes, but begrudgingly admitted it gave her good information to study before our tests. I could see some students’ epiphanies that their efforts matter and directly affect their educational experience.

I could also see more support going on in the classroom, although not quite as much as I had dreamed of. One team was especially good about reminding not only its own members, but other classmates as well to stay on task. A few students seemed to give up and rebel against the process, and one young man pouted his way through the four weeks, though he actually helped his team reach their 90% mark by keeping the promises more often than not. I also noticed that some of the better students would talk down to students they thought were being lazy. I talked to them about it, but they didn’t all stop this behavior – often speaking in their native language as to make their criticisms “secret.”

I believe at least some of the students will continue their commitments beyond the activity.


I will use this activity again in future semesters, but with some possible changes. First of all, I plan to simplify some things because this was quite a lot to accomplish. Three possible options are to a) shorten the time to two weeks, b) reduce the number of promises to three per group, and c) offer a list of prepared measurable habits from which they can choose. They would be welcome to come up with their own instead or in addition to these, but at least it would give them some ideas about where to start.

Another thing I may do differently is to offer “Oops Tickets” to use if anyone messes up once so students who are struggling don’t feel they are letting their teammates down. I would also like to try this activity earlier in the semester so they can practice good habits from the beginning. Finally, since the tracking of promises was a bit confusing for them at first, I will probably use an overhead projector to demonstrate how to fill in the Track Record handout and check in with them more regularly.

All in all, I can recommend this type of activity on a small or large scale for an instructor of any subject matter. It’s a great way to develop group support for personal responsibility.


Handout #1: Our Promises

1. We promise we will…

2. We promise we will…

3. We promise we will…

4. We promise we will…

5. We promise we will…

We promise to try our best and to support each other in order to achieve our five promises. Our Team’s Signatures:


HANDOUT #2: Our Team’s Track Record

Instructions – The team leader of the week will keep track of the team’s performance for one week. Put a checkmark next to each team promise for each class day that the WHOLE team has achieved it. Remember to support each other in achieving your goals!  



Promise 1

Promise 2

Promise 3

Promise 4

Promise 5






































































After four weeks, count your check marks. There are 60 squares in the Team Track Record – did you have 90% of them checked (54 boxes)?  

Total Checks: ______

–Cathy Johnson, Faculty, ESL, Pasadena City College, CA

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