Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A pedagogical experiment

Last semester, I taught again two sections of SPAN 101. There are a lot of problems with the way that class is designed, one of them being that it is a 3 credit course that aims to cover the material of a 4-5 credit course. The other one is that, despite how we are all told over and over to be "communicative" and develop students' oral skills, 75% of the final grade comes from traditional quizzes an exams. I have very little input regarding the course materials and the way to test. A third problem would be the obvious elephant in the room: students at my institution need a mandatory 6 credits of foreign language courses (unless they test above SPAN 202), but for those who start from zero or almost zero, and have no desire to go further SPAN 102, the requirement can be pretty useless. And they act like it in class, as if it were a chore where, even worse, there are no easy As. I will confess to be a pragmatic professor: if 75% of their grade comes from quizzes and exams, I teach to the test. I do practice oral and reading skills, but I spend a lot of time with grammar and writing. I need good evaluations to get tenure and, in order to get them, students need to be relax enough in class. Maybe I take the easy way out, but regardless what SLA studies say, I spend a lot of time explaining grammar (yes, I do incorporate a variety of exercises to practice it, but I will spend a lot of time explaining the rules first). I also explain grammar in English. And I spend a lot of time talking about culture in English. If the class is of very little value in itself, I think that the possibility that they become more aware of cultural differences and details, quite in depth, is more interesting than showing a few pictures of Machu Picchu accompanied by a few sentences in Spanish. So we discuss race and class in Latin America, politics, some history, etc. In all honesty, I think that my knowledge of those topics is one of the best things those who are taking the course because it's a requirement can get out of it. And I don't care if they can't order a coffee in Spanish next time they go on a cruise to the Dominican Republic.

This semester, there was an interesting experiment going on. There were 4 sections of SPAN 101 offered. I taught 2, and somebody I will call "Instructor X", taught the other two. A tenured professor in the department (let's call hir Professor Y), who works on SLA, decided to carry out a project as to how you are supposed to teach Beginning Spanish classes to get the best outcomes. Of course, Professor Y couldn't be bothered to teach hirself those two sections, so ze enlisted Instructor X to carry out the project. I think I was lucky. I have been sucked into one of Professor's Y in the past, which implied a lot of extra work in something I had little training with, and ze got most of the credit for the project. This time, the language coordinator decided to protect me and told Professor Y to work with Instructor X. Although Instructor X is a full-time lecturer not on the tenure track, ze's been there long enough where, because of the culture of my department, hir job won't be very affected by lower than usual possible evaluations.

But I digress... Professor Y project involved a special edition of the textbook with only some of the material, a lot of emphasis in speaking (which corresponded with the way there final grade was calculated), and all the instruction in Spanish. Professor Y was trying to measure how much better those who finish 101 in those courses speak in comparison to traditional courses (although I have no idea what ze was measuring against). A few things happened:

a) The four sections started with roughly 15 students in each. At the end of the drop/add period, I had 20 in one and 21 in the other, while Instructor X had 9 in one and 8 in the other.

b) Yesterday, Professor Y explained to a few of us how successful the experiment had been, and that the speaking ability of the students in Instructor X class was significantly better (than what, I don't know, since she didn't record my students).

The above bears a few questions:

- Can you say an experiment was successful when 1/3 of the students ran away? This, of course, is not unexpected. Although I am a hard grader, I am a more "traditional" professor, so those who didn't want to step out of their comfort zone switched to my class.

- Assuming that you implement a system like the one described above in all the SPAN 101 and 102 classes (so students can't run away from it), is there really an advantage if the student doesn't intend to continue with the language courses and/or spend some significant amount of time in a Spanish-speaking country? Wouldn't a system designed to give them some in-depth cultural knowledge plus some good reading abilities of original material be better, considering that it probably would be impossible to increase the foreign language requirements university-wide?

- From a scientific point of view, how do you control the results of the experiment when you take into consideration the personality of the instructor? I know Instructor X and believe ze is a good instructor. I do know, though, that ze is the most disorganized person you'll ever meet, and that is common knowledge in the department (the sort of instructor that will send students three emails a day with random things and assign additional homework the night before).

I don't have answers, and I will be the first to recognize that maybe my pedagogical practices are not the best, and are informed by the fact that: a) I need good student evaluations for my tenure and b) I may be reluctant to step out of my comfort zone. But I am still not sure that better speaking skills at the end of SPAN 102 should be the desired student learning outcome of a requirement that makes little sense to begin with. I rather spend time telling them about Latin America and its culture (in a non-stereotypical way), even if I do it in English.

Any thoughts?


  1. Luckily for us Arabic profs, we just send all the language requirement students to Spanish :-) But seriously, these would be my thoughts:

    1) Good language teaching (and actually I think all good teaching) makes students come out of their comfort zones. This is easily solved by not having there be an easier option, but will always be a problem when there is. Assuming that your class was easier in the first place--maybe they also switched because of the disorganization, or the time period, or whatever. It's hard to know from your description.

    2) Why should reading be more important than speaking, if they're not going to read original source documents ever again either (and they won't if they're only taking it for the language requirement)? Generally the idea is to go for all of the four skills, not just one, as they reinforce each other after all--how can you be good at speaking and not listening? "Communicative" doesn't mean "speaking and nothing else"--you cannot communicate without all four skills, or at least two of them (speaking/listening, reading/writing). This is an unfortunately common misinterpretation though.

    3) You can get them to have an in-depth understanding of Latin American culture in two semesters, but not to the level of Spanish where they can order coffee? I'm confused.

    4) Normally you control for the instructor in SLA experiments by having the same instructor teach the two different ways. Of course, there are other problems with this (like if the instructor likes one method better, or has more experience with it). In general, you can't "control" things in the classroom like you can in a lab, but the former is a more natural language learning setting than the latter. So, you take this lack of control into account when interpreting your data (and other people's studies). For what it's worth, the IRB will often not let you collect data in your own classroom. So while I don't know if this is why Professor Y needed you or the instructor, it's possible.

    5) You can explain grammar in the target language in a level one class if you get the students used to how you do it and they go over it in English at home (textbook or videos). This is especially easy in 101 where they're not used to English yet (the worst is switching them in 301). I use lots of Powerpoint and color. Other people use other things. Using English is a pet peeve of mine, because you are also implicitly telling them "you don't know Spanish, you can't do this in Spanish". In 101, sure, they don't, but is this really the message you want to give them? You're also not preparing them for getting it in Spanish at higher levels, and making it harder for those teachers who then have to resocialize them (the bane of my existence this year, even though it worked in the end).

    6) Don't they have some sort of culture requirement, where they discuss things like politics and race? Is Spanish 101-102 they only place they can get this? There aren't cultural classes in English to begin with? Also, wouldn't it make more sense to work to get them to deal with this in Spanish, rather than just assuming they can't? Surely not all of your students just want to go to 102? Why bring the good ones down, even if you can't change the ridiculous requirement?

    6) Teaching to the test is good, if the test is measuring valuable outcomes. It sounds like yours aren't, but these were changed in the experimental group and then they got better at speaking when it mattered? When you get tenure, you might want to look into changing those tests, as this is how the research demonstrates that language programs (and policies) are reformed . . .

    Anyways, now that I've written my own post in your comments, I'm off! But I could happily discuss this on and on :-)

  2. Uh no, that's not a good experiment. It violates many many experimental design basics. But it will probably get published anyway because a lot of education stuff seems to get published without the experimenter understanding counterfactuals.

  3. @N&M: That's what I thought, but since I write about literature, some people assume I don't know what an "experiment" is like. The fact that both my parents are mathematicians and my father forced me to read Popper when I was 12 doesn't seem to impress them.

    @SD: OK, it was a long and rambling post, I'll try to comment and expand.

    1) I don't think I am the easier option (this last semester, out of 41 students in the two sections, there was an A, three A-, 7 B+, and the rest was between B and D. I am, though, the clear professor. Because of my ADD, I am organized and clear. Students know what to expect.

    2) I think the problem with point 2 is the question nobody wants to pose: what can you expect in terms of SLO by demanding 6 credit hours of a foreign language? In my opinion, very little. The best way I have to think about it is in terms of my undergraduate experience, (BA in Political Science in Buenos Aires), where you were required a second language. There were to ways to pass the requirement: either a reading comprehension exam (text in the other language, with questions and answers in Spanish) if you already knew the language, or 3 semesters of the language (although those classes gave no credit). The classes focused on reading comprehension, the thought being that it would be more useful for you career, if you are interested, than trying to develop the 4 skills but doing none very good. That is the approach I've seen in other Latin American universities, and it makes more sense to me than 6 credit hours that the student will probably forget the following semester.

    3) I can't get an in-depth understanding of Latin American culture in 2 semesters, but I can go beyond the typical superficial approach: "Tango is the national dance of Argentina" (false), "Isabella Allende is a very successful Chilean writer", "Look how folkloric some Latin American cities are". And of course they can ask for a coffee after they finish 2 semesters, I was being hyperbolic.

    5) While in theory I might agree with you on this point, I do however have my doubts, since many students have no idea of basic English grammar whatsoever. So maybe I am a control freak, but after a student asked me 2 months into the semester what an infinitive was, I am reluctant to institute this kind of method.

    6) They have a 6 hour requirement of History courses, but 80% of them fulfill them with US History or European History. So most of them will not be exposed to cultural aspects of Latin America very easily in the future.

    7) You'd be surprised how little control I (and other tenured professors) have over the language courses syllabus. Language coordinators are powerful people. I love ours to death, but she can be a little old fashioned. But for our department, she has single-handily convinced the Dean to hire full-time instructors as much as possible (with a decent salary and full benefits), and adjuncts only when you need to open an additional section at the last moment. For that, I will respect her forever and not interfere with her work, even if I disagree with much of it.

    The question again is, though: What's the value of a mandatory 6 credit hour foreign language requirement? What can you expect students to learn and, even better, not to forget in 2 weeks? I'm pretty skeptic. What's your opinion?

  4. Okay, ramble 2:

    1) I misunderstood and thought you were saying they switched because the method made them uncomfortable. I think organization and clear expectations extremely important in language classes. However, if they switched because you are more organized, you can't use that to say that the new method is a failure (or a success, it's unrelated)

    2) I agree that a six credit requirement is ridiculous, but given that you can't change that, my preference is to make it as intensive as possible. I think you can still aim for Novice High or Intermediate Low in all four skills (preferably the latter). How can you know which skills students need for their future careers? And if they actually need Spanish for their future careers, they will almost certainly have to take more classes.

    3) I will still maintain that you can get at this in Spanish, particularly with extensive use of pictures and videos (which it sounds like you already use). Contrast pictures of the "folkloric cities" with other parts of them, or other cities, or do a daily schedule activity with someone who does tango for tourists and then whatever regular activities. It's possible to express remarkably deep ideas using simple language.

    5) Why do they have to know English grammar to learn Spanish? Just start from scratch with the Spanish. Most of my students don't know English grammar either (and I certainly don't feel qualified to teach it).

    6) I still think you can get at this in Spanish. I also like cultural journals in English for homework where they could get at ideas they encounter in simple language in class in a more eloquent way and you can comment on them in English. But those three hours of class a week are probably their only opportunity to hear Spanish, don't take it away!

    7) This is why I can't wait to be coordinator, mwahaha :-)

    But to summarize, intensity and Novice High/Intermediate Low is what I would aim for.

  5. Novice High (let alone Intermediate low)? In two 3 credit hour classes? I've only seen that in students proficient in other languages that are taking SPAN 101and 102 as a general elective, not to fulfill the requirement. I wish I could aim for that.

    Trust me, I spend more time looking for authentic material and extra things to work in class than most of the instructors. I guess my issues boil down to:

    - I have been praised in annual evaluations for the number of students taking my SPAN 202 class who decide to declare a minor or a major after taking my class. So I consider myself an engaging professor, to say the least. While I don't mind teaching 101, the students, the attitude and the situation is different. 90% of the students will not go beyond the required mandatory classes, and 60% of them consider a drag to take the requirement (specially when they realize it's not an easy A). Most of them will not use the Spanish in the foreseeable future. Given that, I wonder what would be the best that they could take out of those 2 mandatory classes. Realistically. Beyond the language, which they will probably forget pretty soon. What can I offer those nice, sheltered, mostly white, middle class Midwestern students? I know I have a special talent for challenging stereotypes and assumptions without appearing confrontational. And I try to put that into place in those classes. You know how I managed to get them out of their comfort zone the best? Asking them whether I (white Argentinean) was Hispanic or not. The discussion that ensued (yes, in English, sorry) was fascinating.

    But I digress. If you were in my position (teaching beginning Spanish to a majority that just want to get the requirement out of the way and would probably not use it again), what would be something that you'd like to transmit those students, that you think may be even more useful than to help them ask for a coffee in the Dominucan Republic? I'm curious.

  6. The best Arabic program in the country gets students to Intermediate Mid after one year. They have 5 credit classes, but it's a harder language. Probably better students, and lots of other variables, but why not set your standards high rather than be satisfied with mediocrity?

    I would consider the most important thing showing them how wonderful Spanish is and what they can do with it if they just continue past 102. If they stay in the class even when it's not an easy A (as opposed to switching to another language or section) there is some hope. Part of this entails making them feel like they can already do things in Spanish, which means lots of language learning. I think the cultural learning you describe is also important, but maintain that it needs to be in Spanish. For example, they should be able to say "you're not Hispanic because you're white" in Spanish, and if they blurt it out in English (likely) you get them to rephrase it in Spanish with your or their classmates' assistance.

    In contrast, if they are so checked out that they will just fulfill the requirement and that's it no matter what, I wouldn't be very concerned about them at all. In my experience, that type of student is unlikely to remember anything you tell them, language or stereotype related.

  7. "In contrast, if they are so checked out that they will just fulfill the requirement and that's it no matter what, I wouldn't be very concerned about them at all. In my experience, that type of student is unlikely to remember anything you tell them, language or stereotype related."

    I am not so sure. Some may, but I believe in the power of powerful storytelling (very broadly understood).