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.