A cross-listed Level 3 course

Child Language Acquisition (Ling 3C03) is a required class for all Linguistics and CogSciL students. It is also cross-listed as Psych 3C03 and forms part of the Human Behaviour program. In recent years, I’ve taught it as an evening course with a fairly traditional lecture style, though of course my lectures are liberally dosed with discussion questions and clicker questions, and with pictures and videos of my twins during their early language development. These slides illustrate a typical evening class.

Because it’s a Level 3 course, there are fewer scaffolds for students compared to Level 1 & 2 courses. The graded components of the course are two projects, a midterm test and a final.

The goal of the PR Project is to communicate scientific findings to a non-scientific audience, a skill that will be valuable in many different careers after graduation. Students read a recent journal paper about child language, and write a one-page press release describing the findings of the paper. The challenge of the assignment is in deciding which details to include, and in describing the findings accurately but accessibly.

PR Project Guidelines

PR Project Rubric

In the Experiment Project (adapted from a similar project designed by Dr. Ann Bunger at Indiana University) students conduct a brief experiment on themselves with a short simulated verb-learning activity. The class is divided into four groups, each of which completes the activity in a slightly different condition. I tabulate the results, and the students interpret our data through the lens of a much-cited paper on syntactic bootstrapping.

Experiment Project Guidelines

Experiment Project Rubric

This year, for the first time, I made the midterm test an open-book test. My thinking was that allowing the students to refer to their notes and textbooks for factual details would allow me to ask deeper questions about research design and data interpretation in child language. But in designing deep questions, I added too many of them to the test! The students found it difficult to complete the test in the allotted time, and the scores were quite low. The week after the test, I was grateful that the students engaged in an open and honest conversation with me about how the test had gone. I acknowledged that I had made the test too long, while they revealed that almost none of them had ever encountered an open-book test before, so they didn’t really know how to prepare for it. To compensate them for making the test too long, I boosted everyone’s test score. And I promised them that I would give them access to some portion of the final exam in advance of the scheduled exam.

The last question on the final exam, which was posted to Avenue ten days before the exam, asks students to interpret some new data that we did not consider in class, and to interpret this new data in light of what they already know from class. Such a question allows them to extend their learning to a new, related situation, and having the question ahead of time allows them to actually learn something while preparing for the exam, rather than simply cramming.


Author: Catherine Anderson

Director of the Gender and Social Justice Program and Teaching Professor in Linguistics at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

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