Making undergraduate research opportunities accessible

Our department has several opportunities for undergrads to conduct original research. In the Research Practicum (Ling 3RP3), students work as lab members on a faculty member’s research project. In the Honours Thesis (4Y06), students conduct an original research project of their own, guided by a faculty supervisor. Students might also conduct a smaller-scale research project under the Independent Study (4II3) course code, though this course code also covers individual reading courses and the like. I created the Honours Thesis course and guidelines in 2009, but in recent years we learned that many students (and indeed, some faculty members!) were not aware of the process for requesting access to these courses. In 2017, I re-wrote the instructions for applying for these courses, and revised the suggested course outlines. The updated guidelines are now available on the department website.

Blended Learning for a Very Large Class

Introduction to Linguistics is a very large class — usually about 600 students in Ling 1A03 and 300-400 in Ling 1AA3. The size of the class can be overwhelming to first-year students, and the format of the class, which blends on-line components with in-person class sessions, might also be unfamiliar to them. Having a clear structure in Avenue is important to helping students stay on track in the course. In the very large classroom it’s also important to create a sense of community, to alleviate some of the sensation that students might experience of being just a face in the crowd. In the first couple of classes, I remind students that learning can work well in community and I give them a few minutes to get to know each other. In each class period there are always opportunities for students to talk to each other while analyzing data or arguing over the answer to a clicker question. I often remind them that if they don’t know the person they’re sitting next to, it’s worth taking a minute to introduce themselves before jumping into the discussion question. And I often open class with a couple of sentences about myself or my family, so that they remember that I’m a human with a life outside the classroom just as they are.

The screencast embedded below walks you through some of the on-line components of the course from the student’s point of view. The first semester that we used the blended format was Fall 2014. Each year I’ve surveyed students anonymously about their experience in the course and made changes based on their feedback. The first year, their most frequent ask was that we correct the errors in the quizzes, an entirely fair request since that first version did contain more errors than tolerable (partly because we were still learning how to use the Avenue quizzing software, and partly because we were developing materials on a short timeline). So the primary job for my TAs that next summer was to go through the quizzes very carefully and correct any errors. We also added a lot more quiz questions to each topic that summer, so there was a larger bank to randomly draw questions from.

The following year, the thing students wanted most was more practice assignments. As I gradually detached the course from its dependence on the commercial textbook, I created my own new assignments every year. I do this so I can provide them with full answer keys and commentary once the assignment is over, while not having to worry about future students getting access to the answer key. This means that I can post the previous year’s assignments and tests plus the answer keys for them, so that students get a chance to practice and check their own answers.

Here are some sample assignments and practice tests:

Sample Assignment for Ling 1A03

Sample Midterm Test + Answer Key for Ling 1A03

Sample Assignment for Ling 1AA3

Sample Midterm Test + Answer Key for Ling 1AA3

The biggest change for 2018 will be the new Open Access eBook, Essentials of Linguistics. Before September, my TAs are working to update the quiz questions and all the accompanying materials to be consistent with the notation conventions in the new book. In the Spring 2018 course, students have already expressed how pleased they are not to have to shell out $147 for a commercial textbook!

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.


Researching Team-Based Learning

Since 2017 was my first experience teaching in the Active Learning Classroom, I wanted to investigate students’ experiences in the class, so that I could make evidence-informed decisions about future versions of the course. I partnered with an Honours Thesis student, Nadia Bachar, to conduct a SoTL project on students’ experiences. Our research project was approved by the McMaster Research Ethics Board and I had no access to the identities of students who participated in the research.

At the beginning of the semester we conducted an anonymous survey to gather accounts of students’ experiences of teamwork in other courses. We learned that students enjoyed collaborating with each other, but resented it when team members didn’t pull their weight, and often struggled with the logistics of arranging team meetings around everyone’s course, work, and commuting schedules.

Late in the semester, Nadia conducted two focus groups to pursue her questions of interest. At the end of the semester, we administered a second anonymous survey to supplement the data from the standard course evaluations. Nadia used qualitative data analysis software to code and interpret the data from the two surveys, her focus group, and the course evaluations.

Nadia presented her findings in a poster at the department’s Student Research Day. Overall, she found that the ALC created the conditions for team activities, and that these team activities supported students’ learning. Students reported that they learned from each other in the team assignments and projects, and that they forged new friendships and learning communities that they carried over to other courses as well.