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.


Team-Based Learning in Psycholinguistics

In 2017 I had the chance to teach Ling 2PS3 (Psycholinguistics) in one of the new Active Learning Classrooms (ALC) in the L.R. Wilson Building. I designed a course outline that consists of about one-half team-based assignments and projects, and one-half individual tests. In Fall 2017 the class was timetabled with a one-hour class on Tuesdays and a two-hour class on Fridays, so we used the Friday class period for the team assignments three times during the semester. Class periods that weren’t devoted to assignments usually consisted of brief lecture segments interspersed with group activities. This set of slides illustrates a typical class from early in the semester.

To ensure that every member of the team is prepared for full participation in the team’s work, each team assignment begins with an individual multiple-choice quiz worth 2%. The team then completes the same quiz together for an additional 2% using IF-AT response cards that give immediate feedback. Team members think through the quiz questions collectively and argue to persuade each other about the correct answers. For the rest of the class period, they work to complete an assignment worth 6% that they submit within an hour of the end of the class period.

Team Quizzes and Assignments

The semester also includes two individual take-home tests. I’ve found that a take-home test is a useful way of making space for many students’ accommodations: because they can write the test over a 48-hour period in their own chosen space, they don’t need to reserve testing space in SAS to meet their needs. A take-home test also alleviates testing anxiety for students who don’t have documented SAS accommodations. Furthermore, the looser time constraints on a take-home allow me to ask questions in which students extend and apply material they’ve learned, which take longer to answer than is practicable in an in-class test. I have few concerns about academic integrity with the take-home test: my experience is that program students take their learning seriously and are very careful to avoid any behaviour that might be considered cheating. I ask students to upload a signed statement declaring that the work is their own and I trust their declarations.

Individual Take-home Tests

The final project in the course asks teams to prepare an audio or video lesson that will teach their classmates about a finding in psycholinguistics. Teams have two weeks of class time to prepare their projects, and they deliver their presentations in the final week. Allowing class time for the collaboration alleviated many of the scheduling conflicts that can plague teamwork. The students in Fall 2017 genuinely enjoyed creating their projects, and produced some impressive videos!

Project Guidelines and Rubric

Team Oak’s Project: LinguEllen

Team Hawthorn’s Project: The Effects of Bilingualism

Because so much of the learning over the semester takes place in a team environment, creating a traditional, individual final exam seems incongruous. On the other hand, scheduling a team-based exam introduces many challenges around SAS accommodations and other needs. My compromise is to schedule an individual final exam but to provide students with the full exam one week ahead of time. They may work together to prepare their answers, but they need to write their exams individually, without notes, so they need to understand their prepared answers well enough to remember them. In the final exam, I ask questions about studies that we have not discussed in class — to answer the questions, students have to extend their knowledge to interpret data or make predictions based on the theories and results that we did deal with in class. Students have told me that having time to prepare these kinds of questions in advance of the exam allows them to consolidate their learning from the entire semester, which was exactly my goal.

Final Exam

I partnered with an Honours Thesis student to investigate students’ experience in this course; you may read about our research here: Researching Team-Based Learning.

Practicum Courses

Students in Linguistics and CogSciL are always eager to enrol in one of the practicum courses in their fourth year. In Ling 4SL3, students are placed with a Speech-Language Pathologist, and in Ling 4TE3, they’re matched with an ESL teacher. They spend at least 36 hours shadowing, assisting, learning, and reflecting on their practical experience in the clinic or in the classroom. Since the practicum courses began, students have always benefited from the practical experience, but when I took over the courses, I also wanted to construct a means for them to reflect on their experience in a structured way. The Learning Portfolio in PebblePad provided the perfect venue for students to complete weekly reflections and then pull their experience together into a final portfolio.

The home page for each course shows the core organization of the courses, with information for students and for supervisors:

SLP Practicum Home Page

TESL Practicum Home Page

While every student has a different experience, depending on their placement, each course is organized around the same basic structure:

  • Students complete weekly reflections guided by a template.
  • Twice during the semester, they exchange reflections with another student and comment on each others’ reflections.
  • Partway through the semester, they meet with their supervisor for a formative assessment that does not count towards their final grade. This assessment helps students to know how they’re progressing towards their goals, and offers an opportunity to refine or update some of their goals for the rest of the semester. The structured reflection for the week of the assessment uses a different template from the weekly reflections.
  • At the end of the semester, the supervisor completes a summative assessment (TESL Assessment | SLP Assessment) and each student completes a learning portfolio documenting their experience.


OUSA Award

In March 2018 I learned that I had won the OUSA Award at McMaster. OUSA is the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance; it represents eight Ontario universities, each of which makes an award to one instructor per year. In 2017-18, OUSA focused its awards on professors who worked to make course materials affordable and accessible, highlighting the burden that textbook costs place on students with the hashtag #textbookbroke. The award recognized my work in creating the OER Essentials of Linguistics for my Intro Linguistics classes.

I received the award at a ceremony organized by the MSU on March 21. There was also an OUSA ceremony in Toronto on April 4, which I was unable to attend because I had to teach a class. At the MSU ceremony, I was reminded that students genuinely value the work that professors do. I’m grateful that my students trust me as a partner in their learning, and grateful to receive this award recognizing one element of the work I do that supports their learning.


Open Access Materials for Intro Linguistics

When I changed the format of Intro Linguistics (Ling 1A03 and 1AA3) from a lecture + tutorial course to a blended format, I relied more heavily on the textbook than I had in previous years. The blended format relies on students preparing for class ahead of time, so that they’re prepared to work actively on exercises and data analysis in class. And, of course, one of the components of this before-class preparation is to read sections of the textbook.

The commercial textbook that I had assigned for several years reached the price of $147 in 2017, representing a real financial burden for many students. I discovered that fewer and fewer students even purchased the textbook, which had consequences for their learning. So when eCampusOntario offered a grant in to adapt existing materials into an OER (Open Educational Resource), I applied for the grant, with the support of the MacPherson Institute. We were awarded $15,000 in September 2017, with a due date for the final product of March 2018.

The grant paid for two staff from the MacPherson Institute, a Digital Media Specialist and an Instructional Designer, to provide technical and logistical support as I updated the materials from my blended class (and created some new ones!). We packaged these materials into an eBook, Essentials of Linguistics, which we published on McMaster’s Pressbooks site on March 16. We’re told that it will appear on eCampusOntario’s site some time in April.

Starting in May 2018, I’ll assign Essentials of Linguistics as the textbook for my Intro Linguistics courses, saving hundreds of students hundreds of dollars each year. This OER is not just free to my students — it is free for any instructor anywhere in Ontario or the world to adopt. And because it is an entirely open resource, its content is licensed under a Creative Common Attribution 4.0. International License; therefore, anyone is free to redistribute, revise, remix, and retain any of the parts of the OER.

Accessibility in the Blended Classroom

A former student invited me to contribute to the FlexForward resource that the MacPherson Institute developed in collaboration with the Equity and Inclusion Office and the McMaster Accessibility Council. The authors interviewed me about the accessibility practices I use in my large blended class. I’m featured in several places in the eBook, but I’ve also pulled out my appearances here to make them easy to view: