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Improving the Quality of Student Learning

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Based on available data about learning outcomes from the course pilot, what were the impacts of re-design on learning and student development?

Based on the available data regarding learning outcomes, the outcome that appears to be particularly enhanced as a result of placing practices online is the independent learning that online materials require of students. Students consistently reported spending more time weekly completing online exercises, as opposed to their previous experiences using student workbook/laboratory manuals. They also valued the immediate feedback and accessibility online instruction affords.

The instructors reported, at the same time, that students seemed more prepared in class and ready to “use Spanish” and not merely talk about it. The Spanish instructors no longer needed to spend a great deal of time explaining grammar or introducing vocabulary. These outcomes appeared to work better for material that focused on listening comprehension (whether the exercise was about grammar or vocabulary) and reading comprehension. The data that would indicate whether the online material was more effective for specific types of students have yet to be analyzed. The data consists of a cognitive style inventory. These scores will be compared to learning outcomes for significant relationships.

The measures used in this study to reflect language gains indicate, for the most part, that there was no significant difference between the experimental groups (meeting two days per week combined with online work) and the comparison groups (meeting three days per week combined with traditional workbook manual).

December 2001 Update: To ascertain language gain in the first implementation phase of this project. (Phase I, spring 2001), three tests were administered to ten sections of Intermediate Spanish Transition (both the comparison group which met 3 days per week and used the traditional textbook workbook and the experimental group which met 2 days per week with an additional online component on lieu of the hard copy version of the workbook):

  • The UTK Spanish Placement Exam;
  • The Minnesota Proficiency Assessment of Reading Comprehension and Listening Comprehension; and
  • A Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview.

These tests were administered as pre- and post- tests. The pre- test results indicated no significant difference in scores between the two, thus establishing that both groups were similar in student ability.

In the first round of analysis, the results of The Spanish Placement Exam (SPE) indicated no significant difference between groups, but the analysis had to be redone because we realized that we had not taken into account that two different versions of the SPE were administered in the post-tests. One version is more difficult than the other. When the tests were designed, a conversion table was created so that the results for both tests would be parallel. When we adjusted the scores on the basis of the conversion table and re-ran the T-test on the scores, we found there to be a significant five point difference between the two groups: the experimental group scored significantly higher than the comparison group. Results of a t-test of the mean scores on the Spanish Placement Exam post-test achieved by students in the traditional group (mean=19.56) and the redesigned group (mean=24.14) were statistically significant at the .001 level.

Although the test scores for the Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview (SOPI) administered in phase I showed no significant difference, we will be analyzing the transcriptions of the SOPI’s during Spring 2002 to ascertain whether there are any discourse differences between the two groups. We will be examining differences in quantity of output, range in lexical uses, complexity of syntax and such discourse features that the SOPI would not be sensitive to. We will also be using the midterms, final exam scores and a final composition to ascertain language gains in terms of achievement between the two groups in phase II of this research project.

This difference could be due to the fact that the SPE is tailored specifically to place students into our four-semester program. Therefore, it is more of an achievement test than a proficiency test. It is likely that students are held more accountable for homework in the online sections because they have to listen to the cassettes (audio) to complete the online activities. In contrast, students in the traditionally taught sections could find the answers to exercises in the back of the hardcopy workbook and in the past rarely listened to the cassette tapes that correspond to workbook activities. Furthermore, the online material requires students to come to class prepared to ask specific questions and actually begin using Spanish for functional purposes. On the other hand, in the traditionally taught sections, the instructors spend more time explaining material. Consequently, students could come to class less prepared and it would not be as obvious.

In the second phase of this research (fall 2001), all 34 sections used the online component, but these sections were divided into two groups. Fourteen sections met two-days per week and were taught by GTAs and twenty met three days per week and were taught by instructors. No hard copy of the workbook was available. The focus of the second phase of research was to eliminate the workbook variable in the first phase and focus primarily on two-day versus three-day per week instruction.

We are currently running T-tests on the mid-term and final exam scores for both groups to ascertain whether there are any significant differences based on contact time. In addition, we administered the student questionnaire to ascertain their experiences with online instruction in this second phase and are in the process of analyzing those results too.

Scores on the post-tests indicated that the comparison and experimental groups did not differ significantly on the proficiency tests (The Minnesota Proficiency Assessments and the Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview) This is most likely because these two tests measure global proficiency in a foreign language, and it takes more than one semester to make gains in proficiency levels. Consequently, although it makes sense for us not to see a difference in those scores, it was important to test for proficiency gains.

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