Spanish Phonetics

Problem:  After offering this course the first time in 2009, data collected from students' recorded homework assignments indicated that students did not improve their pronunciation during the course of the semester. These results were surprising, given that multiple studies (
Derwing, Munro, & Wiebe, 1997; 1998; González-Bueno, 1997; Hahn, 2004; Lord, 2005; 2008; Wang, Spence, Jongman, & Sereno,1999) have shown improvement in pronunciation as a result of instruction. An obvious solution was to increase the number of recorded homework assignments and dedicate more class time to pronunciation practice, but an increase in number of assignments without any other changes would have resulted in a workload that was unmanageable. Additionally, in the original course offering, classroom pronunciation practice time was difficult to monitor because students could get off-task very quickly. Another problem that presented itself during the initial course offering was a bimodal grading distribution, indicating that some students were able to follow the material very well, and others were completely lost.

Objectives: Use technology to maximize instructor time so that more time could be spent on recorded assignments, and to improve student learning by allowing students to repeat homework assignments.

Design:  The course redesign had three key components. First, all homework assignments were digitized to allow students to receive immediate feedback and to complete multiple attempts.  A critical element of adapting written homework to an online context was providing clear directions and a model for all fill-in-the-blank questions. In addition, my experience as an instructor has allowed me to identify creative ways in which students avoid learning. To this end, I did not use any multiple choice or true-false questions, as they promote gaming the system. However, I identified alternate self-grading question types that would accomplish the same objective with a minimized potential of gaming the system, such as matching questions. Instead of a series of true-false questions, for example, I created one matching question with twenty items, and students had to decide if each item was true or false. They could see their answers and scores, but not which items within a question were correct or incorrect, so they could not simply change their answer without understanding what they were doing wrong. Furthermore, because the number of attempts was limited (4 attempts for very detailed assignments involving phonetic transcription, 2 or 3 for other assignments depending on level of detail required), they could not merely repeat the question until they got it correct. 

Digitizing all homework assignments significantly reduced the time necessary to grade written assignments, and allowed additional emphasis on recorded assignments. In the initial offering, students were required to complete seven recorded homework assignments. During the most recent iteration of the course, students were required to complete 12 recorded homework assignments. However, given that two sections of the course were offered, each of which had 25 students, this workload still would have been unmanageable, as it would have required me to give detailed feedback on 50 recorded assignments on almost a weekly basis. To that end, students were informed on the first day of class that they would be required to complete a recorded assignment each week, but that I would randomly select two of them to grade over the course of the semester. All other recorded assignments were marked as complete or incomplete, so that students received credit or no credit for completing them. Since students did not know which recordings were going to be graded, they needed to do well in all recordings.

Lastly, the amount of time in class dedicated to lecture was substantially reduced, and was dedicated instead to pronunciation practice and homework lab time. The course was scheduled in a computer lab classroom, and students learned to use an acoustic phonetics program (Praat) that allowed them to visually compare their speech production with that of various native speakers (recordings of native speakers were provided by the instructor). In order to keep students accountable during the pronunciation practice time, I created digital assignments using the "Survey" feature in Blackboard, in which students were required to input data (formant values for vowels, VOT for stop consonants, etc.) from the native speaker recordings and their own recordings, and provide a brief analysis of what they needed to do articulatorily to more closely resemble native speaker pronunciation. During the homework lab time, students worked on the digital homework assignments and were able to ask questions as they occurred.

Special considerations:  This is a course in phonetics, which requires the use of IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols. During the first iteration of the redesigned course, I provided students with the phonetic symbols necessary in each question, and they copied and pasted the symbols by highlighting them and right-clicking. I investigated the feasibility of adding buttons for the special characters within Blackboard, but this was not possible because of the way that Blackboard is coded. However, during the most recent iteration of the course, I identified an online character picker, which students can open in a new window. They can now copy and paste symbols by clicking on them, which has considerably lessened the tedium of transcription assignments.  I prefer http://rishida.net/scripts/pickers/ipa/, since it offers multiple layout options and symbols are visually easy to locate, but http://ipa.typeit.org/full/ is another option. In the future, I would like to develop a custom character picker specific to Spanish phonetics.

Support: A course redesign grant for $1500 from UNO's Center for Faculty Development/University Committee for the Advancement of Teaching.
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