Doing research to inform teaching strategies and assessment practices

Alejandra (Sandra) Barriales-Bouche and Sun Young Kim teach Spanish language and German language courses, respectively, in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures in the Faculty of Arts at McGill. In a conversation about using research to inform teaching strategies, Sandra and Sun Young shared what motivated them to do research with their students and how the research results have informed their teaching. They also offered advice to other instructors considering doing research with their students.

What motivated you to do the research? 

Sandra: We’re always looking for ways to break the routine in class. We wanted to teach vocabulary, in particular, in a more efficient and entertaining way. It happened that Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) invited us to try out a new software tool called Video Assignments (formerly known as YouSeeU) in myCourses. With this software, students can video record their oral presentations and receive instructor and peer comments within the video, all integrated in myCourses. We were keen to try it out and decided this was an opportunity to do some research. 

Sun Young: We wanted to investigate a real problem: students’ public speaking anxiety. We wondered if video presentations would provide students with a less-anxiety causing alternative to in-class presentations. 

Can you say more about the question(s) you were hoping to answer with this research? 

Sun Young: We were curious about a number of things, such as: 

  • How can we use videos in a meaningful and interactive way?
  • How can the use of videos help us engage students? 
  • How will this kind of project help students advance their language skills?
  • How can we motivate students to produce their own texts?
  • How can we address presentation-induced anxieties?

From these questions, we narrowed the focus and arrived at these four research questions:

  1. To what extent does the use of videos help us engage students in meaningful and interactive ways?
  2. Does the video presentation assignment help students advance their language skills? 
  3. To what extent does the videos assignment reduce presentation-induced anxieties?
  4. Does the software support students with succeeding at the video presentation assignment? 

What was your research process? 

Sandra: We began by reading some literature, mainly about the pedagogical benefits of students producing their own videos and about educational constructivism. That helped us to refine and concretize our research questions. After that, we designed video assignments for students to do. We also designed a survey for students to fill in. Once we had the survey results, we analyzed the data and used it to make decisions about the use of videos with our students going forward.

How did you collect data? 

Sandra: We planned a few different oral assessments. In each case, they were worth only a small amount of students’ final course grade, like 2-5%. We also designed a survey which we each gave to more than one of our classes during the last few weeks of the term. The survey was anonymous and made available to students in myCourses. The survey had four Likert-type questions to be answered on a 5-point scale from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). Students could also write comments.

How did you analyze the data? 

Sun Young: We graphed the numeric results (Figures 1 and 2), which helped us to visually analyze the data. Then we looked at the comments, sorting them into positive and negative. 

Figure 1. Numeric results from students in one German course
Figure 2. Numeric results from students in one Spanish course

When we analyzed the data, the comments (Figures 3 and 4) helped us understand the numeric results. They helped explain certain ratings. Comments specifically about the presentation and a number of the general comments gave us insight into our first three research questions. Comments about the technology addressed our fourth research question.

Figure 3. Example student comment results from a German course
Figure 4. Example student comment results from a Spanish course

What did you learn from the survey results? 

Sun Young: Comments were always fair and constructive. We learned that some students really liked being video recorded and others didn’t. We also learned that not all students like dealing with technology! But the majority of students recommended keeping the assignment in the course because they appreciate having a variety of assessment methods. So we’re thinking the tool could be used to give students an alternative activity. That’s in line with Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which McGill’s Office for Students with Disabilities promotes and which I try to implement in my classes. 

What were students’ reactions to being involved in your research? 

Sandra: They were willing to help throughout the whole process. When there were technology glitches, students were always sympathetic.  

Sun Young: The students were so patient. They saw that we were doing it to improve our teaching, and to help them and maybe future generations improve their learning. I think they enjoyed paying it forward. 

Sandra: And the students got interested in the project because they knew it was a pilot for a tool that could eventually be used by the whole McGill community. They knew that their feedback would be shared with TLS. They really liked that. 

How have you used the results? 

Sun Young: We’ve used the results to inform our teaching. Any modifications I made were based on that data: I thought, “This I should keep; this I shouldn’t.”  

Sandra: For instance, we plan to make assignments more interactive by having pairs or groups of students give presentations. We also got participants’ consent to share their assignments for pedagogical purposes.  

Sun Young: Some past participants also gave me permission to use their videos as models with current students. I always mention to students that the assignment has been modified based on previous students’ comments.  

Sandra: Yes, I always explain why I do what I do. I think students like that we trust them to understand why we do what we do in class, and they like having a say in the content of the class. 

Sun Young: The results were so useful that I will use this process for implementing other teaching strategies that I want to try out. I would tell students what I’m doing and survey them again. We’ve also shared the results of our research with colleagues at the “Language Learning and Technology Professional Development Series” organized by the Arts Multimedia Language Facility. We’re now thinking of doing a presentation at a graduate student orientation in our department so that the grad students who teach can see a new tool.

Sandra: It can be part of their training. 

What advice do you have for instructors who are considering doing research on teaching strategies and assessment practices with their students? 

  • Start with a small project, one that can be done in one semester so that it’s manageable. 
  • Be patient with yourself when trying something new. Changing the usual routine comes with some challenges, but after getting used to the new software, it’s worth trying it out. 
  • Work with a colleague so that you can brainstorm together and support each other when facing technological hurdles. Working as a team can inspire instructors to use the first project as a stepping stone to exploring new research questions and teaching strategies. 
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Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!

(Photo credit: Owen Egan)

Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning! (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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