Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

November 12, 2015

Bringing the ‘real world’ of language to the classroom

Linguistics Professor Betsy Evans strategically deploys classroom technologies to help students grasp complex language theories

Photo of Betsy Evans

Betsy Evans, associate professor in the Department of Linguistics, uses Canvas with clickers to offer students multiple ways to help them see and share the real world of language.

Betsy Evans, associate professor in the Department of Linguistics, uses a number of technologies in her classroom to help students see and share the real world of language—deepening their understanding of complex linguistic theory.

These technologies include Canvas, UW’s learning management system, and clickers, an audience response system that allows an entire class to respond to questions displayed on a screen—with students clicking their replies with remote devices. Multimedia presentations, including video and audio recordings, help her explain subtle concepts to her students, such as listening for slight variations in language use across different cultural or societal groups, or how speakers shift when speaking to different audiences.

This strategic approach to using technology has paid off in big ways, allowing her students to get more out of her courses, inside and outside the classroom. Canvas also has allowed Evans to collaborate more effectively with her teaching assistants (TAs).

The best effect is that [the technology] helps students relate the course content to the ‘real world’…

“It’s enabled me to not use classroom time for testing and to engage students with course content outside of the classroom,” Evans says. “But I think the best effect is that it helps students relate the course content to the ‘real world’ by seeing and sharing real occurrences of linguistic phenomena.”

Canvas supports online homework to save time and deepen student learning

Because a key element of her course content concerns regional patterns and dialects of the United States, the maps, videos and recordings Evans uploads to Canvas are all key learning aids. She and her TAs use Canvas to manage homework assignments, peer reviews, discussion boards, testing and grading, as well as an online evaluation system. Evans also shifted homework assignments online with multiple choice, pull-down menus, or open-ended questions. Students saw the connections between online material and in-class lectures and discussions, and they reported in course evaluations that the multi-pronged approach improved their comprehension of the subject.

For low-stakes homework assignments or quizzes on Canvas, Evans allows students to work together over the course of a week. She finds the ability to easily upload and share multimedia files and links particularly useful for creating and updating online homework quizzes.

“For example, one assignment presents students with voice samples of different pronunciations that they play and then answer questions about what they’ve heard,” says Evans. She is able to set a time limit for completing the assignment and then Canvas grades it automatically once the closing date arrives.

In another assignment, her students watch two videos of President Obama and are asked to think about his use of language in the different situations.

“So instead of only reading and writing about sociolinguistic phenomena, they can see or listen to speakers and use their knowledge to arrive at a better understanding of how it works,” she says.

Self-paced online practice benefits all students—especially English language learners

When students work at their own pace to complete a homework assignment, they are able to play recordings as many times as needed.

“We get a significant number of people for whom English is not their first language, so allowing them to do those activities on their own time is really helpful for them, partly because they haven’t been exposed to a lot of American English accents,” Evans says. “I think they feel like they really learn a lot even if it takes them longer.”

Flexible online assignments help TAs learn best-practice evaluations

Canvas helps Evans and her TAs automatically grade assignments and quickly evaluate which questions work better than others, making it easy to throw out a question that didn’t work and return points to all students. Collaborating through Canvas also helps Evans guide her TAs as they learn more about teaching while sharing the workload.

“Last quarter, I said to my TAs, ‘The Chapter 10 assignment didn’t work very well, so can you brainstorm some ideas about how we might make that better?’” says Evans.

The TAs analyzed why the questions weren’t effective, developed a new assignment, and then Evans worked with them to review and revise it before it was implemented.

Creating online tests with the Canvas quiz tool

Screen capture of Canvas

Evans uploads maps, videos and recordings to Canvas to use in homework assignments, quizzes and tests.

“What’s really changed for me in using Canvas with this class is the testing,” Evans says about how she now balances class time.

Using the Canvas quiz tool enables Evans to spend less of her class time on testing and more on lectures and discussions. With the tool, she can develop online timed tests with questions that randomly mix to make collaboration difficult among students.

Evans learned how to use the tool while participating in the Teaching with Technology Fellows program, a 2013-2015 pilot project led by the Center for Teaching and Learning and UW-IT to help faculty redesign courses to incorporate technology in ways that put learning first.

“I take advantage of multimedia and videos with homework assignments, but with online tests I don’t want to have to worry about some failure with a video or other problems. So since some of our content is about regional dialects and patterns of linguistics, I use maps and other static images to ask questions for tests,” says Evans.

Using clickers to reward in-class participation


Students use clickers to answer questions in a class.

While Evans manages an active discussion board through Canvas, sharing news items and recent media clips, she chose not to assign participation points for online discussions, instead rewarding in-class participation with clickers.

“I get class discussions going through using clickers with the audience response system,” she says. “I’ll ask three to six questions per class period, and students get points for responding to a question with clickers. It’s low stakes—they don’t have to have a correct answer—but it allows me to see if a big percentage of people aren’t getting something right, and we need to go over it again.”

Evans always begins class with a clicker question on a topic from the day before to refresh material. She also sometimes starts discussions by asking opinion questions and having students talk with their neighbors before answering with a clicker.

“It gives them practice for the test because the questions that I use in class for the clickers are the same type they can expect to see on the test,” she says. “It also breaks up the lecture. I really enjoy doing them.”

Evans also received positive feedback from class evaluations that the clickers were working. Students said the clickers “incentivized me to show up and pay attention,” with one student commenting, “I also liked the clickers because the questions helped to test us on our knowledge of what we had just gone over in the lecture.”

Through creative use of Canvas and clickers, Evans is able to get her students to think about course material—from current events to real Washington state accents—in multiple ways and apply that knowledge to the real world.

Evans’ top tips for integrating Canvas in a class and getting the most out of clickers:

1. Post videos online, providing examples that can be played multiple times

Students can replay examples as many times as they want, which lets students go at their own pace and evens the playing field for English language learners.

2. Spark discussion by asking a question students answer with clickers—and award participation points at the same time

Clickers allow class participation to be about more than simply showing up or posting a sentence in an online discussion. This technique also allows instructors to check for general understanding of a concept while accomplishing multiple teaching objectives.

3. Create and give online tests in Canvas, freeing up time for in-class discussion

This approach allows more effective use of class time while also providing an opportunity for instructors to evaluate how well test questions are working and make improvements.

4. Provide opportunities for TAs to easily practice their teaching style with guidance using Canvas

The flexibility of the Canvas platform allows TAs to develop lesson plans and try new quiz questions. Then they review data from Canvas with Evans to see how effective it was for students.