Data-Driven Design to Increase Learner Engagement in an English Grammar Course

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Safieh Moghaddam


LINB18 – English Grammar
Department of Language Studies
University of Toronto Scarborough

Design Context

In Fall 2020, as the course instructor, my goal was to prioritize feedback from start-of-term survey and adjust the course design to meet the expressed needs of the students. The students expressed their interest in pre-recorded lectures. We wanted to be compassionate and support the learners, so we elected to prioritize the survey results. However, we found that this approach was not actually best for students. The students interacted with the instructor and their peers in very limited ways. Therefore, in Winter 202, I chose to prioritize good learning design. This approach is actually beneficial to the students (very high learner-learner interactions and good learner-instructor interactions), and although I did not specifically measure learner-content interactions, I noticed that students came prepared having already engaged in the content (and now ready for the activity in the synchronous session).

Instructional Challenge

In 2021, the course instructor reflected on LA data for quizzes the prior year and updated quiz questions based on LA data. A protocol was developed for quickly and easily checking weekly quiz question performance. Once the concepts were understood and the corresponding indicators were identified on the Quiz Summary dashboard, a bit of practice made the process quick and easy.

Design Strategy

  1. The students would receive an article/YouTube video/lecture video before the synchronous session on Wednesdays. They would usually receive a few questions if they were supposed to read an article.
  2. They would read the article or watch the video related to the topic of that session and come to the lecture prepared.
  3. The instructor would teach the course materials (e.g., how to write a response paragraph).
  4. Then the students would be put into breakout groups with their own group members (that they chosen at the beginning of the semester) to relate the materials from the article that they read before class to the new materials that the instructor just taught. Sometimes, they were asked to read about a controversial linguistic theory before class. Then they would be taught how to respond to a controversy in linguistics. Once they saw a real example of a response paragraph and learn how to write a response, they would come up with a short response paragraph in their breakout groups. Then they would share their response paragraph with the entire class and would receive feedback from other groups after joining the main room. This could also be in the form of class discussions. They would not necessarily write a paragraph. They would be asked to discuss the topic, and then one representative from the breakout group would share their thoughts with the class in the main room. At times, they were grouped with members of other groups to get to talk to other students and hear their point of view as well.
  5. One other aspect of the new design was a scaffolded final presentation. This was part of the design for the fall term course as well, but the instructor made a few adjustments, which were beneficial to the students (as the students mentioned). These adjustments were:
    1. The students were asked to submit a diagnostic writing on a certain topic at the beginning of the semester. Since this is a writing-based course, the instructor needed to identify the students’ needs, skills, and readiness before the semester started. From a student’s perspective, they could track their progress and compare their ongoing assignments with the writing diagnostic that they wrote at the beginning of the semester.
    2. Also, instead of each group coming up with their own topic for the final presentation, the students would come up with a few topics in their breakout groups and then would share their topics on the whiteboard in the main room. Other groups would give them feedback on their choice of topics, and eventually they would choose a topic after they heard the feedback from their peers/instructor. This adjustment worked in so many ways. The level of participation was really high. The students could adjust their topic after they heard the feedback from their peers/instructor. Each group could use some of the ideas of the other groups and possibly choose one of their suggested topics (the topics that were left on the whiteboard).
    3. Another activity that increased participation was that the each group would report their progress regarding their final presentation through the synchronous sessions and could hear about other groups’ progress as well. This would tell them whether they were on the right track or they needed to work harder to catch up with the rest of the class.
    4. Since these are discussion-based/writing-based courses, the students learned how to complete a linguistic study from choosing a topic to writing a research plan/proposal to putting together an annotated bibliography and eventually recording their final presentation.
    5. One other aspect that was new in the course design was including real samples of the students’ work in synchronous sessions. Each week, the instructor would approach two groups who submitted the best weekly activity and would ask for their permission to share their work in the next synchronous session. This created a lot of positive competition in class as every group wanted their work to be shared with the entire class. Once the samples were shared, the students would be put in the breakout groups to talk about how the two samples are similar or different from their own submissions.
    6. The next adjustment was a ‘writing together’ activity. The class would be asked to analyze an article and come up with a response paragraph together (5-7 sentences). For each sentence, the instructor would ask the students to write the sentence in the chat box. Then the students would choose the best sentence for the paragraph. We would do this for all 5-7 sentences, and eventually we had a well-written paragraph. This way the students would write a paragraph with the presence of the instructor and would receive immediate feedback from their peers/instructor.
    7. One more adjustment was to work through examples instead of teaching the students how to write a response paragraph. They would see an example of a response paper (from students in previous semesters or written by the instructor) and would discuss the structure of a response paragraph by working through the example in breakout groups. Then they would join the main room to report what they think of the structure of a response paper (before they were taught how to write one).
    8. In the new design, I also incorporated an end of the session check-in activities to see where the students would stand in terms of their learning in that particular session. This could be through polling or ‘write a word in the chat box’ activities (e.g. how do you feel about today’s session?).

With this new format, the students interact with their peers (their own group members and members of the other groups) through the synchronous sessions. There is also a high level of student-instructor interactions. The students also receive immediate feedback as well as social support from their peers and instructor. The new design definitely helped with the amount of teamwork as well. The students reported that the breakout groups boosted their confidence (especially with more shy students). They also reported that the new set up helped them with their time management with both online and offline activities.

The grades for this course, in terms of weekly activities, are considerably higher than the ones for the fall term.

Next Steps

The next step would be to take advantage of data analytics to improve the new design and show how the new design is more beneficial to the students and their learning and of course a good learning design.