By Joey Sabljic, BA ’12, a former student writer with SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge) 

Prof. Denise Mohan

New language technologies and software programs can enhance the learning experience for both in-class and distance education students looking to learn new languages, says Prof. Denise Mohan, School of Languages and Literatures, who teaches Hispanic studies. She has discovered that new technologies, such as webcam-based language software and interactive wiki pages, can be used as a powerful supplement to classroom lectures. And in the process, these technologies can create a more engaging and immersive language learning experience that leads to higher levels of learning.

“Technology will never replace people in learning languages – you still need people to talk to you – but what they can do is enhance the learning process and support the in-class activity,” says Mohan.

She is having one-on-one conversations with students outside of the classroom using language software called XpressLab. For certain assignments, her students create audio and video recordings of themselves to present their original work or answer questions in Spanish. Students send the recordings to Mohan, and she responds with a recording of her own.

Her students have also participated in interactive wikis, through which they can write and engage in discussions in both Spanish and English with students from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City. Through the wikipage, Guelph students get a better grasp of everyday, conversational Spanish and Hispanic culture, while also learning how to communicate more effectively using written Spanish.

What led Mohan to explore these new technologies began as a simpler experiment. Over several years, she made her PowerPoint presentations available to her students. At the end of each semester, she surveyed her students to see how many of them had downloaded her lecture slides. Then she asked whether downloading the presentations allowed them to better grasp course material. Finally, she compared the final grades of those who downloaded the presentations to those who hadn’t.

Mohan found that the grades barely differed between the students who did and those who didn’t download the lecture slides. Yet, students who regularly downloaded and used the presentations felt that the slides had given them a better grasp of the course material, had enhanced their performance and encouraged them to invest and immerse themselves more in the class. This led Mohan to believe that final grades are not the only indicator of student success or of how well a student is able to understand course material.

She says a student’s continued engagement with the course throughout the semester – the learning experience itself, not just the grade outcome – is a valid learning experience indicator.

“So it could be about students feeling more engaged with the learning process itself, more than anything else,” says Mohan. “You want students to experience a deeper sense of learning and engagement with the course material; that’s where some of these tools can play an important role.”

Mohan is also studying the use of multiple-choice testing to address ballooning class sizes and the demand for a more streamlined solution to evaluate student learning.

Surveys of Canadian universities show that the majority of first-year university courses across all disciplines employ some form of multiple-choice testing, yet Mohan has found that multiple-choice tests don’t always push students towards a higher level of thinking and engagement. Nor do they give instructors an accurate picture of how well their students understand course material.

She has been researching methods for designing multiple-choice format tests that will demand a much higher level of response and engagement from students, as well as serving as a helpful supplement to other forms of testing. Rather than relying on pure memorization when faced with a blank space, students taking an improved multiple-choice test are asked a question. They must first understand the meaning of the question and then apply their knowledge and comprehension skills to answer the question logically.

Mohan is developing a study where half of the students will be tested traditionally, through written and oral exams. The other half will be tested mainly using multiple-choice formats.

After both groups of students have written their final exams, she will hold an exit interview in Spanish, requiring students to pull together everything they’ve learned over the semester and have a conversation with the instructor.

From their final marks and exit interviews, Mohan will compare the multiple-choice and non-multiple-choice students to see if there is any difference in their demonstrated mastery of the language.

“Multiple-choice testing should not replace other forms of evaluation,” suggests Mohan, “but if designed well, it could be a very powerful tool in an instructor’s arsenal.”