Transforming the Chinese Language Curriculum (Mellon Project Report)

When I received my digital pedagogies stipend three years ago, I intended to flip some content modules across the Chinese language instructional sequence. I created presentations explaining vocabulary and grammar patterns in Keynote, narrated them, and converted them to videos made available via Moodle for students to view before attending class. In class, instead of lecturing on vocabulary and grammar, we set about putting them to use in the task of communicating. It’s no secret that Chinese is a difficult language that lacks approachability for American college students: the flipped classroom was an attractive pedagogical intervention for giving students the gift of time to process the material. The videos I produced can be paused and replayed in ways that are impossible with live lecture. Here’s one example, “Telling Time in Chinese”:

Repurposing classroom time to supervised practice with the language boosted confidence in oral and aural skills and fostered greater creativity with usage. While the uninitiated might assume that learning to read and write Chinese characters is the greatest challenge to Chinese language learning, as an uninflected, tonal language, the oral and aural skills are unique from western languages and take the longest to cultivate. Chinese is hard—we’ve never going to get away from that. But the flipped classroom shifts much of the struggle to outside the classroom, leaving class sessions to the joy of learning to communicate in new ways.

The flipped classroom was paired with reduction of handwriting characters in favor of computer input. When you type in Chinese, you use pinyin, the Romanization of the sounds represented by the characters: typing “ni hao” yields 你好 (hello). As Chinese is a language of homophones (“shi” yields 是,市,事, 时,十, and the list goes on), computer input also promotes character recognition. I shifted written homework and quizzes to Moodle, which enabled immediate feedback:

Not only does this feedback prevent students from making the same mistake over and over, it develops their confidence with the language. Sometimes I don’t input every possible variant of a correct answer for grading. Students have the option within Moodle quizzing to flag answers they believe were erroneously marked incorrect. This has led to many productive conversations about the complexity of the language and greater depth to students’ understanding of usage.

Moodle also makes resubmission and retesting easy, and since I’m much more interested in where students end up than where they are at a given point in time during the semester, I have been able to develop a generous resubmission policy without adding much to my workload. Homework and quizzes have thus shifted from punitive exercises to facilitators of progress and ways of assessing that progress. I wouldn’t say my students like homework, but they sure complain a lot less about it.

Prior to this experiment, Chinese experienced a 15-20% drop rate, on par with national trends (it’s not me!). After implementation three years ago, that drop rate has reduced to 0-5%. I interpret this as a demonstration that these changes are indeed making the language more approachable. Since my belief that America is woefully unaware of China is a significant reason why I became a professor, this is perhaps the outcome of the experiment that I hold most dear.

Emboldened by the success of this experiment, I have begun a more thorough overhaul of the Chinese language instructional sequence. I have two major goals for this transformation: (1) immediately introduce authentic materials, and (2) instill students with greater confidence in approaching the language.

I have assigned to my advanced students the task of locating and annotating authentic materials for my introductory students as part of their coursework in CHIN 464: Teaching/Learning Practicum. In addition to building a repository of material, this arrangement also enables me as a one-person language program to provide opportunity for my advanced students to continue in the language.

To instill students with greater confidence in approaching the language, I have shifted to a project-based learning model, where students use their language skills to solve tasks. These assignments take on various forms, but what is relevant to my participation in the digital pedagogies grant are the assignments that require students to produce and subtitle videos. For example, the spring 2016 Chinese 102 class produced the video, “Chinese 102 Campus Tour”:

Enrollment is up and the drop-rate is down, which suggests that students are responding favorably to these changes. My students who have studied abroad after completing some or all of this curriculum report being much more confident interacting with the world outside their study-abroad campus than peers from other institutions, which is perhaps the most satisfying outcome of all.

In sum, what started as a simple flip has snowballed into an ambitious curriculum project that I will continue to pursue during my recently approved sabbatical in Spring 2018.