Blending grammar delivery in the School of Modern Languages using short videos and online exercises

With Sandra Salin

Newcastle University School of Modern Languages

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

What did you do?

Piloted a new approach to grammar teaching in SML replacing lectures with short explainer videos followed by exercises. Positive student feedback and high engagement with the model has resulted in the method continuing for academic year 21/22.

Why did you do it?

I had noticed that student participation in 1st and 2nd year French grammar lectures appeared to decrease over the course of the year. It isn’t known whether this was because they knew the lectures would be “ReCapped” or not, but it did make me wonder whether this was the best way to deliver Grammar to the students.

To address this, I created some videos for 1st-year students as part as a pilot project, not to replace lectures but as an additional resource, and sent questionnaires to the students to assess how they felt about them. 75% of the students preferred them, citing various positive reasons, the main ones being that videos could be paused and rewound and watched any time.

Thanks to these encouraging results, this pilot project became a TEL roadmap project, with plans to work with LTDS during 2020-21, beginning with 1st years with a view to expand to 2nd years if it was successful. As some staff still had hesitations and wished to keep lectures, it was planned for implementation in Semester 2. However, because of the pandemic, the TEL roadmap project was effectively abandoned, but the concept was kept and developed on a much bigger scale: grammar videos were used across teaching teams in Semester 1 and 2 to replace all the grammar lectures across all main European language modules at Stage 1 and 2.

How did you do it

A typical grammar lecture would be 10 to 15 minutes of explanation followed by an exercise in pairs; then another 10 to 15 minutes of explanation, and another exercise and (if I am lucky) 5 minutes for questions.

I copied this model with videos of between 10-15 minutes, followed by exercises.
Each video was structured the same:

Explanation ➤ application ➤ answers and further explanation

and incorporated the answers to the exercises. This works well, because the students choose if and when they listen to the answers depending on their understanding.

At first I was worried the videos would be too long, but shorter videos of 4-5 minutes did not work as there needs to be continuity and explanation of both the rules and the answers. The students are in control and can stop, pause and break any time they like. They are in charge of how to approach their learning and are comfortable with the longer videos.

Each lecture could end up requiring multiple videos which meant students sometimes ended up with more than one hour of material per topic. This has never been highlighted as a negative by my students, as they manage their own learning. I also see this is a benefit, along with the fact that it enables me to cater to students working at different levels, which is particularly important to ease transition for Stage 1 students. For example students can skip things they have done before, use resources as revision or complete all of the resources if it is all new to them.

It is important to mention it takes a lot of time to create and caption the videos. All the videos contain both English and the target language and no captioning software can cope with this. If the captioning software doesn’t recognise the speaker’s accent, the English captions also have to be corrected, which adds to the time it takes.

Some of the longer videos are large files and I ended up having to split the recordings.

There are other considerations: whether to show your face, and whether to read or rehearse what you say.

I avoided showing my face in the videos so students would focus on the text content without distractions. The first videos were very rehearsed, but then due to time constraints and in order to make them more “human”, The later videos were more natural and a closer representation to how I would deliver a lecture.

This was a good learning point for me as I had previously believed videos had to be as professional as possible, but with time I started to bore myself listening to me and realised that if it no longer worked for me, it was very unlikely to engage my students. Additionally, if you present the content more naturally, you are more likely to repeat yourself or rephrase things, which can be good for learning, memorising and retention.

Does it work?

Teaching grammar has always been an issue with large cohorts (like we have with French and Spanish in particular). Due to Covid and the introduction of online language assessment, grammar was not assessed separately in 20-21. Student engagement with the videos tended to decrease as time passed, but student evaluation results confirmed their positive impact on their learning experience. During the Stage 1 questionnaires, I specifically asked my Stage 1 students about the videos and received similar feedback as I did during the pilot phase.

Next Year

Based on this positive feedback, we decided to keep the video format next year for French, Spanish and German. It will allow us to reuse videos and materials developed this year, which will save time for us too, so hopefully it will be win-win.

This year, I recycled a lot of exercises I would have used previously, and designed some grammar quizzes in Canvas. I want to design more of them next year, and further explore what already exists online to make better use of existing resources.

Some negatives that were noted by a minority of students were that they missed interactions or the opportunities to ask questions. So, next year, although the video format will be kept, the time students would usually spend in lectures will be kept in the timetable to ensure that every week they have an hour during which they can all contact their lecturer to ask questions.

At the start of the year, they will be strongly advised to look at the videos prior to the timetabled slot so they will be able to use the session to ask any questions they have about the content of the videos.

Three ways will be offered: email, PiP office hours or a discussion forum on Canvas; this will depend on where the students are located and how they prefer to do it. Although some cohorts are large, based on experience, I believe that that will be sufficient. If not, we will find ways of dealing with it, for example by posting responses to common questions coming up either as videos, written responses for the whole group, or targeted interventions in language seminars.

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