Fostering students' voices: Asking about their learning during a pandemic
Featured article by Anna Piotti, The Pennsylvania State University
For over a century, American theorists, researchers, teachers, organizations, and politicians (among others) have worked to understand how best to encourage foreign language learning and student enrollment in foreign language courses.(1) To accommodate their conclusions, various pedagogical trends have waxed and waned. This has meant that the history of foreign language instruction in the United States has witnessed changing classroom norms and then their changing again, as instructors adapt to or adopt new practices (Stein-Smith, 2016).
Just before COVID-19 circled the globe, the topic of foreign language education change was once again on the table at the university level. Bigelow (2017) warned that “the current cultural context in the United States stands to threaten language teaching programs in higher education even more seriously than in the past,” (p. 412) and Sheffer (2017) argued that the survival of many language programs would depend on revising the way we approached instruction. The nature of that change was still uncertain in 2020, however, as we moved into emergency-remote instruction across our country. Language education came to include screenshares, emojis, breakout rooms, and background filters; there was an increase in multimodal material, like broadcasting a video or navigating a foreign city with GoogleMaps, and simultaneous sharing, as students’ contributions piled up in the chat—all faster and wider reaching than calling on students individually. Guests popped in from around the world to share their languages, their cultures, and their stories. It only took a click or two. These became the new norms for many language learners—for better and for worse. This article homes in on the better, demonstrating how the pedagogical technique of interviewing students (which developed out of this period of unrest) is now helping my students post-pandemic.
Before explaining my interview project and the lessons I took from it, I would like to position myself. I am a PhD student in the Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures department at the Pennsylvania State University. My dual title degree will be in German Linguistics and Language Science, and part of my graduate education is teaching beginner and intermediate German language courses to undergraduate students. In my teaching, I draw from two sources: my own and colleagues’ research on second language instruction and my own experience as a language learner. Bringing these together, I hope to encourage student/teacher co-construction of class knowledge through meaningful, relevant, empowering, critical, and culturally sustaining pedagogical practices. My own research actually takes place in these foreign language classrooms: I design and implement pedagogical materials to nurture powerful learning environments (see de Corte, 1990). There are teachers, learners, and researchers, I like to tell students. And we are all of them.
Yet, these three identities were challenged during the pandemic. Information sharing was directed at a black, faceless void; classrooms invaded our homes; and asking clear questions and reaching concise conclusions became inconceivable in our unpredictable environment. I witnessed students, colleagues, and myself struggle to engage with these three identities in the ways we had previously. For example, I found that I lost my classroom of empowered learners; they no longer felt safe taking agentic roles during this time of unrest and uncertainty.
Witnessing this trend across multiple semesters of emergency-remote instruction, I finally decided to fight fire with fire and approach change with change. In Spring 2021, I brought theoretically and empirically grounded learning-by-teaching [LBT] paradigms (see Balta et al., 2017; Hott et al., 2012; Palinscar & Brown, 1984) into my intermediate German course. In short, LBT paradigms nurture students towards acquiring and solidifying knowledge and behaviors through asking them to provide their own understandings (i.e., share and teach). In line with these pedagogical practices, I established student safety by mentioning the value of student input/expertise and modelling openness/vulnerability. I also worked to foster student agency by inviting students to vocalize and reflect. Believing my students would speak up if anything were amiss, I naïvely assumed that everything was going well and that I knew what my students were doing and feeling. Beyond this, preliminary classroom data pointed to affective, behavioral, and cognitive developments from these LBT paradigms. In the classroom, I found that students laughed more, countered more, and engaged with material at a deeper level. They even began to engage in student-student conversations without teacher mediation. In weekly surveys, students noted the metacognitive strategies they were employing in their learning and how they were both a support for peers and supported by peers. Meanwhile, students who taught topic X received higher scores on quiz sections focusing on topic X, as compared to classmates. These anecdotal findings entrenched my belief further: My students were thriving.
Believing my students would speak up if anything were amiss, I naïvely assumed that everything was going well and that I knew what my students were doing and feeling.
Midway through the semester, as students began to skip more classes and turn off their cameras, it dawned on me: My students might still be distant, distracted, and distressed—I might just be blind to it. Perhaps I was missing the more personal and holistic experience of being a student in my class. To address this, I decided to run a second research project to investigate my students’ lived experiences. I would conduct interviews with them—explicitly making space for their voices. I teamed up with an undergraduate student not enrolled in the course, and we became students-as-partners (see Healey et al., 2016) in the truest sense of the term. Drawing from all three of our identities—student, teacher, and researcher, we began to collaborate on semi-structured interview questions to ask my students. When the semester ended, I initiated the interviews through a video recording, introducing my (former) students to the undergraduate researcher.(2) Then, she took the floor and started talking with them.
After editing the automatically generated transcripts of these meetings, we approached them deductively—looking for predetermined concepts of safety and agency, paramount to effective LBT paradigms (Piotti & Soba, in prep)—and latently—looking for the underlying meanings, engaging with data subjectively, reflectively, and thoughtfully (Braun & Clarke, 2019). Coding and data analysis led us to the following conclusions: Students described how feeling supported by both peers and the instructor led them to take risks and push their learning further. This helped them learn more and increased their chances of connecting coursework to their learning in other courses, their research, and their lives beyond school. They saw this as a positive outcome. One student described the value of the teaching aspect of the course. Not only did it help him work through the material, but it pushed him to practice a behavior, namely teaching, that he saw as fundamental to humanity. LBT in remote-instruction classrooms has benefits.
There were also unexpected takeaways. These were harder to hear, but perhaps more important to learn. For example, during the semester I had let students locate and use their own resources—ones with which they were familiar. However, one student reported that she only knew Wikipedia and wished she had been provided other sources that were more reliable. For her, there had been too much agency. Another student described how I did not “punish” or “put [students] down” for errors, which made him feel as if he did not need to understand all the grammar topics. For him, there had been too much safety.
Beyond this, students’ thoughts on several teaching techniques surprised me. For instance, I had thought breakout rooms offered students a place to be themselves, away from the instructor’s gaze, and work collaboratively in small groups. However, my students shared that breakout rooms were “not helpful” and “the worst.” One student explained how she and peers mostly just sat in silence, rarely completing the assigned task. Another student disclosed what would happen when I then entered these spaces. He explained the systematic process of unmuting himself and then fabricating what they had done in the breakout room. After he admitted to lying, he reflected that he did not know whether this behavior had been for himself and his peers, or for me—to convince me that things were better than they were. A final takeaway is perhaps the most disheartening. My best student in the class, both academically and participatorily, mentioned that he did not believe he was “actually learning” in our remote classroom. His high grades made him feel as if he had cheated the system. Perhaps he had, and I had been unaware of it or (and I believe this more likely) he was unable to recognize his own success. Either way, if I had known this information sooner, I might have helped him.
Since conducting these interviews and analyzing data, I have begun applying students’ thoughts into my teaching, like guiding students in how to locate reputable sources. I am also considering the benefits of interviewing students. This project provided me (the instructor) an insider’s view into students’ learning experiences and offered something for students as well. As one student noted, the interview had been an opportunity to speak truthfully and expose issues. Although designing, conducting, transcribing, and analyzing a semi-structured interview is not feasible every semester, I now have reserved time and space (inside and outside class) for student voices through surveys, one-on-one meetings, and frequently (re)establishing our classroom community as a safe place to speak up. This has worked. For example, one student recently questioned the participation-grading system and we worked together on a compromise. Now, students can make up lost participation points from being sick by meeting me on Zoom to co-design our class’ next lesson.
The learning and the teaching during the pandemic were challenging and even though many instructors adapted instruction and/or adopted new pedagogies, the outcomes they witnessed ultimately came through their narrow frame of reference. Therefore, it has been heartwarming to see innovative and student-centered language learning research emerge out of the pandemic, across the globe and across language levels (e.g., Thomas et al., 2021). I hope they continue. Through opening the door and listening to students’ lived experiences, we can become more informed instructors and help our students succeed.
1. These efforts include Chomsky (1957), Savignon (1972), Ray (1990), the Modern Language Association’s 2007 report, and Senator Paul Simon’s Study Abroad Program Act of 2019, respectively.
2. For ethical reasons, I was not present during the interviews.
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Anna Piotti is a dual-title Ph.D. candidate in German Linguistics and Language Science at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests fall at the intersection of (language) learning and pedagogy. She focuses on challenging the status quo in higher education through critically approaching current pedagogy. She works to identify and develop sustainable pedagogical practices, namely ones that recognize the value of student-agency, diversity, interdisciplinarity, and multiculturalism.