Director’s Blog April 2021

Mike Nelson, Turku

Which exercises work best online?  A mini research project

As part of our ongoing quality assurance program in Turku, management gathers feedback directly from students using a Webropol form twice a year. Two courses are chosen by each teacher for which they want the feedback, and as a result we gain insight into around 50 courses in the autumn and 50 in the spring. As a direct consequence of the corona situation, we added questions related to distance learning to this questionnaire and how it has affected student’s academic experience. This new section contains an open question asking students ‘What kind of exercises work best in language distance learning?’ – we wanted to discover if some kinds of exercises or approaches are seen as more effective or pleasant than others.

In order to examine this, all the answers (in Finnish and English) were extracted from the forms into an 11-page text document, cleaned up and run through the WordSmith Tools corpus concordance program (Scott 2009) . This created a word frequency list from which I extracted the most frequently used meaning-carrying items and other high-frequency words that could help in analysis. These words were (somewhat unsurprisingly) breakout, Zoom, tehtävät, exercises, ryhmätehtävät, hyvin, hyviä, parhaiten and mielestäni. Concordance lines were run for each of these words in order facilitate analysis. You can see one example below of the word tehtävät.

So, what did we find? Again unsurprisingly, Breakout rooms rose to the top of the list with 25 mentions and all of them positive. Zoom was mentioned 19 times, with positive mentions 18 times and one negative. Zoom’s ability to simulate the working life environment was also noted. Communication and togetherness were stressed again when looking at the joint results for the word tehtävät/exercises There were in total 67 occurrences of these two words and analysis showed a polarization to views to some extent. Students preferring independent, out of class work most were clearly represented (n=8, 11%) but those preferring small group and pair work were in a clear majority (n=15, 22%). This perhaps reflects our own practical experience of students who prefer being in social settings to those who do not and the introvert/extrovert divide.

Also mentioned were exercises where students had to think and work things out for themselves (n=4, 6%). All other kinds of exercise types mentioned had too few mentions to stand out individually, but they included a focus on communicative, listening, and oral skills exercises (fitting in well with the above results) as well as any ‘practical’ exercises. There were also many comments that basically all the distance teaching was fine, and they enjoyed it whatever was done.

This very small survey of responses confirms that essentially, we have all done a good job in keeping students satisfied in their learning. It also points to the human need in many students for contact and communication with others, and this we have been able to provide if only in a virtual setting. Let us hope that by the autumn we will be able to have more actual contact whilst not forgetting all we have learned and found valuable in our teaching practices over the last year.