Using iClickers to Teach Mandarin Chinese with Shaoyan Qi and Chen Wu

by | Sep 20, 2017

Research in Mandarin Chinese phonology and pronunciation shows that adult learners of Chinese have the greatest difficulty with using four tones to differentiate otherwise homophonous syllables. The traditional pedagogical intervention (i.e. error correction) has been proven too time consuming and ineffective.

During the Spring 2015 semester Shaoyan Qi, a lecturer in the department of East Asian Language and Cultures, and her TA Chen Wu, experimented with iClickers in their Chinese classes and compared the results with error correction. After receiving a Hybrid Learning Award from the Office of the Provost, Professor Qi and Chen Wu worked with the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and the Language Resource Center (LRC) at Columbia to design and evaluate their instructional intervention.

At the end of the semester, I asked Shaoyan and Chen a set of questions about how the applied course design worked.

Why did you apply to this hybrid learning initiative? How did this initiative help you experiment with improvements toward teaching and learning Chinese?

Introductory Chinese is a language course designed for beginners with no or little prior knowledge of Mandarin Chinese. By exposing students to the Chinese language and culture for the first time, the course aims to help students establish a solid foundation of Chinese pronunciation, familiarize them with the Chinese writing system, and introduce them to the basics of Chinese grammar and daily vernacular.

Throughout the course, students focus on practicing the pronunciation of four tones. Pronunciation practice is an integral part of the class because Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language in which tones are used to distinguish meanings. The technology-aided intervention we are experimenting with, if proven to be successful, will be a low-cost, easy-to-use, more efficient way of improving students’ tones than the traditional method. The technical component of our intervention involves the use of iClickers.

After receiving the award, how was the implementation process? Did you encounter any challenges getting started?

The process was quite smooth, with minor glitches here and there. For example, we encountered some technical problems at the pretest stage, so the first two experimental groups did not complete their pretests. Fortunately, we made it up during the following week. Students were patient and cooperative. During the process, the CTL and LRC offered us more help and support than we could imagine, to which we are very thankful.

How did you use iClickers to enhance instruction? How did students react to this new approach?

By using iClickers, both the instructor and the students visualized students’ errors in tones, this way students received immediate feedback about their perceptions of tones. Previously, students often felt embarrassed when the instructor corrected their tone errors in front of the whole class, potentially making them less likely to speak in class. iClickers’ anonymous feature encourages students to participate in the classroom. iClickers are also very easy to use. Our survey results showed that the majority of student participants in our study recommend, or highly recommend, using iClickers in other Chinese classes. At least we can say that iClickers helped make the Chinese classroom a favorable learning environment.

Were there any surprises? Did your project evolve at all from it’s initial concept?

We were surprised by students’ overall enthusiastic reactions to the use of iClickers. By using iClickers, students were excited to see where they ranked in the class without embarrassing themselves, and they even came up with new ideas of using iClickers for different classroom activities. We are starting to think about using iClickers to teach something other than tones.

Do you have any advice for other faculty who are considering using iClickers in their courses? Why should they do it? What should they expect?

We have not finished the data analysis, so we cannot make any absolute conclusions at this time. However, based on the positive survey results and our own observations of students using iClickers, we would recommend iClickers to faculty teaching Chinese or other tonal languages. In particular, we would recommend using iClickers in small and frequent “doses”, and even using iClickers together with the traditional error correction. Acquisition of tones is a long and difficult process, and there is no such thing as a panacea or one-shot treatment.

In addition, we would recommend iClickers to any faculty who want to encourage students’ participation and reduce students’ anxiety of making mistakes in front of the class. iClickers are easy to use, but the cost might be an issue for some students if they are required to purchase the equipment.

About the Provost’s Request for Proposals

The Hybrid Learning Course Redesign and Delivery grant program from the Office of the Provost provides support for faculty who are developing innovative and technology-rich pedagogy and learning strategies in the classroom. Awardees represent an array of disciplines affecting both graduate and undergraduate students, with a few additional courses that are a part of Columbia’s Core Curriculum. Columbia faculty receive support from CTL staff for the redesign, delivery, and evaluation of their courses.

Learn more about our past awardees by going to the VPTL website.

This news item was originally published on at this link on September 28, 2015.