A New Approach to Teaching Spanish: Meeting Students Where They Are

Since redesigning their introductory Spanish courses with adaptive learning, UCF instructors
Anne Prucha and Kacie Tartt have seen student success rates increase by 23% and withdrawal rates decrease by 10%.

Anne Prucha and Kacie Tartt have no problem defying some of the conventions of standard Spanish instruction. With more than 40 years’ experience teaching the subject between them, the two University of Central Florida (UCF) instructors are more than qualified to shake up the status quo – and that’s exactly what they’re doing:

  • They’re teaching their introductory Spanish courses fully online. The approach is perfectly aligned with UCF’s digital focus, designed to serve its expanding population.
  • They’ve shifted from conventional textbooks to a mix of open educational resources (OER) and their own original content. The freedom lets them make their courses more relevant, flexible and affordable.
  • They’re incorporating adaptive learning in non-STEM courses. The approach – delivered through Realizeit’s intelligent learning system – has been a game-changer.

“I’ve been teaching Spanish for 32 years, and this is something that never goes away: new instructors will come in and say, ‘I have students at all these different levels’ … This is a program that really can help eliminate that problem,” says Senior Instructor Prucha. “The system allows students to work through content at a pace that equates with what their skills and knowledge are. They don’t have to slog through lots of activities just to get them done after they have mastered the content. I think that’s huge.”

Together, Prucha and Tartt now use Realizeit in eight sections of Elementary Spanish Language Civilization I and II, allowing them to meet their students exactly where they are and help them move forward. Since they implemented the adaptive approach, student success rates (A, B or C grade) have increased 23% and withdrawal rates are down 10%.

Why Adaptive Works for Language Instruction

Given its strong association with STEM courses, adaptive learning isn’t often associated with instruction in the humanities. Yet it’s a great tool for foreign language, says Prucha.

What makes adaptive learning work so well in language instruction is precisely is the same reason it makes sense for STEM: the structured nature of the curriculum. When a domain requires students to first learn core concepts and then build upon that knowledge to understand more and more advanced topics, adaptive learning is a natural fit.

With Realizeit, Prucha and Tartt created a networked hierarchy of topics – called a learning map – that ensures students know critical core components before moving on to the next topic. Additionally, with both Spanish I and II in Realizeit, they were able to make the learning materials from the first course available in the second, helping students practice or relearn topics they’re struggling with or do a quick review where needed.

Strong Foundation of Support

The idea to try adaptive learning was inspired by a presentation Tartt attended in summer 2017 through UCF’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. At the event, instructional designers Jessica Tojo and Corrinne Stull shared their approach to improving student success through course design with Realizeit, which is used in more than 35 courses at the university.

By that fall, Tartt was testing the system as a review tool, using learning exercises and assessments from her textbook for content. “I dipped my toe in and got lots of great feedback,” she said. “The next semester, those students were upset I didn’t have Realizeit in the course.”

Tartt shared her excitement with Prucha, and both were accepted into UCF’s Course Redesign Initiative (CRI) to update Spanish I and II. The CRI program’s structure and support helped set them up for success: each received a course offload to free up time to dedicate to the redesign work, and they were able to partner with Tojo in regular work sessions to map out the courses and put their learning content into Realizeit.

Instead of the textbook/online homework package they’d used previously, Tartt and Prucha shifted to a combination of OER and original material that not only reduced costs for students, but also provided a welcome autonomy from publisher-controlled content – plus a sense of ownership in what they’d created. It also helped them make the courses more relevant and engaging for students. “The content isn’t as canned,” Tartt says. “The lessons have more real-world application.”

What Happened & What’s Next

Today, more than 200 Spanish students each semester complete nearly all of their learning and practice activities in Realizeit, which students access seamlessly through Canvas. “I keep thinking of the words ‘freedom, freedom, freedom,’” says Tartt of her experience. “I like being able to control the content in a way that it is more meaningful for the student. I like to be able to manipulate the content if I see students aren’t doing well on a certain exercise.”

Looking ahead, the two hope to see their version of the course implemented in more sections. Two more Spanish instructors also are now using Realizeit in their own course redesigns, and Tartt and Prucha have been asked to present to their department about their work. “Everyone wants to know more about it,” Prucha says. “We’re not going back to the textbook. We’re going to keep doing this.”