Grammar à la Carte — How a HyFlex Course Design Makes my Students’ Learning More Effective
After designing the course framework for a field-specific English as a second language course in Cégep Limoilou’s Video Game Design program in 2016, I wanted to streamline the learning experience for my students. To overcome the challenges inherent to a multi-level language course, I decided to implement the HyFlex (hybrid-flexible) approach for the course’s grammar component in the fall 2018 semester. This allowed the students to choose between attending an in-person grammar workshop or reviewing and practising at home. The impacts on learning, motivation and grades have been very positive across the board.
Making a Course HyFlex
The HyFlex course design approach includes hybrid learning (i.e., a combination of face-to-face and distance learning) in a flexible course structure to give students a choice in how they engage with the subject matter. Students can change their mode of attendance every week, based on their needs or preference.
A HyFlex course design is different from flipped teaching, since the teacher provides course content for all participation modes and tailors activities for each format. It is also different from self-paced learning, as all students are covering the same subject matter on a weekly basis, whether they do so in class or elsewhere. This is important for both formats to remain interchangeable throughout the semester.
I opted for a partial HyFlex model, by applying it to only 1 hour of every 3-hour class. I did this for several reasons:
- I wanted to make sure I would keep a level of control over the course that I felt comfortable with.
- I wanted to avoid destabilizing my students, and still maximize the opportunities for authentic, in-person practice, which is essential for language learning.
- Since I considered this an experiment, I wanted to keep the work involved manageable. Since every hour of HyFlex instruction is offered in 2 formats that run parallel, it requires considerably more planning and preparation.
Reasons to Go HyFlex
While program-specific English as a second language courses at the college level usually have a General Education prerequisite or require a minimum placement test score, they group students of different language skill levels. Such a multi-level approach represents several difficulties and challenges:
- Students may meet the base criteria for enrolling in the class without mastering the exact same skill set, as long as their grades or test scores fall within certain parameters. Thus, the concept of shared prior knowledge may not hold up.
- Students of lower skill levels may require more explanations and more practice. They may feel stressed or intimidated to ask questions and practise in front of others.
- Students of higher skill levels may complete exercises and practice activities faster. They may feel bored if they are insufficiently challenged or consistently need to wait for others to finish.
- All students may suffer from a lack of motivation if the course is not sufficiently adapted to their specific needs.
I felt these challenges were exacerbated in the Video Game Design program, where most students acquire English intuitively in an informal context – while gaming – which further diversified the specific grammar items mastered. Whether gaming or designing, these students are also used to a high level of stimulation, which leads them to lose motivation quickly if they do not feel adequately challenged.
Making part of my course HyFlex thus allowed me to offer personalized learning in a flexible format adapted to students’ individual needs.
While the HyFlex approach is not new per se – I first read about it on Profweb in 2015 [in French], its integration of technology to create flexible learning contexts leads the approach to continually renew itself. This also means there is not one correct or ideal way of making a course HyFlex; rather, the approach provides a conceptual framework any teacher can adapt to a specific context.
I implemented the approach as follows:
- All students used a grammar guide that comes with a companion website. This allowed me to use existing content offered on a reliable online platform rather than building a complete course structure on a learning management system.
- Every class, I announced the following week’s grammar topic and made the corresponding online diagnostic test available. All students took the diagnostic to get insight into their comprehension of the grammar topic at hand.
- Based on this insight, as well as their personal preference, students chose to attend the 1-hour grammar workshop or study autonomously. Both formats were based on 1 specific chapter in the grammar guide. In class, I would explain salient grammar rules and give feedback during guided practice exercises. Outside of class, students would review the chapter’s theory and complete the same exercises autonomously online.
- I used an online system to easily allow my students and myself to track the completion of each lesson, either in class or online. I considered this an entry ticket to the communicative activities organized in the remaining 2 hours of each class.
The grammar guide’s companion website allowed me to easily follow up on the students’ online work
To help my students and myself to track the completion of each lesson (in class or online), I used Classcraft, a gamification platform that appealed to the students’ video game design interests.
All of the outcomes I observed were unanimously positive:
- Participation rates have considerably increased. Whereas in the past, stronger students tended to skip certain (parts of) classes, the combined online and in-class participation for each lesson is between 90% and 100%. On average, in-class attendance is between 50% and 75%, with the remainder of students completing the lesson online.
- Students report feeling more motivated to learn. Having the choice between 2 learning formats empowers them. Regardless of the format chosen, they become more actively engaged in their learning.
- I can accompany students more effectively. Since there are fewer students in class and those present are more motivated, engaged and focused, I have much more time to give students personalized feedback and help.
- Students show pronounced improvement. While in previous years, grades on grammar accuracy improved on average by 10% between the first and last evaluations, this group improved by 18%.
Considerations for Success
Based on my experience, the following elements seem essential in contributing to positive outcomes for everyone involved:
- During our first class, I took the time to explain not only the HyFlex approach and how it would function, but also my reasons for setting it up.
- I encouraged my students to try out both formats, to reflect on which one worked best for them, and to reconsider their choice every week, based on their diagnostic score.
- Every week, I required all students to complete a brief self-graded online diagnostic. This allowed them to make a more enlightened choice on the most appropriate format to engage with the topic at hand.
- I made it clear that the in-class and at-home formulas would require an equal amount of work, so autonomous work would not be perceived as an easier option.
- Since my class was taught from 2 pm to 5 pm, I placed the grammar component at the beginning of each class, so students would not associate online learning with being able to leave early.
- I closely followed up on the activities completed online, to make sure students would not feel invisible or fall behind.
- To avoid any form of stigmatisation, I emphasized that attendance would not be equated with interest, nor with a low or high skill level.
- The grammar component closely tied in with the speaking and writing activities organized in the remaining 2 weekly hours of the class, so students could clearly see how the grammar skills allowed them to accomplish the tasks they would be evaluated on.