Case study: Supporting student learning at level 1 Linguistics

Author: Liz Morrish


This case study evaluates the impact of an enhanced portfolio of learning support materials deployed in the LING 101:Introduction to Language and Linguistics module at Nottingham Trent University.

Table of contents


This case study evaluates the impact of an enhanced portfolio of learning support materials deployed in the LING 101:Introduction to Language and Linguistics module at Nottingham Trent University . As a consequence of rising student numbers and pressure on staff-student ratios, the size of seminar groups has risen in recent years to numbers above 20. In response to an alarming increase in students failing the module, the team has enhanced its learning support in the form of a dedicated Virtual Learning Portal page for the module which facilitates the following:

  • Document delivery lecture notes and seminar exercises available via this route
  • Web links to further exercises and learning resources
  • A self-test practice assessment which facilitates revision for the first module test
  • Electronically accessed Directed Learning exercises designed to make use of web resources these prepare students for the final module test

In 2004-5 we were able to test out the impact of these resources by comparing the following indicators, all of which showed a positive upturn:

  • Referral rates in the module fell from 33% to 22.8%
  • Student grades in the module rose from an average of 51% to 57.1%
  • Student feedback comments on the module indicate that they find the module interesting, challenging and that the Directed Learning and Electronic resources aid their understanding and interest in the module.

The Case: LING 101: Introduction to Language and Linguistics

This case study evaluates the impact of an enhanced portfolio of learning support materials deployed in the LING 101: Introduction to Language and Linguistics module at Nottingham Trent University . These materials have been developed in response to an alarming increase in students failing the module. The team recognised that problems were developing with students meeting the learning outcomes of the module and some of the following causes seemed to contribute to this:

  • the module had to be taught within a 13 week teaching semester, and in 2 class hours per week
  • student numbers rose to between 180 and 220 students on the module
  • seminar sizes rose to above 20 students per group
  • student attendance (and pass rates) at Level 1 started to decline in some other subjects in the faculty

These factors were difficult to combat given pressure on staff-student ratios and patterns of contact time in the semesterized system. In the past three years another form of learning support - the Virtual Learning Portal (VLP) - has become available across the University. The teaching team decided during the academic year of 2003-4 to enhance the availability of materials available through the VLP to support learning in LING 101 by means of practice and self-testing.

The aims of the module are threefold:

  • To increase students' knowledge of language in terms of its power (persuasion, ideological effects, linguistic conflict etc), its structure and its effects.
  • To provide students with the theoretical frameworks and practical skills for linguistic description and analysis.
  • To engage students in the process of linguistic description

The module assumes no prior experience of A Level English Language curriculum or of grammar. All the basic tools of linguistic analysis are taught in a five-week series of lectures covering morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics and phonetics. Skills are practiced during workshops by doing textual analysis of both written and spoken language, across a range of linguistic functions. Students are advised that the kinds of questions they will find in the first class test will closely resemble these workshop exercises. Formative feedback and advice is therefore only available to students who attend these sessions. The second half of the semester consists of a further fiveweek series of lectures which introduces various applications of the tools of linguistic analysis: sociolinguistics, clinical linguistics, discourse, forensic linguistics and language and ideology topics which reflect the research strengths of the teaching team. Again, the related workshop exercises are designed to prepare students to tackle the second class test.

Teaching methods

LING 101 is a 20-credit Level 1 module. In the faculty, such modules are allocated 2 hours of class time per week. This has been divided between a 1 hour lecture followed by a 1 hour workshop. Additionally, a package of self-managed directed learning is provided via the University's VLP (detailed below). The module is taught and assessed within a 13 week period. We are aware that this has made for rather a pressured learning experience for students.

LING 101 is a core module and it underpins the curriculum at levels 2 and 3. Among the informal aims, then are a desire to introduce students to the necessary tools of linguistic analysis, as well as to showcase some of the more seductive (interesting?) areas of linguistics on offer at Levels 2 and 3. Subsequent restructuring of the Level 1 curriculum will allow 4 hours per week to deliver essentially the same content from 2006-7.

However, in the short term, the teaching team had to solve the problems posed by the large number of students failing to meet the module's learning outcomes satisfactorily. The directed learning is designed to remedy these difficulties. Together the learning and teaching methods have two main aims:

  • To realize the emphasis in the Linguistics Benchmarking Statement on data collection and analysis - project work at Levels 2 and 3 is prepared for by the acquisition of the skills of linguistic analysis at Level 1.
  • To support students in becoming independent learners through the provision of directed learning (including e-learning).


In LING 101 key skills and concepts in linguistic analysis are assessed by two equally weighted class tests of an hour's duration. Most often, it has been the first class test which has elicited the higher failure rate. It has a short-answer format and takes place in Week 7 of the module, after the first series of lectures on the tools of linguistic analysis. It requires students to give responses to questions like the following which exemplify morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics and phonetics in order:

Sample questions from test 1

  • What does the suffix ous (as in dangerous ) do to nouns?
  • Underline the head in the following noun phrase: the antique vase beside the clock
  • What semantic primitive distinguishes woman from girl ?
  • Name one felicity condition that attends the performance of the following speech act: You are under arrest.
  • Give an articulatory description (voicing, place, manner) for the following sound of English / m /

The second class test takes place at the end of the module and after the series of lectures on applications of linguistics. It requires essay-style answers and invites students to reflect on issues of theory as applied to actual data. Example questions are printed in the section Discussion of the Directed Learning Tasks below.

The problem of achievement related to attendance 2003-2004

During the academic year 2003-4, LING 101 experienced a large number of students referred in (i.e. failing) the module. The teaching team had predicted that students who did not attend 100% of the sessions would find their performance adversely affected, and we had warned them to this effect. On the other hand we were aware that the experience of being taught in a large workshop group (up to 27 students) was not a rewarding one for students. As a result, a minority chose to avoid these sessions, and their performance suffered correspondingly. There was a high correlation between an individual's absence and their likelihood of failure in the module.

Our immediate concern, and one which was endorsed by the Faculty of Humanities at NTU, was how to retrieve these failures in the September re-sit period. Our response to the challenge was to enhance our package of self-managed directed learning to support each topic in the curriculum, and also to expand our provision of interactive directed learning materials available via the VLP. These included a self-assessment task using Question Mark Perception software which would prepare students for the short-answer format of the first class test on the tools of linguistic analysis, and also interactive directed learning tasks which were designed to explore and develop the applied' topics in the module which were assessed in the second test. Examples of the latter directed learning tasks appear in the section below.

Addressing the problem through directed learning tasks

The enhanced directed learning and self-assessment test were implemented in the academic year 2004-5, after successful pilot testing in the previous academic year's referral period when the vast majority of referrals had been retrieved. Directed learning, as we have deployed it, consists of supplementary exercises, which extend the workshop learning. The exercises are non-compulsory, but feedback is available via tutorials and extra review classes. The directed learning package is available through the VLP and through hard copy, and exercises are designed to make full use of the web-based possibilities of interactive learning.

In preparation for the first class test, the directed learning focuses on the topics of morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics and phonetics. The exercises resemble both those practiced in the workshops, and the kinds of short-answer questions which students will meet in the class test. The directed learning for each week also directs students to web links to pre-existing web tutorials such as the helpful UCL Internet Grammar (, and other relevant e-learning resources, such as the Materials Bank: Linguistic Quizzes (test yourself on grammar, morphology and phonetics) and learn about the vocal tract.

For each of the applied topics (sociolinguistics, clinical linguistics, discourse, forensic linguistics and language and ideology) we have provided study guides which open up each topic in the direction of the question related to that topic on the second test. Some of the guides include activities which are linked to websites in ways which ask students to collect and/or examine actual language data. Below are some examples from the directed learning on Sociolinguistics and Forensic Linguistics.

Sociolinguistics: Dialects

a. One level of language variation is the lexical level word choice. Depending on the region we grew up in, or perhaps social class, some of our words will vary.

Ask friends who come from different regions what they call:

  • A sandwich bun
  • A small piece of wood stuck in their finger
  • The room in their house where the TV is

See if you can determine whether their word choice is a marker of region, or social class, or appears to be a random choice.

b. Click on this website The Audio Archive: Received pronunciation ( (Access through VLP).

Listen to the passage Arthur the Rat spoken by

  • Australian speaker
  • Canadian speaker
  • RP speaker
  • Cornish speaker

Obviously, these speakers sound different, but can you describe where the differences lie? For example, do most of the differences occur in the consonants or the vowel systems?

You will notice a feature of pronunciation which the RP and the Australian speakers don't have, and the others do what is it?

Forensic Linguistics: Language and Disadvantage: Australian Aboriginal English in the Legal System

a. Read the following extracts from cross-examinations and police interviews with Australian aborigine witnesses, defendants and suspects. Imagine you are a juror or police officer listening to these witnesses. What would you think of them?

Text A: Examination-in-chief

Counsel What time did you go to the hotel?
Witness About 10 o'clock that night.
Counsel What time did you leave the hotel?
Witness About 10 o'clock that night.
Counsel How long had you been there?
Witness I was there for a couple of hours.

Text B: Cross-examination

Counsel I suggest the reason to you, because you don't want everyone to know the little criminal that you are, do you?
Witness (silence)
Counsel That's the reason, isn't it?
Witness (silence)
Counsel Isn't it?
Witness (silence)
Counsel Isn't it?
Witness (silence)
Counsel Your silence probably answers it, but I'll have an answer from you. That's the reason, isn't it?
Witness (silence)
Judge David, I am asking you to answer the question. Ask the question again, please, Mr Johnson.
Counsel I'm suggesting to you that you don't want the court to know the little criminal that you are. Isn't that right?
Witness Yes.

Text C: Police Interview

Police Right. Now I want to ask you some questions about the trouble out there but I want you to understand that you don't have to answer any questions at all. Do you understand that?
Witness Yes.
Police Do you have to tell me that story?
Witness Yes.
Police Do you have to though?
Witness Yes.
Police Do you, am I making you tell me the story?
Witness Yes.
Police Or are you telling me because you want to?
Witness Yes.
Police Now I want you to understand that you don't have to tell me, right?
Witness Yes.
Police Now, do you have to tell me?
Witness Yes.

b. Now read this page Language Varieties: Aboriginal English ( u /langnet/aboriginal.htm#prag) which gives a short, simple overview of Aboriginal English. Pay particular attention to the section on Pragmatics. Can you now explain what is going on in Text B?

c. At this point, go to a guide to Aboriginal English in the Courts (pdf document) ( Using the bookmarks, go to the section on Pragmatics and read all the sub-sections. Provide a one-sentence summary of each of the following problems involved in questioning aborigine witnesses

  • Questioning strategies
  • Gratuitous concurrence
  • Quantifiable specification
  • Negative questions

Discussion of the Directed Learning Tasks

These tasks expand on some of the issues raised in the lectures, and, importantly draw on the knowledge and skills practiced in the first five weeks of the module. In the above examples, students are guided towards using their knowledge of phonetics, pragmatics and discourse in ways which demonstrate their practical application. This fulfils one important learning outcome of the module precise statements of linguistic description at various levels of language. Students who complete these tasks will have undergone a process of deep learning, and will be equipped to answer essay questions on the second test like:


When we investigate language variation, it is very clear that any speaker reveals a lot of social information about him or herself. Comment, with examples, on at least three dimensions of language variation.

Forensic Linguistics:

In what ways might forensic linguistics eventually contribute to an improvement in the legal process? Provide specific linguistic examples to support your points.

The virtual nature of the tasks has several advantages, the most obvious being accessibility and interactivity. We notice that students often engage in these tasks in pairs, discussing possible answers as they work through the exercises. Hard copies of the tasks allow students to check their suggested answer with a tutor. The self-test material on the VLP (where correct answers are provided online) also has the advantage of providing immediate formative and summative feedback to students who are preparing for what is often their first test at University.

Achievements and lessons learned

In 2004-5 the vast majority of students engaged well with the module and met the desired learning outcomes. Particularly pleasing was the much improved performance in the second, essay-style class test where 53.8% was the average mark. Only 7 students failed both tests in 2004-5, compared with 26 in the previous year and in each of these 7 cases, attendance fell well below 70%. We are satisfied that the superior level of student support has gone a large way to solving the problem of higher-than-average referrals in LING 101.

Statistics for 2004-5 (last year's figures in brackets)

Module Average: 57.1% (51)
Standard Deviation: 13 (15)
Referrals: 22.8% (33%)

Evaluative data

Student feedback has been extremely gratifying in 2004-5, especially as most acknowledged that this is a very challenging module. Nearly all remarked that they learned a lot of new material, and that this inspired a great degree of interest: almost always in a lecture there's something that's about twice as interesting as you expected it to be, was one comment. All of the applied' topics were mentioned as most interesting feature' by fairly even numbers of students. Although students stated that they are not immediately engaged by the earlier structural' topics, one of them, Phonetics, received acclaim also. Students mentioned that they are motivated to take the subject at Levels 2 and 3 after this introduction. A frequent accolade is that the module is the best planned and structured module across the entire curriculum of B.A. Joint Honours in Humanities at Level 1.

In the previous year's feedback (2003-4) students had frequently identified the need for support in the form of directed learning, especially for the second half of the module the applied' topics. Also mentioned was a request for help with test preparation for these topics. This has now taken place, and we are reassured that it has been an extremely effective strategy in supporting student learning.


The author wishes to acknowledge the contribution of Chris Heffer, Lecturer in Linguistics at Cardiff University (formerly at Nottingham Trent University ) who is the author of the exercise on Forensic Linguistics. The text is used with permission.

Related links

Subject Centre Materials Bank: Linguistic Quizzes
Includes links to vocal tract, word categories, pronouns, compound nouns, borrowed words, morphemes.
Link to vocal tract diagram and interactive labelling exercise.

UCL Internet Grammar
Self-test help with all aspects of grammatical description of English, idetifying nouns, noun phrases, verbs, adjectives etc.

The Audio Archive
Sound samples spoken by English speakers from around the world, including RP and other accents of the British Isles, as well as examples of English spoken in Australia, Canada, England, India, Ireland and the USA.

Language Varieties: Australian Aboriginal English
Includes descriptions of Australian Aboriginal English vocabulary, sounds, grammar and pragmatics.

Australian Aboriginal English in the Courts
Handbook to facilitate access to courts by the aboriginal minority. Includes information for communication facilitators on the pronunciation, grammar, pragmatics, vocabulary and non-verbal features of Aboriginal English.

Referencing this article

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    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008.
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