Helping Students Separate Signal from Noise

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An issue that I wrestle with a lot is how to help students transition from rote exercises with canned data to a real world problem in which data comes with minimal organization and the solution is really open ended. It's also related to a similar problem in teaching linguistics which is training students to extract data from a language they may only have minimal familiarity with.

In one of those weird Internet search coincidences, I ran into this blog entry about the pronunciation of certain Chinese consonants. If you go to the site, something will leap out immediately - it is written in Chinese. I should state right now that I know almost zero Chinese characters, and few of my students do either. In fact, it's genuinely frustrating that I can't read the entire entry because I know I'm missing lots of key context. However....I was still able to extract some useful information and showed the students that they could too.

One helpful piece of information is that there were some diagrams showing the pronunciation of certain "letters" in pinyin along with an IPA transcription. For another, there was a bibliography listing at least one key article in English. Sweet!

Believe it or not, many of my students appeared to enjoy this little exercise. Part of it was because a lot are taking Japanese (one student could read some of the characters), but I think part might because it was a real world scenario. However, I think they also appreciated that there was some hand holding (I said that it wasn't a Chinese reading exercise, but a spot the citation/transcription exercise). I was also able to explain why you might need to do this (i.e. you are not a Chinese expert, but need some information).

So my personal teaching lesson is that I have to do a better job of translating what linguists do to a classroom context. Between working on this and talking with other instructors, I am beginning to really appreciate how much content experts "automate" their analytic skills. Unpacking it for learners can be hard (that's why I could probably use an instructional designer for a linguistics course).

However, it's definitely worth the effort. Those times when I see a spark of enlighetnment in a student's eyes are amazing.

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