Grant awarded to UW–Madison to study language proficiency gains in virtual and in-person instruction

Among the many lessons highlighted by the current pandemic is the need to be able to understand and reimagine instruction, especially as many educators and students grapple with questions about the benefits and challenges of in-person and remote modes of delivery of instructional programs. With the support of a $173,168 grant, UW–Madison will conduct a 3-year study on the outcomes of face-to-face and online instruction in numerous less commonly taught languages when it comes to the development of students’ speaking abilities in intensive summer language programs.

The grant, Speaking Proficiency Outcomes of Face-to-Face and Online U.S. Intensive Postsecondary Summer Programs in Less and Least Commonly Taught Foreign Languages, is through the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI International Research and Studies Program (IRS). The initiative addresses gaps in scholarship on learning outcomes of instructional programs in less commonly taught languages in the U.S., and is inspired by recent research such as the Flagship Proficiency Initiative, which examined proficiency outcomes in postsecondary language programs.

The study will leverage programming and practices in the Wisconsin Intensive Summer Language Institutes (WISLI) to collect data. Pre- and post-program Oral Proficiency Interviews (OPIs), online journaling, student interviews, and background assessments will help UW–Madison to gain insights into the factors that might influence gains in different languages and in varying instructional delivery methods.

“With a strong reputation as a national center for high-quality instruction in less commonly taught languages, UW–Madison is a perfect site to conduct this study,” said Dianna Murphy, principal investigator and director of UW–Madison’s Language Institute. “We are particularly excited about how this collaborative effort draws on expertise among several units across campus—the Language Institute, WISLI, and Testing and Evaluation Services—to provide new empirical data that will inform the design of intensive language instruction in both face-to-face and virtual contexts.”

Students have already found one key benefit to virtual instruction: access. During summer 2020, WISLI had a record number of 367 participants. Even with increased numbers and the need to pivot from its traditional face-to-face instruction method, WISLI participants still reported strong gains in language and cultural fluency.

“This study will help us to better understand student language learning experiences and outcomes in intensive instructional programs,” said Felecia Lucht, director, WISLI, and a lead researcher on the project. “Important to this study is not only the quantitative data on proficiency gains, but also the perception of students participating in the programs. Both will inform programming and help chart a path toward the best possible experiences and learning outcomes for language students.”

The award duration for this grant is Oct. 1, 2020–Sept. 30, 2023. For more information, contact Dianna Murphy at