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Geroline - Students’ learning trajectories in language courses on-campus and online

Grant recipients:

Mathias Schulze, Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies
Kyle Scholz, Centre for Teaching Excellence
Sara Marsh, Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies

(Project timeline: September 2014-August 2015)

Photo of Mathias Schulz  Photo of Kyle Scholz     Photo of Sara Marsh

       Mathias Schulze                       Kyle Scholz                          Sara Marsh


We analyzed three German-language courses with online counterparts (GER 101, 102, and 201), to better understand the extent to which our online courses are enabling students to ob­tain their intended learning outcomes. We strive to assist students in managing their academic careers when having to decide between online and on-campus course choices. Although our online and on-campus courses (same number) follow an identical curriculum and use the same textbook, they are necessarily comprised of var­ying learning activities. We examined the ed­ucational trajectories of students who have taken these courses in various combinations online and/or on campus. The findings may mean re-evaluating the online and on-campus course offerings to enable students to choose the early language courses that provide the best start into their program of study. Our goal was to produce an online module that enables students to make informed choices about taking courses online or on campus.

Questions Investigated

1) How does the medium of learn­ing (virtual learning environment vs. classroom) impact an individual stu­dent’s academic success in these courses and subsequently in upper-year German courses (GER 202, 203, 204, 303, 304, and 431) that are offered on-campus?

2) Are there identifiable patterns in the students’ trajectories of transitioning between online and on-campus courses and can we support this with evidence-based information about students’ course choices and their decisions online vs. on-campus?

3) We want to produce an online module which will enable students to make informed choices about taking the appropriate language class at the beginning of their studies and to provide the same infor­mation to the undergraduate advisor.


Our data was comprised of 10 years of German studies enrollment data, encompassing 30 terms. We studied 3 online language courses, 3 intermediate language courses on-campus, and 5 higher-level language courses on campus. We found that over this 10 year period of time, 5906 students were enrolled in the elementary language courses, and 44% took at least one online. 21% of all German students are enrolled in online courses to some degree, and more importantly, 25% of continuing students (those who take more than one German course) have experience with both online and on-campus language classes.

We confirmed that too few students continue with their study of German from one level to the next. One of the main reasons we see for this is that this university does not have a language requirement, and in the breadth requirement, students can take two independent language or culture courses. We can tell from the data that many students only take one language class ever. Continuation rates of online students versus on-campus students is only marginally lower. We are suggesting that because we have approximately 44% of students taking at least one online language course, and many students in general are not continuing their German language courses beyond the first or second course at most (once they have fulfilled their language requirements), that most students who would have taken an online language course fit within this demographic of not continuing on. For this reason, many students only exposure to German is within the online environment.

We claim then that the online language courses play a prominent role in the success of the German department and serve a large subset of the students who try out German, even if they do not continue. Yet because the research also shows that students do tend to perform better in later German courses if they take a combination of online and on-campus courses, that we need to do a better job of letting these online students know about their potential in on-campus courses.

Therefore, in the context of learning German, students tend to perform better when switching between the learning environments as there is less of a drop in the average standardized grade compared to those who remained either in online or on-campus language courses exclusively, suggesting that online courses are more challenging. We also see that generosity through personal relationships in the on-campus course may play a role in increasing the grade average of students.

This suggests that for some students, transitioning between courses does indeed help, as each of these mediums do have their own strengths (exposure to material and the focus on writing in the online environment, and the dynamic instructor presence and the person-to-person contact in the on-campus environment).

Dissemination and Impact 

  • At the individual level: 20 interviews with students; MA thesis for Sara; discussions with colleagues about impending changes to online course offerings/promotion as a result of these findings
  • At the Department/School and/or Faculty/Unit levels: Defense of MA thesis on student online course choices for Sara Marsh, which can be observed by any individual
  • At the national and/or international levels: We have submitted at multiple conferences at the national level (American Association of Applied Linguistics in Toronto, and the International Conference on Second Language Pedagogies at Laurier) and Internationally (Computer-Assisted Language Instruction Consortium (CALICO) in Boulder, CO)

Impact of the Project

  • Teaching: We had planned to create an online tool for students to help them better decide which language course is best to take for their personality/academic goals. Although this has not yet been created, our intention is to finish it by the end of this term.
  • Involvement in other activities or projects: Sara Marsh, our MA student, has become much more involved in online learning and associated research; Mathias and Kyle had originally expressed interest in online learning, but hope to bolster its appreciation within other language departments based upon these results.
  • Connections with people from different departments, faculties, and/or disciplines about teaching and learning: We hope to share our results with CEL and other interested departments at the end of this term or early in the winter term as we believe they are especially relevant to these individuals.


Project reference list (PDF)

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