Running a research study in the classroom: week 3 report

This semester I'm teaching Phonetics & Phonology II, a third year class at CMU. I've taught this course before (3 times, in fact!) but this year I'm changing it completely. I mean, why make things easy for myself?!

The biggest innovation this time around is that, instead of having students do independent final projects, I am conducting a research study with them as my research assistants. I got this idea thanks to Mark Gibson, who has done it several times with his classes in Spain, and does these projects as collaborations with other researchers, who do it with their classes.

The general structure of the research study is that Mark and I have chosen a topic (which I won't reveal at this point publicly, as we have yet to collect the data), and each of us is carrying out the study as part of the course. The students will collect and analyse the data, and towards the end of the semester, we will arrange a video conference so that students in our classes can share their results.

The main challenge in carrying out the research study as part of a class is, so far, organization. There's not much time to do a real study in the course of the semester, particularly since the students are undergraduates with other classes, and other content to learn in our classes! We want them to experience what it's like to do real research, but due to time constraints, we also have to make sure that it's a doable project for them in the amount of time they have, given their experience and background knowledge.

We are currently wrapping up the 3rd week of the semester at CMU, so this is an interim report of sorts, noting where we are on the research study.

Determining the topic and coming up with hypotheses

Although it would be fun to have students take part in designing the study, coming up with the research questions and methodology and such, this is just not feasible given the time constraints. We determined the research question last semester, and sketched out various hypotheses associated with it that we are interested in investigating.

We refined the hypotheses over the last couple of weeks, as we were designing the corpus.

Although we had to come up with the topic and hypotheses without the students, when we introduce the study to the students we plan to introduce background material and lead a guided discussion to try to tease out the hypotheses from them. I'll post how this goes when we have this discussion.

In general, Mark and I have roughly the same timeline, but I will likely be introducing more detail to the students earlier, since I don't plan to use my students also as subjects. This is different for Mark, who, because his part of the study is an ultrasound investigation, is using his students as subjects. Because of this, he's going to keep his students in the dark until the data is collected.


Designing the project early allowed me to submit the protocol to IRB, and have it approved before the semester even started. One of the things I had to explain to the IRB was that I knew I'd be adding co-investigators, but could not specify them until the semester had started (I didn't want to be adding students as collaborators based on the course roster). I think because this was unusual, it took a couple of tries, so starting the IRB process early was definitely the right call.

The very first assignment that my students completed was to do the CITI training for Human Subjects Research. Although I was told by one of the IRB officers that this was not strictly necessary, I felt it important for them to go through the entire process, and it doesn't take that long anyway.


The final major task that needs to be completed before students get started with the project is corpus design. Designing a good phonetic study corpus takes some time, and a lot of factors need to be balanced, so this again is one of the things that we designed independently, and are finishing up now. Again, as for the hypotheses, I'm going to see if students can come up with some of the forms when we tease out the hypotheses. Time permitting, I may ask them to come up with distractors as well.

Course content: Weeks 1 – 3

I've been using the first three weeks of the course to make sure that everyone is up to speed on the basics. Because this course is not offered every year, some students took the prerequisite over a year ago, and that means that a good portion of my class needs some review. They read and do exercises for the first three chapters of the course textbook (Zsiga's The Sounds of Language), and have one phonology problem set due at the end of the third week. Lectures until now have been someone free-form: some material has been planned, primarily looking at datasets and analysing them together, but I've allowed the discussions to wander (in a guided way). In particular, I'm using this time to build up students' intuitions about phonology and phonetics, and trying to sharpen their dataset analysis skills. The next three weeks will be the acoustics phonetics unit, which is much more structured.

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