Thursday, November 29, 2007

Impaired

For the past year and a half, I have been doing pretty well in the language class I’ve been taking. I do much better at writing and reading than I do at speaking, but I’m making progress on all fronts. Recently, however, I encountered a major obstacle. As part of an exam, we had to listen to an audio clip that was played on a mini-laptop set on a table at the center of the classroom, and then answer questions about what we heard. The audio clip had background music, there was construction and traffic noise outside the classroom, the laptop vibrated on the table, and the speakers on the laptop were lousy. I couldn’t make out most of the words in the audio clip.

The other students also had trouble understanding the audio clip, but not as much trouble as I did. The instructor played the clip again and let me sit closer to the laptop, but that didn't help. When I was closer to the speakers, I mostly just heard the background music. I had to leave that page of the exam mostly blank.

I have been aware for the past year or so that I have been developing a mild case of Cocktail Party Syndrome, the inability to differentiate sound from background noise, but I hadn’t previously encountered a situation in which it mattered. I don’t think I have a severe case. We watch movies in this class and some of these have background music, but as long as the movies are played with a good sound system, I can understand them fairly well. When we have audio assignments for homework, I use headphones and definitely don’t have a problem then.

The instructor says that part of learning a language is learning how to understand the language even when the sound is not ideal. You have to deal with sounds as they come, even if the words are indistinct or partly obscured by other sounds. What if you are in a crowd? What if you have to understand a message broadcast over a loudspeaker in a bus station? It is important to understand what is being said outside a classroom setting, and therefore being able to do that is part of being able to do well in this class.

I agree with most of that, but there’s only so much I can do about my hearing in certain situations. I don’t know what I would do about this class if I were a real student and found that I couldn’t do the audio portions of the exams. Perhaps I would get my hearing impairment documented and request some accommodation, even if this involved creating an unrealistic language environment.

This situation made me think about all my students who need accommodations for exams and assignments owing to various physical and learning disabilities. It is rare to teach a class these days without at least one student needing to take exams at the disability services office, needing extra time, or needing some other accommodation. For example, I recently taught two hearing impaired students who needed interpreters in two different classes, and had to alter my in-class teaching style accordingly.

Providing accommodations for students with disabilities involves time and effort – sometimes a lot of extra time, and that can be difficult for an instructor. There have been times when I have been frustrated by the additional time and effort required, especially when I didn't have any time to spare.

However, these accommodations are an important part of making university education accessible to as many people as possible. I have heard the but-that’s-not-how-it-is-in-the-real-world argument against these accommodations before and have never found it very compelling. Now – much to my surprise – I find it being used as a reason for why I should just try harder to discern sounds from background noise*. Although my situation is not dramatic or dire, I am more convinced than ever that accommodations in a course can make the difference between success and failure.

* As it turns out, I didn't fail the exam after all, as the instructor just informed the class that she won’t count that part of the exam very much. However, she does want us to work on our listening skills more, and we may encounter an audio clip on the final exam.

14 comments:

Mouse said...

This is so relevant to me as I struggle with out-dated technology and a strange inability to focus on specific words whilst working my way through a degree in Modern Language Studies via distance learning...
I feel hampered and hindered and I know that my marks are lower than they should be but what's the answer? Especially to the mental barrier that causes me to tense up and cease to hear...

Dr. Bad Ass said...

This post prompted thoughts on several fronts. First, your experience is one of those great things that can happen to us when we -- as teachers -- become students. I'm also taking a course a semester at my university and learning all kinds of things about note-taking that I never really thought about before.
Second, those modifications that you make for your students with disabilities is part of what I teach my students (all preservice teachers) for their future work with junior high and high school students. I taught high school English for 12 years and made lots of accomodations and modifications for my students with disabilities over that time. I often expected my other students (those without disabilities) to raise a ruckus about "special treatment" but they never did. There was some kind of tacit acknowledgement that each of them learned differently and that students with disabilities were simply getting the help they needed to be successful.
Good for you for being open-minded about your students with disabilities. OK, I've been long-winded about this . . .

Patricia said...

Auditory Processing Disorder - it is called in some cases. I have been learning about this as my son age 6 has been diagnosed with this. It certainly does make listening to speech with background noise present difficult - turns out this is not that uncommon - just often undiagnosed..
But that does not make writing your exam any easier in this case since the teacher WANTS you to have a real-life experience. Perhaps you should have just written that in real life you might have gone to a quieter place to get the instructions or requested a repetition of the instructions from an info desk on a train station!! LOL

The Woman of Science said...

This is only marginally related to this post, but allow me to make another suggestion from the student POV:

Digital homeworks should not direct one to "sketch" part of the answer.

There is no such thing as a sketch if it must be submitted digitally. Either the student must put together a computer image (which may or may not be a simple thing) or the student must figure out a way to scan in a hand-drawn diagram. It's a pain in the butt in either case, so at least give us the dignity of not calling it a "sketch".

Anonymous said...

But, especially if it's getting worse, you might need to get your hearing checked. It's possible that you're experience hearing loss that's making it difficult to filter (i.e. a peripheral loss in filtering rather than a central one). If so, some form of hearing aid might help. They're getting very good these days.

ScienceGirl said...

Actually, I don't think what you are experiencing is at all abnormal while learning a new language. I had the same problem when I first moved to the U.S. (and worried that there was something wrong with me), but as I became more fluent in the language, my "hearing" went back to normal (or the same as my hearing when listening to my native language).

From my experience, the age of the age of the person learning to differentiate the new sounds is crucial as well. Unfortunately for my mom (who started learning English in her 40's), she's been stuck in the "hearing disorder" phase for years now, and is not making as much progress. On the other hand, my little sister got to the native speaker level much faster than I did, even though she is only a couple of years younger than me.

Cherish said...

I have the same problem with hearing, and if caught in a noisy situation, will ask people to please repeat very loudly and slowly what they said. This seems to be a reasonable request for most people...I just can't participate in conversations at parties or loud restaurants. (And I've done pretty well in taking foreign languages, so I don't think exceptional noise filters are a prerequisite.)

If you were not the only person having this same problem, I'm surprised that the teacher didn't make an effort to speak the items from the tape herself. If she's testing your ability to hear in a noisy situation, then the tape is okay. If she wants to get a good feeling for your comprehension, then the situation was not terribly ideal. At least, IMO.

Anonymous said...

In the real world, conversations often take place in loud and distracting environments. It doesn't mean that everyone can follow them. There are times when a teacher needs to make accommodation's for a student's disability. There are also times when a teacher needs to evaluate their testing method and see if it offers a valid measure of the subject matter. What is the primary criteris for success on this test-- acute hearing or a understanding of the spoken lanquage??

anon said...

In the real world, I avoid places with high background noise since I have the same problem.

However, it is a good idea to have students who can differentiate sounds perform these types of exercises since it makes it much easier for them in the future if they have to make sense of a dialect. Accommodations have to be made for people who are impaired, definitely.

That's why my friends take me up on my suggestion to only go to a few particular bars that do not have loud background music and where the sound carries very well at table level.

Anonymous said...

My concern with accommodations has never been "that's not how it'll be in the real world!" My concern is that my school has a one-(very generous)-size-fits-all approach to our most common disability, learning. Which means that people with even mild ADD get double-time on three hour exams, which to me seems to be an astonishingly large accoommodation. So my concern is "that's not even remotely equitable".

Hanna said...

Were you able to try using headphones? If she does this again, I would certainly try. It cuts down on the ambient noise (construction, table buzzing) and, for me at least, often makes the sound much clearer. I'll often watch movies with my headphones instead of just the regular sound because it makes such a huge difference for me.

I also have a much harder time translating spoken language (or speaking) than reading/writing it. I was at a conference recently listening to two people speaking in German, a language I was fairly decent (not really "fluent" though) at a number of years ago. Listening to them, I could translate probably the majority of the individual words, but I was incabable of keeping them together in my head long enough to get any sort of meaning out of the sentence. It was a pretty bizarre experience. (I also have weird ear issues that I'm pretty sure sometimes contribute to my having difficulty discerning speech from background noise, but that's a long story...)

Actually, I have a harder time learning aurally in general. I hardly get anything out of lectures that don't have good visual notes for me to follow along. When people around me start talking math, verbally, nothing written down, I pretty much have no chance of following (which is really frustrating, because it happens a lot, and even when there is a chalkboard handy, I feel weird asking them to switch to a format I can follow...).

Anonymous said...

My problem with accommodations is that the ADA office never makes the most feeble attempt to validate claims of learning disabilities. For example, I frequently learn of my advisees being able to take "math alternatives" because of a math disability. Yet, when I look at their high school SAT quantitative score I am sometimes stunned to see that they scored 610, or 640, or 680. When I confront them for their ruse, they just smile and roll their eyes. If I can cross-check their SAT scores, why can't the disabilities office?

TW Andrews said...

Aural comprehension, particularly without the non-verbal cues that accompany face-to-fact communication has always been by far the hardest part of learning a foreign language for me. I've found that listening to music in the relevant language helps me to tune my ear, and it's something that can be done passively, while you're doing something else.

Anonymous said...

My concern with accommodations has never been "that's not how it'll be in the real world!" My concern is that my school has a one-(very generous)-size-fits-all approach to our most common disability, learning. Which means that people with even mild ADD get double-time on three hour exams, which to me seems to be an astonishingly large accoommodation. So my concern is "that's not even remotely equitable".

I agree. Which is why I've taken to setting tests short enough that essentially everyone (minus the one or two students who refuse to leave before the official time is over) can finish within the allotted time. That way, I don't have to worry about whether anyone's getting an advantage of excess time because *everyone* gets excess time. (Our disabilities office does a poor job of distinguishing between students who genuinely need help and those who just want an advantage over the rest of the class).