Mixed Classrooms for Heritage and non-Heritage Learners of Russian: Student Insight and a Model for Curricular Adaptation

Larry McLellan, University of California, Santa Barbara

Heritage and non-heritage learners of Russian come to the classroom with very different skills and needs. Recent research indicates that heritage students, given their extensive background, can make faster progress if given opportunities to do so (Kagan and Dillon 2001; Chevalier 2004). In practice, this means a separate track for heritage students, usually a formal sequence of courses. However, many programs are constrained by limited faculty, low enrollment and insufficient financial resources, and must resort to mixed classrooms with both groups of students. Instructors are challenged to accommodate student attitudes, not only in regard to learning the language, but also in terms of interaction between heritage and non-heritage learners.

In spring 2005 I surveyed 44 students in mixed classrooms at the 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-year levels, hoping to gain some insight into how the two groups perceive each other and how they view the mixed classroom situation. How aware are students of the differences between the two groups? Are separate tracks always more desirable from their point of view? Are mixed groups less so? What can instructors learn from students in mixed classrooms that might enhance the learning process?

Students were asked to self-identify as heritage or non-heritage learners. The survey contained a number of questions on what they considered to be the hardest and easiest aspects of learning Russian for both themselves and the other group, whether they thought it was harder for a heritage or non-heritage student to learn standard Russian and how they thought students from the other group might answer this question. They were also asked what they saw as advantages and disadvantages of mixed classrooms. The key question for this survey asked students to indicate what they personally thought would be the ideal class structure, given no administrative or financial constraints: would they prefer all class meetings separate, all mixed, or a combination.

Initial analysis indicates that each group is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the other. Both groups see positive and negative aspects of being in mixed classrooms, though their comments reflect the desire for interaction between the two groups. The most notable result of the survey comes in response to how students would choose to structure class meetings (separate, mixed, combined). The vast majority preferred combined or mixed which shows they see some value in integrating the two groups. For programs that do not have the curricular flexibility to offer separate tracks, which is ideal for heritage learners, a flexible combination of separate and mixed meetings may go far to meet the different needs of the two groups while allowing the benefits of mutual interaction.