The Art of the Drill

by Zach Gorman | 2/20/19 2:15am

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by Alison Zeng / The Dartmouth

While many universities require students to take classes in a second language, Dartmouth is unique with its use of language “drill” classes. These classes serve as a supplement to students’ normal language courses and are taught by a fellow Dartmouth student — a drill instructor — who is fluent in the language. Drill emphasizes repetition, with the instructor repeatedly cueing individual students to articulate sentences with slight changes each time. Students must pay close attention to the repeated sentences in order to understand exactly what they will have to say when the instructor selects them to speak. One of the primary goals of drill is to acquaint students with conjugating verbs and forming complete sentences on the fly by repeating phrases.

Some Dartmouth students find this repetition to have a positive impact on their understanding of the language they are studying. Henry Phipps ’21, who is currently taking drill classes for Spanish 3, “Spanish III,” believes that the drill format helps him master the concepts at hand despite the difficulty of the classes.

“I think it forces me to think and it gives me the practice to form these phrases … I think it can be tough because you have to be really focused to … feel it, otherwise it’s brutal because you keep forgetting stuff and you just end up feeling bad about yourself,” Phipps said.  

However, some students feel that drill becomes too repetitive and that other language exercises could have a greater impact on learning. Allister Azagidi ’21, who is also in Spanish 3 drill, says that real conversations could be more effective in developing students’ language skills.

“[Drill] can be a little bit frustrating, to be honest,” Azagidi said. “I’m not really a fan of … doing the exact same formula [repeatedly]. I don’t think that it helps as much as being able to talk back and forth in Spanish to another person.”

Yuvraj Mahadeshwar ’21, who has instructed Spanish drill over multiple terms, agrees that it may be too repetitive at times despite its efficacy as a grammar tool. 

“[Repetition] does help, but it might contribute a little bit to students being a little tired of it by the end of the 50-minute session,” Mahadeshwar said. “But drill is really there to reinforce grammar concepts, and that’s why I think it’s really different from a classroom setting.”

“[Repetition] does help, but it might contribute a little bit to students being a little tired of it by the end of the 50-minute session. But drill is really there to reinforce grammar concepts, and that’s why I think it’s really different from a classroom setting.”

Phipps believes that drill’s repetition can set up situations in which students can be embarrassed by their mistakes in front of their peers, leading to a lesser learning experience.

“I tend to not get embarrassed that easily in front of other people, so in that case, drill is well-suited for me, because if I mess up in front of a group of students, I don’t really care that much,” Phipps said. “But I can imagine someone feeling pretty pressured to have their fellow students watch them forget three words even though they were said eight times, 30 seconds ago.”

Beyond the inherent repetitiveness of drill, one common complaint is the timing of drill classes. Many drill classes are scheduled at 7:45 a.m. three days each week in order to avoid conflicting with students’ other classes. If students have engagements that conflict with the other drill time slots, they have no choice but to take the 7:45 drill. Mahadeshwar, who has never instructed a 7:45 drill, believes that the time slot is very difficult for people to adjust to.

“I’ve never taught a 7:45 course and I’ve never signed up for one because I personally cannot wake up that early to teach a course,” Mahadeshwar said. “So I know that there would be a lot of students who also would have issues with being able to be awake and ready to learn.”

While Mahadeshwar says that he appreciates that the 7:45 a.m. option is available for students and instructors who cannot be present for the other time slots, he thinks it would be worthwhile for language programs to look for another time slot that could be more conducive to learning. 

Phipps, who has taken a 7:45 a.m. drill class in the past, also believes that this early time slot harms students’ ability to effectively learn from the drill system.

“Some people get stuck at times that don’t work for their brains,” Phipps said. “I know that I literally could not think at 7:45 a.m., so to me it seems strange that students would be forced to participate so early when they aren’t getting anything out of it.”

Both Azagidi and Mahadeshwar believe that some alternative practice could serve as a useful supplement to the traditional drill format. Azagidi believes that drill could be more helpful if students were able to have conversations with each other in the language, with the instructor correcting any mistakes students make in their conversation.

 “Rather than being forced to conjugate some random phrase, I think that drill would be better if we were just able to talk back and forth over various subjects and just be forced to do that and then have the instructor come in and correct every now and then,” Azagidi said. “I think that, overall, would improve everyone’s pronunciation [and] everyone’s ability to think better on the ball.”

 Mahadeshwar says that the repetitiveness of drill could be mitigated if some other interesting activities were integrated into drill’s curriculum. Drill instructors are allowed to lead a language-based game or competition, but only after each session’s material has been completed. Mahadeshwar thinks such activities could help to maintain students’ interest if used in a greater capacity.

“One [improvement] would be just to include more activities for students to do because it tends to get very repetitive and boring by the end,” Mahadeshwar said. “I think that some more activities, like mini-breaks or mini-competitions or something just to keep the students engaged would be more ideal for encouraging more learning.”

 Despite his few reservations regarding the repetitiveness and timing of drill sessions, Mahadeshwar says that he loves the program and believes that, when it is structured ideally, drill can have a real impact on students learning a new language.

“I think [drill’s efficacy] really just depends on the structure of the class itself and that’s really dependent on each instructor, but as long as the students are in a spot where they’re ready to learn and the instructor is there passionately teaching, I think that it can provide a lot of opportunities for students,” Mahadeshwar said.