A former teacher and UX designer weighs in on how to better understand students’ needs.
Years ago, as a young high school Spanish teacher, I dreamed of making a difference in the lives of my students. And while I’m not sure that every student I taught walked away with a full-fledged love of Spanish, I think most of my students grew into more proficient and confident speakers and listeners. And many increased their cultural curiosity, which is a passion of mine.
Even with all the joys that came with my job, I was frustrated by my inability to differentiate and individualize instruction within a system structured to teach masses of students. I found myself feeling ineffective, overwhelmed, and burnt out. The impossible demands on teachers and the lack of support and resources took their toll on me.
Leaving the classroom was difficult, but I had to acknowledge that my day-to-day frustration had overtaken my passion for teaching. I was fortunate enough to find a dream job in the private sector that allowed me to use my teaching experience in a new way. It was here that I first learned about User Experience (UX) design and became certified in UX.
With my new learning in tow, I began to think about what I would have done differently in the classroom if I’d known then what I know now. My first steps would have been to gain more understanding of what my students needed from their learning experiences and approach them more empathetically as they learned a new language.
How Can User Experience (UX) Make World Language Lessons More Engaging?
UX design is a process that focuses on creating products and services that are easy to use and satisfying for the end user. Immediately, I began connecting UX to the impossible demands put on teachers to individualize instruction for every student.
As I discovered more about UX design, I realized that it was a practical approach teachers could apply in their classrooms that would engage students without requiring a different plan for every learner.
Here are my top 3 takeaways from my UX training and some ideas about applying them in the classroom.
1. “Fun and Easy” Can Lead to Better Student Understanding
One thing UX design taught me about my years spent teaching is that I hadn’t fully understood my purpose. My job was not merely to teach Spanish but to make Spanish easy and enjoyable for students to learn.
At the beginning of my teaching career, if a student had told me that my class was “fun and easy,” I would have seen this as a problem to fix. Maybe they weren’t challenged enough; maybe my assignments weren’t rigorous. Whatever the reason, I would have seen my class being accessible as a shortcoming on my part.
Through the lens of UX, I learned to appreciate that “fun and easy” classes can be tough to design. Teachers need to consider many skills, competencies, and pedagogical approaches when developing instructional design for the user experience to be easy and enjoyable.
Let’s tweak a class activity using UX principles.
I often taught my upper-level students poetry, which can be challenging due to its use of figurative language and complex literary devices. My approach was fairly traditional: we’d read the poem aloud, students would share what they noticed, and I would ask questions to get them to dig deeper. Some students were engaged; many weren’t. What if I had asked them to access the poetry in a different way?
To make reading and understanding poetry “fun and easy” for a broader range of students, I could have incorporated visual images into lessons. Images can provide a concrete representation of abstract concepts or themes, making them more accessible. Additionally, images can enhance the emotional impact of a poem, helping more students connect with the message.
But how can a teacher do this? Sure, some famous poems have been illustrated, but this is the exception rather than the rule. How about using AI? Here’s an image I created with an AI program called Midjourney illustrating García Lorca’s "Prendimiento de Antonito en Camborio en el camino a Sevilla" to help students visualize the setting and emotions evoked by the poem.
Once students see how images can bring poetry to life, you could ask them to find or even write their own target language poem, create an accompanying image, and then present their work to the class. Giving students the freedom to find or write a poem about what matters to them and then creating a visual representation will make for a wonderful user experience.
2. When It Comes to Understanding What Students Need, Don’t Always Trust Your Gut
Another key lesson UX taught me about teaching is that it’s okay to question your gut instinct. In my early teaching days, I would make a lot of assumptions about what would work based on a gut feeling and then feel deflated when my students didn’t find my favorite Spanish author relevant or my colleague’s scavenger hunt engaging. If I found something interesting, I concluded that it would engage my students, too—and this wasn’t always the case.
I thought my passion would fuel my students because I didn’t understand that a UXer’s worst enemy is their own ego. Instead of focusing on themselves, a UX designer needs to hone in on the needs and preferences of the user. This doesn’t have to mean individualizing instruction for every learner, but it does mean building connections and empathy with students, which was a huge mindset shift for me.
Now, if I were to design a UX-inspired language lesson, I’d work to discover what my students were into instead of going off my gut. Whether it’s music, video games, or volunteering, I would build my content and approach based on what enlivens students’ imaginations and helps them learn best.
Building a curriculum that begins and ends with student assets and passions involves soliciting feedback, guiding reflection, translating real-world interests into classroom activities, and lots of trial and error. You and your students will make mistakes along the way, but as long as you establish an environment of openness and honesty, you’ll get to where your students’ needs and interests truly guide your classroom.
3. Empathetic Teaching Goes Well Beyond Content
UX design also helped me see that I focused too heavily on teaching content and not enough on the design of my classroom, lessons, and processes.
I would teach a given topic with enthusiasm only to be felled by the most dreaded of student questions: “Why are we learning this?” This question is the classic hallmark of an error in design and was my student’s best attempt at expressing a key pain point. Instead of jumping in with my own explanation of why the lesson or skill was important, I should have asked for feedback. Then I could have improved my lesson design instead of assuming my student had simply misunderstood a crucial part of the purpose or content.
UX design emphasizes the importance of creating a consistent and intuitive user experience. Think about the last time you purchased something from a well-designed website. Reviews, professional photographs, how-to videos, product specs, and size/color choices were just a click or scroll away. So were products related to what you were browsing, sometimes with comparative prices and features. At no point did you think, “Wait, why is this here?” Because it was clear.
The designers knew that the easier their website was to navigate, the more likely you were to buy the product. The same holds true for learning: the better the learner’s experience, the more likely they will want to keep learning.
Creating a pleasurable user experience in the classroom often means prioritizing design over content. Instead of rushing through a lesson to “get through” content, I needed to:
Use a consistent teaching style.
Create a logical flow between tasks.
Provide easy-to-understand materials.
Give multiple task options.
Create seamless transitions between lessons.
I also needed to design more activities that my students would enjoy since joy in learning is more helpful to students in the long run than mastering content quickly.
By prioritizing user experience over content, I would have helped my students understand the bigger picture and retain the information better.
Empathetic Lesson Design Should Center Students as End Users
As I learned more about UX, I couldn't help but think about how much it would have made my job easier and my students’ experiences better. The fact is that times have changed; students have unprecedented access to technology, and, as a result, they are used to more intuitive experiences in their everyday lives.
As teachers, we must shift our teaching methods so that our classrooms prioritize user experience. It was a relief to know that I didn't need to create a different approach for every student; I just needed to keep every student in mind as I designed my lessons and materials. These realizations have renewed my sense of purpose and made me determined to help other teachers understand the benefits of incorporating UX design into their teaching.
I may have left the traditional classroom, but my passion for teaching and helping students learn has not left me. I can now make a difference in the lives of teachers and students through my work in education technology, content development, and instructional design. I am grateful for the second chance to make a positive impact.
Improve Student User Experience With iCulture
While I believe using more UX principles in your world language classroom is worth it, you don’t have to do it alone.
Enter iCulture, a searchable and constantly-updated database of culturally immersive articles, videos, and songs. Whatever your students’ interests, you’ll find relevant and engaging Spanish, French, and German resources.
iCulture will help you place each student at the center of their language-learning journey, a great first step to building a classroom that honors the goals and experiences of every language learner.
Evelyn is the Senior Editorial Manager at Carnegie Learning, World Languages (Spanish). She works in the field of Educational Technology with an emphasis on UX design, artificial intelligence, and Central American and Caribbean cultures. She was born in El Salvador and is now based in Wisconsin and has more than 15 years of World Language teaching experience at the secondary and post-secondary levels.Explore more related to this author
Students have unprecedented access to technology, and, as a result, they are used to more intuitive experiences in their everyday lives. As teachers, we must shift our teaching methods so that our classrooms prioritize user experience.
Evelyn Galindo, Senior Editorial Manager, World Languages (Spanish)