Researcher: Sandra Zappa-Hollman
Position: Academic English Program Director, Assistant Professor
Faculty: UBC Vantage College and Faculty of Education
Department: Language and Literacy Education
Year level: First year
Number of students: 169
Vantage 140 is a course offered by UBC Vantage College, a first year program for international students. One of the key course objectives is to support students’ English language development situated within the context of their disciplines of study. The research project was designed to examine student perspectives on the benefits of the course and to gather suggestions for improvement. The study also sought to find out if students enhanced their confidence as a result of their improved language proficiency and enhanced awareness of learning skills and resources.
VANT 140 was designed to expedite the academic English socialization of international students in UBC Vantage College. An innovative approach is used by integrating the teaching of language and disciplinary content: the language-focused tasks are designed using class materials from linked disciplinary courses (e.g., Math, Chemistry, Geography, Psychology).
One hundred and eighty-eight students enrolled in Vantage 140 in the first year the course was offered. To understand students’ needs and perspectives, surveys were carried out with students at three points in time. This was complemented with data gathered via semi-structured interviews with a small group of students. Thematic coding was used to identify the most useful tasks and topics, according to the students, as well as key suggestions relating to the course.
Students had mixed perceptions about the course. As time progressed, students’ comments were more positive and a larger number of benefits were identified. Most students saw the value of tasks that helped them develop the organization of texts, vocabulary, and move towards a more academic register. They also appreciated practice in note-taking, library search skills, and group work. The main suggestions included reducing homework, avoiding some redundancy, increasing task diversity and a larger emphasis on speaking practice.
Can you give some background on the research?
As you know, the number of international students at UBC and other higher education institutions is growing. Vantage College, the unit where I work, was custom designed for international students who are high academic achievers and are thus great candidates to pursue an undergraduate degree at UBC. Now, all these students speak English as an additional language and they have done their prior education in another language (and in most cases, outside Canada). So, in order to gain admission to UBC, they need to demonstrate they have the required level of English language ability. If they don’t achieve the minimum required scores in standardized English language tests like IELTS or TOEFL, but are slightly below what is needed, they may qualify to commence their studies at UBC in Vantage College. When the program was launched in September 2014, we offered two streams: first year Arts and first year Science. We have now added two more options: first year Engineering and first year Management.
As I mentioned, the program was custom designed to meet the needs of international English language learners. Our mandate is to help these students integrate smoothly into their second year of study (and beyond) at UBC. The students need to improve their academic English language proficiency as well as become familiar with the expectations and academic practices of UBC – it’s not just about improving your language, as you can imagine. The Vantage 140 course was designed to help students develop their academic English proficiency and skills which are needed to succeed in their respective disciplinary fields.
The curricular approach we use is known as integrated language and content instruction, or content-based instruction. In the context of our program, this means that students take a disciplinary course (e.g., Math, Chemistry, Geography, Sociology) concurrently with a paired course that focuses on the language (e.g., rhetorical patterns and language features) of that discipline. The number of VANT 140 credits students take varies per program stream, ranging from 3 to 7 credits.
What was the research question?
SZ: We (myself and the team of instructors in our program) had lots of questions around how the course would meet the students’ needs and how the students would perceive their learning in this class. We also wanted to know which topics and activities students identified as the most helpful ones; we were also interested in student input to gather feedback and guide the improvement of specific aspects of the course. So, my main motivation in designing this project was to gather the students’ perspectives on how the tasks students do in this course benefit their English language proficiency and their overall academic socialization. The overarching question of this project is: How effective is VANT 140 in achieving the goals of: 1) helping students develop their disciplinary English proficiency; 2) helping the students better understand the disciplinary course content; and 3) helping students feel more confident to participate in lectures and complete required readings and assignments?
How was the study designed?
SZ: This is a case study, and I collected two main types of data: student surveys and semi structured interviews with a mall sample of students. There were a total of 188 prospective participants (i.e., all the students in the first Science and Arts cohort), and the surveys were completed by 169 students. VANT 140 is offered over three terms; I began data collection in the Fall of 2014 and continued until June, 2015.
To understand students’ needs and perspectives over time, the student surveys were completed at three points during the academic year, and I held two rounds of semi-structured interviews with ten students (five from each program stream). The surveys had two questions. One question asked them to identify the more useful tasks and activities and also explain how they were using them. The second questions prompted students to give suggestions.
What did you find?
SZ: The survey responses were very informative. Students initially had mixed perceptions about the course. As time progressed, students’ comments were more positive and a larger number of benefits were identified. Most students saw the value of tasks that helped them develop the organization of texts (e.g., the position of new and old information in a sentence; text patterns); vocabulary (e.g., collocations, morphology); and move towards an academic register (e.g., packing and unpacking nominalization). They also appreciated practice in note-taking, library search skills and group work.
The interview data confirmed some of these findings and also provided deeper insights about how students viewed the course (and specific tasks). For instance, interviews conducted earlier in the project (in the Fall), showed that while some students acknowledged the value of what they learned and practiced, they felt that – unlike for the disciplinary-paired courses – they couldn’t quite get a clear picture of what the course was meant to achieve. Additionally, some students found it challenging to connect what they learned and practiced in VANT 140 with the corresponding linked course. This was a somewhat surprising finding for us, given that most materials (i.e., the “content”) of the class come from the paired disciplinary courses.
We also received many suggestions. For example, some students thought it would be worthwhile to include more interactive activities, as many students felt they still wanted to work on their speaking skills. Other suggestions included giving less homework (although some students asked for more), and avoiding some redundancy in the topics covered.
In terms of the question about whether the course is helping the students better understand the disciplinary course content, the answer in interviews was mixed. Some students were extremely positive, mostly in relation to the tasks that helped them expand vocabulary, expedite their reading of their content course materials, as well as tasks that helped them practice problem-solving. And as to whether the students feel more confident to participate in lectures and complete required readings and assignments after taking the course, the answer for most was yes. But, as many students acknowledged, this enhanced sense of confidence can’t be exclusively attributed to one course.
How did you evaluate your findings?
SZ: We (a graduate research assistant and myself) looked at the students’ responses over time, and this allowed us to evaluate not just what they were saying but also how they were saying it. We noticed that as time progressed, students tended to write more specific comments about what they valued, and they also tended to more successfully elaborate on their ideas by being more precise and accurate.
How will this study impact teaching and learning?
SZ: We used student feedback to inform changes in year two of the curriculum. In the second iteration of this course, we included more explicitly defined discipline-specific objectives. We opted for fewer tasks and fewer task types. We also improved assessment sequences and enhanced coordination between Academic English Program and disciplinary instructors. I think that overall this led to some important changes that already benefited this year’s cohort, and I’m currently collecting data to compare the results between year 1 and year 2. So far, initial data analysis shows the changes have had a positive impact in how the course is viewed as well as how it’s taught.
How will this study impact future research?
SZ: I’m very excited that this project allows us to fill a gap in terms of students’ perspectives on how content language integrated learning facilitates their academic English development and their familiarization with valued academic practices. We don’t find a lot of research in this area that showcases student voices. I am still working on data analysis, as I was able to collect another set of data for the current year and across the four streams. The next step is to make some comparisons across the two sets of data, and assess the impact of the changes in the curriculum and teaching that resulted from the data gathered in the first year.
As we move forward, instructors are now more familiar with what can be accomplished in the course, what the students’ needs and expectations are, as well as what the constraints are. And some instructors are beginning to design their own projects focusing on particular aspects of the course that they want to examine in detail. This is all very exciting!
Acknowledgments: I would like to acknowledge the wonderful assistance of John Haggerty, PhD Candidate and GRA for this project.