8 May '13

News Testing questions: Diane Schmitt, English language teaching academic

Diane Schmitt gives the lecturer's perspective on the role English language plays in university learning and teaching

Where do you work and what is the focus of your role?

I teach on an MA in English language teaching at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) where most of my students are international. I also teach English for academic purposes (EAP), mainly in-sessional at the moment. Historically, when my university had a very small scale international office, its English language entry requirements were set based on my advice. Now this role is mainly carried out by staff in marketing.

What is your involvement in English language testing?

My main role is outside my institution working with BALEAP, a global forum for EAP professionals. Prior to becoming chair of BALEAP, I was testing officer on its executive for five years and led a working party that developed a new set of guidelines on English language tests for university entry.

The aim was to raise awareness among admissions staff and decision makers in universities about how to select appropriate exams for assessing English language readiness for university. Essentially, the guidelines provide guidance on the right questions to ask about the validity and reliability of any given test in relation to making university admissions decisions.

How important are international students to your institution?

It's funny – I think that if you asked a range of different people at NTU, you'd get very different answers. In my view, although they are important to the institution overall because of the income they generate, they are disproportionately important to some schools such as the business school and the school of art and design where the concentrations of international students are much higher. Many postgraduate taught courses in the business school and our own MA wouldn't run without international students because there simply aren't enough British students recruited to these courses.

What helps an international student get off to a good start?

There are three things in my view. First, a good starting command of English and the realisation that actively studying English will need to be an ongoing element of their time at university. Many students (and universities) underestimate how slow the process of incidental acquisition is and mistakenly think that because they are in an English-speaking university and country now, the language will take care of itself. Unfortunately, there is plenty of research to show that this is not the case.

Second, attending a pre-sessional English course or some other induction programme that raises awareness of the teaching and learning culture of British universities. Ideally, students will experience study tasks like interactive 'lectures', seminar participation and source-based writing as well as reflect on any differences in teaching and learning cultures betwen the UK and their home country and ways to bridge those differences.

Third, the university recognising that transitioning to a new level of study in a different educational culture and doing this through a second language is a long-term process and has in place a range of support and monitoring systems so that students know they won't be left on their own to make sense of this new environment.

Why does a good level of English matter to university study?

This is easy. Nearly everything the student will be required to do on a university degree will require using language and in an English-medium university that language will be English. Even in practice-based courses like art and design and computer science, at least some of the work assessed will require the use of language.

If students are going to get the maximum benefit from their studies, they need to be able to fully understand lectures, classroom and groupwork discussion, and assigned and independent reading. Any lack of understanding they do experience really should be because they are struggling to get to grips with new content or specific disciplinary ways of talking about the world, not because weaknesses in their language create gaps in understanding.

How does this play out in your own teaching?

I have a student now who works really hard and makes a real effort to contribute to class discussions; however, nine times out of 10 when she answers my questions in class, her answers don't match the questions I've asked because of weak listening skills. Unsurprisingly, she's struggling. As a student interviewed for my friend's PhD said, just "getting the gist" isn't good enough at university.

The same applies to students' contributions to class or groupwork discussions, assessed presentation and written work. While it is not necessary for students' language to be error free, it is important that students can express themselves clearly and concisely. It's no use being the smartest person in the class, if you cannot convey your understandings and ideas to others because of a lack of language resources.

University lecturers will often say that they "read through the language" to get at students' ideas, but it is unlikely that students will achieve all the marks they deserve for their ideas if the marker has to work extra hard to get at them. Although language, in the sense that English teachers and testers think of it, is not always included in assignment marking criteria, the ability to communicate ideas normally is as this is a key graduate attribute.

When did you first encounter English language tests?

I started teaching EAP back in 1990 when I began working for Temple University, Japan. The students in our intensive English language programme had to get a 500 on the TOEFL test to be able to enter the universities undergraduate programmes. This was my first direct contact with high stakes language assessment.

I was also aware of TOEIC and other local Japanese tests but it wasn't until we moved to Britain in 1994 that I saw the range of English language tests on offer and that English language assessment is big business.

Do higher education professionals know enough about this area?

There's always been a fair amount of confusion across the sector about what types of tests can provide useful information in university admissions process. A current example is ensuring that all universities recognise that just because a test is on the UKBA's list of secure English language tests doesn't mean that it is suitable for assessing language skills for university.

We illustrated what types of information to look for by reviewing several widely used tests and present on our guidelines at UKCISA, HEA, UCAS and other sector events. I'll do almost anything to get the word out.

What I'm really interested in now is applying the same level of scrutiny that we have to external tests to university developed assessments, particularly end of pre-sessional or foundation programme assessments to ensure that both students and universities are getting valid information about students' readiness to progress to degree study.

What does the future look like for international students at UK universities?

The demand for international students at UK universities is likely to continue to be strong, despite the introduction of much higher tuition fees for UK students. Happily, in most universities, students are likely to receive an increasingly positive experience with regards to language preparation and support as more and more universities are introducing or further developing their EAP provision.

More than 70 UK institutions are BALEAP members and the number of EAP teachers attending professional development events or setting up local networks is rising. There is a real effort within BALEAP and the HEA's Teaching International Students project to carry out more research into the international student experience and to feed the findings into teaching practice – this can only be for the good.

Dr Diane Schmitt is senior lecturer in English as a foreign language at Nottingham Trent University – follow it on Twitter @TrentUni

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