Raising awareness of academic expectations:
collaborative work in the EAP classroom
by Scott J. Shelton-Strong
1.2 The learners
1.3 The lesson
1.4 The materials
2.0 Material and lesson design principles
2.1 The theoretical framework
2.2 Skill learning theory
2.3 Collaborative learning
3.0 Materials and procedures
4.0 A rationalisation for procedure and purpose
4.1 Lesson flow
International students enrolled in pre-sessional university EAP courses in the UK not only face the challenge of meeting new goals for English language mastery but additionally, potential conflicts may surface as culturally based expectations of the requirements for success meet with the academic conventions and realities placed before them upon arrival, a situation which may create learner uncertainty and anxiety (Cotterall and Cohen, 2003).
Criticality, in all areas of academic life, from becoming a questioning, active reader and writer, to making appropriate use of the Internet and published reading lists, are concerns which need to be addressed (McCarter and Jakes, 2009). Pre-sessional courses need to include time and lesson material, which deal with these and other important areas such as how to avoid plagiarism and other academic conventions, such as citing and referencing (Alexander, et al. 2008: 10). Raising awareness of these conventions and expectations, the very ones upon which success in university study is dependent, is considered to be a fundamental first step on the path to membership within the academic community to which these learners aspire (Alexander, Argent and Spencer, 2008: 9; Hyland, 2006: 73).
1.2 The learners
International learners will bring a variety of learning styles influenced by previous experiences within education, and while some of these may be at odds with the approach to collaborative learning often found in UK universities, in EAP, collaborative group work is viewed as important for two reasons. First, it is believed to facilitate language acquisition through a shared transfer of support and modelling (Ohta, 2000; Alexander et al. 2008: 112) and secondly, it is a common framework for coursework and an increasingly popular mode of presentation in many university disciplines, such as Business studies, for example (Alexander et al, 2008: 236).
Collaborative group work may not have been part of previous academic study for a number of students and expectations to participate vocally, voice opinions and question those of others may cause alarm. Conflicting teacher and learner views concerning the importance of the need to adapt accordingly may result and these issues will need to be dealt with early on in the course (McCarter and Jakes, 2009; 14-15; Hyland, 2006: 77).
1.3 The lesson
This paper aims to evaluate a set of classroom materials (appendix 1) and an accompanying lesson plan (appendix 2) written for the first lesson of a pre-sessional EAP course, and which is envisioned to be taught prior to the start of a collaborative class project called 'Student Life in Nottingham'. This lesson acts as a first step to undertaking this class project, which will require collaborative group work leading to a written report and a shared oral presentation. The recognition of the need for international pre-sessional learners to begin to learn the conventions inherent in their academic environment and begin to adjust to the expectations for working collaboratively towards a common goal is an important element within this context (Alexander et al., 2008:18-19).
In the lesson this paper supports (appendix 1-5), learner autonomy, skill learning and collaborative learning are encouraged and supported by instructional scaffolding (Applebee, 1986 in Foley, 1994) in the form of teacher support, through modelling and elicitation, and by proxy, through the materials provided in the form of incremental tasks and additional learner worksheets (appendix 1-5). This scaffolding aims to offer guidance towards an awareness of, and practice in, the use of organizational strategies (Hyland, 2006: 84, 94), a greater awareness of the expectations and conventions mentioned previously and support in collaboratively preparing for and delivering an oral presentation.
Underpinning the task design and the staging of the lesson activities are views borrowed from a number of singular but possibly related theoretical systems of learning. A constructivist perspective, whereby learning is viewed as a cyclical process, influenced by activating both previous experience and through the discovery of new knowledge (Hyland, 2006: 85) is present, as are socio-cultural, or Vygotskyan views (Mitchell and Myles, 2004: 194-222) on collaborative language learning which aim to provide for knowledge and experience to be experienced, discovered, shared and built upon as individuals engage and support, or 'scaffold' each other's learning (Donato, 2000: 46). A social constructionist approach, fostering incremental, scaffolded learning is also drawn upon as the process and materials employed are thought to lead learners gradually towards understanding and internalisation of new concepts (Warschauer, 2000). Skill learning theory (Dörnyei, 2009) may provide a rationale for the choice and staging of the activities within the lesson itself and as seen within the macro-structure of the ensuing class project of which this is preparatory step, as well as the learner's further academic endeavors.
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