Has EAP instruction at Canadian
universities been successful?
by Robert Berman
Among the students, we established that the data could be grouped into six major categories, i.e.: Tradeoffs; English Use; Strategic Choices; Gaps in Perception; Personal Relationships; and EAP Program Differences.
Under Tradeoffs , we noted that there was a general consensus among the L2 students not only that they needed to work harder than L1 students, but among many that they had to sacrifice their academic interests for a high GPA. A number of students referred to their choice of subjects having to do with the utilitarian consideration of being able to achieve high grades rather that any real interest in the subject. Moreover, many referred to parents’ wishes trumping their own interests , and having to go abroad for long-term gain, despite their initial reluctance to do so.
Under English Use, we grouped the following recurring comments: students’ requirement for more time to process information; their need for social or interpersonal relationships with L1 speakers to really learn the language ; and their need to avoid classes with too much speaking, writing and reading. Note that the categories overlap considerably.
On the matter of overlap, it is clear that under Strategic Choices, there is considerable overlap with the two previous categories.Here we grouped the student comments demonstrating their frequent choice of courses or majors that fit their language and academic abilities, often in subjects such as Mathematics or Economics rather than in subjects that would have required more reading and writing. Some made strategic choices to consciously to speak English, seeking out opportunities to speak English in their accommodations, neighbourhoods or classes.
Students’ Gaps in Perception constituted another category of data. Many questioned the need for doing EAP homework and saw English classroom and summative tests as barriers to success. Their range of language self-awareness was great. For example, some who were rather difficult to understand noted that spoken English was their strong suit. The perception that L1 students “just party” was interesting.
In their Personal Relationships, many L2 students gave the impression of being lonely, although there is no indication that as a group they are any lonelier than L1 students. Almost all had friends from their own cultural community; few had L1 friends. We are now wondering, given students’ isolation from the Canadian context whether homestay does not offer considerable help in assisting L2 students come to grips with both English and local social behaviour.
Finally, we had our suspicions confirmed by students that there are substantial EAP Program Differences across Canada, for example with some universities offering programs to assist students in particular fields such as Engineering or Literature. Moreover, some programs are fully integrated into undergraduate studies while others operate quite separately within the university. Programs have different admission standards and different class sizes.
Professors and Teachers
The main categories of data we recognized among professors and teachers were: Time; Perceptions of Student Needs; Program and Course Context; Student Success; and Perceptions of Student Attitudes;
Among the professors and instructors, probably the most salient category of data could be grouped under the heading, Time .Professors confirmed what the students had told us: that their pace was considerably slower than that of the L1 students. L2 students were also said to need a great deal more of professors’ time for interaction and to receive feedback.
Professors’ Perceptions of Student Needs were interesting. Students were said to need more: Technical and specialised vocabulary; idiomatic language; improved skills in writing, including referencing; in Critical thinking; and in communication in general. L2 students were also said to need greater speed and more interaction with L1 students.
Program and Course Context was an important category of data. Professors reported being far too busy, teaching classes that were too large often assisted by TAs who themselves were second-language students with poor English proficiency, unable to help undergraduate students to improve their communication skills. There seemed to be a distinct difference between the maternal attitudes of the largely female EAP instructors and the “sink or swim” attitude of the Engineering and Business professors whom we talked to.
As for Student Success , L2 Engineering students were said to get fewer co-op placements that L1 students. Professors also noted that far too often, language problems are not seen until students’ fourth year of study, by which time it is too late to remedy their language. Consistently, we were told that the students having the greatest difficulty were those that had entered university studies from Canadian high schools. These students were said to possess only superficial fluency, and clearly had little language support either in high school or at university.
Overall,Professors’ and Teachers’ Perceptions of Student Attitudes were that L2 students were hardworking and motivated, though more in their own discipline than in EAP courses; that language problems are causing some students frustration and stress; and (again) that L2 students who have gone through Canadian high schools are in the most need, but receive the least help. Finally, it was pointed out on a number of occasions that EAP students become appreciative, later, after their EAP courses are over.
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