Raising awareness of academic expectations:
collaborative work in the EAP classroom
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.
1.4 The materials
The materials included (appendix 1 - 5) represent an initial grounding lesson, leading to a series of further lessons where learners will work towards completing a group project and prepare for a collective oral presentation. This lesson aims to enable learners to become familiar with a number of important skills useful to this end, including critical thinking and reflection, effective use of the Internet to access appropriate data, referencing and citing norms, note taking, avoiding plagiarism, collaboration, intensive on-line reading and oral presentation skills. An evaluation of the materials within this context, the lesson procedures envisioned and an overview of the principles guiding these will be offered in the upcoming sections, as will a brief evaluative discussion of the purpose, value and reasons for selection. A conclusion will be offered in which the main points will be highlighted and where possible extended to encompass a broader applicability to EAP teaching beyond this specific classroom situation.
2.1 The theoretical framework
The theoretical framework upon which the material and the lesson design are based draw inspiration from social learning theory and the collaborative involvement inherent in working towards a common goal in which the learner activity – driven by a set task – is supported by participant generated scaffolding and private speech, which is suggested to lead to improved performance and L2 acquisition (Donato, 1994: 37-448; Lantolf and Appel: 10, 1994b). Social-constructivist views (van Lier, 2000: 254), which highlight how language learning and development emerge from exposure to reoccurring features common to language in use, (Mitchell and Myles, 2004: 98) and which may be related in part to active collaboration, attentive listening and focused reading, inform learner engagement with the materials and participation in the various lesson stages.
The lesson and homework aims are two fold. Firstly, they involve learners engaging individually and collaboratively with explicit information in regards to specific topics and skills to be learnt. The lesson also aims to provide opportunities for collaborative learning while learners prepare for delivering a short oral presentation of their findings. These aims reflect the belief that by working within an output rich environment, language acquisition might be then fostered through a number of affordances, such as hypothesis testing, noticing (of both form and possible gaps in their interlanguage) and the negotiation of meaning (Swain, 2000; van Lier, 2000).
The content areas to which learners will be exposed represent specific skills relevant to their academic studies. The collaborative tasks of collective brainstorming, comparing, sharing and selecting information prior to preparing for and delivering an oral presentation, together with summarizing collective findings, may create opportunities for deeper processing of these skills, which will need to be mastered to various degrees to ensure success in the class project to be undertaken, and which will be applicable in their wider academic studies.
2.2 Skill learning theory
Skill learning theory, (Dörnyei, 2009) which emphasises a three-step process of exposure, practice and internalization (or automatization) might act as a frame for the macro-stages of the ensuing post-lesson project, of which this lesson plays a vital role. In this initial lesson, learners first engage with declarative knowledge in a very explicit way, through the online presentation of the skill area, where they focus on content and make notes, focusing on ideas and possibly form. Later, in subsequent classes and in preparing the written element of their group project (and later in their course of study), learners will be fine tuning this explicit knowledge implicitly through practice, moving declarative knowledge to its procedural stage.
The final stage of skill learning is reached when a relatively high level of automaticity is available as a product of the initial first two stages. This automatization, or internalization, (Lantolf, 2000: 14) is thought to improve through continued fine-tuning through further implicit mediation and personal trial and error. As in this example, automatization will become evident only after extensive practice; in this case, as these learners begin to engage in the very activities they have been explicitly focusing on in this lesson.
It might also be argued that while involved in comparing information and preparing to present the main points in a brief oral presentation in this lesson, the learner is already working within the procedural stage although the skill area is not being performed directly, but being processed cognitively and implicitly in a collaborative way.
2.3 Collaborative learning
In EAP study, collaboration in small groups, with the teacher and within the larger class, is desirable from the position of promoting shared knowledge and experience, to scaffold, or support learning within what Vygotsky (1978 in Hyland, 2006) terms the 'zone of proximal development'. Hyland (2006: 91) describes this as "moving learners from their existing level of performance, what they can do now, to a level of 'potential performance', what they are able to do without assistance". This process is described as one which is dependent on both external input and learner (and teacher) collaboration as co-mediators who through mutual support work to uncover and develop expertise, which emerges from engaging in the exchange of ideas and knowledge between members of a group working together (Lantolf, 2000b: 17).
The concepts summarized above, which overlap to some extent within the lesson material provided (appendix 1 - 5) and the procedures of the lesson itself, (appendix 2) reflect a belief in the importance of scaffolding within a collaborative approach to learning, as embodied in the tasks chosen for the learners, (Hyland, 2006: 91) and a conviction that through fostering learner engagement and autonomy in learning new skills, motivation through improved self-efficacy can be nourished (Bandura, 1994). The end goal, for which this lesson represents a first step towards, is for these learners to attain a sufficient level of awareness and autonomous mastery of the academic skills focused on, enabling them to manage independently as fledging members of their academic communities.
3.0 Materials and procedures
In writing and selecting material for this initial lesson, an attempt was made to respond to the perceived needs of international learners beginning a pre-sessional course (Alexander et al., 2008: 269, 291; McCarter and Jakes, 2009: 148). The process built into the lesson, aims to invite discovery of, interaction with, and initial assimilation of, key issues and skills needed to complete the ensuing class project, and which are considered essential for successful university study following this course (Alexander et al., 2008).
The profile for this group of learners is as follows: the class consists of 12 (B1) students aged 22 to 35. This is an international group of students, six of which are Iranian, three Chinese, two Saudi Arabians and one Japanese. There is nearly an equal distribution of gender with seven male and five female students in the group.
In attempting to create relevant, motivating material which would serve the dual purpose of exposing these learners to several divergent but connected concepts in a time effective manner – use of authentic, Internet based texts in the form of short interactive presentations were chosen. In McGrath (2006), a criteria for selecting material of this nature was consulted which highlights a number of points relevant to appropriateness which are listed below and followed by a brief commentary.
The texts chosen are thought to be relevant to university study, and in particular, appropriate to international students with little experience within a UK academic context, as they deal with key issues of criticality and academic conventions. The language used is accessible at an Intermediate level (B1) and scaffolded with the aid of the animated step-by-step delivery online. Learners are involved cognitively and visually as they progress through the text and in this way value is added to the intrinsic interest of the topics (Derewianka, 2003). Cultural appropriateness is linked to the learners' 'new' academic reality as they deal with academic and cultural issues, and at an approximate ten minutes from start to finish, the length is thought to be manageable. The quality is high as this is material produced by a reputable Canadian university through its library (Acadia University Vaughan Memorial Library, 2008). The exploitability of the texts is also considered to be high, given the rich content and multimedia design.
In the previous sections a number of theoretical frameworks and approaches to learning were ascribed to as influential factors in the design of the materials. In this section the materials will be evaluated within the context for which they were envisioned to be used (McGrath, 2002: 22; Tomlinson, 2003: 15).
Within an EAP programme for pre-sessional students there is a diversity of needs relating to both language proficiency and acclimatization within the academic context of university study (Evans and Morrison, 2011; James, 2010). These learners, while likely to be representative of a variety of learner styles, will need to be gradually introduced to collaborative group work – the advantages of which may need to be made explicit (Alexander et al., 2008: 112). As previously emphasised, there are also a number of academic issues and skills, which will need to be addressed and developed early on.
As mentioned previously, the texts were selected for their relative manageability, relevance, appropriateness and quality. The tasks set in the student material (appendix 1 - 5) attempt to reflect the approaches to learning which I have outlined in section 2, and respond to the needs of learners in this particular academic environment; allowing for small group collaboration, directed explicit input and later conferencing and planning stages leading to an oral presentation. An attempt to cater for a variety of learner styles was made when choosing the materials and designing the tasks offering a variety of input (visual, textual, auditory), different stages involving movement, both independent and dependent tasks, and studial, analytical, and global approaches to learning (Tomlinson, 2003: 21).
Scaffolding through teacher intervention within the material design is attempted through the provision of explicit step-by-step instructions at each stage of the lesson, and which the teacher is envisioned to support through elicitation, concept questions and demonstration as needed. Further framing or organisational support is offered through the note taking and oral presentation outline blanks provided, as well as carefully staged steps to support the lesson aims and autonomous work at home (Hyland, 2006: 91).
4.0 A rationalisation for procedure and purpose
4.1 Lesson flow
The flow of the lesson moves from brainstorming and prediction to initiate schemata, or background knowledge, of the topics given to each group to work with, shifting to individual reading and analysis online and later returning to purposeful group work as notes are culled, compared and main points identified and selected for the oral presentation. This progression should allow for collective support, explicit, cognitive focusing on content and form, and later further collaboration and rehearsal time before the summary oral presentation. The groups are allowed private time to help each other and prepare for the shared public presentation with the teacher at hand to guide and feed in language as required. The learners are supplied with explicit guidance in the form of worksheets and both peer, and teacher support in the role of a facilitator, (Wilson, 2007) is available which may provide a safe, structured environment for those who are unused to this approach to learning. Learners are asked to prepare questions to ask each group after each presentation as an incentive to listen critically and remain involved in a collaborative sense.
To conclude the lesson, learners are given the opportunity to engage in self-reflection in order to foster personal response and further investment in directing their own learning, thus perhaps leading to increased autonomy, "a crucial requirement for successful English-medium academic study" (Alexander et al., 2008: 294-301). The homework returns the learners to explicit exposure to the information pertaining to the remaining topics to be covered, where they are directed to make further notes and to write a short introduction for homework, synthesising the main points across the four areas. This, it is hoped, will lead the students to consolidate the points made in the oral presentations they had listened to, completing the loop from implicit to explicit input, to transformed output.
In this paper I have attempted to identify the theory which informed the creation and selection of what I believe to be an appropriately staged lesson aimed at a group of international pre-sessional adult learners who are initiating their rite of passage to membership within their chosen field of academic study in a UK university context. Justification for this material and the process through which it is envisioned to be used was supported by the relevant literature and in turn evaluated within the context in which it is to be used.
Collaborative group projects are becoming an increasingly popular framework in both seminars and assessment in Higher Education (Alexander et al., 2008: 291). The practical application of social-cultural learning theories, supporting not only the much needed language acquisition and development goals of the majority of international learners attending EAP courses, also serves as a safe induction to collaborative work from which learning (of language and other skills) is supported by peers and instructors. Additionally, it is suggested that when combined with opportunities for self-reflection, while scaffolding is slowly removed, opportunities for developing autonomy and a greater confidence to rely on and nurture a balance of initiative and collaboration is increased, supporting EAP learners' success in English-medium academic studies (Alexander et al., 2008: 291).
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1. To raise awareness of key EAP and university study issues, such as how to avoid plagiarism, effective web searching, criticality, evaluation, and basic research tips through reading intensively in an online format.
2. To provide opportunities for learners to experience forming groups, practice brainstorming ideas, sharing and selecting those relevant to topic of presentation.
3. To provide opportunities for collaborative learning through group negotiation and preparing for an oral presentation.
4. To foster reflective learning through shared self-evaluation at the end of the lesson to be conducted in pairs.
1. To provide opportunities to practice intensive reading online, note taking skills, collaborative group work, and oral presentation skills.
2. To engage learners in self-assessment of their role in collaborative group work and to raise awareness of the cognitive and affective dimensions involved in collective interaction.
1. Learners will be able to function in a basic online environment and proceed through a 10-minute presentation with limited guidance as the web clips require only basic navigation skills such as clicking on next button and opening a new window in a tab occasionally.
2. Learners will have their own basic assumptions about how plagiarism, conducting research, effective web searching and critical evaluation work and a generally weak notion as to the University expectations in regard to their responsibilities in these areas.
3. Learners will have limited previous experience summarizing main points and participating in a group oral presentation.
Relevance to future needs:
1. Having a solid foundation in these four skill areas are essential for their success in both this immediate project they are going to be involved in, and in their chosen field of study within the University.
2. 12 computers (in a self access study room or computer room). This could be reduced to 4 if absolutely necessary.
Anticipated problems and solutions:
1. Learners may be unaccustomed to group work – clear instructions will be given and checked. Quick teacher demonstration or elicitation of key components of group work i.e. asking questions, offering ideas, inviting collaboration, etc. may activate Ss background knowledge or experience. A clear link to the relevance of this practice to future group work on their courses will be made explicit.
2. Topic areas might be relatively unknown and concepts might cause difficulty – Collective brainstorming may activate any previous knowledge. Topics are presented in such a way, which is believed to be motivating (animated online presentation) and learners are in control of this online.
3. Learners may be nervous about oral presentations – detailed scaffolding is provided on the hand-out and by dividing the time (2 min. per person) pressure is reduced.
4. One of the three computers might fail – two people can easily work together on this as each person in the group is reading the same text.
5. Time may run short if learners work slowly – time limits will be announced encouraging learner to keep to deadlines. Also it is possible to leave out the "self-assessment" and have learners answer the questions in writing for homework for themselves.
6. Learners may be confused by the reference to Canada or Arcadia university and its facilities in the tutorials – Warn the class that this site is from a Canadian university but apart from references to specific facilities, all of the information is useful to them.
Greetings and introduction to extended group project and todays lesson.
To provide Ss with a working knowledge of what they can expect to be involved in and why and to initiate background knowledge (schemata) as initial scaffolding to engage Ss.
Group Ss and provide instructions for class activity. Give Ss a purpose and create energy by moving and introducing time limit.
While reading: Task 2
Ask Ss to each sit at a separate computer put on headphones and hand out note-taking sheet. Ask Ss to remember to take notes as they navigate the presentation, and to check their initial predictions.
*Warn Ss that website is from Canadian U. and to ignore specific information about it and focus on the broader info. Warn them to work quickly and not get stuck on opening new windows. Just read enough to answer the question and go to the next one.
Begin online presentation
Remind them to take notes, not write long sentences. Remind them of the time limit: 20 minutes.
Raise awareness of time limitations and note – taking aims.
Follow online presentation, intensive reading and note taking.
Ss open the webpage indicated by clicking on the web link on the hand out (this will have been sent to them by email).
Ss read and follow presentation and take notes.
Motivate Ss by providing them with opportunity to interact with online presentation.
Raise Ss awareness of key areas of EAP and University study (see http://www.library.acadiau.ca/tutorials/)
S – online
Interactive group collaboration: sharing and negotiating understanding
Ss negotiate meaning and understanding of what they have read and noted down. Encourage group discussion and selective decision-making process in collaboration.
Post-reading: Task 3 -
Collaborative group work
Provide instructions and scaffolding for collaborative group work in preparation for oral summary presentation.
Preparing to report on information gathered.
Ss work in 3's and fill in outline for 6 minute mini-presentation. They divide the six minutes among themselves and make notes on note cards.
Provide opportunity for collaborative discussion negotiation of presentation summary content. Ss select and organize content allowing practice in critical thinking and selection.
Ss practice giving their parts of the presentation in their group (Monitor the groups and give feedback on structure, clarity and use of signposting words.
Ss are afforded time to rehearse presentation. The aim is to collaboratively build structure boost confidence and provide practice in giving oral presentations and organizing information cohesively and clearly.
Allow practice in this all too common format in presentations.
Allow for private assessment of participation in and process of today's lesson.
Provide summary of homework expectations and instructions.
In this class you are going to work together in small groups. You will be using your ideas, reading on the Internet, selecting information and presenting it to the class.
This information will provide you with opportunities to develop and exercise several key skills crucial for your success in your upcoming group project for this course (starting next class), and which will also be important for your future university study.
Today as you work collaboratively in your groups you will be thinking, talking, listening, planning and presenting a brief summary of your own 'speciality' area.
Task 1 – pre-reading
1. To form the groups, you will each be given a number from 1 to 4. When you have been given your number, find your classmates with the same number and form a group of 3.
• Elect a group scribe – someone who will note your ideas but participate too!
2. When you turn the page over you find your group's speciality area. Later you will be reading and watching a short presentation discussing your area on the Internet. For now, you will be allowed 5 minutes to brainstorm and predict what you will read about.
• What ideas do you think will be mentioned about your topic?
• Share your ideas (when brainstorming ALL ideas are good ones).
• Discuss and select the 3 most likely to be mentioned in the presentation.
Group 2 – speciality area: Evaluating the web with a critical eye
Group 3 – speciality area: Tips on searching the web
Group 4 – speciality area: Tips on conducting research
In the computer room
Task 2 - While-reading
You will all be going to work on a separate computer. The three people in each group will be watching and reading the same interactive presentation on your specialty area.
1. Reading: while you watch and read the whole presentation take the note-taking handout and make notes of important points as you listen. Also check if any of your predictions were right!
o You may pause the presentation to write or go back to a frame. Don't write long sentences, but simply make clear, legible notes.
o Remember you have 20 minutes for this, so don't get stuck on opening tabs (new windows). Read enough to answer the questions and move on.
o Some of the information is specific to Acadia University and their library, but all of the main points made are relevant to all students.
2. When the time is over, re-join your group of 3 and compare your notes together. Negotiate any final changes you want to make and decide on a final version of the main points, examples, reasons, and a group evaluation of what you have understood, i.e. your opinion on why different points are important.
Task 3 – Post-reading
Collaborate together and prepare a short group presentation of your findings. You will need to share and discuss your ideas.
1. Consider what you think will be important, interesting and informative to the rest of the larger class. Use your notes.
2. Consider the best way to organize what you are going to share. Discuss this carefully and make an outline.
For example, what are the most important points, examples and reasons involved, and what will be your evaluation of these, i.e. What do you think about them, and why they are important, in your opinion.
3. Consider the phrases you want to use to introduce your ideas and to link them together.
• There are several important points to remember when…
4. Make notes on the note cards you have been given, and be sure to use your own words as much as possible. Write in BIG letters and only what you need to remember.
5. Share the presentation time between the others in your group – break it into different parts. You have a total time limit of 6 minutes to share with the rest of the class. Practice together at least once!
6. As you listen to the others, think of a question or two (or write it down) and ask them when they have finished.
Task 4 - Self-assessment
Find a new partner from one of the other groups.
Ask (each other) and answer the questions below related to the work you have done in class today.
1. How effective was your contribution to the group work? Was anything especially difficult to manage? Was there anything you really enjoyed?
2. Did you learn anything new? Did anything you read or hear from your classmates make you think differently?
3. Did you feel comfortable listening, and speaking to others? Were you able to help your classmates?
4. Did you enjoy working from the computer instead of a book? Were there any personal advantages or disadvantages?
5. What was more memorable for you, the process of working together or the final presentation (and why)?
1. Watch the other three presentations on the web and take notes.
2. Turn off your computer.
3. Prepare to write a short paper for a student website summarizing and synthesising the main points of the 4 topics.
(See the homework hand out)
When you watch and read your group's presentation online, use this template to take notes.
• What are some of the examples given to illustrate them?
• Why are they considered to be important? Are some more important than others?
Group Summary Presentation Outline
Six main points of topic to present.
Beginning (first two minutes)
Introductory and Signposting words/phrases
End (last two minutes)
Closing and Signposting words/phrases
Appendix 5 -
After you have watched, read and taken notes on the other three online presentations, prepare to write a series of bullet points to summarize the information given across the 4 presentations.
Your reader audience are potential university students who read a webpage called " Getting Ready for UK University Study". Your aim is to raise their awareness of these key areas for UK University study and evaluate their importance.
1. First, turn off your computer. Look over your notes from the four presentations (including the one from class).
2. On a separate piece of paper write 3 or 4 bullet points for each area to summarize the main points.
3. Now write your introduction. This should state your reason for writing and give some information about what will come next.
4. Think of a good title to reflect the content and purpose of your paper.
Stop! Bring your notes, bullet points and introduction to the next class. You will have a chance to share your ideas with others in the class and see their ideas too.