Recognising diversity in academic study conventions
2021-10-25

As the new academic year is now underway, Student Progression & Transition Manager from the Language Centre, Alison McBoyle, reflects on a perceived need to welcome, & acknowledge, the diverse range of educational & cultural experiences of non-native English speakers studying at Aberdeen University.

Reflecting on studying in a second language

Students who are studying in a 2nd (or even 3rd or 4th) language may face significant challenges in a new teaching and learning environment.  My observation comes from 20 years of working with academic students whose first language is not English.

Before starting academic study in an English-speaking context, non-native English-speaking students are required to meet certain language proficiency requirements. However, consideration should be given to what exactly that means, and how it might impact a learners’ ability to perform tasks in a second language.  The level of proficiency & skill in the second language is central to academic success for such students (Akanwa, 2015; Li et al, 2010).  A pertinent comment from a student highlights potential issue:

‘… the grading and writing are also very different. …they wanted me to write my idea in a more direct way, rather in a sophisticated way.’  (Wu et al, 2015)

Even the word ‘sophisticated’ is open to interpretation. What exactly does that mean? 

I think that we should be careful not to make (perhaps implicit) assumptions that issues with, for example, writing or speaking in English, correlate with a learner’s aptitude in their chosen subject.  The two are, of course, not related and are doing our learners a disservice.  I have met students who may have been highly successful in previous academic environments may suddenly find themselves at a different level of achievement in the new environment.  I have had comments from students in the past regarding this, where there has been upset and confusion as to why such a situation might arise.

Reflecting on diversity in educational practices

There is a richness of diversity within the university – 130 different student nationalities (https://www.abdn.ac.uk/about/facts-figures), a mixture of native & non-native English language speakers, as well as within the staff. Such a range sets the context, and provides a great opportunity to reflect on, and perhaps broaden, our understandings of potential barriers to successful study in an overseas university. I believe that there is a shared responsibility for addressing any perceived challenges and that staff & students can work together on this.

As educators, we can recognise and consider the existence of alternative educational practices, and to try to understand how such practices may result in significant misunderstandings when it comes to, for example, writing an essay, or a report in a second language. Requirements with regards to content, structure, use of language may differ considerably.  To expect a sudden change in students’ long-established practices is, in my view, quite a big ‘ask’.  It can be quite confusing and bewildering, for example, when trying to explain that a previous practice of demonstrating ‘knowledge’ & ‘understanding’ by recounting  what the ‘experts’ have written will now not be sufficient. Similarly, when, as a tutor, we are faced with silence in small group activities, there is again an opportunity for reflection.  Looking at it from another perspective, we might think about how those of us (native English speakers) who have experienced higher education in the UK as students would feel, or cope, in an alternative educational context.  We might find it hard to imagine being in a teaching and learning environment in which asking questions, having opportunities to challenge, or participating in interactive discussions is not expected, nor perhaps even welcome.

From a student’s perspective, having made the decision to study in a second language, I hope that there would be recognition of different teaching and learning styles, and that any opportunities to explore this further would be jumped at.  This extends to both the (perhaps) different styles of teaching and learning in a classroom environment, as well as approaches to the practical skills of say reading and writing in another language.

Addressing such diversity

This is where the more practical aspect of how we can begin to provide support for students is addressed. Making the adjustment from long-established practices is not something that can be done overnight.  However, through a gradual process of raising awareness, of implementing support networks, and of providing practical support, my aims is to try to ease this transition.  Consequently, at the Language Centre, we try to provide practical, informative sessions with students for skills such as:  how to use reading materials in writing, how to meet expectations in academic writing conventions, how to participate in classroom discussions. 

The ultimate goal is for all learners to have an enjoyable and rewarding experience during their time at Aberdeen University.  Raising awareness of support available of this across the university is therefore central to this goal. Learners can be thrown in at the deep end when it comes to engaging in potentially vastly different practices. Perhaps there is a need to really reflect on how these learners can become more acclimatised and familiar with alternative teaching and learning expectations in a new academic environment.

Akanwa, E. E. (2015). International students in western developed countries: History, challenges, and prospects. Journal of International Students5(3), 271-284.

Li, G., Chen, W., & Duanmu, J. L. (2010). Determinants of international students’ academic performance: A comparison between Chinese and other international students. Journal of studies in international education14(4), 389-405.

Alison is the Student Progression & Transition Manager, based in the Language Centre.  Her focus is on supporting & guiding non-native English speakers with academic study skills (such as writing or speaking) that may differ from previous educational experiences.

Published by StaffNet, University of Aberdeen

Comments

  1. #1
    Richard Cowan

    Crossing academic cultures is both exciting and highly challenging. My experience of studying at a French university and writing assignments in another language was disarming, and at times left me despondent. This experience was followed by a period of study at the University of Aberdeen where I was confronted with a totally different set of expectations and learning styles. We should applaud the tenacity of those students wishing to embark on the adventure of studying in another language and provide them with the tools and guidance in order to help them achieve their ambitions

  2. #2
    Alison McBoyle

    Thanks for taking the time to read the blog Richard and for your comments. Reading about experiences first hand helps highlight, & strengthen, the view that there can be potential issues with different educational practices, and that support for students is needed.

    (and on re-reading - I've spotted a couple of mistakes - without your comment I wouldn't have seen it so thanks for that too.)

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