A faculty survey created by UO’s American English Institute (AEI) explored the classroom implications of UO’s growing international student population. Distributed to all faculty in January by the Office of Communications, it garnered 223 responses representing 49 departments.
The AEI, a unit of more than 100 faculty within the Department of Linguistics, is charged with offering mandatory academic English courses to matriculated international students who meet the minimum Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score for admission, but require additional support and instruction.
“Our goal in distributing the survey was to gather information to inform the AEIS curriculum revision process to better meet the needs of our non-native English-speaking (NNS) international students. We wanted to find out what instructors do most in their classes, as well as what, if any, challenges they find their NNS students are having,” said AEI Associate Director Alison Evans.
With UO’s international enrollment at a record high (just under 3,000 students this academic year), the AEI, Office of International Affairs, and academic units are experimenting with new on-campus placement testing requirements and advising structures, and academic English courses directly linked to “content” courses within the disciplines–and all are attempting to gauge where to direct resources and effort to best serve students.
“The survey revealed the enormous time and energy our faculty are willing to devote to their students’ success, but also highlighted urgent concern among respondents about the low level of English language proficiency among many of their students. These results will be integral to a range of campus-wide conversations—we thank faculty for their time and insight.”
To answer common questions raised in the survey, Evans, Jennifer Rice, an AEI instructor, and TEP’s Lee Rumbarger have created the FAQ document below, filling in answers with assistance from several campus partners and other AEI faculty members.
1. What is the standard of English needed for non-native English speakers to enter UO? How does it compare to other institutions?
For UO admission, students must have a minimum score of 61 on the Internet-based Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). This score is lower than schools in UO’s OUS-designated Association of American Universities peer group. For example, the University of Washington’s score is a 76 (which streams students into preparatory academic English courses); the University of California-Santa Barbara is an 80; Indiana University a 79; and UC Boulder a 75.
2. How are students with low TOEFL scores prepared to enter the curriculum?
Though they’ve been admitted to the university, students with a TOEFL score between 61 and 87 must take AEI’s academic English courses (called AEIS) during their first year. These courses focus on speaking and listening, reading, and writing in an American higher education context. (Course descriptions are here.) However, many students delay taking AEIS courses—even adding then dropping them to overcome registration holds. Instead, they retake the TOEFL in the hope of scoring an 88 and, thus, being exempted from AEIS requirements. Many are unsuccessful in this strategy and end up taking the test many times while delaying the instruction they need.
3. How are international students faring academically at UO?
Pretty well. The cohorts of international students who entered in Fall 2011 and Fall 2012 had an average first-year GPA of 2.99, slightly lower than their Oregonian (3.09) and domestic non-resident peers (3.06). That said, UO was more likely to retain these international students for their second year than either group of domestic students, according to “International Freshman Performance,” a study prepared by the Office of Enrollment Management.
These recent cohorts were more likely to take courses in math, business administration, economics and music than their domestic peers, and less likely to take courses in humanities or social sciences; they’re also “far less likely” to take their required writing sequence requirements in the first year (26.6 percent take one WR course, compared to 74.8 percent of resident students and 88.4 percent of domestic non-residents).
In order to determine graduation rates, OEM researchers Terri Ward and Jonathan Jacobs had to look to earlier international cohorts, which were smaller in number and included a very different profile of national origin—most notably, only five freshman from China entered UO in 2002; by 2012, that number was 326. Those earlier cohorts “showed the lowest rates for graduating in four years. However if international students continue their studies at UO past four years their graduation rate is not significantly different than their resident and domestic nonresident counterparts,” Ward and Jacobs write (16). Read their full report here; the charts below are extracted from it.
Figure 1: First-Year GPA and Retention Rates for UO Students Entering Fall 2011 and Fall 2012
(Ward and Jacobs 2); click to enlarge
Figure 2: Students in cohort that enrolled first terms fall 2002 to 2006
(Ward and Jacobs 15); click to enlarge
4. Should we vary our course policies for non-native English speaking students who are adjusting to American academe?
This is an issue about which many survey respondents expressed consternation or asked questions. It is entirely appropriate (and very generous) of instructors to increase their availability to support all students through, for example, extended office hours. However, additional accommodations in the form of grading more leniently and enforcing academic honesty policies inconsistently are out of line with UO policy.
The best help for your students may be proactive: be explicit about and provide models of what you’re looking for in their work—what implicit criteria define a “good” essay, or even a “good” contribution to class discussion? What would it take for students to be able to achieve what you’re describing? If part of the answer is that they need more language support to be successful, tell them. Normalize and help students imagine what it’s like to seek additional help. For example, what would it be like to come to your office hours? How many students come? What do you talk about?
These models, criteria, and conversations about accessing support can be powerful and demystifying for all your students. So, too, can be discussions about and low-stakes occasions (before a final draft is due) to practice citing sources. Note that the AEIS course sequence covers academic integrity and citation. Moreover, the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards often imposes thoughtfully developed “sanctions” for students who unknowingly plagiarize because they haven’t mastered citation practices. Guided by an educational rather than strictly punitive philosophy, that office creates assignments as part of its resolution process that allow students to practice citing sources and get feedback to help them move forward in a positive way.
Remember that even the most advanced language learners struggle with sentence-level errors. Tolerate non-native language usage (or a “writing accent”): allow some degree of sentence-level inaccuracy, as long as the message is comprehensible and the information is correct. It may be necessary to provide more instructive comments on the work of NNS in order to help them improve, such as pointing out poor connections in logical development of ideas, or making comments that help them understand American academic writing as a genre.
The Undergraduate Council may consider guidance for all faculty about additional exam time or the use of dictionaries for translation during exams. Right now these matters are up to individual faculty members’ discretion.
5. How can we help our non-native English speaking students feel more welcome to participate during class discussion?
Making NNS feel less intimidated during whole-class discussions is key. AEI faculty have a variety of recommendations for how to do this, including allowing students time to process information through small-group discussion, note-taking or using i-clickers before initiating whole-class discussion.
Other faculty practices that can support student language learners during class include: checking for comprehension with specific questions about content. (Rather than “so is that clear?” ask a question that requires a right or wrong answer.) Don’t rephrase something right away if students don’t understand. Repeat what you said the first time exactly the same way. If that doesn’t work, then try rephrasing. Provide wait time. Don’t ask a question and then answer it yourself or call on the first volunteer to give the answer. Give all students time to think (perhaps even jot down the answer) individually or with a partner then select a student to give an answer.
Don’t paraphrase the concepts on your slides, but use the same words to reduce students’ cognitive load. When referring to a visual aid, use slide animations or a pointer to indicate which part you are talking about.
Pause more often between thoughts when speaking, and be conscious of your use of slang, colloquialisms and cultural references that might be difficult for NNS to navigate. If you use these, be sure to explain them. Consider recording yourself teaching to know what your habits are—TEP can easily arrange this for you through its “video view” program.
Make lecture notes, slides or outlines with main points available to students before class. This allows them to familiarize themselves with material ahead of class, and gives them an opportunity to look up key vocabulary in advance.
Other practices that will benefit NNS in your classes include providing very clear guidelines and examples of what you expect, and giving clear, step-by-step deadlines for big projects.
6. How can we encourage positive interactions between our native English speaking students and our non-native English speaking students?
It can be helpful to ask students to work together in small groups that have been formed intentionally to include both NS and NNS students. Faculty might consider talking about the high value of students’ diverse experiences in enhancing discussion and even in boosting relevance and impact of the course overall. Then, to establish rapport among students, faculty might devote time on the first day for the students to interview each other or share a few details about themselves and their hometowns. As the term continues, faculty might consider assigning tasks to each member of small groups (reporter, fact-checker, contrarian, etc.) to give everyone stature and a sense of purpose; moreover, they might assign some tasks that bring international students’ experiences and expertise to the fore. [Read more tips from AEI’s teaching handouts…]
7. To whom can we refer non-native English speaking students when they need intensive help with their writing or academic English?
There is no campus-wide writing center specifically for international students who are learning English. Tutoring in academic writing is available to all students through UO’s Writing Lab, and international students have always been a big part of the Lab’s clientele.
UO has three programs to help students with their spoken English proficiency: the Mills Center’s weekly English Language Circles and the Office of International Affairs and Friendship Foundation for International Students’ Conversation Friend Program—also an English-only conversation circle—and International Friend Program, a language exchange that pairs students to work toward their respective language goals together. (For example, many of the participants are English-language speakers who want to practice their Mandarin, and vice versa.)
The Writing Lab is staffed by 12 undergraduate and graduate student tutors; two are available for appointments and drop-in sessions every weekday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. In an average week, they hold 100 tutoring sessions, about 75 percent of them with international writers.
Though the Lab’s tutors typically focus on higher-order concerns of argument and organization, they also are trained to work with English language learners who come to the Lab seeking help with sentence-level writing skills. Tutors discuss rules and revision options related to patterns of errors.
The Mills Center’s English Language Circles are led by native English speakers with backgrounds in language teaching, but do not focus on academic work. Students can practice their oral proficiency in a welcoming, low-pressure environment and bring their own topics—experiences abroad, dating etiquette, favorite foods—to the table. The groups tend to work best for students who are “inquisitive and respectful, and who truly care to hear and appreciate different views,” explains Shannon Ball, one of the group leaders and a graduate student in linguistics.
For graduate students, AEI offers courses in academic writing, oral communication skills, and teaching in English-language classrooms.
8. What is UO doing to help international students adjust to life in the United States?
All new international students are required to attend an extensive orientation program coordinated by the Office of International Affairs (OIA) before they start classes. The week-long program to welcome students who begin their studies at UO in fall term includes campus and city tours, fun activities like “restaurant hops” and group workouts, sessions on visas, adjusting to life in the United States, and achieving academic success at UO. Students take the AEIS and math placement tests, meet with Academic Advisors, and get assistance registering for their classes. OIA continues to be a first port of call for students with visa questions, or to find referrals to other campus services.
An important component of the AEIS curriculum focuses on helping students acculturate to campus life and develop an awareness of activities and resources available to them. AEIS students engage in independent projects requiring campus and/or community activities in which they interact with native speakers in settings both in and out of the classroom. Some classes also arrange conversation partnerships working with instructors from other departments.
UO’s Mills International Center in the EMU is a site of connection and community both for international students and internationally minded domestic students.
The Mills Center provides a cozy place to study, chat, or read news or listen to music from around the world; it also hosts coffee hours, film screenings, Language Circles and meet ups.
In addition, several of OIA’s financial aid programs assist in facilitating international student acculturation. UO’s International Cultural Service Program (ICSP) is a competitive application-based scholarship program that grants tuition waivers for students each year who participate in cross-cultural exchange activities in the broader Eugene/Springfield community. OIA also oversees the International Work-Study Program, which grants work-study awards to international students with financial need, helping them to find on-campus work while gaining valuable work experience. Other financial aid resources available through OIA can be found at http://international.uoregon.edu/isss/scholarships.