Supporting in-sessional students in higher education

sessional students

By Mark Lawrence

Context

The university where I work, Sheffield University, has a huge number of international students and we offer a lot of support to them on their programmes. The English Language Teaching Centre (ELTC) has about 70 members of teaching staff and another 15 administration staff (Sheffield University, 2017). It is a huge organisation compared to many other university support systems and as a result can offer tailored support to students. There is a programme called the Departmental Language Programme (DLP) that offers tailored support to students studying on their university courses and is the programme that this article will describe.

Departmental Language Programme general overview

Departments at the university get 50 hours of free support and they choose how they use it. They have a choice to use it in Semester 1, Semester 2 or throughout the year. Some departments use it to support their undergraduate, postgraduate taught students and research students. Other departments focus on one cohort and in fact some departments focus on one module only. It is a very flexible service and all these support types are feasible. If departments want more hours of support, they have to pay extra. However, this is not that costly when you look at the service being provided to often a large number of students. So some departments have 50 hours of support and other departments have in excess of 150 hours depending on their needs.

Sessions

The sessions that are offered to students can be classes, lectures or tutorials. Sometimes it is beneficial to teach the students all together over a number of weeks building up their skills and allowing them to apply these skills on their modules. At other times students have tutorials that can be individual or paired. This can really help by giving the students an allocated amount of time in which they can ask the teacher directly and get personalised support. A final method of delivery is a lecture when for possibly one hour a large group of students are introduced to a key concept relating to their language that they can then apply to their studies.

Tailored support

Most importantly is the fact that this programme offers tailored support. It is delivered by EFL tutors, who have a lot of experience of working in higher education and also of course with the language issues that arise in this environment. The ELTC tutors would meet with the academics in the departments who would share materials, module briefs and assignment guidelines. They would also offer their views about what the students really need. It is then the job of the EFL tutor such as myself to devise appropriate support based on the specific materials we have been given. It is a challenging task as often time is a key constraint and sometimes departments do not engage. However, when there is good collaboration between the department and the ELTC tutor the support is extremely effective. Prabhu (1992) suggests, we must try and be experts in each context we work in and concurs that that tailored support needs to be very much tailored for the individual department, module and even student for it to work. He further states that negotiation is crucial and if it is just imposed it will not work. This means we have to consider the student in this situation as well as the department. Students will also have a preferred learning style and possibly some areas they want to focus on that might be different to their tutor. This means as a DLP tutor we need to be careful to negotiate with all those involved to ensure the support is appropriate.

Personal experience

I have worked in a number of departments and faculties over the past five years. I am not an engineer or a landscape architect, but this does not mean that I cannot really help the students in those departments to improve their language and awareness of the academic culture in the UK. Often just as important as language is increasing the students’ confidence in using language in an academic environment. The classes we offer can have that real benefit to students.

The best session

My best class was one that just seemed to go well without a huge amount of preparation. I contacted a tutor in the department (Landscape Architecture) to ask them if they had any particular areas that they wanted me to focus on probably three days before the class was scheduled. They replied and sent me an article that was on the students’ reading list. I spent some time devising exercises around it that mostly focused on extracting the main arguments and ideas with a focus on some of the difficult vocabulary. The article was very complex and the tutor explained to me that they were worried that the students would not be able to grasp the main ideas and as a result would have problem addressing the assignment that was to follow.

In the class, the students did comprehension exercises, spent time analysing the language and the ideas in the article before summarising the key points. It took time, but you could see that the students understood the ideas after we had spent time analysing the article. There were still words they did not know, but that is always to be expected. The session, that was probably only an hour and a half, had made a real difference. It was based on authentic material and that made it useful to the students and ensured they were engaged in the session. They also had time to discuss the article and language with a tutor and this enabled them to be more confident about the ideas expressed within it. It made the academic in the department satisfied as the students were able to approach the article and assignment with more confidence. Finally, it made my life easier as a teacher as I was given the materials and just needed to use my knowledge as a teacher to make it workable in class.

Concluding thoughts

Motivation in learning is crucial (Dornyei, 2005). Students only learn or want to learn when something is interesting or relevant to them. The DLP programme offers a real opportunity for departments and English teachers to work together to create effective language support for international students. As seen in my example, the best way of offering support can be so simple and it is the way that should be promoted in language teaching support in all higher and further education establishments. Do you have any comments on the model described here? What suggestions would you have for helping students while they are at university?

What other models of support do you know of?

Feel free to contact me:[email protected]

References

  • Dornyei, Z., 2005. The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language
  • Acquistion. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Prabhu, N. S., 1992. The dynamics of the language lesson. TESOL Quarterly [online] Available at
  • <http://203.72.145.166/TESOL/TQD_2008/VOL_26_2>. [Accessed 12 November 2017].
  • Sheffield University, 2017. ELTC. [online] Available at:< https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/eltc/aboutus> [Accessed 02/12/2017].
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