Showcase Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia 2015

EAL doctoral candidates evaluate their language learning experiences at a New Zealand University (#115)

Janet von Randow 1 , Morena Dias Botelho de Magalhaes 1
  1. The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

Abstract Content (up to 300 words recommended)

In the past decade, English-medium universities have seen growing numbers of international students with English as an additional language (EAL) enrolling in their doctoral programmes; consequently, language challenges have become a concern. In order to ensure that all candidates are well-equipped to cope with the demands of their doctoral programmes, one New Zealand university has been administering a post-entry diagnostic English language assessment (PELA) to beginning candidates. Students are required to take the assessment and to follow a language programme if recommended. Supervisors are then notified of their students’ language needs, and a milestone is added to candidates’ provisional year goals. This initiative was put into place as evidence gathered by the School of Graduate Studies suggested that problems supervisors and their students experienced often originated from language difficulties.

As part of the ongoing evaluation of the PELA, students are asked to complete an anonymous questionnaire online but may provide their contact details if they wish to expand on some answers. In 2013, 20 doctoral candidates who did this were interviewed and reflected on their first doctoral year and on their language milestone. Their experience of taking the diagnosis, attending the advisory session that follows, and managing the subsequent language work were of particular interest. The interviews were analysed qualitatively and the results showed an overall positive attitude towards the whole process. Students were appreciative of the opportunity to receive further support and guidance, and some also reported an improvement in the supervisory relationship. Although small in scale, this study indicates that the language provision is valued by students; furthermore, candidates seem to have understood the importance of becoming aware of their language needs so that problems could be addressed as early as possible.

Addressing the theme/s of the Conference (up to 200 words recommended)

The postgraduate profile at this University states that postgraduate students must have ‘a capacity for the transmission of information and understanding to others new to scholarship in the specialist area’ and the ability ‘to access, identify, organise and communicate knowledge effectively in both written and spoken English’. Because for many of our EAL doctoral candidates acquiring these attributes is challenging, the diagnostic assessment was implemented to quickly identify the language skills they needed to work on and guide them to language enrichment programmes that would address their particular needs. The policy was adopted in 2011 and as the assessment was a requirement all students were given the opportunity to develop these attributes. Doctoral candidates generally intend to follow careers which will require them to have excellent English language skills, particularly if they are to function in an international environment. Offering them language programmes that address all language skills and enabling them on occasion to interact with people outside the university environment while doing this has allowed doctoral candidates to create a link beyond the educational context, thus preparing them for the world of work. Student and staff evaluation of this programme has been overwhelmingly positive.