Many Students in Higher Education studying at British institutions of higher education experience problems. Some of these problems will be general to all students, but many will be particular to those students who are non-native speakers of English. Most UK universities therefore run EAP (English for Academic Purposes) courses. The object of these courses is to help Students in Higher Education overcome some of the linguistic difficulties involved in studying thought the medium of English. These courses are normally taught in groups with the content determined by the lecturer in advance. The students in the class are from different countries, studying different subjects at different levels. There are three main problems, though, with these classes, which means that attendance is often low:
- Access. Access to these classes is difficult for many of these students. Even for the ones who are physically present on one of the campuses in Hertfordshire, the big problem is timetabling. It is very difficult to find a time and a room when students are available.
- Language needs. Another difficulty with these classes is that the needs of the students vary enormously. From a language point of view some students need to improve their writing, while others need to improve their listening. Even if it was possible, for example, to form a group of post-graduate business students from China who all wanted to improve their writing, there could still be very big differences in the competence and needs of the students.
- Learning styles. Students, especially from different cultures, also have different preferred learning styles (Thorpe, 1991 Jin & Cortazzi, 1993 1993) they prefer to work in different ways. Some students, for example, prefer to work alone while some prefer to work in groups. Some students prefer a step by step presentation by the lecturer whereas others like a holistic presentation. Some want to organise their own material and others want the lecturer to present and explain everything.
It would seem that using a computer on a self-access basis would help to solve some of these problems. Students could access the materials whenever they wanted from wherever they were. They would be able to choose what to work on at a given moment. They would also have some choice in how they worked on the materials. The classes would still continue for those students who preferred to work in a more structured way, but the self access component would be available for students with different needs, who did not like the way the classes were taught or who could not easily attend the classes.
The basic approach to course design that is taken is an ESP (English for Specific Purposes) approach, which means, in general, an approach in which the teaching content is matched to the requirements of the learners. Bell (1981, p. 36) offers a first approximation to language teaching syllabus design. Gillett (1989) applied this model to our specific EAP situation and looked at the settings, instrumentality and communicative events categories in more detail:
- Group projects
- Practical sessions (Art/Science)
- Private study
- Spoken – productive (speaking)
- Spoken – receptive (listening)
- Written – productive (writing)
- Written – receptive (reading)
The activities in which the students may use English in each of the above settings are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Communicative events.
Listening for general understanding
Asking for clarification
Asking for clarification
Reading and understanding examination questions
Note taking (to be re-constituted)
Writing examination answers
On the basis of this analysis it can be seen that there are four main areas of academic language use that students could require help in. Students would select components from these areas depending on their needs and interests. The four main sections are:
- Academic writing
- Academic listening
- Academic reading
- Seminar skills
As well as this approach to defining the content of the course, we have to accept that people are different. They have obvious differences such as their ethnic origin, the clothes they wear, the food they eat and the languages they speak. As well as this they differ in how they learn. These differences may come from their societies, cultures and families that the individuals come from.
It is important for a language teacher to be aware of these differences as they may affect their students’ learning either positively or negatively (Hofstede, 1986). If the cultures, societies or families that the students come from have resulted in the students having preferred learning styles, and the teacher employs different styles then the resulting clash may seriously affect the students’ learning and their attitudes towards learning.
This problem has been highlighted in research on learning styles. It has shown that, in general, if the teacher uses a teaching style that is compatible with the student’s learning style, weak students can do considerably better (Dunn, Griggs, Olson & Beasley, 1995, p. 353). Therefore, if some students are not succeeding because their learning style is different from the teacher’s teaching style then the teacher needs to understand the differences and turn them to the students’ advantage.
Research suggests that that people react differently in a learning situation depending on their preferred learning styles. This is not to suggest that some styles are better or worse than others, but that people learn differently. A language teachers who can ensure that the learning experience the student has matches the student’s preferred learning style or help them to understand new ways of learning can ensure that they have an opportunity to learn optimally even though they learn differently.
Some recent studies have shown that different cultures prefer different learning styles. For example, in a large study, Lim (1994) found that his Singaporean 16-year-old students were less extroverted than similar students in America. He also found that Singaporean female students were mainly of the thinking type compared to American female students of the same age, who were mainly of the feeling type. Simmons & Barrineau (1994) similarly found that significantly more Native Americans were of the sensing type than were equivalent people from other cultures.
People learn very early in their lives the preferred learning styles of the cultures in which they live. Research by Nelson (1995) in Hawaii, Oregon, China, and Japan came to the conclusion that students acquire their cultural learning styles before they start school and that these styles last throughout their lives. As Oxford, Hollaway & Horton-Murillo (1992) put it, “Although culture is not the single determinant, and although many other influences intervene, culture often does play a significant role in the learning styles unconsciously adopted by many participants in the culture” (p. 441). As a result of this, learners from one society may have quite different ways of doing things from those from another society. Students in Higher Education may have difficulties because their preferences may often differ significantly from those of home students and from each other. Students in Higher Education may not understand the preferred learning styles of the students in the countries in which they are studying, and the learning styles that have been useful for them in their home countries may have different results in their countries of study. For instance, some societies tend to value rote learning, but students who are good at learning in this way may find learning more difficult in societies that value experimentation and questioning.
The problem is more complicated though because nor everyone in a particular culture or society learns in exactly the same way. Students’ different learning styles can either help or hinder them and the teacher. Therefore, anyone trying to help students to learn needs to understand the learning styles of the students and take advantage of them. Many different learning styles have been identified, and research indicates that individual learners can have different preferred styles at the same time. These styles can be categorised into four broad areas – cognitive, affective, perceptual, and physiological.
The main application of style to language learning has been through the distinction made between field dependent/field independent, or analytic/holistic (Witkin, 1962 Skehan, 1998 Willing 1988) Learners can be classified according to how well they pick out significant information from a confusing overall picture. Learners are classified as analytic if they prefer to separate a problem into components and then focus on the constituents, whereas holistic learners prefer to perceive situations as wholes. From a language teaching point of view, field dependent learners are seen to avoid situations in which the language is actually going to be used for communication, but field dependent learners are comfortable in these situations.
Similar to this distinction is the distinction between impulsive and reflective learners. Impulsive learners tend to accept initial hypotheses without criticism, which can make them more error prone. Reflective learners, on the other hand, tend to be more systematic and analytical and therefore usually achieve greater accuracy (Oxford, Hollaway & Horton-Murillo, 1992). This is not to say that one type of cognitive learning style is better than another. The effectiveness of a learning style depends very much on the context. Some situations are better suited for analytical learners, whereas others are more suited to global learners (Chapelle, 1995). The analytical learners do relatively better if learning is individualised and rule based, whereas the global learner might succeed in the communicative classroom. Teachers should be able to design courses and materials that allow both analytical and global learners to succeed.
The affective dimension includes those aspects of personality – such as attention, emotion, and valuing – which influence what a learner will pay attention to in any learning situation (Keefe, 1987). Some of the features referred to in this category are conceptual level and locus of control. Conceptual level is how much structure a person needs in order to learn successfully. A learner, for instance, with a low conceptual level would probably need a highly structured learning environment. However, all learners are capable of developing a high conceptual level as they pass through the different stages of learning. Locus of control is related to whether “an individual’s perceptions of causality may be internal or external” (Keefe, 1987, p. 21). Internal or learners feel responsible for their own learning, and prefer to experiment on their own, disliking interactive exercises and group work. External learners place the responsibility for learning on the group. They base their perceptions on events and on what other people say and do. These learners like interactive activities, such as group work and role-plays.
The perceptual dimension refers to the possible perceptual channels – auditory, visual, and kinaesthetic (tactile) – through which learners obtain information from the environment. Much formal teaching, learning and assessment are strongly inclined towards using the auditory and visual channels for learning. This bias may not be effective for all learners. According to Dunn & Griggs, (1995, p. 20), for example, “most adolescent males are not auditory … As a result, lectures, discussions, and listening are the least effective ways of teaching males.” Learners who prefer to learn through the visual and kinaesthetic channels may underachieve in many formal teaching situations because the teaching style does not match their strengths. Teachers and course designers can reduce this problem by designing learning activities and materials that allow for a variety of learning styles.
The physiological dimension refers to different learning preferences according to biological differences, such as gender and reaction to the physical environment. Several studies have found, for example, that many female students employ more learning strategies and employ them effectively (Nyikos, 1990 Oxford, Nyikos & Ehrman, 1988). Different learners have different tolerances for noise, temperature, and even light. An incompatible physical environment, such as a noisy or a cold room will distract some learners, making it difficult for them to learn.
The wide range of different learning styles can cause problems in organised classrooms. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for the teacher in a class to change their teaching styles and instructional materials so that they cater for all the different learning styles in a class. However, a teacher or a course designer who understands the different learning styles can plan courses and materials that allow different students to learn in their preferred ways.
When computers were first introduced into the language classroom in the late 1980s, they were expected to be flexible enough to cater for multiple learning styles. There were two main reasons, however, why they were not so successful – inadequate hardware and inadequate software. The computer hardware of even the late l980s was not flexible enough to support audio or video playback of any degree of sophistication. In CALL, interaction was often limited to text-based functions, such as turning pages or flashing the correct words or phrases on the screen. Today, hypertext interaction, sound, video is widely available. The falling cost also has meant that hardware capabilities have ceased to be a central issue. The multimedia computer can now present language games, simulations, and problem-solving activities. The CALL environment can be highly motivating (some would even say addictive) for students of all learning styles (Pennington, 1996). The rapid growth of the World Wide Web has revealed the power of the computer to allow learners to learn what they want, when they want, where they want and how they want. CALL is one very good answer for teachers looking to address their students’ many learning styles. Computers can integrate text, graphics, images, video, and audio. All of these media have been used separately in classrooms for a long time, and their individual benefits to learning have been well documented. However, when integrated, the whole appears to be greater than the sum of its parts each medium reinforces the effectiveness of the others.
Research reported by Burger (1985) concluded that no single learning style benefited learners more than another when used in computer-assisted instruction in medical terminology. In a semester-long study in Malaysia, it was found that a multimedia English program benefited learners with all three perceptual learning styles – auditory, visual, and kinaesthetic – equally. CALL lessons appear to be able to address a number of learning styles simultaneously in other words, a single multimedia CALL program can cater for many learning styles simultaneously because the software teaches in auditory, visual, and kinaesthetic media.
Because the multimedia computer is so versatile, the possibility exists that students could learn the same content according to their individual learning styles by using software that has been appropriately customised. Well-designed software could teach by integrating several media – auditory, visual, and tactile – simultaneously, something human teachers might not be able to do on their own. The use of the computer in this way may allow learning to take place with less face-to-face teaching and more individualised learning than is usual, solving to some extent the problem of access.
Research shows that students have significantly different language learning preferences. These preferences make any learning environment, method, or resource more effective for some learners and less effective for others. The answer to dealing with differences in learning style among language learners does not lie in finding one method that can cater to all learning styles there can be no such method. The key to teaching all learners as effectively as possible lies in identifying the needs and preferences of each learner and fulfilling the learners’ needs according to their preferences. The computer seems versatile enough to be a medium to do this – if it is driven by well-designed software and properly utilised by well-trained teachers.
As a lecturer in English for Academic Purposes in the Department of Inter-Faculty Studies, one of my jobs is teaching writing to Students in Higher Education at the University of Hertfordshire. Many of these students are enrolled as University of Hertfordshire undergraduate or postgraduate students, but some students are in the process of preparing to study at the University of Hertfordshire, either in this country or abroad. The ones who are at the University of Hertfordshire could be on any of the campuses in Hertfordshire or even, especially for research students, in their places of work anywhere in the world.
Although learning to write is a very complicated procedure, and different from different backgrounds have difference preferences for how this should be learned, there are some aspects of writing that can be easily acquired by the student. We have classes organised across the whole university, but many students, because of problems of location or time, or because they find it difficult to learn in the class, prefer not to attend. I would like to attempt to make this information available to all the students mentioned above and one way that seems possible is to use the Internet.
Initially, I concentrated on the following areas:
- Understanding essay/exam questions.
- Organising essay/exam answers.
- Referring to sources.
- Writing a bibliography.
- Avoiding plagiarism.
The reason for concentrating on these areas is that relatively simple information can be given that is useful to the students. I am not suggesting that these are the only problems that students have, but that they are the areas that are most easily dealt with at a distance. They are also areas that many students from other cultures and language backgrounds have difficulty with.
I later added sections on:
- How to write an essay.
- Academic writing style.
As well as the section on Writing English for Academic Purposes, I decided to try to add pages dealing with:
- Reading skills for academic study.
- Speaking in academic contexts.
- Listening comprehension and note taking.
As I was learning more about the internet, I discovered many other resources that I thought would be useful for my students. I therefore added:
And finally, after talking to colleagues at other universities at a conference at Easter, thought it would be useful to provide a list of background reading for them. That is included at:
I am continuing to add sections as I need them in my teaching.
Apart from the content and the technicalities of actually putting together the html pages, the most difficult problem was the organisation of the content, trying to make it easy for the students to navigate through the many pages of information that are now available. My solution was to provide a skills – reading, writing, speaking, and listening – menu on the first page and then to use frames. I know frames cause problems and we were, at times, advised not to use them, but the advantage is that the basic structure of the sub site – e.g. writing – is always available on the screen, making it easy to get back to the beginning and find more information.
The site has been on-line since the end of April 1999 at:
As the site is intended for self-study, it is difficult to get feedback from the students using the site. Initially, I put my e-mail address on the front pages and asked people to contact with me with their impressions. This was not successful and the only contacts I had were from lecturers asking me if they could recommend it to their students.
However, as we have courses running all the time, I have occasionally tried to incorporate the web site into my classes and make it an integral part of the extended writing element of the course. Basically, the students are writing academic assignments in their own subject and I expect them to work through the Process part of the Writing section of the site to help them. At the end of the courses, I have given students a copy of my evaluation questionnaire and asked them to fill it in.
I have used this questionnaire several times with similar results each time. The students are usually between the ages of 19 and 32 from the Middle and Far East and Africa. All of them have had some experience with computers and many have had much experience. They are mostly post-graduate students, the majority being students of business. They use a variety of computers in the Hatfield LRC. Most students are satisfied with the computers they used to view the web-site, although they occasionally comment on the speed. This would suggest that, if the students are mainly using UH LRC, the site should not be any slower. Most students use the web-site several times during their course and spend about 1 hour using it. They often feel a need to be able to print out the information given and this should therefore be borne in mind when further developments are made.
Students in general feel that they learn a lot using the web-site and it increases their ability to use English for academic purposes. They feel that the site is clearly presented and enjoyable and creates a good atmosphere for learning. As they have to do the work themselves, they are more actively involved, they can work at their own speed and find answers to their own questions. Most students rate it quite highly.
The biggest criticism is to do with the fact that they find it boring they want pictures and sound. While much could be done to improve the design, sound and pictures would probably slow down the computer too much and this would make the access more difficult.
The site is basically well received and is considered to be successful by most students who use it. The biggest criticism – it’s boring – needs to be addressed without distracting from the main objective of the site – to provide easy and fast access to the information.
Costs and Benefits
The main costs are in time. The time taken to produce the site has been and continues to be enormous. The content, I think, needs to be treated very differently when it is expected that the lecturer will not be present. Writing the content, trying to find the best ways to organise the information in a non-linear fashion and converting the information into HTML is what takes the time. Trying to makes the pages to some extent interactive and to provide some kind of feedback requires new ways of thinking about the subject, trying to predict the kinds of problems that the users of the pages will have. Some expenditure has also been necessary. I bought the HTML editor myself, a book on writing HTML and I use my own Internet connection for downloading the pages onto the server.
It has, however, been very worthwhile. I have developed HTML writing skills which I find very useful. I can now put information on the web in minutes.
Use of the World Wide Web does seem to go some way towards solving the problems outlined at the beginning.
- Access. Any student who has access to a computer connected to the Internet can access the web-site. They can access the site at any time during the week from wherever they are when they need it.
- Language needs. Different students have different needs. From a language point of view some students need to improve their writing, while others need to improve their listening. Although I have not attempted to address all the skills that students need to learn yet, some of the different problems that students have with writing have been covered.
- Learning styles. Students, especially from different cultures, also have different preferred learning styles. While it is true that some students still prefer to work and learn in classes with other students, other students do not like this way. The web-site then, to some extent, allows students to work in their own way at their own speed and find answers to their own questions.
The next stage is to try to address some of the other problems that students have and improve the design. It must be remembered, however, that sound and pictures would probably slow down the computer too much and this would make the access more difficult.
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Originally published as: Gillett, A. J. (2005). Designing a Website for EAP. CALL Review, February, 2005, p. 44-49.