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Proficiency & Discipline

Lately in my career, I have been paying more attention to assessing students in terms of academic discipline or the ability to utilize certain study strategies on their own. This has been most important in two of my positions, one as teacher trainer at Sookmyung Women's University-TESOL in Korea and one as an instructor of English for Academic Purposes at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse.

Personal Background
In Korea, the TESOL program was developed so that students were assessed in generally the same way in all classes. All instructors had to follow the same guidelines for implementing and carrying out the terms and conditions for absences, tardiness, late and missing assignments, missing tests, and classroom participation. One reason for the success of this program is that these guidelines were followed very strictly by all the teacher trainers. A misbehaving or cheating student was detected quickly and usually was not awarded the TESOL certificate.

In La Crosse, I have more flexibility in creating my own rules guidelines. The program does have a standard for absences, tardiness, and late and missing assignments, but each instructor enforces these standards in their own way. Because of my experience in Korea, I took the stricter interpretation of the rules. This caused some students to disfavor me and/or my class because I would not show flexibility with them. In their defense, most of these students were undergraduates in America for the first time whereas all of my students in Korea were graduates with good undergraduate grade point averages.

Assessing Students
A common topic of discussion at the ESL Institute at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse is how to assess students, and to make the decision to pass or fail them in the course. (Except for the highest level courses, all courses are graded as pass or fail.) All the instructors agree that students' language proficiency should get the most attention in the assessment. However, I find that we disagree on how much attention should be placed on their academic discipline.

Our program's main goal is to get students ready for non-ESL academic courses at the university. I believe many people not familiar with ESL may assume that instructors only prepare them linguistically for university courses. But I, along with many others in my profession, believe that we are also preparing them culturally for university courses. I am mostly referring to the fact that expectations for student performance is different in the United States to those in other countries.

My Experience
During my first year at the ESL Institute at UWL, my grading scale heavily emphasized developing language skills. However, I noticed that students were approaching the class with the strategies that helped them get through their ESL or EFL courses in their home country. For many students, these strategies would not get them far in American higher education. The most famous example is the attitude towards plagiarism.

During my second year, I incorporated a more structured approach to facilitate learning in adapting to and adopting American study habits. Incidentally, I volunteered to teach a pilot course with the sole purpose of elaborating on developing study strategies during that second year. I have discovered that, with students lacking these skills, the majority of them were thankful for learning them. However there was a minority that resisted to develop the study strategies needed to get through a four-year American university. For many of those who resisted to change their study habits, it was a matter of pride, either self-pride or national pride.
I could only wish them good luck.

Possible Research
With all this in mind, I have gained interest in assessing students based on developing language proficiency in addition to the appropriate study strategies. When students come in to most ESL programs, they are given a diagnostic or placement exam so that they can be placed in the right level. But, to my knowledge, there is no placement exam for study strategies.

When students are in my courses, I am immediately drawn not to the students with the highest language proficiency but the to the students with the best study strategies. Especially in an EAP course, I am confident that these students will do well in American higher education. These students usually catch up and sometimes surpass the students who had higher language proficiency at the beginning of the course.

Personally I feel at a loss for students with good language skills but do not improve as quickly as others in my class. They only pass because their language skills were high enough at the beginning that a slight improvement was all they needed. I feel even worse for those with lower language skills that show little or no willingness to develop the study strategies to become more autonomous learners. They will do all or most of the homework, but they cannot take constructive feedback well. I'd like to learn how to get through to the students who do not take this constructive feedback. I know that for some of them they do not understand the feedback, but for the ones that do, I feel that I need to develop my own strategies to help them develop internal motivation to improve themselves.


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