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Recent Dissertations & Theses on Intensive English Programs

Dissertations & Theses

Dissertations and theses are not always the best studies, but they provide more depth into an area of inquiry than most research articles mainly because there are fewer or no restrictions on the length of the writing.  If you're not familiar with PhD dissertations, many are over 100 pages long and it's not uncommon to find ones that are over 200 pages long.  Master's theses are typically shorter than dissertations, but the research methodology is usually not as rigorous.

When I was searching for literature on intensive English programs, a good proportion of the studies were dissertations and theses.  Although they are more time-consuming to read, I find that literature review in dissertations are very helpful with learning more about the current research.  I'd like to briefly review the findings of these dissertations and theses regardless of the quality of their methodology (for MA theses) for the purpose of understanding trends.

Topics of Interest

I found ten dissertations or theses that were published in the last few years concerning intensive English programs (IEPs).  When looking for similarities among them, I found four general topics of interest: 1) student learning outcomes, 2) student perceptions and/or technology, 3) language acquisition of (pre-)beginning students, and 4) comparing writing between IEP and first year university students.  One dissertation did not focus on any of these themes, and that one was about the persistence of international students.

Student Learning Outcomes

Because of my current position as curriculum coordinator, I'm most interested in learning about the latest research on student learning outcomes pertaining to IEPs.  Dr. Cayuso's dissertation (2015) examined the relationship between accreditation and learning outcomes assessment standards, which strikes at the heart of my work, and Oswalt's thesis (2015) invesitaged former IEP students' perspectives on outcome achievement and college readiness, which is also a concern of mine.

To my dismay but perhaps to some administrators' relief, Cayuso (2015) found through statistical analysis that the type of initial accreditation CEA (the accreditation agency recognized by the US Department of Education) grants (one-year or five-year) is not related to compliance on standards related to the learning outcomes.  However, this study focused only on findings from the CEA review team report, which is not the only report used to make decisions on accreditation.

Oswalt's thesis (2015), which is longer than Cayuso's dissertation (2015) because of its mixed methods approach, investigated the perspective on the college readiness and outcome achievement of former IEP students.  Oswalt found that although most of the former students had positive perspectives, many did not feel ready for a number of specific areas she presents in Table 19 (p81).  She specifically mentions reading as being the most reported for being less prepared, although no group of students mentioned reading as being the area they were least prepared for.  As I expected, students were most unprepared for the volume of reading.  Table 19 provides a good insight for faculty and administrators to improve their curriculum, so I hope to replicate some of Oswalt's methods when assessing our curriculum.

Student Perceptions (Technology)

Three studies looked into student perceptions with two of the three pertaining to their perceptions on education technology, either a project-based CALL (computer assisted language learning) approach (Kang, 2012) or a blended learning approach (Larsen, 2012).  Additionally, two of three studies examined the perceptions of a specific subset of students, Chinese (Long, 2013) and East Asians (Kang, 2012).

Kang's multiple case study (2012) covered both the areas described above, investigating East Asian students' negotiation of silence in an IEP reading class that utilized a project-based CALL approach.  This study appeals to my second research interest area, multiliteracies, in which the reading class integrates technology and the students' cultural backgrounds into the curriculum.  In terms of technology, Kang refers to web-based multimodal reading.  In terms of East Asian student's background, Kang addresses Confucian values and cultural discontinuity into the Western classroom.  The study found that this approach has helped ease the "negotiation of silence," which refers "to the work that these learners have to do to confront and overcome the learning behaviors and dispositions into which they have been socialized by the Confucian values of their home countries" (p.161).  Although Chinese are the majority of international students today, this approach may be difficult to use in an IEP such as mine where they are not the majority.

Larsen's dissertation (2012), incidentally also from Iowa State University, focuses on another aspect of technology, blended learning, which refer to "courses that integrate online with traditional face-to-face class activities in a planned, pedagogically valuable manner; and where a portion (institutionally defined) of face-to-face time is replaced by online activity" (Laster, Otte, Picciano, & Sorg, 2005).  Larsen was interested in both student and teacher perspectives of blended learning.  Through his mixed method approach, Larsen found students to be mostly receptive to blended learning, whereas teachers were fine as long as they had technical and pedagogical support.

Although Long (2013) did not look into students perceptions on technology directly, she was interested in Chinese perceptions of an IEP in general.  Through qualitative methods, she was able to discover a lower level of satisfaction for students who studied longer in the IEP.  The study revealed that perhaps the IEP does not integrate academic content enough into the curriculum to stimulate the students' motivation.

For our IEP, these studies are somewhat less applicable.  For one, East Asian students are not the majority of our students, so it may be problematic to integrate the specific project-oriented CALL approach as suggested in Kang's study (2012).  However, the students in Long's study (2013) may be more motivated in our program because academic content is integrated into the curriculum and grows in intensity the longer they are in our program.  Finally, Larsen's study (2012) may be useful to integrate if and when we declare that our program uses blended learning in our mission statement or methodology.

Language Acquisition for (pre-) Beginning Students

Two studies examined the language acquisition of students, pre-beginning (Brooks, 2014) and beginning (Rodriguez-Garcia, 2014).  Brooks was interested in finding ways to enhance their vocabulary acquisition specifically, whereas Dr. Rodriguez-Garcia was interested in the factors that affected their overall language acquisition as well as their retention in the program.  Brooks' study did not come to any statistically significant findings, but in general it supported the widely accepted correlation between student interest and student achievement.

Although Rodriguez-Garcia's study (2014) investigated IEP students at a community college, its findings may be transferrable to IEP students at a university.  Because of their nature of offering courses and programs to the general public, community colleges suffer more from student attrition than 4-year colleges and universities.  Rodriguez-Garcia's study shows that this problem also affects their IEP.  Through interviews, focus groups, and open-ended surveys, Rodriquez-Garcia found the factors for low retention and acquisition to be low engagement and little inclusion of technology.  From my previous experience working at a community college, I learned that student engagement is the number one crucial factor for success.

Comparing Writing Between IEP Students and First Year University Students

Of all the studies I reviewed for this post, none were more similar than Hammill's comparative case study of what is valued in IEP academic writing and first-year composition courses (2014) and Russell's comparison of linguistic features in academic writing of advanced IEP students and L1 university students (2014).

To illustrate these comparisons better, I created the table below.
Table comparing Hammill's findings & Russell's findings
 I believe writing instructors in our IEP, especially those who teach in the upper levels, will find these studies informative and useful.

International student persistence

And finally there is Smith's dissertation (2015) that stands out from the rest.  Although she did not target IEP students in her study, she found little difference between international and domestic students when it came to persistence.  Students from both groups persisted better if they had a higher GPA and earned more credit hours.  Academic and social engagement did not significantly relate to persistence.  In her conclusion, she was interested to find out if the international persisters had higher English proficiency exam scores that their non-persisting counterparts.  In other words, to what extent does language proficiency or perceived success with language ability affect international student persistence?  I found the nuances of this study much more interested in the general findings, so I recommend those who work with international students to read Smith's conclusions.


So there you have it.  That's what graduate students interested in IEPs have been focusing on to earn their degrees.  Reviewing these studies have been a helpful exercise for me to learn about the differences between and within doctoral dissertations and master's theses.  I found about half of these to be helpful in guiding my coordination of the curriculum at my IEP.  If you've never read a dissertation or thesis (other than your own) and you work at an IEP, I hope you found my introduction to these studies informative, inspiring, and/or helpful.


MA Theses

Diane Brooks, 2014 - Means to enhance vocabulary acquisition by pre-beginning L2 students in an intensive English learning situation, Ball State University

Yishi Long, 2013 - Exploring Chinese international students' perceptions of their experience in an intensive English program at a US midwestern university, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Meghan Elizabeth Oswalt, 2015 - Perspectives on the college readiness and outcome achievement of former intensive English language program (IELP) students, Portland State University

PhD Dissertations

Julia R. Cayuso, 2015 - An examination of the relationship between accreditation and learning outcomes assessment standards in English language programs, University of Miami

Matthew J. Hammill, 2014 - Second language writing in intensive English programs and first year composition, Arizona State University

M. Kang, 2012 - East Asian students' negotiation of silence in a university intensive English reading class: an examination of cross-cultural transition within a project-oriented CALL approach, Iowa State University

Lars Jacob Ege Larsen, 2012 - Teacher and student perspectives on a blended learning intensive English program writing course, Iowa State University

Luis Manuel Rodriguez-Garcia, 2014 - Influential factors that affect retention and language acquisition in beginning ESL adult students, Walden University

Margo K. Russell, 2014 - A comparison of linguistic features in the academic writing of advanced English language learner and English first language university students, Portland State University

Elizabeth Washam Smith, 2015 - Undergraduate international student persistence at a large public US institution, University of Tennessee - Knoxville


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