The implication of students’ high school experiences to their university lecturers

By Dr. Wei Wei

As learning skills advisors, we always think about what information the students want to get from us and how we can help them better. However, that does not mean we are always prepared to or able to answer any question raised by our students in a way which they expect. The study LSU conducted in 2011 suggests that our students were looking for two things when they came to see us: 1) high marks in their exams/essay/reports and 2) learning experiences similar to their high schools.

From our survey, the characteristics of our students’ high school learning experiences include:

  1. They were always looking for right or wrong answers.
  2. Every task/question has a right or wrong answer. It is the teacher’s job to provide and explain the right answers.
  3. Because the ‘learning’ is defined as the process of understanding and exploring the ‘right answers’, a high level of memorization is encouraged, which is called ‘learning by heart’.
  4. Knowledge is labelled as ‘tested’ or ‘non-tested’, therefore, ‘necessary/important/key points’ Vs ‘unnecessary/unimportant/irrelevant points.
  5. Influenced by their understanding of knowledge and learning, a clear judgmental conclusion is always appreciated by students with zero tolerance of vagueness.
  6. Good teachers are those who are always staying in the office and preparing to offer the correct answers.
  7. Bearing in mind with their definitions of knowledge and good teachers, the students expect the teachers to give clear instructions and guidelines to follow: a nice conclusive reading list, a list chapter/section in the textbooks or a well defined structure for the assignments. There is no need to leave any room for students to make their own decisions, as the students are not capable of defining and highlighting the ‘necessary/important/key’ points/knowledge.
  8. English teachers in high schools provided a list of vocabulary which will be tested in reading and a list of grammar knowledge which will be assessed in the format of MCQ. English teachers corrected students’ grammar mistakes sentence by sentence.

After presenting the findings in the AALL conference in Adelaide, Australia November 2011, we decided to go further and visited two local high schools with good reputations in terms of their outstanding performances in the university entrance exams: Le Hong Phong and Su Pham Thuc Hanh on March 2012. We intended to know more about students’ high school life and found out its implications to our teaching at RMIT Vietnam. We talked with English teachers, school principals, students and observed their English classes. The following points summarize what we have found:

  1. Reading, vocabulary and grammar are the priority issues in their English classes, due to its weight in the university entrance exams. However, we did observe some communicative language teaching activities: the English teachers mainly used English as the instruction language in the class and organized the classroom activities in themes/topics with communicative purposes and oral presentations/group work.
  2. Teachers do not teach writing for various reasons: writing skill is not tested directly in the exams, improving writing skills may take a long time and the the classroom instruction is limited in the final year of high school.
  3. Exam preparation activities take one year.

What does it mean to us or other lecturers in RMIT Vietnam?

While, for the English teachers in RMIT, it may be WRONG to presume that:

  1. The students will ask questions or find the answers by checking grammar books and dictionaries when they do not understand.
  2. The students’ language proficiency is good enough to express their ideas fully, especially for their academic writing skills
  3. Students understand and have experiences with various assessment tasks (purposes, formats and learning strategies to deal with them), such as short answers, essay, report and oral presentations.

For lecturers in other departments, it may be WRONG to presume that

  1. Students selected the university/subject/course by themselves based on their interests and employment prospects
  2. Students are in charge of their own studies; therefore, they are capable of or at least willing to planning, organizing and evaluating their own works
  3. Students know how to manage their supervisors/lecturers/team members
  4. Students appreciate team work
  5. Students will see or use for analysis the links and connections between different ideas/concepts and build their own arguments

In conclusion, we may underestimate the difficulty of transforming students from a system where ‘independent learning and personal judgement is not encouraged by the high-stakes examination’ to another academic setting where independent learning is highly appreciated. Therefore, being aware of these potential challenges the students may face after studying at RMIT may help lecturers understand better their own roles in their students’ learning process and offer assistance accordingly.

7 responses to “The implication of students’ high school experiences to their university lecturers”

  1. dominicmahon says :

    Interesting stuff, and perhaps fits in with Ian’s work on feedback. If student’s expectations are on right wrong answers in terms of feedback, then it is of course easier for lecturers to give feedback of this nature.

  2. Magee says :

    Thanks Wei, I’m quoting you in my essay in the learner profile/context section (hypocritically it is a retro fitted reference)

  3. MarkHersh says :

    Re: Vietnamese high school English teachers correct every sentence a student writes, and thus students at RMIT expect this practice to continue and think this is what good teaching is. This leaves us with a conundrum. I don’t see there is much evidence that just proof reading (as that’s what this is really, not correction), helps students to actually improve their writing. Yet, I admit it’s not at all easy convincing students to try a different way to improve: focus on just a few mistakes at a time (or fewer) with each assignment and do extra work on those mistakes – keep a grammar log with extra practice, use grammar worksheets on those problems. I’ve also suggested working with examples of good writing as models and use a recycling practice of noticing exercises with those models, etc. And finally I try to get them to just read more. A few do, and it’s inspiring when you find one that does get into something they found in the library, but a lot of them don’t. I’ve suggested and tried to model a double-entry diary approach in the classroom but it’s not always easy finding time in the program to get enough of that practice in. Yet, it strikes me as so crucial. Who can really improve their writing if they don’t read enough and actually enjoy what they read, turning over the ideas and words in their heads as they read?

  4. LSUvietnam says :

    yes. “double-entry diary approach” or “write and re-write approach” do not seem to work properly in this context, I have just conducted a small study with six students (3 good writers and 3 less successful writers) from level 6, regarding 1) how did they interpret teacher’s feedback on the first draft and 2) what strategies did they use to cope with these feedback in the second draft. The results will be published here soon.

    • MarkHersh says :

      Sounds good. I have had a little success with double-entry diaries along with a noticing approach/write – notice – rewrite – notice – rewrite approach. But yes, not for the majority of students. I wonder if it’s because I have to squeeze it in on the side or if it’s just that I’m not selling it well enough. My best success with these methods have been when students have come to me and asked how they can really improve their writing. I’ve had a couple who were really motivated and really listened and I worked with them a few times on these methods and they really did improve. So, motivation is also key. But I suppose one can take heart in small successes.

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