Transcription

Journal of Academic Language & LearningAssociation for AcademicLanguage and LearningVol. 11, No. 1, 2017, A58-A70. ISSN 1835-5196Academic Language Support for At-RiskStudents: REACHing FurtherAnn Dashwood and Jeong-Bae SonSchool of Linguistics, Adult and Specialist Education, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba,Queensland, 4350, AustraliaEmail: [email protected] and [email protected](Received 8 August, 2016. Published online 26 April, 2017.)In the Australian higher education context, academic language competence isone of the keys to success for students in their degree programs. Students withunderdeveloped communication skills in the relevant discourse communityare at risk of not meeting minimum standards in their university courses.REACH (Retention – English for Academic Completion Help) is a set of academic language modules embedding relevant language strategies into coursecontent related to course assessment. It was developed at an Australian university for students at risk of not continuing their participation through failurein a first-year course. This article outlines the REACHing Further stage of theREACH project and presents data collected for part of the evaluation of theREACH approach while discussing the distinctive contextual academic language support in the academic disciplines. REACHing Further increased accessibility to the REACH modules online and provided an online facilitator.This article reports that those students who were engaged with the REACHmodules generally valued the support and expressed the view that they wouldrecommend others to participate in future. Although the overall engagementby the identified target group was low compared with the mainstream studentsin the courses selected, examiners and tutors of the target courses indicatedthat the REACH modules were well linked to the course materials and suggested that students should use them more actively. It is recommended that amore interactive, systematic and personalised approach needs to be attractively presented to the target groups and individuals while also researchingeffective ways of offering academic language support.Keywords: Academic language strategies, at-risk students, retention, Englishfor academic purposes, academic writing, online resources.1. IntroductionThe university environment in Australia is expected to provide learning outcomes that incorporategeneric skills applied in the subject disciplines in each course for all students, irrespective ofpersonal context and means of entry to the university (TEQSA Act 2011, 2015). The requirementof language competence inherent in academic disciplines cannot be taken for granted, yet it makesstrong demands on the level of scholarship required of students to complete courses in their degreeprograms. With a recognition of the importance of academic English language proficiency, levelsof unsatisfactory performance by students across disciplines has initiated a shift in orientation notonly to the provision, but also to the outcomes of in-course academic support.A-58 2017 A. Dashwood & J.-B. Son

A-59A. Dashwood & J.-B. SonREACH (Retention – English for Academic Completion Help) is a program of online modules ofacademic language strategies providing self-support to students early in their courses as progressive steps towards successful completion of their university courses. Originally developed at theUniversity of Southern Queensland (USQ), the REACH project consists of academic Englishstrategies embedded in discipline-specific courses (Dashwood, Dickson, & Harmsworth, 2016).By engaging in REACH, at-risk students are guided in their use of academic English skills inselected disciplines. With strategic critical skills of language use (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991)for academic purposes, students should become more familiar with academic expectations andmore autonomous in their management of information. Researchers agree that an embeddedmodel, in which skills are developed as an integral part of the study program (Wingate, 2006), ismore effective than generic skills training as a means of guiding students into the “secondarydiscourses” (Gee, 2015, p. 95) of university.REACH adopted the mantra of “Read, Think, Write, Share” (adapted from Brandt, 2009) and asequenced approach of preparation, presentation, practice and evaluation, which is an adaptationof the cognitive language strategies model developed by Chamot and O’Malley (1987). As outlined in Figure 1, each REACH module presents strategies to be applied specifically to courseassessment items. The format of actions follows a sequence of reading critically, using academiclanguage in making notes, and writing academically to communicate effectively in the discipline.The mantra “Read, Think, Write, Share” was used as a mnemonic throughout the REACH program, as a recursive reminder to students of this habit-forming communication skills strategy(Dashwood, Dickson, & Harmsworth, 2016).Figure 1. The REACH mantra repeated as a mnemonic in each module.REACHing Further is a subsequent project with online enhancements of REACH undertaken inresponse to the need for extra academic support for at-risk, low socio-economic status (SES) andnon-English speaking background (NESB) students. REACHing Further involved collaboratingwith course examiners and tutors, integrating academic English language activities into the targeted first-year courses and aligning language skills with the genre of specific assessment tasks.It also required identifying at-risk students in the courses, tracking their academic performance,and monitoring their academic writing in the course over the semester. In outlining the REACHingFurther project, this article presents the results of part of the evaluation of the project and discusses academic language support in higher education.2. Academic language supportThe need for additional academic language support to students at risk of not completing theirdegree courses at universities has been widely highlighted in the literature. Early studies focussedon the language needs of English language learners from traditionally non-English speaking backgrounds. Griffiths (2003) identified a positive correlation between course level and reported frequency of language learning strategy use. In a study involving 348 students in a private languageschool in New Zealand, language learning strategies were reported as more frequently used by

A-60Academic Language Support for At-Risk Studentsadvanced students than by elementary students, particularly in interactions with other students, invocabulary, in reading, in tolerating ambiguity of language forms, and in the use of resources.A number of studies support the idea of linking the development of academic language skills todiscipline-specific academic activities and/or assessment tasks in particular. For example,Brooman-Jones, Cunningham, Hanna, and Wilson (2011) reported on a case study of embeddingacademic literacy through the integration of assessment into two discipline subjects in a businessdiploma. The results of a simple questionnaire with 79 students indicated that the students werepositive (76-86%) about the value of the integrated assessment. Similarly, Harris and Ashton(2011) explored integrated and embedded learning support in a core management unit of the MBAat Edith Cowan University over a period of three semesters. The support involved the services ofa learning advisor, curriculum design, assessment renewal, and class presentations. They claimedthat the approach to embedding language and academic skills was successful and would be extended to other core units.Attempts at weekly one-hour tutorials have been tried by Dunworth and Briguglio (2010) in theirpilot project called Starting University Confidently and Competently English Support Scheme(SUCCESS). Out of 287 students who were identified as requiring additional English languagesupport and who finished a final writing task, 45 students completed a survey and generally indicated that the SUCCESS intervention was valuable, but the final writing test was stressful. Johnston (2011) has described a first-year student support strategy called Supporting Academic Success (SAS), which was introduced by academic language and learning staff at the University ofSouth Australia. Based on data collected from retention and success rates, telephone interviews,online surveys and staff feedback, she argued that the early intervention had only a minor impacton marks, but was effective in improving retention and success.Kennelly, Maldoni, and Davies (2010) examined a discipline-based program embedded into afirst-year unit at the University of Canberra. The discipline-specific program was named UnitSupport Program (USP) and consisted of a one-hour workshop held each teaching week. Theiranalysis of student attendance, assessment data, student evaluations and reflection of peer teaching practices indicated that the program improved student learning outcomes, yet many at-riskstudents did not attend the USP workshops. Concerning non-attendance at the USP program,Kennelly and Tucker (2012) compared irregularly attending students with regularly attending students and identified aggregated reasons for non-attendance given by their students to be: paidemployment; lack of motivation; inability to understand teachers and classmates; possibility ofeventually passing without attending the USP; and delays in starting the semester work.In an attempt to improve student participation and to provide support to low SES backgroundstudents, Thies (2012) embedded academic literacies into a core course in a first-year unit inHealth Sciences at Deakin University. She recommended a whole-of-institution approach to embed academic literacies in curriculum renewal as implemented in Harper and Vered (2017). In adifferent context, Wingate, Andon, and Cogo (2011) evaluated an academic writing interventionoffered to first-year undergraduate students in an applied linguistics program through the analysisof data from teacher notes, a student questionnaire, interviews with students, samples of students’scripts and feedback comments of teachers. They reported that overall both students and teachersperceived the embedded writing instruction positively and that the most valued aspects by thestudents was the assessment feedback.In another discipline, Mort and Drury (2012) described and evaluated a discipline-specific onlinereport writing resource for undergraduate science and engineering students. The resource wastitled “Write Reports in Science and Engineering” (WRiSE) and was presented as a website. Itcontained nine modules from seven disciplines, used animated explanations, interactive quizzesand exercises with feedback, and edited audio interviews. The results of their evaluation showthat WRiSE users attained higher marks overall than non-users in report assignments. Similarly,Nallaya and Kehrwald (2013) looked into the adequacy of a Language Literacies Learning (L 3)website initiated by the University of South Australia and the scaffolding of academic literacies

A-61A. Dashwood & J.-B. Sonvia the Moodle-based website designed to introduce associated academic literacies through models and examples. They collected data from an online survey and semi-structured interviews andconcluded that the online platform was valuable for students in the development of their academicliteracies, although there were issues of raising students’ awareness of the existence of the websiteand making the architecture of the website more user-friendly and efficient to offer the range ofresources.The growing literature suggests that students who are strategic in their use of academic skillsutilise online resources that they perceive are relevant to their coursework and assessment. Conversely, at-risk students with low academic performance from SES and NESB backgrounds andweak academic literacy skills are less strategic on average in engaging with support designed tocomplement the reading and writing demands of their courses. Additional research is thereforeoverdue to find the means of attracting at-risk students to seek out resources available to them atany time they require and for them to become aware of the connection between the use of supporting resources such as the guiding REACH modules and the advantages of accessing themroutinely.3. The study3.1. AimsThis study aimed to evaluate the REACHing Further project by analysing student engagementand experience with the REACH modules for developing their writing skills and enhancing theirperformance over a semester (15 weeks). It also investigated the views of examiners and tutorson the role of the REACH modules in supporting students’ development of relevant academicEnglish strategies in three targeted courses. As a basis for the evaluation of the project, data werecollected within the framework of mixed methods research.3.2. Participants in REACHing FurtherOut of 1048 students enrolled in the three targeted courses with highest attrition in their separateprogram disciplines (ENG1002 Introduction to Engineering and Spatial Science Applications;LAW1101 Introduction to Law; and MGT1000 Organisational Behaviour), 145 students wereinvited by the project team through emails and phone calls to participate in the REACHing Furtherproject in Semester 2, 2015. The process involved identifying NESB, low SES and students newto the culture of university, all with a Grade Point Average (GPA) of 4 or less.1 Among the 145students, 10 students dropped their courses during the semester and only 24 students (13 femalesand 11 males; mean age 25, ranging from 18 to 45 years) accepted the invitation and filled in aconsent form. Their participation involved reading the REACH modules each week of the semester and participating in academic language activities related to their assignments; having theirwriting on assignments analysed for academic proficiency; providing their views on the additionalacademic support through a questionnaire; and, for some on-campus students, participating ininterviews to respond to questions about their academic needs and use of the REACH modules.The students consisted of 6 native speakers of English at-risk of failing, 4 native speakers ofArabic, 2 native speakers of Punjabi and 12 native speakers of other different languages. Althoughseveral attempts to encourage and increase student participation were made, the targeted at-riskstudents’ participation rate (17.8%) was very low. Together with the on-campus students, severalteachers who were involved in the teaching of the three courses and an online facilitator were alsoinvited to participate in interviews.1The University uses a 7-point grading scale where 7 is the highest grade, 4 is the lowest passing grade,and grades of 1, 2 and 3 are all failing grades.

A-62Academic Language Support for At-Risk Students3.3. Materials and proceduresREACH is ten online modules of strategies and discussion forums with a facilitator who respondsto students’ questions online. Academic English strategies are embedded into the undergraduatecourse content and presented in modules which are designed, written and implemented to assiststudents to complete their assessment items successfully. Although not part of this evaluation, theproject team also wrote scripts designed for tutors and created four-minute video clips of strategicfeatures of the updated REACH modules. The clips offered tutors a demonstration of exemplarsof the REACH strategies in action in which a tutor engaged two students with a targeted academicstrategy using the metalanguage of learning by questioning, sharing and evaluating.The modules were available online within each course’s Moodle site (called StudyDesk) to everystudent in the target courses, while at-risk students were specifically invited to use them. For thecourse offerings during the project period, the REACH material was updated in line with thecourse assessment tasks for the Semester 2, 2015 teaching period and placed on the targetedcourse StudyDesks by the Course Examiners. Students therefore had 24/7 access to the modulesand one hour per week of online facilitation was added to the project to provide additional assistance in reading comprehension, writing and oral presentation tasks associated with the assessment tasks.At the beginning of the semester, the project team contacted and invited the students to theREACHing Further project and to its online modules. During the semester, the online facilitatormonitored the students’ engagement with the REACH modules and responded to students’ questions. At the end of the semester, five types of data were collected from students:1. an online questionnaire containing items on academic language skills and strategies;2. samples of assignment writing;3. record of online engagement with the REACH materials;4. academic performance measured by grade point average; and5. interviews with course examiners, tutors, the online facilitator and on campus students.4. Results4.1. Online questionnaireAn open invitation to participate in an online questionnaire was sent out to all 145 identified atrisk students. The questionnaire consisted of four sections: Section 1 – biographical information;Section 2 – self-rating general academic skills; Section 3 – self-rating writing competence; Section 4 – scale of importance of particular academic strategies in the REACH modules; Section 5– open responses to types of academic support expected in REACH. Twenty-three students fromthe three courses (13 females and 10 males; mean age 33.7, ranging from 19 to 51 years) completed the online questionnaire. They consisted of 11 native speakers of English, 3 native speakersof Hindi, 2 native speakers of Chinese, 2 native speakers of Vietnamese and 5 native speakers ofother languages. In the self-ratings of language and academic skills, most students indicated thatthe levels of their English proficiency, academic study skills, academic reading skills, academicwriting skills and digital literacy were acceptable, good or very good. In another question askingwhether they had a plan to address problems in their writing, interestingly, 13 students (56.5%)indicated that they were uncertain and 4 students (17.4%) indicated their disagreement, suggestingthey had no plan.Table 1 shows that the students generally considered writing skills to be more important thanreading and presentation skills. In line with the importance of assignments, reading the assignment question and knowing how to do the tasks were also considered very important by 17 students (73.9%) and important by 5 students (21.7%).The results of the students’ responses to their overall experience with the REACH modules areshown in Table 2. The average ratings of their responses ranged from 3.2 to 3.7, indicating a

A-63A. Dashwood & J.-B. Sonmoderate level of uncertainty tending towards general agreement that there were benefits derivedfrom the REACH modules for specific purposes, particularly with Items 1, 2, 3 and 4. To the firststatement (Item 1), “It was valuable to have the REACH modules,” for example, 13 students(56.5%) agreed/strongly agreed, while 7 students (30.4%) were uncertain. The second statement(Item 2), “It was beneficial to participate in the REACH project”, generated similar responses,where 12 students (52.2%) agreed/strongly agreed and 9 students (39.1%) were uncertain.Table 1. Responses to the importance of skills and strategies (N 23).Reading the assignment question andknowing how to dothe tasksKnowing the meaning of the key termsin the moduleReading fastReading for accuratemeaningWriting useful notesfrom the readingsand lecturesWriting a good paragraphWriting my assignment in a logical sequenceDesigning my ownpresentationMaking a presentation in a groupSummarising mainideas and key pointsVery ImportantImportantNeither Important norUnimportantUnimportantVery embering how touse a formula or recommended methodin a test129110(52.2%)(39.1%)(4.4%)(4.4%)(0.0%)Studying effectively1012100(43.5%)(52.2%)(4.4%)(0.0%)(0.0%)

A-64Academic Language Support for At-Risk StudentsTable 2. Students’ responses to items on the REACH modules (N 23).1. It was valuable tohave the REACH modules.2. It was beneficial toparticipate in theREACH project.3. The REACH modules have helped me todevelop my academiclanguage skills.4. The REACH modules were helpful indoing the course assignments.5. The contents of theREACH modules wereeasy to understand andfollow.6. It was helpful tohave an online facilitator.7. The REACH modules and activities metmy expectations.8. The academic language and learningsupport I have received has motivatedme to continue tostudy.9. My academic English has been improvedas a result of theREACH modules andactivities.10. Overall, I am satisfied with the lculated using Strongly Disagree 1; Disagree 2; Uncertain 3; Agree 4; Strongly Agree 5.The questionnaire also contained six open-ended questions. The first question asked the studentswhat aspects of their academic English skills they found the most challenging; 14 students out ofthe 23 students mentioned writing skills, while other students mentioned several other skills suchas speaking, paraphrasing and understanding context. The second question asked which modulesin the REACH program were the best for them to participate in. Their responses included assignment and exam modules (5 students), writing and structuring paragraphs (3 students) and other

A-65A. Dashwood & J.-B. Sonmodules (1-2 students each). On the other hand, the students’ responses to the third question asking what they did not like about the REACH program included “Nothing” (9 students), “Too muchcontent” (4 students), “Not really helpful for assignments” (2 students) and other individual comments (1 student each). When the students were asked whether they thought that academic language support such as the REACH program is important to the success of their study, 16 out ofthe 19 students who responded to the fourth question indicated “Yes” and generally pointed outthat the academic language support helped them understand and improve the writing skills theyregarded as being very important in doing assignments. Through the fifth question, they also indicated that they would recommend the REACH program to other students. For example, onestudent made the following comment: “Definitely to people who are struggling with the languageand who are not familiar with what is required from them as they either are out of touch withacademic writing or have grown up in a different educational environment to what is required inAustralia.” Another student also wrote: “I recommend this to all to the current students and futurestudents.” Seven students responded to the question inviting further comments and showed theirappreciation for the support and the REACH program.4.2. Assignment writing samplesNineteen students submitted writing assignments (although 24 students participated in the program, 5 failed to submit their writing assignments). These assignments were assessed using amarking rubric adapted from Dunworth and Briguglio (2010). The rubric had four marking criteria: task fulfilment; organisation, coherence and cohesion; grammar and vocabulary; and mechanical accuracy (e.g., spelling, punctuation). The students’ first and final writing assignments in thesemester were profiled by three markers. The average mark of the 19 students was 3 (out of 5) onall criteria on both writing assignments. In other words, there was no change in the scores and nonoticeable improvement in their writing profiles over the short period within the semester.4.3. Online engagementThe online facilitator created and facilitated online discussion forums and monitored students’online engagement with the REACH modules. Table 3 shows the average number of site hits perstudent and indicates that the students’ overall participation rates were low and the at-risk students’ average hits were lower than the non-at-risk students in two of the three courses.Table 3. Average number of hits per student visiting the REACH site.Participants (at-risk students)Non-participants (non-at-risk students)Totalnumber ofhitsNumber ofstudentsAveragehits perpersonTotal numberof hitsNumber ofstudentsAveragehits 36.1MGT10002354.66251135.54.4. Academic performanceAll at-risk students who had submitted the consent form passed the courses that were supportedby the REACH program. Among those 24 students, only 9 students had a registered GPA at thebeginning of the semester. The other 15 students were not selected in the sample reported in Table4 because they were newcomers to university study in Semester 2 and therefore did not have arecord of fail grades when the REACH support commenced in the three targeted courses. Table 4shows that the 9 students received passing grades of 4, 5 or 6 (out of 7) in the course supportedby REACH. It also shows that the students’ final GPAs are overall higher than their initial GPAs,except one student (Student #9) with a slightly lower final GPA. The average of the initial GPAswas 3.00, while the average of the final GPAs was 3.63.

A-66Academic Language Support for At-Risk StudentsTable 4. Course Grades and Grade Point Averages (GPAs).aStudent #GenderAgeCourse GradeaInitial GPAFinal .81Course grade: 7 High Distinction; 6 Distinction; 5 Credit; 4 Pass; 3 or less Fail.4.5. InterviewsSemi-structured interviews were conducted with three on-campus students, three course examiners, four tutors and one online facilitator. The on-campus students showed a lack of familiaritywith the REACH materials and said that they only used the materials for specific information onhow to solve an assessment item or prepare for an exam. A quick solution to the content of thediscipline often took priority over developing the communication skills involved. This findingconfirms the Devlin et al. (2012) advice that recognised how time poor at-risk students report theyare. Academic language support that is not mandatory appears generally to be accessed by competent students who actively seek effective strategies. Those who are struggling with content mayneed additional guidance to work through the strategies that are offered before they recognise anylonger term benefits in the course and in their studies overall.The course examiners were highly supportive of the REACH modules. Two course examinersrelied on the REACH modules for providing students with a reference guide to the academic language skills that were not explicit in their course materials. The examiner of the Engineeringcourse identified that “the best part of REACH is targeting the language in the question and deconstructing meaning clearly for the students as it relates directly to the course content and dovetails into the assessment”. He claimed that academics do not have time to demonstrate as well asREACH does how to clarify “technical words, build vocabulary, infer meaning in the readings”.He also said, “I would get the tutors to use the videos to introduce the academic language strategies concepts.” Similarly, the examiner of the Business course stated, “REACH helped me toknow how important scaffolding is; also how to break down the skills of report writing of a casestudy.” She said that she had adjusted the organisation of the course using “the REACH pack ofhow to unpack assignment tasks, to be discerning, to make judgements from readings, to selfassess, to reflect”.The tutors expressed the view that there was a strong link between the course materials and theREACH modules and it would be of benefit to keep the REACH modules closely integrated intothe course. An Engineering tutor described REACH as a “support system on the StudyDesk: that’simportant and it runs in parallel with the course”. She added, “It’s a comfort for diligent studentsto refer back to. One of my mature-aged ESL students used all sections of REACH because shehad to reset her whole way of processing English from her first language in setting out her Engineering problem.” Another Engineering tutor said, “The fact that it was targeted to each activityI think was good because it did allow people to pick and choose, so it does mean they can pop inand out if they’re particularly struggling to process how to approach an assignment they can

A-67A. Dashwood & J.-B. Sonjust target that. So I do like that aspect of it.” The tutors were also concerned about the challengeof getting students to participate in activities that are neither readily visible to access nor assessed.Their observations are supported by the following comment by a Law tutor: “Sometimes we overrate the online. These students are online all the time, but they aren’t online on StudyDesk.They’re online on Facebook, movie r

(2011) explored integrated and embedded learning support in a core management unit of the MBA at Edith Cowan University over a period of three semesters. The support involved the services of a learning advisor, curriculum design, assessment renewal, and class presentations. . Wingate, Andon, and Cogo (2011) evaluated an academic writing .