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The high cost of placing university students in the wrong English program



University students usually join English language programs because they need to attain a certain level to be accepted on their chosen courses.

A placement test is the first step on this journey. Before starting an Intensive English Program (IEP) or an English as a Second Language (ESL) program, students are assessed for their levels in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. This allows administrators to carefully assign them to a group where they will study English at the right level, alongside people with similar needs.

But what happens when this goes wrong and students are not placed in the correct levels?

The consequences can be extremely costly for students, universities and administrators alike. Here are the challenges universities face and the solutions they can implement.

WWhat happens when students are not placed correctly on an IEP course?
When it comes to misplacement on a course, it’s students who suffer the most. If they are allocated to a group that’s too low for them, they’ll spend more time on the program than necessary. As a result, they will likely lose motivation as the activities will be too easy. On the other hand, if they are placed in too high a level, they will probably struggle, fall behind and even fail their course. This could lead to losing a university place, or a big delay in starting.

Teachers also suffer the consequences of misplaced students. Firstly, students can become disruptive if they are struggling in a class (or finding it too easy). Teachers often have to adapt their classes and scaffold activities for individuals, making it much harder to do an effective job. Secondly, students often evaluate their teachers poorly if they are placed in the wrong level. While the content and teacher may be excellent, the student’s experience will be far from satisfactory. Teacher evaluations are often tied to compensation and employment opportunities. This can lead to further problems when it comes to career advancement.

It’s also a serious issue for administrators. Student misplacement can directly affect a program’s return on investment. Students are likely to drop out of courses if they feel they are too easy – or move to another school that better serves their needs if their class is too hard. Administrators will therefore miss retention targets and, ultimately, this will affect the university’s bottom line.

WWhat are the challenges of offering an effective English language placement test?
The downsides of placing a student in the wrong level are huge – but correct placement is much easier said than done. There are a number of factors that make accurate level testing a challenge.

SSkill variance
Students often test very differently across skill sets, making them very hard to place. For example, many students have strong speaking skills, but weak listening skills. Those with this particular issue will struggle in a classroom situation where they have to listen to complex lectures for long periods of time.

FFalse positives
IEP programs are seeing an increase in the numbers of “false beginners” from Asia in particular. These are students who have been exposed to English for years and, typically, have passive knowledge. Although they have memorized sets of irregular verbs, they can’t necessarily use the language actively or effectively.

VVocabulary
While students learn a lot of vocabulary in their English language programs, they often don’t have enough to prepare them for a degree-level course. Lecturers very rarely provide students with vocabulary lists ahead of reading tasks. Without this type of guidance, topic-specific reading is very difficult for ESL students.

AAcademic-level reading and writing skills
University level reading is extremely demanding and lecturers have high expectations for writing skills. While most English language programs teach writing skills, this includes a lot of narrative writing or very simple nonfiction writing. This is not well suited to students who need to be able to write research papers with citations and references.


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