Reflections on Student Survey Results and Curriculum Development

(大学教育センター講師 Steve Urick)

 The General Education English Program at Shizuoka University consists of two courses, the Power English (PE) Course and the Standard English (SE) Course. All Faculty of Engineering students and about 80 percent of the students in the other five faculties are assigned to the SE Course. The PE Course is for students with higher ability and motivation, and consists of about 20 percent of the students in the Faculties of Informatics, Humanities and Social Sciences, Science, Education, and Agriculture. This article discusses results from a survey which was given to second-year SE students at the end of the second semester of the 2010-2011 academic year. 1,689 students were assigned to the SE Course in 2009, and 1,341 students responding to the survey.

 A more detailed report on the survey data, including statistical analysis, will be submitted for publication in a university journal in January, 2012. Here, I will not discuss all of the data, nor will I attempt to provide objective or conclusive analysis. However, as discussions concerning curriculum evaluation and development are underway at the university, it is hoped that some of the points raised here might function as food for thought.

 First, the data indicate that students are typically not at a high level of proficiency and do not have a strong affinity toward English. Only about 20 percent of the students reported scoring more than 550 on the TOEIC test that was administered at the end of the first semester of the 2009-2010 academic year. About 48 percent of students reported scoring under 450 points on this test. Only about nine percent of students reported having confidence in their English ability. A minority of students reported enjoying studying English (22.5%), enjoying reading in English (19.5%), enjoying writing in English (9.7%), or enjoying speaking English (16.3%). Only about 11 percent of students reprted that they wished they had had an opportunity to take more challenging classes.

 The most important issue raised by the SE student survey data is whether or not the SE program has been effective. Significantly, only about 40% of students reported that the SE program was helpful in improving their English. This contrasts starkly with the data from PE Course student surveys from the same academic year. About 82 percent of PE students reported that the PE Course had helped improve their English. SE students are required to take four classes over their first two years at the university. Many of them take two additional elective courses, raising the total number of classes to six. After this amount of coursework, only four in ten students are reporting that the program has helped raise their English ability. It seems to me that this is strong evidence that the current program is not reaching an acceptable level of success.
There are several factors which may be contributing to the lack of success of the SE Course. One is student motivation. It is quite possible that many of the students are not getting much from the English courses because they do not place a high priority on English learning, and consequently do not make an adequate effort to improve their ability though the courses they take. Another potential reason is that the course content may not always be appropriate, and may not be consistently taught in an effective manner. The level of coursework does not seem to be the problem, at least from the students’ perspective, as a majority of students (58.5%) reported that the level of the coursework was appropriate.

 It is possible that a lack of focus on communication is leading to the students’ perceived lack of achievement. For the PE Course, the focus on communication was found to be one of the biggest reasons for the positive appraisal from students. On the other hand, only about 22 percent of SE students reported using English for communication in the classroom. It reasonable to assume that coursework which fails to provide adequate opportunities for students to use English as a tool for communication will not be successful in helping students increase their communicative ability. The lack of communicative content may also contribute to a lack of motivation on the part of students, as they become weary of learning English as only “usage,” rather than “use.” However, this is only one of many possible explanations. Empirical analysis of the reasons for students’ perceived lack of progress in the SE Course will have to wait for a future report which includes statistical analysis. Unfortunately, even with such analysis, drawing strong conclusions about some issues may be impossible. Questions directly asking about motivation, for example, were not included in the survey.

 If one agrees that the SE Course needs to be changed, there are several different approaches which can be taken. One solution would be to require students to take less English classes. If a large part of the problem is indeed student motivation, offering fewer required courses and more elective courses may improve the efficiency of the General English Education Program. According to this line of thinking, motivated students would take more elective classes, and would be more likely to benefit from them. Students who did not want to take more than a minimum of courses could opt out after achieving a certain level of accomplishment.

 On the other hand, an opposing argument can also be made: If the program is not succeeding as it is, then the solution is not to reduce the number of required classes, but rather to improve the quality of classes. The argument is reasonable, especially if one perceives the goal of changing the curriculum to be raising the general level of English ability of the students. Yet, a concrete plan for improving course content and teaching has not emerged at this point–and given the difficulty in undertaking such a task, none may emerge in the near future.

 With regards to improving the content of the classes in the SE Course, it is possible that changing the SE program to focus more on communication would have a positive effect. Yet, for a number of reasons, this seems unlikely to happen. Many teachers are not accustomed to teaching with a communicative focus. There is also a common belief that students must reach a certain level of grammatical, lexical and phonological competence before they are able to engage in communicative activities. Certainly is it true that, given the English ability level of SE students, there are limits to the kind of activities they can partake in, and to the quality of that participation. Also, if a lack of student motivation is a large part of the problem, changes to the content of classes may fail to be effective. If students don’t have strong reasons for studying English in the first place, no amount of change in content may help improve the situtaion.

 In order for the ongoing currculum evaluation and development to lead to real improvements, two things are needed. First, we need a better understanding of the reasons that many students see that SE Course as ineffective. Second, through dialog and discussion, those involved in the process of curriculum review and development must aim to put in place specific goals for the SE Course, and for the General Education English Program. Is rasing the abiliby of all of the students the goal of the program, or should more energy be devoted to highly motivated students? Is communicative ability central to the program, or peripheral? Without first reaching some consensus on the answers to questions like these, it will be difficult to move forward. On the other hand, if a common understanding of the objectives of the General Education English Program can be agreed upon, finding the most effective ways to improve the program will be an easier task.