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ESP Students Learning Preferences : Are the Teachers Aware?
Dr. Siti Hamin Stapa
Faculty of Language Studies
Students learn in many ways by seeing and hearing; reflecting and acting; reasoning logically and intuitively; memorizing and visualizing. Teaching methods also vary. Some instructors lecture, others demonstrate or discuss; some focus on rules and others on examples; some emphasize memory and others understanding. The students bring with them their own learning preferences, and how much they manage to learn depend partly on students ability and prior preparation and also by the compatibility of his or her characteristic approach to learning and the instructors characteristic approach to teaching.
The different ways of how a learner acquires, retains and retrieves information are collectively termed as learning styles or learnning preferences. According to Reid (1998) learning styles are internally based characteistics, often not perceived or consciously used by learners, for the intake and comprehension of new information. In general students retain these prefered learning styles despite the teaching styles and classroom atmospheres they encounter, although the studnets may, overtime, acquire additional styles.
In making decisions regarding the types of activities to be used in the classrooms the teachers should take into account the preferences of the students. As Corder states :
In the end successful language teaching-learning is going to be dependent upon the willing co-operation of the participants in the interaction and an agreement between them as to the goals of their interaction. Co-operation cannot be imposed but must be negotiated (1977:3).
The quotation above stressed the importance of co-operation and it should not be imposed but negotiated in language classrooms it should be negotiated between teachers and learners so that effective language learning can take place. Information has to be exchanged about roles and expectations, both teachers and learners awareness of each others needs and resources has to be raised and compromises have to be reached between what learners expect and want and what the teacher feels he/she can and ought to provide (Brindley, 1989). The teachers should find out the students language learning preferences then only decisions on the types of activities can be made. And this is crucial because students come to the language classrooms bringing with them not only the diversity of cultures but also a learning and language diversity that needs to be addressed, particularly since students tend to experience the highest levels of frustration in their language learning when learning needs, learning styles, and expectations are not met. And according to Nunan (1989), accommodating learners needs and preferences is vital in designing a learner-centred curriculum.
Learning styles have been widely researched in the area of educational psychology (Claxton and Murrell, 1987; Schmeck 1988) and specifically in the context of language learning (Oxford, 1990, Reid, 1987, Stapa 2000), and over 30 learning style assessment instruments have been developed in the past three decades (Guild and Garger 1985).
Over the years researchers have started to work on the learning preferences. Reid (1987), for example, did a survey based on the findings distinguished four perceptual learning modalities:
She then did a survey to 1,388 students of varying language backgrounds to investigate their preferred modalities. The findings revealed that learners preferences often differed significantly from those of native speakers of English. They showed a general preference for kinesthetic and tactile learning styles, and for individual as opposed to group learning.
Willing (1987) investigated the learning styles of 517 adult ESL learners in Australia. Based on the findings, he identified that the differences in cognitive learning styles affected learners preferences in six different areas:
A study conducted by Barkhuizen on the learners perceptions on ESL teaching/learning activities revealed that perceptions of teachers and students differed greatly from each other.
The objectives of the study are :
The subjects for this study are 53 students who were doing a course called English for Hospitality Purposes offered by the Faculty of Language Studies, National University of Malaysia and three teachers who were teaching these students. The reason for selecting these students is because of the nature of the course they were taking where a lot of activities like pair work, group discussion and role play are involved.
The students and the teachers were asked to answer a 13 items questionnaire (Brindley 1984). The questionnaire has two versions : the first one was designed for the students, while the second one for the teachers. Apart from addressing and reference conventions, the versions do not differ significantly. Only items 3 and 4 were not included in the teachers version, because they are relevant to students only.
Basically the questionnaire has three major sections : Learning, Error Correction, and Assessment and/or Evaluation. The Learning section is divided into two subcategories : Course Content and Non-course Content. Course Content includes strategies for learning through the four basic skills, learning and expanding vocabulary, the use of audio-visual aids, and general L2 improvement. While the non-content looks at individual preferences in actualizing the Course Content subcategory. The questions asked are whether the students prefer to work in pairs, groups and other questions.
Presented here are the results for each item, beginning with Item 1, being one of the Non-course Content items, students were asked to express whether they preferred working individually, or in any other way, and whether their instructors were in fact aware of that. Results for this item are presented in the table below:
Table 1: Working Styles
The results for this item suggest that students generally prefer to work in pairs (79%), or in small groups (98%). Similarly, all teachers believe that students prefer working in pairs and in small groups. This correlation indicates teacher awareness of students' preference regarding in-class learning. It is obvious that students do not like working in large groups, and their teachers are aware of that. This is a clear message to the teacher that students feel more comfortable, productive and relaxed by working in pairs and in small groups, where their voices would be heard, and views listened to and valued.
For Item 2, learners seem to be divided on the issue of homework. With Item2, learners were asked if they wanted work assigned as an outside classroom activity. The results can be observed in the table below:
Table 2: Preference for Homework
As can be seen, 58% of the learners believed that some sort of outside classroom activity would be helpful to their learning, while 42 did not hold this belief.
With Item 3, we try to see how students would like to utilize the time they allocate for homework. Their options are (1) preparing for the next class, (2) reviewing the day's work, and (3) other. The results received for this item are illustrated in the table below:
Table 3: Time Allocation for Homework
72% of the students give priority to Option (1), that is, preparing for the next class session. 45 would like to utilize this time reviewing the days work. Learners may usually be inclined to finish a task in the classroom, and spend their outside-classroom time working on new topics. Assignments concerning future topics, with new insights and views added seem to appeal more to students.
Moreover, when this issue involves native speakers in the process, it becomes more attractive and appealing. A rather wide-spread belief among learners is that outside-classroom interaction and communication with other (native) speakers contribute greatly to their L2 competence and performance.
Table 4: Learning Inside/Outside Classroom
Students, by 87%, expressed their attitude towards a non-classroom-centred learning. The results received by teachers (67%) display a significant correlation with those of students. Teachers' awareness of learner preference is heartening, since now they can work on ways that would enable learners to utilize outside-class time most efficiently.
With Item 5, students were asked whether they like learning by (1) listening, (2)reading, (3)repeating what they hear, (4)listening and taking notes, (5)copying from the board, and (6)making summaries. The results for this item are presented in the table below:
Table 5: Ways of Learning
94% of the students prefer learning by reading. As indicate by the response, this preference is known by their teachers (67%). Apart from reading students preferred to learn by listening (85%). They indicated that they preferred listening and taking notes as a medium for them to learn. Low percentage received for making summaries (42%).
Vocabulary learning is a complicated task, though many may perceive it as simple. The learner has to perform several tasks when learning a new word: spelling, pronunciation, stress, grammatical class, semantic category, in combination with other semantic and grammatical elements in the sentence, and possible contextual occurrence in various situations. Thus, a language learner, attempting to learn a word, may overlook these characteristics of the word, and remain content with one or two. With Item 6, we wanted to find out as to how learners would like to learn new vocabulary. The options are: "by using the word in a sentence," "thinking of relationship between known and new," "saying or writing the word several times," "guessing the unknown," and "reading with no dictionary help." Results received for this item can be observed below:
Table 6: Vocabulary Learning
Option one is preferred most by the students (98%) and this is also agreed by the teachers when all of them believe that the students prefer to learn vocabulary by using new words in a sentence. Option two also received a rather high percentage by the students. However, this is not what the teachers think how their students learn vocabulary (only 33%).
As in any other field, errors in language teaching, learning, perception and production are inescapable. What is important though is coping with them in such a way that they do not frustrate, inhibit and/or discourage language learners. With Item 8, learners were asked as to how they would prefer to be corrected by their instructors. Results concerning this item are cited in the table below:
Table 7: Error Correction
As is shown, 77% of students would like to be corrected by their instructors in private. And teachers, all of them, are aware of this preference. However, quite a number of students do not mind having their instructors correct them publicly. Our belief is that error correction, made immediately, or later, does not have much impact on learners L2 competence and performance as do manner, approach and attitude of the teacher during the error correction process. To reiterate, the approach of the teacher is of crucial value here.
Item 8 is also related to error correction. Here, students were asked whether (1) they would mind if corrected by other students, or (2) asked to correct themselves. In the table below, we cite the results about this item:
Table 8: Peer Correction
As can be observed here, only 19 students (36%) would not mind having their written work corrected by other students. However, here teachers are not aware of the students preferences when it comes to peer corrections. Regarding correcting their own work, students, only 28% indicated that they would gladly correct themselves with no external intervention, and teachers shared this view with their students.
With Item 10, we asked learners whether they like learning from (1) television/video/films, (2) radio, (3) tapes/cassettes, (4) written material, (5) the blackboard, or (6) pictures/posters. The results received for this item are given in the table below:
Table 9: Media Preference
Television and video, being powerful media, receive a high percentage of preference (94 from students, and 100 from teachers). We can observe that Option 4, 'learning from written material', also received relatively similar percentage of preference: 77% from students, and 100% from teachers.
Item 10 delves into what learners find very useful in the classroom: (1) role play (2) language games, (3) songs, (4) talking with and listening to other students, (5) memorising conversations/dialogues, (6) getting information from guest speakers, (7) getting information from planned visits, (8) writing a learning diary, and (9) learning about culture. Pertaining results are illustrated in the table below: [-8-]
Table 10: Learning Activities
The striking point about these results is that students believe that role play is most beneficial among the options cited here. Students express this belief by 92%. Teachers, in fact all of them, are aware of such a preference, and provide situations which lead to student-student activities.
Another activity that received high percentages from both students and teachers are language games (74% and 67% respectively). This showed that students prefer to be directly involved in the language rather than teacher controlled classroom.
With Item 11, we asked about assessments: how would learners like to develop an idea about their language competence and performance. Their choices were: (1) through written tasks set by the teacher, or (2) ability to use the language they have learnt in real-life situations. Results are presented in the table below:
Table 11: Assessment of Language Performance
When this question was posed to the students, they responded by showing their preferences towards option one (77%), and the data from the teacher showed that the are aware of this. The response for the second option is not really different from option one when 74% of the students prefer this option.
The satisfaction learners get from their L2 performance varies from student to student. Some are after high marks; some after command of L2; and some after both. With Item 12, learners were asked if they get a sense of satisfaction from (1) having their work graded, (2) being told that they have made progress, or (3) feeling more confident in situations which they found difficult before. The results received are given in the table below:
Table 13: Expression of Satisfaction in Progress
49 students (92%) feel satisfied having their work graded and this is agreed by the teachers. 43 students (81%), feel satisfied being told that they have made progress and this is also agreed by the teachers.
The findings obtained from this research provide some significant value, suggesting that:
Effective language teaching and learning can only be achieved when teachers are aware of their learners needs, capabilities, potentials, and preferences in meeting these needs. In this study, we have only dealt with the preferences. Here, we have observed that students preferences do indeed correlate with those of teachers in many instances. The results obtained here call for a step forward towards a teacher-student co-operation in designing syllabuses, doing weekly course planning, and classroom management.
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