Higher Ed SIG: Student Perceptions of Weaknesses in Mainstream STEM Classes


Jennifer Rockafellow, Purdue University Calumet

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Jennifer is Assistant Director of the English Language Program at Purdue University Northwest. She joins ITBE with 13 years’ experience in ESL education, including IEP, adult education, ESP, and advising and mentoring of international students. She is currently serving as Higher Education Special Interest Group Leader and looks forward to contributing to and learning from colleagues within the organization.
Student Perceptions of Weaknesses in Mainstream STEM Classes
During the fall 2015 semester Heather Torrie, Continuing Lecturer, and Jennifer Rockafellow, Assistant Director, both from the English Language Program at Purdue University Calumet, conducted an anonymous survey of 131 graduate and undergraduate ELP alumni to gauge their attitudes about perceived difficulties in mainstream STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes. The results of the survey are useful not only as a method of understanding how IEP alumni fare in university-level academic classes in math, science, and engineering, but can also be used to inform IEP curricular changes, introduction of new courses, and creation of class materials that will help students to practice the skills that will be most relevant and applicable to their future courses of study within STEM fields.

It is interesting that regarding mainstream classes, 69% of students reported that understanding course concepts was more difficult than the language used in instruction of those concepts.  The vast majority of students (92%) also rated their overall success as equal to or better than that of their American classmates, perhaps suggesting that they while they sometimes struggle with understanding new concepts, they do not perceive that they struggle to a greater extent than their American classmates.  However, when asked to describe their weaknesses in mainstream STEM classes, several trends emerged. 

Trend #1

A major trend in the data was that students reported an inability to understand written test questions or the expectations of a particular assignment or problem as well as issues with completing exams within allotted timeframes. Specifically, 16% of respondents commented on their inability to understand test questions, while 12% noted difficulty finishing test questions within allotted time. They used phrases like “sometimes even understanding what the question requires us to do is a challenge,” and “understanding test question and directions are [sic] more difficult.” Another major concern for the students surveyed was the inability to finish exams within time limits. They made comments that it was difficult “finishing tests within the time limits because I need more time to read than English native speakers.” 

Implications for IEPs: Increasing attention to timed readings as well as focusing on activities designed to improve reading for speed may be helpful. Regarding testing, it may be beneficial to enforce time limits or even reduce time limits on IEP tests in advanced levels to realistically mirror expectations in mainstream classes. Students may find it helpful to experience a variety of testing formats, with instructors providing samples of good/average/poor student work to demonstrate appropriate responses to questions and prompts. Rubrics providing clearly articulated expectations may also assist students in determining how to organize their responses, and in-class practice quizzes or dry runs may help to familiarize students with testing formats they may not be accustomed to before taking high-stakes exams.

Trend #2

Inability to understand rapid speech and technical vocabulary was another area of concern for non-native speakers in STEM classes. Of the students surveyed, 45% reported perceived difficulty in understanding technical vocabulary and phrases, expressing that they wish instructors would “give us class presentations in simple grammar” and “use plain English and if he used an expression or a technical term, he will explain it [sic]”. A concern that many students raised is that they understand the underlying concept, yet they still struggle to discuss problems using appropriate vocabulary and have an inability to describe their decision-making process to others. Another commonly reported weaknesses was the ability to listen while simultaneously taking notes (14%).    

Implications for IEPs: Class visits to mainstream lectures and daily note-taking practice in advanced IEP classes using authentic class lectures that are not adjusted for speed, vocabulary, etc., may help students in their ability to multi-task simultaneous listening and writing skills. To strengthen vocabulary skills, in-depth study of STEM vocabulary when teaching from books with thematic units on math/science/engineering topics including incorporation of the Engineering English Word List can be helpful. Students may also benefit from introduction of collocates associated with STEM vocabulary items or even creation of workshops or courses that focus on vocabulary development within various academic fields.  In direct response to this feedback over several semesters, the English Language Program at Purdue University Calumet developed a new elective course specifically designed to give students a preview of STEM-related vocabulary and practice in articulating concepts they are likely to encounter in STEM courses. 

Trend #3

Difficulty in communicating with professors and classmates was another area in which many students self-reported difficulty. Roughly 50% of the students surveyed reported difficulty in giving presentations, and class participation was one notable area in which 30% of the students surveyed felt they performed at a lower level than their native English-speaking classmates. Students noted a tendency for professor-driven curricula in STEM courses and wished for more opportunities to interact with classmates with statements suggesting that professors “make international students participate in class,” “ask more teamwork with different country students [sic],” and “let students participate in class to see what are the deficiencies [sic] of the course.” Students also reported hesitancy to ask questions in class, but appreciated their professors’ willingness to review concepts and answer questions outside of the classroom.

Implications for IEPs: As always, encouraging active participation amongst small groups of linguistically diverse students should be encouraged so as to lower affective filters and reduce anxiety associated with communicating with other students and professors in classroom settings. Required participation or regular feedback regarding a student’s participation can help acquaint students with American classroom culture.  Incorporating oral skills such as discussion and presentation across the IEP curriculum may also help students to become more confident public speakers.

While the trends outlined above were reported by students within the STEM fields, the comments provided give valuable insight into areas in which post-IEP students struggle in mainstream classes. Using authentic student feedback is an effective way gauge perceived weaknesses and to ensure instruction addresses the most commonly reported weaknesses.  Through analysis of data and student comments, IEPs can tailor curriculum to ensure instruction is relevant and useful for students in their future academic careers.

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ITBE Link - Spring 2016 - Volume 44 Number 1