Anna Wells (Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom). Academic Acculturation of Latvian Students at English-speaking Universities. – In: Languages and Cultures of the Baltic Region: Collection of Papers. Vol. 2. – Rīga: Sociālo tehnoloģiju augstskola (STA), 2007. ISBN 978-9984-39-253-0.
Latvia joined the EU in 2004, as a result of which it has became more accessible and affordable for students from Latvia to study at universities in Europe. This tendency is promoted by various European and Latvian agencies and therefore it is likely that the trend will accelerate. This has implications for teachers in Latvia preparing students for HE abroad.
This study has been taken to investigate the pre-conceptions of university students from Latvia who are planning to apply to British Universities, and to compare these pre-conceptions with the perceptions and experiences of international students from Latvia who are already in British Universities. The aim of the study is primarily to identify some of the needs of Latvian students at British universities, and to reflect on the implications for their at home pre-sessional training. In order to identify these needs, a Present Situation Analysis (PSA) and Target Situation Analysis (TSA) were conducted for the study. The PSA entailed administering a survey among Latvian students applying to British universities, while the TSA was informed by analysis of a similar survey among Latvian students from Latvia who were already students at British universities. The aim of these analyses was to highlight the pre-sessional academic needs of international students from Latvia and, more specifically, to investigate the kinds of lacks that would need to be addressed amongst Latvian students if they were to successfully adjust to the British academic environment.
The review of the literature, while being perhaps the most informative part of the study, had to be omitted due to the space constraints. It explained the origins of this research, development of the conceptual framework as well as emergence and rationale of the research questions. To keep this paper succinct I chose to focus on the report of the findings rather than technicalities of the research or theoretical discussion. Pedagogical implications are offered for all the interested parties including teachers of the English Language in Latvia. At present, the teachers of English in Latvia at secondary and especially tertiary levels are often responsible for directing their students if they wish to continue into HE in English-speaking countries but sadly, teachers sometimes lack suitable understanding of future student experience and therefore need to be better informed.
In order to collect information for this research two elicitation techniques were used: questionnaires and interviews. Multiple-choice questionnaires were administered within the two groups. Group 1 (here and further) consisting of students from Latvia who are planning to apply to British universities, and Group 2 (here and further) international students from Latvia who have been to British universities. Both questionnaires were divided into four parts to collect data on: preliminary Information, perceptions of workload and time management, demands of autonomy and more responsible learning, “Habits of mind” (adapted from ICAS publication 2000).
A number of short (20 min.) semi-structured interviews were conducted with some of the participants. Interviews were administered after the questionnaire data was processed. The main purposes of the interviews were to ensure that my interpretation of questionnaire answers was correct, to collect any relevant information participants were willing to share that was not covered by the questionnaires, to gain deeper insight into the participants’ current situations.
The following topics were introduced to the interviewees after the analysis of the questionnaires’ results:
As it is one of the themes of the study students were asked to comment on what they understood by acculturation. – academic acculturation
Academic acculturation of the foreign students in British universities is a narrower focus of the study and I wanted to find out what that process might involve for the participants. – terminology
Surprisingly, asking students to identify some of the terms that appeared in the questionnaires led to a serious discussion of terms identification during interviews.
I decided to use Focus Group Interviews (FGI) scenario. That allowed me to introduce topics into the discussion rather than ask questions. To take advantage of a Focused Group Interview scenario interviews were administered in an informal atmosphere with topics initiated rather than questions.
Findings for students’ expectations of university induction showed that the majority of Group 2 students rated it as ‘very helpful’, seeing it as a necessary buffer’ to have time to get accustomed to the physical and emotional atmosphere on campus, and meet future classmates and tutors. However, participants from Group 1 underestimated the importance of the induction week, most replying that they would attend ‘if they had to’ or ‘might attend’. Their perception was that induction week did not seem very helpful as an idea ‘because the studies don’t really begin then’.
Perceptions of workload and time management: The survey revealed that Group 1 participants expected to take more modules and to have more hours of class time than Group 2 participants reported to have had. At the same time Group 1 students did not think they would need much independent study time, whilst the majority of Group 2 students said they needed 20 hours a week or more. In general, it was evident that Group 1 participants did not expect to spend as much time on studying as participants from Group 2 reported.
By the same token, Group 1 participants expected to have fewer reading assignments then Group 2 participants reported to have had. They also expected to submit more written assignments each semester and of shorter length than Group 2 students have done. Unfortunately, this data is only true for those students from Groups 1 and 2 who applied to/studied in Humanities fields or Law. Science majors from Group 2 reported in interviews that their assignments were neither reading nor writing in its pure form, therefore some of them could not answer some of the survey questions, which led to having questionable data for this part of the research.
Demands on autonomy and self-directed learning: Interviews showed that Group 1 students did not understand the benefits that autonomous, more responsible learning can bring. It might be partially due to their professors who, according to interviews, tend to control their students, remind them of deadlines, and evaluate their progress sometimes in an emotional and aggressive manner. Findings were that most Group 1 participants expected to learn the most during class time, whilst Group 2 participants seemed to learn the most during homework and/or assignment preparations. However, interviews revealed that ‘learning’ was seen differently by the participants of the two groups. Group 1 students referred to learning as acquisition of knowledge. Some of the phrases recorded during interviews involved:
‘learning happens when I can remember information and put it in the right place in my memory’,
‘the teacher tells me what I need to learn … I learn it, I remember and I know it’,
‘I understand, then I must remember for a long time, then I know it’.
Group 2 students, on the other hand, mentioned:
‘occurrence of new exciting ideas’,
‘adjust old thinking ways’
In one of my study diaries my own words evaluated moments of origins of new ideas as ‘worth studying for’.
Half of the Group 2 participants believed that homework was given so that they could monitor their own progress and another half that its main function was to give students opportunity to practice what they had learnt. Whilst one half of Group 1 participants agreed with the latter, most of the others thought that the aim of homework was to show tutors students’ progress.
Group 1 participants said that they would need little library training or none, whilst most of Group 2 students reported to have needed much library training. Interviews with Group 2 participants confirmed that they expected the university library to be just like the library they were used to in Latvia, but in Britain, libraries proved to be different. One Group 2 student confessed to have taken a library training session 5 (!) times and every time found out something new. Other interviewees supported this view.
Finally, whilst participants from Groups 1 and 2 reported to be accostomed to writing in the same academic genres, interviews showed that their perceptions on the same terms were different. Group 1 and 2 participants named an essay as the most common genre of writing. Interviewees from Group 1 defined essays as:
‘a composition that needs to be divided into positives, negatives and general’
‘when you need to write both points of view then your own opinion’
‘it always has introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion’
On the other hand, Group 2 participants largely abstained from defining an essay but used phrases such as:
‘structured according to the purpose’,
‘has strict rules’,
‘is not easy because it needs ‘critical thinking’… the analysis’.
‘Habits of mind’: This section of the questionnaire revealed a number of discrepancies between the views of Group 1 and Group 2 participants:
Most of Group 1 participants responded in away that demonstrated their misunderstanding of the term ‘critical thinking’; they have admitted to not have known it.
Group 2 participants showed more awareness though could not prove that they understood the term precisely.
Almost all of Group 1 participants overestimated importance of grammar and correct English language in the grading of their essays in comparison with Group 2 participants. Interviews showed that tutors in Latvia valued grammatically and stylistically correct language at least as much as content. In fact, most students reported to having had 2 separate grades: one for ‘correctness’ of language, one for content. The resulting grade was an average of the two or one that leaned towards the indicator for ‘correctness’. In Britain, as Group 2 participants reported, content was valued above all, but grammar and style influenced the resulting grade a little.
This study did not focus on exploring learning strategies. Indeed a much deeper investigation is needed to provide evidence on learning strategies of Latvian learners. However, some speculations are possible based on the findings.
Most Group 2 participants reported never having had any time for slow and attentive reading, so when they chose to read the assigned texts, they tried to do so quickly, ‘skimming and scanning for the main point’. Some of the Group 1 participants said that their previous teachers awarded them high grades for ‘reading attentively’. More detailed discussion revealed that Group 1 students were unaware of the reading strategies that Group 2 students reported to have used as appropriate of their context.
Findings from the last question in regard to unintentional plagiarism spoke for themselves: 7 out of 10 participants from Group 1 decided that unintentional plagiarism was not possible; 2 were not sure and only 1 thought it was possible. In contrast, 9 out of 10 Group 2 participants reported unintentional plagiarism as possible and only one student was not sure.
Overall, significant discrepancies were found between the answers of the participants from Groups 1 and 2 in all four sections of the questionnaires and interviews. Interviews provided some insights into the possible causes of such discrepancies as further outlined in the Discussion of the findings.
Conclusions and implications
The following part offers some implications for Latvian teachers of English on the secondary and especially those preparing students for further education in Great Britain. Most of the recommendations that have arisen from this study are highly contextualized and have resulted from subjective interpretation of the data. The pedagogic implications may be subjected to the constraints that Latvian teachers face in their working environments, but nevertheless, they may provide some insights into how to enhance the educational experiences of Latvian students and make their academic acculturation easier. This study identified two main foci that students from Latvia and their tutors need to address in the context of academic acculturation to the British universities. 1) Acquisition of more appropriate habits of mind for study in HE. and 2) a more responsible and autonomous approach to learning.
Firstly, there may be low initial motivation to study amongst Latvian students to acquire different ‘habits of mind’ as they did not perceive the benefits. Tutors therefore need to raise students’ awareness about different thinking habits that may be needed in a different country. To increase their motivation tutors will need to clarify that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ ‘habits of mind’. But the ones that are culturally-preferred.
Due to the highly professional and lengthy general English at home instruction Latvian students may soon realize that on average their linguistic competence is higher than many EAP students’, but high linguistic proficiency is merely a tool to express the ability to ‘think critically’ that is the basis of the ‘habits of mind’ preferred by British tutors. Richards, R. (2004) believes that ‘it is not the case that international students lack the ability to think deeply and critically, but rather that they may be unfamiliar with the cultural norms and expectations for developing and expressing such thought in the particular context of higher education, and/or, more specifically, in a context of their subject discipline’. (p. 54)
There are reasons for the lack of the Latvian students’ understanding of British universities demands for being autonomous learners. Group 1 students failed to see the benefits for being more responsible as students, and therefore appeared to have low motivation to acquire a more autonomous approach to learning. I believe that, just as with the habits of mind, tutors would have to use entire range of motivational techniques available. Personally, I also believe that inspirational examples from other international students might be more convincing than tutors’ explanations.
Another reason for Latvian students’ high reliance on the tutor might be due to the model of co-dependent teacher-students relationships sometimes practiced in Latvia. Based on my professional experience, teachers in Latvia on secondary level do not foster independent attitudes of their students and this appears to be supported by the study. I believe it to be a gap in teacher education that needs to be addressed if Latvian instructors are to form students compatible on a European level.
Students such as those in this study would also benefit form self-reflection as autonomy practice: portfolios, log books, diaries and study journals have long since established its place in academia as a successful tool for fostering autonomy among other principles of successful learning.
In conclusion, I need to apologize for sounding prescriptive in the last part of my paper. My objective is not to highlight the shortcomings of local educational system, but to emphasize the difference between the academic cultures that creates a certain gap. It may interfere with Latvian students’ success at British universities. The gap needs to be narrowed if we (language teachers and researchers) are indeed ‘to reform the structures of its higher education in a way compatible with other EU countries’ (Confederation of EU Rectors’ conferences and the association of European universities (1999)).
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