In Autumn 2014, the Department of Chemistry welcomed their first cohort of final year students studying for the [3+1] BSc Applied Chemistry course from NUIST, China. By January, we could already see that there were some valuable lessons that we could learn from these students. We decided to carry out a review, asking all students involved for feedback on the year. So we could reward them for their time and input we applied for PLanT funding and were successful.
This PLanT project was in collaboration with Shuwen Ma (a student from NUIST), Kirsten Hawkins (a third year home student) and Amie Parker (a second year home student), all from the Department of Chemistry.
Aims and Method
Our objectives were to: (a) determine the impact of the cohort of students from NUIST on our current third-year home students; (b) find out what preconceptions our second-year students had; (c) determine the parts of the year the students from NUIST found the most challenging and what we could offer to support future students. In order to achieve this, we organised three separate working lunch sessions with each of the three peer groups (second year/third year home students and the NUIST students) led by the students named in the PLanT proposal. During these lunches there was a brain-storming session where students were asked their opinions on a variety of topics and then wrote their notes on giant post-its.
This approach was extremely informative with regards to the home students. The students from NUIST were less forthcoming with information, so in the end in addition to the working lunch we sent them questionnaires that they returned anonymously.
Analysis of the results showed that there was one main overriding theme between all three cohorts, namely the importance of English language skills. In the case of the home students, the level of English was important from a day-to-day perspective. The second years, with whom the next cohort of NUIST students would be integrating in 2015/2016, were concerned that the NUIST students would not be able to communicate effectively therefore there would be minimal integration so classes might become segregated, something they wanted to avoid. The third year students who had experienced mixed classes with the NUIST student in 2014/2015 said that the language barrier was not an issue in lectures, but made things difficult in practical classes due to the communication required between students and staff.
The NUIST students themselves also said that language was an issue and that although they had learnt English in China and had fulfilled the University’s requirements for English, they struggled due to the big difference between day-to-day English speaking and the technical language required for completing the degree course. However, the students all agreed that the help offered by the ISLI was invaluable. The English courses in the Autumn term were extremely helpful and that their English skills and confidence had dramatically improved over the year.
Additionally the students from NUIST were very worried about their final examinations, even though part of their final year grade was based upon coursework. We attributed this to two main reasons; the first came down again to lack of confidence with the English language, and the second was the difference in the education systems between the UK and China.
Written examinations in China differ significantly from UK style exam questions. In the UK students are required to recall information and apply it in unfamiliar situations, whereas in China many exams involve simple knowledge recall. Throughout the year the Chinese students completed tutorial questions of a style similar to the examination questions at the end of the year, to prepare them for the different assessment approaches. Our international support tutor provided additional classes and made video recordings of lectures. The English language tutor analysed our exam command words and trained the NUIST students in understanding the different requirements of words such as ‘explain’, ‘describe’ and ‘analyse’. However, the students were still concerned that they would not understand the questions they were being asked and they would be slower at the exams due to the language barrier, so might run out of time. Although we had anticipated that English language would be a problem and had tried to put support mechanisms in place, such as translating key chemical vocabulary, we were not fully prepared for the impact of this.
The information we have gained from all year groups has been extremely useful and will definitely be used to help future cohorts of students settle into University life. In terms of new initiatives for next year, we will try to implement the following:
- A “buddying system” where current third year students act as guides to the new NUIST students.
- Additional exam-style questions for the students to use a practise once they are in the UK
- Contribute UK style examination questions to examinations set and sat in China so students are better prepared for their examinations in Reading.
- Organisation of laboratory classes to promote cross-cultural exchange but avoid handicapping home students.
- A greater emphasis on the technical language required for chemistry
- Informal drop-in sessions where students can come and ask for help if they need it