The Power of Collaboration: Reflections on St Andrews EAP conference by Bruce Howell & Aaron Woodcock (ISLI)

In February 2016, we presented at a one-day English for Academic Purposes (EAP) conference at St Andrews University, showcasing Reading’s ‘English Language for Chemists’ module, a collaboration between the International Study & Language Institute (ISLI) and the Department of Chemistry.  As it turned out,  collaboration between EAP and subject study departments, and its power to enhance teaching and learning (T&L), was key thread running through all the presentations we saw that day.

About the conference

The conference is an annual event for professionals working in EAP in English language departments and units across the UK and further afield, who undertake activities similar to ISLI’s Pre-Sessional English (PSE) and Academic English Programme (AEP). There are in fact a number of such conferences each year in the UK, and many attract participants from abroad. It is increasingly recognised that there is a need to support students whose first language is not English who arrive in the UK as a full time student, or (increasingly) as part of a Trans-National Education (TNE) programme. One question many leaders of T&L are asking is how to incorporate EAP into existing degree teaching – should it be extra-curricular or should it be integrated into the degree itself? The conference theme attempted to tackle this challenge: ‘Finding the balance: language and content in EAP’, and thus provided an ideal opportunity for us to share ISLI’s experience of collaborating with Chemistry.

Our presentation: ‘Designing a subject-specific EAP course for Chemists’

We outlined the content of the module, showing samples of teaching materials, and explained the story of the module’s creation. We emphasised the central role collaboration had to play in the creation and running of the module: both collaboration between the University of Reading and Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology (NUIST), and collaboration between ISLI and Chemistry. The latter in particular was central to delivering a module that teaches English that is both relevant and achievable. The collaboration ultimately won ISLI/Chemistry a University Collaborative Award for Outstanding Contributions to Teaching and Learning (2014-2015).

The ‘English for Chemists’ module (CH3ENG) was created for the 2014/15 session onwards as a result of forward planning:

  • Chemistry staff members visiting NUIST and meeting Applied Chemistry students as well as their lecturers
  • Chemistry staff members discussing any ‘gap’ of attainment likely when the 3+1 students arrive for Part 3 (thereby recognised that EAP support would be a necessary component)
  • Chemistry working with ISLI to create 20 credits’ worth of study designed uniquely for the NUIST  students arriving for Part 3.

Two types of essential skill were identified as areas which would normally have been covered or developed during Parts 1 and 2:

  • language functions, such as explaining chemical reaction processes, clear pronunciation, effective speaking in groups in labs
  • important Chemistry skills, such as safety regulation awareness, Chemistry-specific IT, generic study skills.

The decision was therefore made to create two 10-credit modules, the former delivered by ISLI (CH3ENG), and the latter by Chemistry (CH3NUI), requiring further joint planning to take place, ensuring the modules complemented each other but did not overlap. An example of this would be ‘avoiding plagiarism’, which could equally be considered ‘language’ (ISLI) or ‘general study skills’ (Chemistry). In order to avoid repetition and retain a balance the ‘avoiding plagiarism’ objective was placed within the CH3NUI module. Close monitoring has taken place during the first 2 years, and gradual developments are ongoing, for example a greater emphasis on writing short examination-type responses will be given in CH3ENG.

Presentations from other universities

EAP taught on its own as a subject, as in most Pre-Sessional English courses, usually results in a ‘generic’ form of English teaching, i.e. activities which require academic skills such as structuring writing, using references, presenting clearly, and contributing to seminar discussion. Topics and formats tend to be closer to social science(s) than pure sciences because of the likelihood that the topic areas are ‘common knowledge’. Generic EAP would involve studying texts and writing essays on ethical business, education approaches, employment patterns, and the like.

Contributions to the conference made it clear that ‘imbedded’ In-Sessional English is a fast-growing area of interest for many EAP professionals, and this conference gave an opportunity to share best practice in giving English language support to students learning specific subject areas. For instance, colleagues from the University of Manchester presented on two projects: a masters level ‘Principles of Scientific Writing’ for Chemistry, and the challenges of providing English language support for mathematicians. Colleagues from the University of Edinburgh posed interesting alternative views on to what extent Academic English lecturers can or should comment on the content of students’ writing, and colleagues from the University of Leeds are launching a brand new discipline-specific Pre-Sessional English programme, which has involved close collaboration between the English language centre and subject departments across the university.

Common sentiments expressed were:

  1. a) collaboration between English language and subject experts is vital
  2. b) a ‘blinkered’ subject focus is not enough (as with many professional roles these days): EAP lecturers need to have some interest in or knowledge of specific academic subjects, while subject lecturers need to have some interest in or knowledge of the language issues of international students
  3. c) teaching and learning leaders in UK universities often do recognise – though could perhaps recognise more – the importance of integrating language and study skills support into TNE programmes, rather than offering ‘extra-curricular’ opportunities
  4. d) ideally, staff in both EAP and subject departments should be involved in planning and delivery of certain modules, even at times ‘team teaching’ or ‘team marking’, though this clearly has resourcing implications (utilising PhD students as tutors can be a good solution).

Reflections and follow-up

ISLI at Reading already has an expanding range of subject collaborations as part of the AEP programme, with an increasing number becoming credit-bearing. Food and Nutritional Sciences has a long-standing 2+2 arrangement with Henan University of Technology central to which is an embedded credit-bearing EAP module, while Reading has plans to expand its 3+1 provision with NUIST in other subject areas. This seems to be in step with other UK universities, and there will be more of such possibilities growing in future.

Meanwhile, ISLI are currently looking into developing a more subject-specific PSE programme, and will therefore be closely watching developments of the new subject-specific Pre-Sessional English programme at Leeds.

Perhaps the most significant expansion of this type of activity will be seen at the Malaysia campus, where students will benefit from carefully planned English language and study skills input both before and during their degree courses, and will feature inter-campus as well as inter-departmental collaboration.

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