Improving the student experience through the IWLP Tandem Language Learning scheme

Ali Nicholson, International Study and Language Institute       ali.nicholson@reading.ac.uk 

Overview

Between 2016 and 2018 we have run a Tandem language scheme, whereby students studying a language with the Institution-wide Language Programme (IWLP) are paired up with a native speaker student, usually (though not always) a Visiting student.  Once introduced, the students spend one hour a week at a mutually convenient time and place for independent language practice, speaking 30 minutes in English, and 30 minutes in the IWLP target language.

Tandem Logo

Tandem language scheme

In 2016-17, a pilot scheme was run, involving only IWLP students of French and French native speakers, and this was supported by an International Study and Language Institute (ISLI) project fund. 40 students, or 20 paired ‘buddies’ enrolled.  In 2017-18, the scheme was rolled out to a further 6 languages offered by the IWLP (German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Arabic and Japanese) and around 100 students participated.  This phase was supported by a Teaching and Learning Development fund. The scheme for this academic year has just been launched, this time to include Spanish, so 8 Tandem languages will be offered.  Erasmus students were already enquiring about it in Welcome week.

Objectives

  • To increase the ‘resources’ offered by the IWLP to its students, at low cost to the University, thus improving the student experience of Home students
  • To improve the language learning of both Tandem ‘buddies’
  • To improve the student experience of international students by increasing their sense of belonging through linking them directly to ‘Home’ students
  • To increase intercultural awareness and competence of both parties

Context

  • The University of Reading has historically not been a particularly welcoming place for International students, falling in the bottom half of UK Universities for international students feeling at home, making friends with UK students and engaging with the host community, according to i-graduate International Student barometer research quoted by Vincenzo Raimo in his presentation on Global Engagement back in 2015. 
  • Erasmus students are regularly dismayed at the low number of contact hours offered by UK universities; French students, for example, are used to classes from 9am to 5pm or even longer, so are actively looking for extra activities to keep them occupied during the day.
  • In student evaluations from IWLP students, extra contact hours are often perceived as a way of improving performance, and in the current climate, additional contact hours by staff are simply not an available resource for clear financial reasons. 
  • Finally, in the UoR Curriculum Framework, global engagement and multi-cultural awareness are key attributes for UoR graduates to gain, and the Tandem scheme will help our students start to attain these desirable skills to enable them to become ‘global citizens’. 

Implementation

Students enrol on to the Tandem scheme through a simple online form.  The scheme is advertised to international students (for native speakers) through the Erasmus and Study Abroad Office in their Welcome Pack, through the Red Award magazine, and again through a short presentation in Welcome week.  International students are also sent emails by IWLP tutors, informing them of the scheme and inviting them to enrol.  Students studying languages through the Institution-Wide Language Programme (to form the other ‘half’ of the Tandem pair) are also invited by their tutors to enrol.  The Tandem scheme is available only to IWLP students from Stage 2 (Post beginners) upwards, as it is felt that absolute beginners would find the idea of a one-to-one with a native speaker somewhat daunting. 

Once enrolled, both the International students and the ‘home’ IWLP language students are invited to a short information session.  Here they learn about the process of Tandem learning and about some resources made available to them (a Blackboard Organisation which includes some optional ‘tasks’, plus a website they can use for inspiration of what to talk about).  Finally, with the atmosphere somewhat akin to Blind Date (for those who can remember that) or possibly Tinder, they are assigned their Tandem ‘buddy’.  They are asked immediately to exchange mobile numbers and to fix the first Tandem meeting.  It is recommended that this should take place within a week, and in a public place such as the Self Access Centre for Language Learning (EM230).

For the most part, Tandem buddies meet regularly and with no problems.  Sometimes it is the start of a true friendship; occasionally, due to lack of time or (once) conflict of personalities, the pair only met on one occasion, never to be repeated… 

My contact email is available to every Tandem student, regardless of language, and we offer to find a replacement partner if there is a problem. 

Students are invited to occasional social events and once a term, to a meeting to discuss the scheme in order to discuss possible improvements.  At the end of last year, a celebratory party was held where certificates were presented to students.

Impact

We sent out a survey to the students at the end of the Autumn and Spring term, so they could evaluate the scheme.  In December 2017, the overall rating for the Tandem scheme was 8.14 out of 10, where a rating of 0 was ‘terrible’ and 10 was excellent.   86% would recommend the scheme to others. In April 2018, the number recommending the scheme stayed constant at 86%, and the overall rating improved very slightly to 8.18.   78% stated that their motivation had increased in December, which increased again to 90% in April!   Speaking and vocabulary were the two aspects which were felt to have increased the most, closely followed by cultural awareness in December; in the April survey, speaking and pronunciation were felt to have increased the most, followed by listening, vocabulary and cultural awareness.

Most students completing the survey made positive comments.  Here are two examples:

“Thank you for creating such valuable opportunities. Please do continue to operate this wonderful scheme in the next academic year so that more students could benefit from it.”

“I guess the scheme itself is a wonderful opportunity for students to learn different languages and cultures.”

Reflections

The Tandem scheme is limited by the number of native speakers available.  However, as awareness of the scheme builds, hopefully more Home students who are in fact native speakers of languages other than English will also participate, rather than just Visiting students, so the scheme can expand.

There are of course other Tandem platforms available outside the University, such as online, but it seems that one of the main reasons for the success of this locally based Tandem scheme is the face to face relationships formed.  According to Doug Parkin (2017: 208) in his chapter on leading engagement: “there are four foundations or dimensions that help to optimise the student learning experience… (these are) motivation, relationships, environment and resources”.

Students want relationships with fellow students.  These fellow students (Tandem partners) are themselves a rich and accessible resource.  They are flexible and available on campus; and they provide both extrinsic motivation (exam results might improve/English language might improve) and intrinsic motivation (naturally satisfying to form a good friendship just because it is enjoyable). Thus, in the four dimensions proposed by Parkin, Tandem can contribute in a small but significant way to the student experience.

This year Tandem has moved on from being simply a language learning exchange.  Due to the imbalance between supply and demand, on occasion tandem pairs have been formed between for example Japanese-French; French-Chinese; and French-German.  Some Erasmus students requested more than one ‘buddy’.  In the first example, both students spoke good English, so they decided that instead of the typical French/English exchange, the Japanese student would teach beginner Japanese to the French student, and the French student would ask a lot of questions in French about Japanese culture.  This became a perfectly satisfactory exchange but was not the initial objective.  A flexible approach led to a successful mutual gain, certainly in terms of intercultural awareness.

Follow-up

In 2018-19, the Tandem scheme should be sustainable in terms of staffing resource, as most of the systems have been set up already.   More work will be done on raising intercultural awareness amongst participants, by producing an explanatory screencast and some optional tasks which tandem ‘buddies’ could complete in their pairs.   Last year’s students requested a little more input from staff, so two sessions will be offered this term, one to discuss how to handle error corrections and to recommend suitable discussion topics; a second session would be purely social.  Some students thought that changing Tandem buddies for the second term might improve the scheme.  It is important though that this scheme is publicised, for its success.  Please direct any interested native speaker students to me at ali.nicholson@reading.ac.uk.

Tandem students

Students receiving Tandem certificates – June 2018

Bibliography

Parkin, D. (2017), Leading Learning and teaching in Higher Education (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge)

http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/curriculum-framework/UoR_Curriculum_Framework.pdf

http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/staffportal/GE_Strategy_18Mar15.pdf

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