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    Listen: Tutor discusses research aimed at boosting international students' understanding of in-person lectures

    5 March 2024

    A podcast has heard how a tutor at Harper Adams University worked with her international students to identify and tackle barriers to their understanding in in-person lectures.

    English for Academic Purposes tutor Anna Llewellyn-Smith works with both undergraduate and postgraduate international students at the University and she set out in the L&T Chat Show podcast how she worked with a  group of 48 Chinese students from Beijing Agricultural University, whose final year of their studies is undertaken at Harper Adams thanks to a partnership between the two institutions.

    Her research – which took the form of a questionnaire and focus groups with the students – sought to examine what issues arose for students when they were receiving in-person lectures, some of the ways in which the way lecturers spoke could affect things – and some of the small changes lecturers could make to help boost their students’ understanding.

    She told podcast host Roger Saunders: “I thought it was really important that I heard what the students felt themselves, instead of imagining their barriers, so that was an important approach for me.”

    With more than 60 per cent of the students involved returning their questionnaires, Anna set out to record the issues they raised – and the broader themes students felt influenced their understanding.

    She said: “There were 10 main perceived barriers that they were reporting, and they emerged as the main ones, because from the rankings and analysing the data that I got, I isolated the significant or extremely significant barriers that they mentioned.”

    The barriers students identified in the research were:

    • The use of idioms
    • Unfamiliar content
    • Technical terms
    •  Lack of intonation – or if the intonation wasn’t particularly stark or marked
    • Strong accents
    • Limited use of paralinguistic features, such as eye movements or gesturing
    • Limited use of word stress for key words or key concepts - which need to be stressed so students can isolate key parts of the message
    • Limited use of discourse markers - phrases such as ‘next’ ‘the final point is’ – which students use navigate where the lecture is going
    • The overuse of colloquialisms
    • And lectures which used a fast spoken speed.

    Anna discussed how, while students had developed the relevant academic English skills they needed for their degrees, there were other varieties of English which they needed to draw on in their time at University – whether this was social English for interactions in seminars or in group work or colloquial English which was used in lectures.

    She also discussed how she had presented her work both at Learning and Teaching forums at Harper Adams and at a conference in Leicester since its completion – and some of the changes which students had suggested lecturers could make to help which had been identified in her work.

    She said: “They are asking for the use of hand gestures and facial expressions, they’re begging for slower speaking speed, they want topic sentences on PowerPoints, for example, to be highlighted – all the things that came out as issues, they’re asking staff to do, providing English subtitles and things really as well.”

    “What has happened so far, we’ve had communications with various tutors who are wondering how the students can be helped – so we have responded in my department with some of this data and these suggestions.

    “We’re at the early stages so it would be very nice to see – perhaps survey the students from this cohort this year, and see if there have been any changes, if they are better able to understand lectures, if any of these suggestions have been implemented.

    “The staff are very receptive – I think it’s a case of us all being on board, we all want to help, we’re just navigating how can we do it to best effect – and spreading the word, really!”

    In presentations on her research, Anna has been keen to underline its importance in enhancing the student experience by boosting accessibility and inclusivity - and that, while her workmay have focussed on one particular group, these small tweaks to lecture delivery would benefit all students.

    Listen to the full podcast here:


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