Challenges of academic listening in English: reports by Chinese students
Academic listening plays an important role in an ESL university student’s academic success. Research in EAP has begun to show that ESL students have difficulty in English academic listening at American universities. Chinese students, who are from a different educational system and cultural environment, experience particular challenges in English academic listening. This study focuses on their challenges as reported by Chinese students in understanding English lectures. Seventy-eight Chinese students at an American university were asked to complete a questionnaire that consisted of 30 items and an open-ended question. Most of the items required them to mark their responses on a five-point Likert scale.
This paper focuses on American classroom instructional factors that Chinese students report affect their English academic listening. Chinese students report that the following instructional factors affect their English academic listening at an American university: 1) lecture organization, 2) use of textbooks, 3) blackboard writing, 4) lecture summary, 5) amount of student participation, and 6) amount of group work. The paper offers suggestions for American professors about how to make their lectures more accessible to Chinese students.
Listening has been regarded as the most frequently used language skill in the classroom. It plays an even more important role in one’s academic success than reading skill or academic aptitude (Conaway, 1982). Research shows that English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students have difficulty understanding academic lectures at American universities. Chinese students, who are from a different educational system and cultural environment, experience particular challenges in understanding academic lectures in English. The question of which factors affect their academic lecture comprehension merits closer examination. Recognizing their challenges in understanding English lectures is the first step; the next is to discover the sources of these challenges and to propose solutions. This study reports the sources and suggests solutions to challenges of academic listening as reported by Chinese students at an American university.
Academic Listening: Definition and Importance
Listening purposes vary according to whether learners or not are involved in listening as a component of social interaction. Brown and Yule (1983) classified listening functions or purposes as interactional and transactional. The purpose of interactional listening is to engage in social interaction. Participants usually make these interactions “comfortable and non-threatening” and their purpose is to communicate “good will” (Richards, 1994).
In contrast, the purpose of transactional listening is primarily to communicate information. Accurate and coherent communication of the message is required. It is important for the listener to get the direct and exact meaning of the message in transactional listening. For example, news broadcasts, lectures, descriptions, and instructions are all transactional uses of language (Richards, 1994). “Speakers typically go to considerable trouble to make what they are saying clear when a transaction is involved, and may contradict the listener if he appears to have misunderstood” (Brown & Yule, 1983, p.13).
Transactional listening is common in academic listening. Academic listening involves listening and speaking tasks in university classes. According to Flowerdew (1995), it has its own characteristics and places special demands upon listeners. To be a successful academic listener, a student needs relevant background knowledge, the ability to distinguish between important and unimportant information, and appropriate skills like note taking. Richards (1983) also suggests many micro-skills are required for academic listening: the ability to identify the purpose and scope of a lecture, the ability to identify the topic of a lecture and follow topic development, the ability to identify the role of discourse markers in signaling the structure of a lecture (p. 229).
Academic listening plays a crucial role in a student’s academic success. In a study by Powers (1985), American and Canadian professors of engineering, psychology, chemistry, computer science, English, and business rated listening and speaking highest when asked to give the relative importance of listening, speaking, reading, and writing for international students’ success in their academic departments.
Educational research has indicated that native speakers of English often have trouble comprehending university lectures (Brown, 1998). Research in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) has begun to show that ESL students have great difficulty in understanding academic lectures at American universities. Ferris and Tagg (1996) investigated university professors’ views on ESL students’ difficulties with listening tasks. Instructors at four different institutions and in a variety of academic disciplines responded to questions and provided comments about their ESL students’ listening skills. All respondents reported that their ESL students had great difficulty with listening comprehension, responding to questions, and class participation.
Among the ESL learners in American universities, Chinese students are the largest group. Data from Open Doors (2001) shows that the two world regions sending the largest proportions of students to the US are Asia and Latin America, and students from China are the largest single group. Investigating factors that affect Chinese students’ challenges of academic listening in English has important educational implications for American university educators.
Learning in Different Cultural Contexts
Academic listening is one component of academic learning. Tweed and Lehman (2002) argued that academic learning varies depending on the cultural context. A Confucian-Socratic framework was used to analyze the influence of different cultural contexts on academic learning. In this framework, Socratic-oriented learning involves “overt and private questioning, expression of personal hypotheses, and a desire for self-directed tasks” (p. 93). Confucian-oriented learning involves “effort-focused conceptions of learning, pragmatic orientations to learning, and acceptance of behavioral reform as an academic goal” (p. 93).
Socrates (469-399 BC), a Western exemplar, valued the questioning of both his own and others’ beliefs, the evaluation of others’ knowledge, self-generated knowledge, and teaching by implanting doubt. Confucius (551-479 BC), an Eastern exemplar, valued effortful learning, respectful learning, and pragmatic acquisition of essential knowledge (Tweed & Lehman, 2002).
Confucius’ philosophy has a strong impact on Chinese people’s viewpoints, ways of thinking, and behaviors. His philosophy of learning can be summarized as “effortful learning, behavioral reform, pragmatic learning, acquisition of essential knowledge, and respectful learning” (Tweed & Lehman, 2002, p. 91). Confucius stressed the importance of hard work. He believed that one’s success came mainly from his/her hard work not his/her ability. He also believed that “behavior reform is a central goal of education because virtuous behavior can ensure individual success and societal harmony” (p. 92). Confucius valued pragmatic learning. He viewed the goal of learning as to competently conduct oneself within a civil service job. He stressed the acquisition of essential knowledge and respectful learning. He taught his students to respect and obey authorities. He once said that “to honor those higher than ourselves is the highest expression of the sense of justice” (Confucius, 1947, p. 332). When they come to American universities, many Chinese students bring a Confucian-oriented perspective to their learning, while their professors may have a more Socratic orientation.
Distinct Characteristics of Academic Listening
Academic listening has distinct characteristics and places high demands upon listeners (Flowerdew, 1995). It requires listeners to have relevant background information on the lecture delivered. It also requires listeners to be able to distinguish between what is relevant and what is not relevant because an academic lecture contains both relevant and irrelevant information on the topic discussed. Academic listening contains long stretches of talk when listeners do not have the opportunity to engage in the facilitating functions of interactive discourse, so it places high demands upon listeners.
Flowerdew and Miller (1997) described some additional features that differentiate authentic lecture discourse from written text or scripted lectures. An authentic lecture is often structured according to “tone groups” and in the form of incomplete clauses. It is often signaled by “micro-level discourse markers” such as “and,’ “so” “but” “now” “okay.” What’s more, in an authentic lecture, speakers use many false starts, hesitations, corrections, and repetitions. Speakers often organize their thoughts poorly and present their ideas in complete grammatical sentences. This makes it difficult for the listeners to understand the information delivered in the lecture.
Finally, Ferris and Tagg (1996) comment that there is frequent “give” and “take” between teacher and students in an academic classroom situation. This includes formal, planned lecture material, informal questions or comments from the students, and unplanned responses to students by the professor. During these give-and-take activities, students become more involved. On the one hand, they have to actively participate in these activities; on the other hand they have to comprehend what is going on in class and try to get the important points of the lecture. So understanding lectures poses formidable challenges for ESL students, even those highly proficient in English.
Effects of Lecture Organization on Academic Listening
Academic listening comprehension is often difficult for ESL students for many reasons. First, their difficulties come from the English language itself. English creates challenges for them (Brown, 1994). For example, a new word, an unfamiliar pronunciation, or a complex sentence structure can cause challenges for them in understanding an English lecture. Second, there are obvious difficulties for non-native speakers in understanding academic lectures. Benson (1989) identified the following difficulties in a case study: the new content, the unfamiliar background, and the American lecture format. Third, ESL learners have challenges in understanding academic lectures because they do not have the appropriate learning strategies or skills. Ferris and Tagg (1996) concluded in their survey study that ESL learners’ difficulty would be reduced if they had effective learning strategies and good preparation for the subject-matter lectures in EAP classes.
The organization of academic lectures is an important factor that affects ESL learners’ comprehension. In a study of lecture transcript analysis, Lebauer (1984) commented that many non-native English-speaking students, who are not aware of the standard organization of an academic lecture or the conventions and cues which signal important information in lectures delivered in a foreign language, face problems in academic lecture comprehension.
The purpose of academic lectures is to teach content matter, and to have information presented, understood, and remembered. The structuring or organizing of a lecture is an essential aspect of its comprehensibility (Chaudron & Richards, 1986). Cook (1975) describes the “macro-structure” of a lecture as being composed of a number of “expositions.” These consist of an optional episode of expectation, an obligatory focal episode, an obligatory developmental episode together with optional developmental episodes, and an obligatory closing episode. At the level of micro-structure, episodes are described in terms of moves. For example, a concluding move is a justificatory statement, a focal episode with a concluding function, or a summary statement.
Diamond, Sharp and Ory (1983) suggest that effective lecture preparation and delivery can be arranged under the following three stages: 1) the beginning; 2) the body; and 3) the closing. In the beginning stage, the lecturer usually relates lecture content to previous class material, mentions the background of the current lecture, or gives students a brief introduction of the content of the current lecture. In the body of the lecture, there is some flexibility for the lecturer to present the content. The lecturer can either decide the main points and explain them clearly to the listeners or organize the material in some logical order such as “cause-effect” “time-sequential;’ etc. During the lecture the lecturer may ask questions to check on students’ understanding of the lecture or ask them to make their comments. In the last stage of the lecture, the lecturer may briefly summarize the content of the lecture or reemphasize what he or she expects students to learn from the lecture.
Therefore, if students have some knowledge about the organization of an academic lecture and they are familiar with different stages of a lecture, they may be better able to infer relationships between different sections and gain a solid understanding of the content.
Chinese Students in American Classrooms
Chinese students often feel uncomfortable with the students’ behavior in American classrooms. Upton (1989) argues that Chinese students at American universities have a negative reaction toward American students’ behavior. Students are late for class. They may ask the teacher questions or make jokes in class. All these behaviors are considered rude and disrespectful in Chinese classrooms. In American classrooms students can challenge their professors at any time by interrupting them and asking them questions, which makes Chinese students feel that students do not show any respect for their professors.
Chen (1985) also reports that Chinese students do not feel comfortable with American students’ self-centeredness. Students come to the classroom as individuals, may study whatever subjects they are really in and not care what other people think of them. After class, they may pay no attention to what their fellow students are doing. In China, students care what the teacher and other students think of them. If students cannot correctly answer the teachers’ questions in class, they think that they have “lost face” and feel embarrassed and even ashamed. They are often afraid of making mistakes (Ma & Huang, 1992).
America and China have different cultures and traditions. The roles of the teacher, for example, are defined and interpreted differently. Fu (1991) argues that in Chinese culture there is lack of the spirit of equality in the classrooms. Teachers are regarded not only as authorities in their field of study but also as students’ moral mentor. But in American classrooms, there is a more equal relationship between teachers and students. While Chinese teachers are always serious and focus on lecturing, American teachers often use humor and varied, informal teaching methods in the classroom. Differences in teaching style comprise a significant cultural difference for Chinese students (Upton, 1989).
ABOUT THE STUDY
To date, some studies have been conducted on Chinese students’ general academic learning challenges at American universities (Chen, 1999; Feng, 1991; Sun &Chen, 1997; Zhong, 1996). Little research, however, has been conducted on the factors that affect their English academic listening. To contribute to understanding Chinese students’ academic listening problems at American universities and to recommend solutions, the following research questions guided this study:
1) What are the specific challenges that Chinese students report result from the English language in their understanding academic lectures at an American university?
2) What are the specific non-linguistic challenges reported by Chinese students in comprehending academic lectures?
3) How do different types of Chinese students report these challenges that affect them?
4) What is the main source of their challenges: linguistic or non-linguistic? And
5) Given the answers to questions 1, 2, 3, and 4 above, what do Chinese students suggest would improve their academic listening?
The participants of this study were 78 full-time Mainland Chinese students who were enrolled during the 2000 winter semester at an American university. Among them, 46% are students of Arts, and 54% are students of Science. About 77% are graduate students, and 23% are undergraduates. About 72% of the participants have been in the United States for more than one year, and 28% are in their first year of study in the US.
A questionnaire was used to elicit the Chinese students’ frank opinions concerning what their difficulties in understanding English lectures at an American university were and what suggestions they would raise for both themselves and their American professors. In order to collect more accurate data, the questionnaire was translated into Chinese before data collection procedures. The questionnaire consisted of three parts. The first part collected personal, demographic information including gender, major, years at the school, years in the US, and TOEFL scores.
The second part consisted of two sections, each of which dealt with one of the sources of Chinese students’ English academic listening challenges (linguistic and non-linguistic). The total number of items in this part was 30, and item types varied. Under each item space was provided for the participants to make additional comments. Twenty-five items required the Chinese students to mark their responses on a five-point Likert scale; three items required them to rank order categories; two were multiple-choice questions; and the final item asked the participants to choose one main source (either linguistic or non-linguistic) of their challenges in understanding English academic lectures. Six of the 30 items focused on the American professors’ instructional methodology and its effects on Chinese students’ English academic listening, and all of the six items were on a five-point Likert scale (see Appendix). These items were included because the researcher believed that Chinese students had different classroom learning experience in China, and the American instructional methodology might cause problems for them in understanding English academic lectures.
The third part was an open-ended question. The participants of this study were asked to give suggestions, for both themselves and their American teachers, of solutions to their academic listening problems.
The data obtained for each item were first analyzed by using descriptive statistical methods. For the 25 five-point scale items, the percentage of responses for each point on the scale was calculated. Then the mean score and standard deviation for each item were calculated. A Factorial ANOVA was also used to determine whether there was a significant difference in the responses according to the following 4 independent variables: 1) gender (male/female), 2) major (arts/science), 3) level of study (undergraduate/graduate), and 4) length of time studying in America (less than one year/more than one year). If there were significant differences between the independent variables, a descriptive post hoc analysis was conducted to see where the differences occurred.
For the ranking items, the percentage of respondents choosing each point on the scale was calculated. Then the standard deviation and mean score of each item were calculated by assigning eight points to the top ranked item, seven points to the second place, six points to the third place, etc., in the case of the eight-point items.
For the last item, which asked Chinese students to choose one main source (either linguistic or non-linguistic) of their challenges in understanding English lectures, four Chi-square tests were used to see if there was a statistically significant difference (p < 0.05) between two groups in each of the above-mentioned 4 independent variables.
For the open-ended question, every response was categorized into groups of similar responses, and categories placed in a frequency order with most frequent at the top. In order to increase the inter-rater reliability, two colleagues of the researcher were invited to categorize all the participants’ responses to the open-ended question. Most of the participants answered the open-ended question in Chinese. The three raters first carefully read all the responses and translated the Chinese responses into English. After that they worked individually to put the similar responses together to form a suggestion.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSIONS
The results of this study revealed that both linguistic and non-linguistic factors were reported to affect Chinese students’ comprehension of English academic lectures. Non-linguistic factors included instructional, psychological, and individual factors. Results of reports of effects of linguistic factors were addressed in a separate paper (Huang, 2004).
This paper focuses on how instructional factors affected Chinese students’ English academic listening as reported by Chinese students. Table 1 shows that Chinese students report 1) lecture organization, 2) use of textbooks, 3) blackboard writing, 4) lecture summary, 5) amount of student participation, and 6) amount of group work affect their academic listening at an American university.
The Effects of Lecture Organization on Lecture Comprehension
Item # 14 on the questionnaire asked about the effects of lecture organization on lecture comprehension (see Appendix). The organizing of a lecture is an essential aspect of its comprehensibility and good lecture organization could help students; especially ESL students better understand it (Chaudron & Richards, 1986; Diamond, Sharp & Ory, 1983).
The results show that 60.3% of the participants agreed that their American teachers’ organization of a lecture affected their understanding of it. In the comment area under the question, some participants commented that their American teachers did not logically organize their lectures and Chinese students expected their teachers to make everything clear for them, including the difficult points and the important points. On the other hand, only 20.5% of the participants reported that their American teachers’ lecture organization did not affect their lecture comprehension.
The results also show statistically significant difference by major and level of study. There was no significant difference by gender and by length of time studying in America. Undergraduate students (mean = 4.39) reported that their American professors’ organization of a lecture had more effects on their comprehension than graduate students (mean = 3.40) did. Similar differences were found between arts students (mean = 4.03) and science students (mean = 3.29). Different comments made by arts students and science students might explain the differences. Arts lectures are usually less focused and not well organized. Science professors normally use a straightforward way to organize their lectures.
The Effects of Using Textbooks on Lecture Comprehension
In Chinese culture, textbooks have authority over teachers (Fu, 1991). Teachers always closely follow the textbook while lecturing. The teachers go into details about each chapter of the textbook through each term. While in America, teachers do not feel constrained to follow the textbook and the syllabus, and they do not “worry about getting sidetracked onto some tangential topic in the middle of a lecture” (Upton, 1989, p. 25) either. This difference in following the textbooks might cause some problems for Chinese students in understanding an English lecture.
According to the results of Item # 15 (see Appendix), 55.2% of the participants reported that their American teachers did not closely follow the textbooks while lecturing. On the other hand, 20.4% of them reported that their American teachers closely followed the textbook while lecturing. There was significant difference by major. Arts students (mean = 4.11) reported that most of their American teachers did not closely follow the textbook while lecturing. Science students (mean = 3.07) reported that their teachers usually followed the textbook while lecturing. There was no difference by the other three independent variables.
Among all the participants, 71.8% of them reported that American professors’ failure to follow textbooks affected their lecture comprehension. There was significant difference by level of study. Undergraduate students (mean = 4.72) reported to have a stronger agreement that American teachers’ use of textbooks affected their comprehension of lectures than graduate students (mean = 3.82). This was perhaps because graduate students have more academic learning experiences and stronger self-study skills than undergraduate students. There was no difference by the other three independent variables.
The Effects of Blackboard Writing on Lecture Comprehension
Item # 16 on the questionnaire (see Appendix) was intended to uncover both American professors’ general practice of blackboard writing and its effects on Chinese students’ comprehension of English lectures. Among all the participants, 56.5% of them reported that their American teachers did not write much on the board while lecturing; only 10.2% of them reported that their American teachers did write much on the board while lecturing, and all of them were science students. The results show significant differences by both level of study and major. There was no difference by major and length of time studying in America. Unlike graduate students (mean = 3.52) and science students (mean = 3.33), undergraduate students (mean = 4.17) and arts students (mean = 4.06) reported that their teachers almost did not write anything on the board while lecturing.
Among all the participants, 74.4% of them agreed that teachers’ writing on the board affected their understanding of the lecture. The results show differences between arts students (mean = 4.72) and science students (mean = 3.78). Arts students reported to have a stronger agreement than science students that blackboard writing did affect lecture comprehension.
In Chinese universities, teachers write much on the blackboard while lecturing. They always put the important and difficult points on the blackboard. Blackboard writing can give students a deep impression and help them better understand a lecture (Ma & Huang, 1992). While at American universities, teachers, teachers of arts in particular, do not write much on the board while lecturing and the lack of blackboard writing causes problems for Chinese students in understanding academic lectures. Chinese students are used to point-by-point lectures with outlines and key points put on the blackboard. Upton (1989) mentioned that American university lectures are broad and extensive compared with the “intensive, narrow, and detailed” (p.25) lectures in Chinese classrooms. Chinese students often get confused about what they should learn about a lecture. Upton interviewed a Chinese student:
One Chinese student I interviewed
said that she felt frustrated because
she was not always sure what exactly
the teachers wanted her to know.
When she asked a teacher to help
her out, his response of “You don’t
have to understand everything” really
confused her (Upton, 1989, p. 25).
Chinese students expect their American teachers to give detailed explanation of every topic and put the key points or outline on the blackboard in order for them to take detailed notes. When their expectations are not met, they intend to think that their American teachers are not so resourceful and responsible as their teachers back in China. But actually it is a question of academic learning in different cultural contexts. American teachers expect their students to do extensive reading and look for related information on their own outside of class (Upton, 1989).
The Effects of Lecture Summary on Lecture Comprehension
Chinese teachers usually summarize the main idea of a lecture at the end of it. Lecture summary can reemphasize the important points of a lecture (Diamond, Sharp & Ory, 1983). Item # 17 on the questionnaire (see Appendix) was intended to uncover both American professors’ general practice of using lecture summary and its effects on Chinese students’ comprehension of English lectures.
Among all the participants, 65.4% of the participants reported that their teachers did not usually summarize a lecture at the end of it. The results show differences by level of study and major. There was no difference by gender and length of time studying in America. Undergraduate (mean = 4.39) and arts (mean = 4.36) students have a stronger agreement than graduate (mean = 3.63) and science (mean = 3.45) students that their American professors do not usually give lecture summaries.
Almost 80% of the participants agreed that it did affect their lecture comprehension if American teachers failed to summarize the lecture at the end of it, because almost every teacher in Chinese universities does so and Chinese students had the same expectations for lectures in their American classes. The results also show significant difference by level of study. Undergraduate students (mean = 4.78) reported that they had more problems in lecture comprehension than graduate students (mean = 3.87) if the teacher failed to give lecture summaries. There was no difference by the other three independent variables.
The Effects of Amount of Student Participation on Lecture Comprehension
According to the results of Item # 20 (see Appendix), 76.9% of the participants reported that there was usually much student participation in class. The results show significant differences by major. Arts students (mean = 1.31) reported there was more student participation in their classrooms than in science classrooms (mean = 2.40). There was no difference on the other three independent variables.
As many as 71.7% of the participants also reported that student participation affected their understanding of English academic lectures. This is probably because Chinese students used to work individually in Chinese classrooms and they have not quite become used to participating in American classrooms. There was significant difference by major. Arts students (mean = 4.39) reported to have a stronger agreement than science students (mean = 3.74) that student participation did affect their comprehension of class lectures at an American university. There was no difference by the other three independent variables in terms of the effects of student participation on lecture comprehension.
The Effects of Amount of Group Work on Lecture Comprehension
Item # 22 on the questionnaire was intended to both the amount of group work in American classrooms and its effects on Chinese students’ academic lecture understanding (see Appendix). 74.4% of the participants reported that there was much group work or class discussion in their classes. There was significant difference by major. Arts students (mean = 1.44) reported that there is more group work or class discussion in arts classes than science students (mean = 2.48) reported in science classes. There was no difference by the other three variables.
As many as 62.8% of the participants reported that the amount of group work or class discussion affected their understanding of English academic lectures. The results show statistically significant differences by major and level of study. Undergraduate (mean = 4.56) and arts (mean = 4.33) students reported to have a stronger agreement than graduate (mean = 3.67) and science (mean = 3.48) students that the amount of group work did affect lecture comprehension. There was no significant difference by gender and length of time studying in America.
Some participants made the following comments. In Chinese classrooms, students tend to work individually due to various reasons: class size (too many students in one classroom), the traditional role of a student (uncomfortable feeling of participating), and psychological impact (being afraid of making mistakes and losing face). Chinese teachers are usually explainers, and Chinese students act as listeners and note takers. There is not much group work or discussion in Chinese classrooms. Therefore, many Chinese students feel difficult in adapting themselves to American classroom culture.
American teachers usually regard themselves as students’ facilitators of learning but not their authorities of knowledge. They can admit their ignorance on a topic. Generally they do not easily get angry by students’ challenging questions as Chinese teachers do. They give students’ freedom in expressing their different ideas. They do not directly give answers to a particular question. What they stress is students’ thinking and discussion. So they encourage students to be active in classroom discussions and praise critical and daring ideas (Upton, 1989). This is the reason why in American classrooms there is much group work or discussion.
Chinese Students’ Suggestions for American Professors
In response to the open-ended question (see Appendix), Chinese students made the following practical suggestions for their American professors to consider the modification or adjustment of their teaching methodologies:
1. American teachers should write key words, phrases, and ideas on the chalkboard in class.
2. The teacher should closely follow the textbook. If the teacher is teaching something not related to the textbook, he/she should provide students with related materials in advance.
3. The teacher can either put main points of a lecture on the web site or give us a copy of the main points so that we don’t have to spend much time taking notes in class.
4. The teacher should often encourage international students to actively participate in class lectures.
5. The teacher should be aware of international students’ difficulties in learning and give them individual help.
6. The teacher should give students study guides, distribute and announce reading assignments ahead of time so that students can have sufficient time to familiarize themselves with the materials before class.
7. More lecture, less discussion.
8. The teacher should vary the pace of the lesson and break up content into accessible units.
9. The teacher can teach international students appropriate learning strategies.
10. The teacher should use true and easy examples to help students understand a lecture.
11. The teacher should regularly get feedback from international students.
12. The teacher can slow down a little bit when teaching to make it easier for ESL students.
In total, 20 suggestions were raised for American teachers. Arts students offered more suggestions than science students. This was probably because arts students have more challenges than science students in understanding English academic lectures. A majority of the participants expected American professors to adjust their teaching methods in order to make their lectures more accessible to Chinese students and other ESL students. For example, they should write key or major points on the blackboard while lecturing. Most suggestions for American professors required them to be aware of the ESL students in their classes and try to help them learn more effectively or efficiently.
Summary of Findings
The paper investigates the effects of American classroom instructional factors on Chinese students’ lecture understanding at an American university. Six instructional factors are identified. First, similar to what Lebauer claimed (1984), like many ESL students who are not aware of American lecture organization, Chinese students experience challenges in comprehending academic lecture. Over 60% of them reported that American professors’ lecture organization influenced their academic lecture comprehension. Some commented that American professors did not organize lectures in a way that met their expectations. Second, as Upton (1989) argued, American professors often use informal and less textbook-focused teaching methodology in the classroom. More than half of the participants reported that American professors did not closely follow the textbook while lecturing. American professors’ failure to follow textbooks creates challenges for them in comprehending academic lectures. Third, Chinese students reported that American teachers did not write much on the board while lecturing. They are used to detailed lectures with key points written on the board (Upton, 1989). Therefore, three-fourths of them reported that American teachers’ writing on the board affected their lecture comprehension. Fourth, more than 65% of the participants reported that American teachers did not usually summarize a lecture at the end of it. As Diamond, Sharp and Ory (1983) suggest, lecture summary is an essential component of an academic lecture. It was not surprising that 80% of the participants reported that lecture summaries did affect their lecture comprehension. Finally, Chinese students reported that there was usually much student participation and group work in the classrooms. This is perhaps because Socratic-oriented American professors value questioning, discussing, and group work (Tweed & Lehman, 2002). As reported by Chinese students, student participation and group work affected their understanding of English academic lectures.
The results of the six items show significant differences by both major and level of study. American professors’ teaching methods seem to have created problems for both arts students and undergraduate students in comprehending English academic lectures. This is probably because undergraduate students are less exposed to formal academic environments and so are less familiar with American teaching methods. Some arts students comment that they experience many challenges caused by the cultural and historical differences, because they mainly learn about politics, culture, history, philosophy, languages, religion, and literature. But science students learn about universal things in the world. As quite a few participants who majored in mathematics and chemistry commented that they have little difficulty in understanding a lecture no matter what methodology the professor uses, because they recognize all the mathematical or chemical formulas and so they know what the teacher is trying to teach in class. Interestingly, the results of the six items do not show any difference by gender and length of time studying in America.
Two groups of people could be the audiences of this study: Chinese students and American professors. The findings in this study could be generalized for those populations. Although this study was conducted only with Chinese students at an American university, the results may be applied to Chinese students in other American universities and those who are still in China and want to study at American universities. Considering learning within a cultural context (Tweed & Lehman, 2002), all Chinese students share common Confucian orientations. They may experience similar challenges in understanding English academic lectures. Similarly, American professors share common Socratic orientations. They need to have the same awareness of Confucian-oriented students in their classrooms.
Limitations and Directions for Future Research
The results of this study were based on students’ self-report data, which might not represent the real situations. This is because there are some problems with validity and reliability of self-report questionnaires. For example, the participants might have not told the truth when they responded to the questionnaire. It is also possible that they might have not become aware of their academic challenges. What is more, this study had just 78 participants and was conducted only at one American university, which might affect the generalizibility of the study and limit the researcher’s interpretation.
It is suggested that this study be replicated at another American school where there are Chinese students to validate findings from this study. A slight variation might include interviewing some American professors who have Chinese students in their classes. It is also suggested that a larger sample size be used to improve the chances of obtaining statistically significant differences in the analyses. Finally, this study has taken a step in defining the challenges for Chinese students in understanding academic lectures at an American university. The results can be applied with caution to other non-native speakers of English or to American teachers who have international students in their classes.
Questionnaire to Chinese ESL Students
1. Please read each item carefully before you choose your answer.
2. For Part I and Part III, you can answer either in English or
3. For items that refer to teachers, lectures, and classes, please
don’t focus on any particular American teacher, lecture, or class.
Rather, think about your American teachers, lectures, and classes in
I. Personal Information
Degree sought: Starting date of 1st semester in US:
II. Academic Listening Challenges (Related Questions Only)
14. In general, my teachers’ organization of a lecture affects my
strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 strongly agree
15. A) Do your American teachers closely follow the textbook while
always 1 2 3 4 5 never
B) How much does it affect your comprehension of the lecture?
not at all 1 2 3 4 5 very much
16. A) Do your teachers write a lot on the board while lecturing?
a lot 1 2 3 4 5 not at all
B) How much does your teachers’ writing on the board affect your
not at all 1 2 3 4 5 very much
17. A) How frequently do your teachers give you a lecture summary at
the end of the lecture?
always 1 2 3 4 5 never
B) How much do your teachers’ lecture summaries affect your lecture
not at all 1 2 3 4 5 very much
20. A) Is there a lot of student participation in your class?
always 1 2 3 4 5 never
B) How much does student participation affect your comprehension
of the lecture?
not at all 1 2 3 4 5 very much
22. A) Is there a lot of group work or discussion in your class?
always 1 2 3 4 5 never
B) How much does it affect your comprehension of the lecture?
not at all 1 2 3 4 5 very much
III. Open-Ended Question
Please give some suggestions for both the American professors and
Chinese students on how to find a solution to the academic listening
problems often experienced by Chinese students.
This paper is based on my MA thesis. I would like to acknowledge my gratitude and register my sincere thanks to my MA thesis committee members: Dr. Lynn E. Henrichsen, Dr. C. Ray Graham, and Dr. Dana Bourgerie at Brigham Young University in U.S., for their valuable advice and guidance as I conducted the study. Special thanks should go to Dr. Nancy Hutchinson, and Mrs. Andrea Martin (PhD candidate) at Queen’s University in Canada, who offered me excellent suggestions as I wrote the paper.
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American Instructional Factors Affecting Chinese Students’
Instructional Number of Mean Standard Significant
Factors & Effects Responses Deviation Differences (p < .05)
Effects of lecture 78 3.63 1.20 (2) (3)
Use of Textbooks 78 3.55 1.15 (2)
& its effects 78 4.03 1.02 (3)
Blackboard writing 78 3.67 1.03 (3) (2)
& its effects 78 3.97 1.14 (2)
Lecture summary 78 3.89 1.02 (3) (2)
& its effects 78 4.08 1.05 (3)
Amount of student 78 1.92 1.11 (2)
participation & its 78 4.04 1.13 (2)
Amount of group 78 2.00 1.07 (2)
work & its effects 78 3.87 1.02 (2) (3)
Note: (1) Gender (2) Major (3) Level of study (4) Length of
time studying in America
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