A Student Research Project on Learning English

by Barbara Waldern

Although the South Korean government continues to promote and plan English education as part of its globalization and economic development planning as it has since the 90s, questions about this thrust of economic planning have come from all directions. Teachers critique approaches and methodologies to teaching English as a foreign language, especially since big businesses and government authorities have been putting more and more value on raising communication competencies. Despite huge investments, TOEIC scores and TOEFL scores remain far from impressive. Meanwhile, education policies continue to fluctuate with regards to English teaching. Students and their families may feel forced into taking on and investing heavily in English education because of the state’s prioritization and rationales for the citizenry learning to use English well. Two of the biggest questions, perhaps, are (1) what are the most effective means to learning and raising English speaking and composition competencies, and (2) how useful is it in real life job and personal situations.

It is not so often that students are welcomed into theses sorts of debates about education.Two of my senior English conversation classes considered these above two basic questions at my suggestion as their teacher at Busan University of Foreign Studies (BUFS) assigning a graded course project. While one class with 11 students was exclusively made up of English majors, the other (with 9 students) were majors of other foreign languages such as Arabic, Myanmar and Spanish. Regardless of their major subjects of study, they all discussed the questions themselves and decided that English was very useful in South Korean society and internationally, and that English conversation class methods that maximized classroom interaction and practice with English were best.After that discussion, they passed out copies of a short questionnaire that I had created for this project to their peers in senior English program classes at BUFS; it contained the two questions mentioned above and several related sub-questions. The answers on the 69 completed surveys they received were not unexpected. The participants largely favoured the most active types of English conversation teaching methods, especially ones that required creating dialogues and interviews and demonstrating them in speaking conversations. Also, the participants generally thought that English competencies were necessary for the economy, getting good jobs and earning good incomes. My classes reviewed and discussed the findings and decided overall that teaching approaches and methods need to improve in the South Korean education system.

The Class Project

Studying the research process was a two-week (six class hours) component of my senior English conversation classes at BUFS in the Spring Semester of 2015. (The timeline was tight and compressed due to the scheduling of holidays and the student festival, but I would have preferred to make it a full three-week/nine-class hours component.) We committed ourselves to two hours of in-class preparation time, but a lot of the preparation had to be done outside class hours. Team verbal presentations of a total length of 20 to 30 minutes were performed and marked following the period of preparation.

Using English language learning as a topic provided a ready subject to discuss and probe for such students, although students found the project to be quite a challenge. Pedagocially speaking, the goals of the lessons were as follows:

  • to discuss and share opinions about learning English as a relevant topical subject
  • to develop team work and time management skills
  • to gain experience and become familiar with the research process
  • to gain experience and become familiar with the nature and handling of surveys
  • to prepare formal presentations with visual aids displaying data
  • to gain experience and become familiar with reporting on survey data and a little survey data reportage vocabulary.
     

The students of two classes worked in five teams of three or four students to conduct the researach and plan oral reports but with individual students taking responsibility for a third or quarter of the final report and making his or her respective share of the verbal presentation for five to ten minutes each. The students’ goals were to develop their knowledge and opinions about English language learning and communicate them to the rest of the class, conduct a simple survey, discuss the survey findings, and complete a successful formal presentation employing visual aids to display data and talking points. Of course, they also aimed to get good scores for the oral presentation.

In introducing the project to my students, I first asked the students how relevant English learning was for them, and what kind of language teaching had been the most effective in their own experience. After that initial large group discussion, I suggested that the students take that topic by the horns and do a simple and casual research project to reflect more about these questions and prepare group reports. I then gave pointers on the survey conducting and research findings reporting.

Background - previous surveys

To show an example of a real survey report as a model, we read an article on the Cambridge English website summarizing European Survey on Language Competences published by the European Commission in June 2012 (www.cambridgeenglish.org/news/view/language-learning-survey/). Cambridge English Language Assessment, lead by Project Director Dr. Neil Jones, conducted the survey and SurveyLang designed the research plan and survey. The full Executive Report of this research can be found at this link on the same Cambridge English webpage: ec.europa.eu/languages/library/studies/executive-summary-eslc_en.pdf. The largest rigorous study of its kind, it tested and received completed questionnaires from almost 54,000 pupils of some 1,200 schools in 14 European countries about their experience learning various foreign languages including English. Quoting Dr. Jones, "The survey confirms that levels of achievement vary widely across Europe…There are success stories but too many students are not being given the skills they need. The Survey shows that it's essential to base language teaching on effective communication skills and not just on grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. The results have highlighted the importance of teaching language as a means of communication, not just an academic subject.” The EU Commission recommends better training and teaching of foreign language teachers in general with the goal of better proficiency in communication.

In 2013, English First’s annual global English Proficiency Index ranked South Korea number 24 and as “moderately proficient”. English First collected a single-year’s worth of test data from 750,000 adults in 28 participating countries who took English tests administered by EF throughout 2012. (ICEF Monitor, online on January 29, 2014) http://monitor.icef.com/2014/01/global-language-survey-links-english-pro...

Three of my student teams cited a survey among Korean secondary students published in January this year. The Korea Herald reported (“Students discontented with English class focused on grammar,” online, January 14, 2015), “Based on a survey of 990 students attending middle and high schools in Seoul, the study showed 67.5 percent of them were discontented with the way English is taught at school.” Most (58 per cent) of the participating students said that there was too much focus on grammar. A school teacher named Jeong Yu-gyeong developed and conducted this study, which was published in the journal of Chung-Ang University’s Research Institute of Korean Education. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150114000527

Research Methods

Let me stress that this was a casual simple survey conducted as a learning exercise more than a dedicated quest for substantive data about students’ views on learning English as a foreign language. I would have preferred involving the students in the design of the survey but opted not to in the interest of time and considering that this was a brief introduction to conducting surveys as a way to stimulate discussion in English in English discussion classes. Actually, all except two of the 19 students of both these classes said they had never filled out a survey/ questionnaire form of any type. Employing my training and knowledge as a graduate of social science and an experienced professional researcher, I created a three-page survey with two sets of questions, part one on methodology and part two on relevance. The survey avoided academic jargon. The entire survey form can be viewed by going to my website and downloading the document: http://www.edwise2008.com/Current-learning-resources.html (file labeled “ENG 249-svy.doc”).

Part one, item A of the survey listed 29 methods and asked respondents to underline the ones they felt were the most effective. A space was left inviting respondents to name any other kind of method if they wanted. Item B of Part one was an open-ended question asking respondents to write down the “best” and “worst” English conversation classroom experiences. The student researchers were instructed to define “classroom experiences” as language teaching lessons.

Part two contained four yes/no/don’t know questions about the usefulness of English. They are copied here.

A. Is the use of English relevant to all types of employment?
    YES       NO     Don't Know

B. Does proficiency in English always result in higher income after graduation from university?
    YES       NO     Don't Know

C. Will everyone who graduates with an English major use English in daily life a lot?
    YES       NO     Don't Know

D. Is English language education necessary for the economic development of your home country?
    YES       NO     Don't Know

 

A fifth item in Part two requested that respondents write comments “on the usefulness of English for Koreans and life in Korea.” Finally, the survey form asked each participant to identify their gender, age and employment status.

In the end, 17 students in these two classes conducted four surveys each, eight non-English major student researchers in the night class, and ten English major student researchers plus one international student majoring in Korean in the day class. In all, 69 surveys were completed, and 68 were processed for data extraction and analysis. Most of the respondents were classmates in other English classes, and a few were international students (not Koreans). The students tallied the answers and took note of the comments. Each team then discussed their data set, developed an analysis and prepared a team presentation to report in class.

Findings

Being precise here is not possible since the student teams summarized and reported on their findings differently with different representations, interpretations and highlights. Also, they have not all submitted their texts to me. However, I can report on the general findings and comments after listening to all their reports and taking note.

Overall, the majority of respondents (around 80%) indicated a preference for more active in-class English conversation learning activities. “Pair role-play without scripts,” skits, team debates and sharing personal stories were cited the most frequently as the most effective methods. In writing about their worst experiences, they often said that passive learning situations were the worst. For example, some respondents said that reading aloud, grammar lessons and textbook lessons were the least effective. They expressed some frustration and criticism regarding what they termed as less effective methods and classroom experiences.

As for the usefulness of English, the majority of respondents (around 80%) answered “Y” (“yes”) for questions A, B and D in Part two. However, most students did not feel that they would be using English a lot in daily life. In their comments, they stressed that English was helpful for getting the best jobs, whether the employer actually wanted all hirees to use English or not, and that English opened doors to employment and life opportunities such as travel, business and friendship.

Conclusion

All the research teams concluded that English continues to be useful for Koreans because it is the most used language in international affairs and commerce. Some of the student researchers did some additional internet investigation. For instance, one presenter reported on a survey of Human Resource managers that showed how much they require and benefit from higher levels of English proficiency among staff. The non-English majors commented that the demand for English proficiency, especially communicative proficiency, was just as high for them despite their proficiency in other foreign languages because international contexts and business demand strong English oral and written proficiency. Actually, one of the non-English major student researchers, who specializes in Japanese, was going through the lengthy hiring process of an airline for an airport crew position while we were doing this project, and he reported that the airline required English above all other languages for international flight and passenger service staffing. (He got the job, by the way!)

The researchers also concluded that students of English benefit more from the most active English conversation classroom methods these days because a higher proficiency in the spoken language is demanded these days. They therefore recommended that governments and institutions consider input like the results of this survey and adjust curriculae, teaching methods, teaching training, and teaching materials accordingly. Furthermore, they stressed that programs should provide more opportunities for extracurricular and varied learning experiences, such as field trips, creative projects, film screenings, and public speaking that can widen the scope of practicing spoken English.

As a career professional in English education, I was curious about the results. It was worthwhile and interesting for me. Actually, I had expected a little more negativity as regards the usefulness of English.

Finally, I as the initiator of this classroom project and an instructor of conversational English would like to comment on this experiment in teaching methods. Generally, the goals of the method were met as shown by the quality of the reports and comments.Though the students have found some of my lessons and assignments hard, they appreciate the kind of explorations and opportunities to carry out interesting and relevant discussions in this course. Though the students complain that I allow for too little time for assignments, I think that the process served to increase the student’s organizational skills as much as their oral presentation skills, which some students have stated they appreciate now. Working with a survey and presenting research findings was an entirely new experience for them all, and it expanded their platform for speaking English in class and developing speaking skills and style. Practical skills building is something that my students apparently crave, and incorporating some life skills building into practical English conversation tasks and projects can add to the fun and fruits of study. As well, pressing students to investigate and develop their awareness and insight into social issues is valuable. As the teacher, it certainly is more interesting than the general small group discussions that are the staple activity in these senior discussion classes, and it turned out to be a learning experience for me, too.

Student researchers

  • Kim Se-hwan (Dennis)
  • Kim Kwan-hoon
  • Kim Se-bin
  • Lee Hyo-ju
  • Lee Yeon-ju
  • Song Eun-ji
  • Yang Beom
  • Park Byeong-nyeol
  • Yu Bo-ryeong
  • Lee Min-hyeok
  • Lee Jeong-moon
  • Lee Eun-Ji
  • Choi Seong-hweon
  • Oh Sang-hyeon
  • Kim Jae-san (Jason)
  • Lee Jae-yeong
  • Kim Yu-mi