The internationalization of higher education has resulted in a quick growth in the number of programmes and institutions taught through the medium of English in China (Gill & Kirkpatrick, 2013). This emphasis on bilingual teaching has penetrated through English-medium institutions (EMI) and programmes to prepare students for better adjustment into future international exchange and thus enhanced job prospects (Gill & Kirkpatrick, 2013; Sun & Xu, 2012). To cope with this demand increase, EAP has become increasingly prominent in universities in China. English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is more commonly included as a compulsory course in English-medium universities in China to enhance students’ academic English-language skills in order to cope with academic conventions in specific disciplines (Gao & Bartlett, 2014).
This study aimed to investigate students’ academic performances after their two-year EAP study at one English-medium university, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, a joint venture between the University of Liverpool, U.K. and Xi’an Jiaotong University, China. EAP is usually broken down into years one and two respectively in this university. Year one (Y1) students receive instructions on general EAP skills such as how to cite references appropriately to avoid plagiarism and how to carry out group discussions. In the second year, EAP courses are more centred towards conventions in specific disciplines (Li & Ruan, 2015).
EAP emerged in the early 1980s as a result of globalization and internationalization of higher education, particularly in the context of university settings (Hyland, 2006). EAP aims to help students in academic language skills develop academic study and research skills (Hyland & Hamp-Lyons, 2002; Hyland 2006). In addition, it aims to enhance communicative skills in English in bridging a gap and enabling students to achieve future academic success (Jordan, 1997). Hyland and Hamp-Lyons (2002) suggested that the goal of EAP is not only about the improvement of English-language proficiency, but also students’ recognition and ability to participate in different academic activities, such as being able to make notes in lectures, deliver presentations, and engage actively in group discussions. Instead of focusing on exam-oriented grammatical knowledge and basic skills, a shift to formative assessment is adopted to improve students’ active involvement in EAP (Skyrme, 2007). Moreover, EAP lessons are connected with content for specific subjects or activities (Johns and Price-Machado, 2001). Jordan (1997) affirmed that students will have higher motivation if EAP content is more related to their subjects. EAP may also benefit students’ career success in the future (Flowerdew & Peacock, 2001; Dudley-Evans, 2001). For example, students who completed EAP training showed higher ability and more confidence in using English in various workplaces than students who completed general EFL courses from other universities in China (Zou & Cao, 2016).
Due to internationalization and increasing calls for innovation in university English teaching in China in recent years there has been a growing interest in EAP, which is reflected in the increasing emphasis on the feasibility and potential challenges around the implementation of EAP practices in Chinese EFL contexts. To meet the increasing demand, EAP courses have been introduced at several joint venture and EMI universities in China since 2005, such as University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU). EAP courses offered by language centres are specifically designed EAP modules provided to students in these English-medium universities (Cai, 2010). Students obtain benefits from EAP lessons for their academic study (Shu & Chen, 2010). Furthermore, students’ learning outcomes from EAP context has shown positive results when compared with those studying in a general university English-teaching context. For example, students in UNNC who received one-year EAP training had better learning outcomes in English than students at Fudan University, a non-EMI institution (Cai, 2011). More specifically, students from EAP courses at XJTLU used more formal and academic vocabulary than students in general EFL teaching in other universities in China (Zou & Peng, 2015). In addition, since many undergraduate students in China go to the U.K. for postgraduate study, students who have good EAP skills could adapt to academic study in U.K. universities more easily and confidently than students who graduated in EFL context from top universities in China. Furthermore, these students in an EAP context demonstrated higher levels of academic writing, spoken English, critical thinking, and creativity than students in an EFL context (Zou et al., 2016).
Recently, a number of Chinese universities have also started to teach EAP as part of their undergraduate programme based on the benefits of EAP and students’ needs in China (Cai, 2012). As Liu & Zhang’s (2015) study found, students perceived that they need to learn EAP skills due to the benefits EAP brought to them. Compared with general English teaching, students preferred and were satisfied with EAP learning since they could improve their academic vocabulary, writing, listening, and reading skills (Cai & Chen, 2013; Li, 2015). Furthermore, some Chinese universities have started to provide English-medium instruction for various academic disciplines in recent years (Jiang & Zhang, 2017; Zhang & Zhang, 2017). As such, EAP has become compulsory for those students in English-medium instruction environments in these universities as well. However, EAP is vastly different from university English in the Chinese higher educational contexts due to different teaching approaches and purposes (Liu, 2013). Identification of a specific set of skills coupled with communicative practices is included in EAP practices, while a university English course centres on grammar and vocabulary enhancement (Hyland & Hamp-Lyons, 2002). However, it has been reported that there have been some challenges and difficulties in carrying out EAP practices, not only from a lack of teacher training (Zhang et al., 2011), but also as students need to get accustomed to existing academic discourses to cope with academic conventions in specific disciplines. During the process, conflicts between local and global cultural, academic traditions may arise as students learn to acculturate or assimilate, where teaching of critical thinking remains challenging (Gao & Bartlett, 2014).
EAP instruction at EMI universities
As an English-medium university, XJTLU provides academic reading, listening, speaking, and writing training in EAP lessons in the language centre to help students cope with their academic study in English. EAP courses in the language centre at XJTLU are designed as a variety of modules to help students improve their study skills for particular disciplines (Li & Ruan, 2015). Moreover, tutors often provide students with a number of case studies, for example, based on existing international/national companies or current technologies to identify problems and give recommendations for further development for these companies and technologies. These activities on case studies help students familiarize themselves with policy and strategies of companies or improvement of technologies which may benefit students’ knowledge in their subjects (Zou, 2015). EAP in Y1 at XJTLU mainly focuses on general EAP which comprises basic academic skills including scanning, skimming, referencing, group discussions, delivering a presentation, and citing references effectively. In year two (Y2), EAP lessons concentrate on English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) which provides more materials on various specific disciplines than in year one. Evaluation consists of formative and summative assessment including writing coursework, speaking exams, and final exams. In writing coursework, students spend five to eight weeks writing a long essay from 800 to 2,000 words. Speaking exams include delivering a presentation followed by questions and answers or conducting a group discussion with peers. In the final exam, students listen to a lecture and read three to four articles, and finally write a short essay of 300 to 400 words and cite references from the lecture and reading materials (Zou, 2015). In order to investigate students’ satisfaction with EAP courses, a questionnaire survey was conducted in Y1 and Y2 in the language centre. The results showed that in general, students were satisfied with EAP lessons. Students affirmed that they had improved their academic reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills after the two-year EAP training (Zou, 2015).
However, few studies have focused on the usefulness of two-year EAP training for students’ further academic study. In particular, very few studies have explored various subject teachers’ (not EAP teachers) perceptions of students’ academic performances after the completion of EAP courses. Thus, it would be interesting to investigate how EAP lessons can help students reinforce their further academic study from both students’ and academic teachers’ perspectives. This study aims to explore ways in which EAP skills help students in academic study in a number of disciplines. It will mainly concentrate on how Y3 and Y4 students at XJTLU and Y2 and Y3 students at the University of Liverpool apply EAP skills to enhance their academic study. The researchers will investigate both students and academic staff’s perceptions of students’ utilizing EAP skills. Research questions are as follows:
What are students’ and academic departmental staff’s perceptions of how specific EAP skills help students in academic study?
What are the suggestions for future improvement of EAP lessons to enhance students’ academic study?
Since EAP and English-medium instruction are both new and innovative in China in recent years (Jiang & Zhang, 2017), the results of this study should be useful for teachers of EAP and EMI in China and elsewhere to come to an insight and deep understanding of impact of EAP skills for learners’ further academic study in an EMI context in China, the U.K., and elsewhere.
All student participants in this study completed two-year EAP courses and passed EAP exams at the English Language Centre, XJTLU, China. After two years’ study at XJTLU, some students stayed at XJTLU for the further two years of their undergraduate study. Others went to the partner university-the University of Liverpool (UoL), U.K. Participants were divided into two groups. Group one were students in Y3 and Y4 at the XJTLU campus and Y2 and Y3 at the UoL campus. Students from Y3 and Y4 were chosen as this group of students have already had two years of EAP learning and one to two years of major learning in their own academic discipline, hence the transferability between the EAP and their academic discipline could be examined. Group two were XJTLU and UoL academic staff in various subjects.
Research methods consisted of questionnaires and interviews. Questionnaires were distributed to the two groups of respondents at XJTLU and UoL, namely, the student group and the staff group. The questionnaire composed of twenty-three closed plus five open-ended questions. For most closed-ended questions, a frequency scale of 1-4 was adopted, with 1 representing ‘yes, most of the time’, 2 being ‘yes, half of the time’, 3 being ‘yes, a little’, 4 being ‘no, I cannot’. Questions in the questionnaires investigated respondents’ general perceptions of students’ use of EAP skills in study. Individual interviews were implemented as well to get a further insight into participants’ perceptions of EAP regarding the influence it brings to academic study and transferability of skills learnt in the EAP class. Questions for interviews endeavoured to elicit responses from the participants as to the skills students use in order to gain insight into their practice.
At XJTLU, in order to get a comprehensive understanding of students’ perception of EAP, a representative student body comprised of 100 students across eleven different academic disciplines was chosen to complete the questionnaire. In total, 100 paper questionnaires were collected after approximately ten minutes of completion time per person. Among them, sixty-nine Y3 students took part in the questionnaire completion process, while the remaining thirty-one were Y4 students. Regarding interview data, twenty students from different subjects volunteered to be interviewed. At the UoL, the questionnaire for Y2 and Y3 students was distributed through a wide range of departments including mathematics, engineering, computer science, management, architecture, and biology. Sixty-two students in total responded to the questionnaire and each took fifteen minutes to finish it. Among all the respondents, forty-one students came from Y2 at the UoL and the remainder were from Y3. Fifteen students from eleven diverse disciplines were invited to the interview.
In terms of staff data, twelve teachers at XJTLU and twenty-seven teachers at the UoL completed the questionnaire. Meanwhile, five academic staff at XJTLU and six academic staff at the UoL participated in interviews. The teacher participants involved came from a range of diverse disciplines, which included English, environmental studies, architectural design, chemistry, computer science, biotechnology, etc.
The majority of the questions were structured within academic skills including note taking, understanding lectures, communication with teachers, teamwork, etc. The questionnaire data were analysed using SPSS for both descriptive and inferential statistical analysis. Each interview lasted between thirty minutes and one hour; and all were recorded and later transcribed and coded into different categories. The results of the questionnaires and interviews were synthesized and integrated into the same categories for the analysis. Then the data was compared and analysed for both supporting and contradictory relationships based on the research questions. Student interviewees were coded as S1, S2, S3, etc., and teacher interviewees were coded as T1, T2, T3, etc.
Results and discussions
Research question 1: What are students’ and academic departmental staff’s perceptions of how specific EAP skills help students in academic study?
In general, the results show that the majority of students felt that EAP skills they learnt in EAP classes are transferrable to other modules and helpful to their academic study. Participants perceived that EAP lessons help students in the following ways. EAP acts like a bridge and offers basic language skills such as reading, communication and presentation, essay writing, paraphrasing, note taking, critical thinking, referencing, how to structure academic essays, and how to carry out discussions and debate. EAP lessons also broaden their horizons and help them with the appropriate formal language use. It becomes easier to cope with the task requirement in academic courses. EAP builds the basis of skills that are required from other modules. More insightful details concerning a variety of English-language skills are discussed in the sections below.
In the questionnaire, the majority (67%) of XJTLU students stated that they could take notes effectively. The reason given in the open question in the questionnaire by those students who cannot take notes effectively predominantly is ‘I don’t have to take notes because all the notes are on PowerPoint’. This shows students’ lack of awareness of the importance of note taking, partly due to the prevalence of computers and online learning platforms with class sources. Similarly, 73% students at the UoL claimed that they can take notes effectively at least half of the time during the class. For those students who are unable to do so, similar reasons as for XJTLU students apply here. Regarding teachers’ perspectives, 42% of XJTLU teachers thought that students could actively take notes during the class most of the time and communicate effectively with them during and after class. Similar to XJTLU teachers’ comments, 48% of UoL teachers thought that students could take notes effectively. The difference between students and teachers could be that teachers may have a higher expectation than students of note-taking skills. Data from the interviews support the results of the questionnaire above. Some students in the interviews stated that note taking is one of the most useful skills learnt in EAP lessons as they learnt how to note down the most important information. Despite this, other students said that note-taking skill is of little usage in actual lectures as the Powerpoint covers almost everything already, therefore the ability to get the main idea of key points in the lecture is not that important. This point of view echoes the results from the questionnaire.
The majority of XJTLU students (59%) said that they can understand lectures in English most of the time, while 67% of XJTLU teachers thought that students could understand the lecture most of the time. In Liverpool, less than half of the respondents said that students can understand lectures. The greater diversity and percentage of international teaching staff in Liverpool and their accents may account for this difference.
Moreover, as can be seen from the questionnaire data in
Correlation between understanding lectures and note taking
|Note taking||Understand lectures|
|Spearman’s rho||Note taking||Correlation Coefficient||1.000||.566**|
|Understand lectures||Correlation Coefficient||.566**||1.000|
** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
Several students contended that the diversity of accents caused difficulty in their understanding of lectures. For example, one student said: ‘EAP training on accent recognition is still limited, however it is a must because lecturers in Year Three or Four from different countries have different accents’. Another student had a similar comment: ‘EAP teachers having perfect British or American accent is of little help in training our ability to discriminate against different accents’. This point may call for the need to offer more training on accent differentiation in EAP lessons in order to improve students’ rate of understanding lectures.
Regarding the difficulty of understanding lectures, similar to the questionnaire, interview results also reveal that students at the UoL experienced greater difficulty in understanding lectures than those at XJTLU. The speed of lectures was another obstacle pointed out by the interviewees. As S15 from applied mathematics at the UoL claimed: ‘Listening should be practiced to adapt to the speed and length of the lecture because the lecture is as long as two hours and it is easy to get sleepy’. A possible reason could be that at XJTLU, the majority of students are Chinese and teachers may regulate their pace in class to help students’ understanding. At XJTLU, teacher interviewees suggested a good pace is important and thus, sometimes they slowed down their talking speed to help students’ understanding. However, at the UoL, teachers may not consider lecture pace because the majority of the students are local native students. Therefore, at the UoL, teachers expect students to cope with normal speed in class and tutorials. This may also indicate that some students may not be well prepared in listening skills from their EAP courses. This result suggests two main reasons for students being unable to understand lectures well, which are accent and speed in the lecture.
Communicating with teachers
In the questionnaire, approximately half of the students claimed that they could communicate effectively with their teachers, while those who indicated ‘they cannot’ suggest the inability to express effectively what to say as the major reason for that. This was further noted by several interviewees that the inability to express what they want to say often hinders them from uttering appropriate sentences, and most of the time, they tend to translate first from Chinese to English, instead of thinking in English directly. As one student said: ‘It is still difficult in coming up with appropriate expressions to convey what I think’. Another student also stated: ‘Sometimes, I have to translate what I want to convey from Chinese to English, which takes time’. In addition, shyness could be another reason for students’ poor communication skills. One student pointed out that the reason for their inability to communicate is shyness. Also, the evidence from interviews showed that many students did mention language problems for ineffective communication. Other students mentioned that it is relatively hard to improve speaking skill once they reach a plateau unless some specific guidance is put in place. Teachers, however, gave several other reasons for students’ ineffective communication. They thought that the predominant factor preventing students from communicating effectively is nervousness (see
Communication with teachers
The above suggests that, due to a variety of reasons, it is still fairly difficult for some students to develop autonomy in English speech in order to communicate with teachers effectively. Moreover,
Correlation between communicative skills and understanding lectures
|Spearman’s rho||Understand lectures||Correlation Coefficient||1.000||.498**|
** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
In terms of teamwork, 42% of students indicated they have good teamwork skills as a result of EAP training, with only 5% saying they do not. Students remarked that they have to conduct projects and research together which helped considerably as they learnt how to assign roles for different team members and were offered a chance to understand diversity. Despite this, some students still mentioned that the ability to conduct successful teamwork is not something that could be learnt or related to one’s intelligence, rather, it really has something to do with one’s emotional quotient.
Furthermore, the results indicated that the critical thinking, case study, and teamwork skills are assumed to be integrated as it is reasonable to apply critical thinking in a case study and often a case will be discussed in a team to acquire a complete picture of the problem. As S1 affirmed: ‘These skills are all linked. I mean when I discussed a case study with classmates, the analysing skill, speaking skill, and listening skill are all used’. Hence, such an assumption is strengthened when looking at the relationship between these skills. It turns out that the percentage of students developing each skill are consistent no matter what their study areas are. Namely, when students are good at critical thinking they tend to have a good command of the other two skills as well. It is also noted that, as mentioned above, engineering-related majors are more confident in using these techniques.
Correlation between communicative skills and teamwork skills
|Spearman’s rho||Communicate||Correlation Coefficient|
** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
With respect to group work, the majority of students (55%) indicated that they could participate enthusiastically in group discussion, while those 2% of students who could not suggest lack of language, lack of familiarity with the topic, and lack of confidence as the main reasons for that. Similarly, the majority of XJTLU teachers confirmed that students can participate actively and contribute to group discussion during class, but not all the time. Meanwhile, 37% of UoL teachers thought that students can contribute to group discussion and 63% thought they can do a little or cannot do it at all. The main problems for ineffective group discussion were reported to be the lack of discussion skills and language, lack of confidence, reluctance to cooperate, and reluctance to participate in group discussion.
In general, the results suggested that students can more or less energetically join in a group discussion. Therefore, the group discussion skill practiced in EAP class does improve students’ skills and confidence when they are engaged in discussions within their academic study both at XJTLU and UoL
Correlation between teamwork skills and group discussions
|Spearman’s rho||Teamwork||Correlation Coefficient||1.000||.482**|
|Group discussion||Correlation Coefficient||.482**||1.000|
** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
According to the questionnaire, half of the students stated that they could deliver presentations effectively in class half of the time, with nervousness being the most significant reason for those 2% of students who cannot deliver presentations effectively. This could be partly solved by being given sufficient amount of practice, both in or after class. Similarly, 42% of the teachers commented that students could make a good presentation in class half of the time. Some students in the interviews thought EAP is helpful for the improvement of Powerpoint presentation skill such as avoiding speaking in monotone and having eye contact, body language, interaction with the audience, appropriate rate of speech, and organizing ideas in a logical order. This corresponds well with the results of the questionnaire. Several architectural students emphasized the importance of being able to deliver poster presentations, which calls for a high level of flexibility of word choices and a variety of sentential structures.
The whole poster presentation required in architecture studio is quite different from what has been taught in EAP lessons in that once poster is being exposed, our tutors would ask any kind of question that may challenge us and fall out of our expectation and preparation realm.
This finding suggests that many students can deliver a good presentation, which echoes Hyland and Hamp-Lyons’s (2002) claim that EAP can help students be able to deliver presentations. Nevertheless, some teachers mentioned that students can make a good presentation after good preparation but cannot make a good one without preparation. Thus improvisation skills are important and some hands-on experience of architecture poster presentation is necessary for EAP tutors in order for them to offer tailored and effective training for architecture students.
Correlation between delivering presentations and communicative skills
|Spearman’s rho||Deliver presentation||Correlation Coefficient||1.000||.476**|
** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
Correlation between group discussions and delivering presentations
|Group discussion||Deliver presentation|
|Spearman’s rho||Group discussion||Correlation Coefficient||1.000||.371**|
|Deliver presentation||Correlation Coefficient||.371**||1.000|
** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
Regarding reading skill, 65% and 57% of students indicated that their scanning and skimming skills have improved respectively, compared with the development of predicting and inferring skills. Half of teacher respondents pointed out that students can read assigned readings after class effectively and thus make contributions to the tutorial half of the time. As one XJTLU student said: ‘Skimming and scanning are helpful for the actual reading of the reference materials such as books and journal articles as I can easily locate the main or key information in an article within a short period of time’.
This indicates that skimming and scanning are proven to be effective for students to quickly locate important information in a passage due to EAP training. Similarly, S8 from Economics at the UoL stated: ‘EAP training speeds up my reading pace and I can clearly feel that it helps my IELTS reading’. This indicates that particular EAP training can benefit students to take the IELTS exam as well. The result echoes Cai & Chen (2013) and Li’s (2015) studies on benefit for reading skills students received from EAP lessons, which is also one of the research skills mentioned in Hyland & Hamp-Lyons (2002) and Hyland’s (2006) studies.
Further, a significant difference in reading skill was found between Y3 and Y4 students. It can be seen in
Ranks (differences between Y3 and Y4 students in terms of inference skills)
|Year||N||Mean rank||Sum of ranks|
|Asymp. Sig. (2-tailed)||.001|
* Grouping variable: Year
Similarly, as shown by
Ranks (differences between Y3 and Y4 students in terms of skimming skill)
|Year||N||Mean rank||Sum of ranks|
|Asymp. Sig. (2-tailed)||.006|
* Grouping variable: Year
With regards to writing skill, 71% of XJTLU students surveyed stated that they can structure their articles better due to their EAP training compared with the development of other writing skills such as the ability to write a variety of complex sentences, using more lexical resources, and have better grammatical accuracy. A fair amount of students (42%) noted that their essays were more coherent and cohesive and they could answer what the question asks. As one student said ‘I found that writing is not simply about the usage of vocabulary and grammar. It is also the ability to write in western logic to express clearly’. This indicates students’ increasing awareness of following logic in order to show a logical progression for a better piece of writing. Students have also learnt how to adopt linking expressions in order to make their writing easier for readers to understand. EAP lessons are also helpful in terms of writing references and adhering to writing conventions. A number of students mentioned the usefulness of SPSE (situation, problem, solution, and evaluation) taught in EAP lessons, and they also had the chance to compare and contrast the differences between different genres in EAP lessons, which have strengthened their ability to have better writing structures in report or essay writing.
Similarly, the majority of UoL students (84%) said that their ability to write essays has been improved by EAP class. The most benefited areas are the structure, coherence, and cohesiveness of the essay as well as the knowledge to precisely answer essay questions. More than 60% of students stressed that they learnt how to avoid plagiarism and how to paraphrase and cite references as a result of EAP training. Grammar accuracy and vocabulary expansion are also frequently mentioned by students as ways in which their writing has improved. Generally speaking, writing can be the most advantageous aspect of EAP learning as students have never encountered the academic writing format before. The introduction and training of Standard English writing benefits them in specialized study.
Similar to the students’ perceptions, most of the teachers asserted that their students could structure their essay half of the time and do not have plagiarism or collusion, although some students still cannot cite properly. A vast majority of teachers did not find plagiarism to be an issue among students and they said that students were able to write good essays that comply with academic conventions most of the time. As T2 (UoL) said: ‘Academic writing, it is not so bad. A lot of them write well. They paraphrase very well. They write the references well. I don’t worry about most of them’. However, teachers also pointed out that some students do not know to use linking words and lack cohesive devices and their writing lacks logic and clarity. Half of the teachers also stated that students could only use a limited range of appropriate vocabulary and sentential structures. Several teachers thought that students do not have topic sentences or a thesis statement. Sometimes they cannot express their ideas in a clear way. Moreover, writing essays under exam conditions is a particular weakness, suggesting the necessity of timed writing practice. These results above indicate that these areas in writing need to be strengthened in EAP lessons. This is consistent with Cai & Chen (2013), Hyland & Hamp-Lyons (2002), Hyland (2006) and Li’s (2015) studies on writing improvement as one of the research skills from EAP lessons.
In terms of the ability to think critically after studying EAP, only 28% of XJTLU students in the questionnaire indicated they could think critically most of the time, while a majority of students argued that they could only do this half of the time. Similar to XJTLU student questionnaire results, almost 33% of UoL student respondents suggested that they could think critically most of the time while the largest percentage of students (52%) thought that they could apply critical thinking half of the time after study in EAP lessons.
It is also shown in open-ended questions in students’ questionnaires that due to the large amount of essay training and practice, they learnt how to evaluate something from both sides by using examples to support their arguments. Furthermore, they learnt how to read articles from different perspectives and critique them and they could think more logically and write better summaries as a result. Sometimes, debating with tutors also helps form critical thinking skills. However, student interviewees mentioned insufficient training for critical thinking in EAP lessons. S11 highlighted: ‘I think that the development of critical thinking is owed largely to the contribution by lecturers or professors in my own academic department. EAP lessons didn’t contribute much to the formation of critical thinking’. It points at the need for EAP tutors to establish an association or connection with faculty staff closely to better offer help on critical thinking training. S12 agreed with this point: ‘The concept of “critical thinking” is a rather abstract or vague one and the formation of this is a gradual personal process that needs extra work. It is hard to be trained because it has to be experienced by one’s heart and embracing the variety of the world’. This suggests a process-oriented approach to offer help to improve students’ critical thinking skill as it is a gradual process that falls out of the realm of linguistics only. S13 pointed out the variation of critical thinking in different subjects: ‘Every discipline has their own interpretation or criteria as to what critical thinking truly comprises of’. A student from Internet Computing at the UoL said that she was weak at critical thinking in computational areas but seemed to receive little training on this aspect in EAP. This shows that discipline specificity of critical thinking should be incorporated in EAP lessons to offer students more tailored training for critical thinking.
Nonetheless, there are still interviewees who mentioned that they learnt how to think out of the box as a result of EAP training, instead of being manipulated by writers or speakers. Students in the interviews affirmed that they have lots of chances to solve a problem such as an experiment report in team formats. In the process of discussing different views, they acquired a better command of critical thinking. In this case, the practice in case study and group discussion in EAP interactively helps the cultivation of critical thinking.
Regarding teachers’ perceptions in this field, 58% of XJTLU teacher respondents thought that their students could think critically half of the time, but not all the time. Only 30% of UoL teachers thought students could think critically, but 66% thought students cannot. Moreover, teachers’ responses echo those elicited from students in that some students mentioned that they are still used to accepting whatever the writer wrote about and it is hard to think critically without relevant knowledge from certain academic articles. Possible reasons include lack of academic skills, culture differences, and high-school education. Most teachers pointed out the necessity of doing more reading of research articles in their own academic disciplines, and suggested that students should always think about how they can apply the knowledge and theories learnt in real life, and trust their own instinct and experience and bring it to their own study. Some teachers mentioned the discipline-specific nature of critical thinking so that students need to see many examples to be able to emulate the correct mode of critical thinking skills from subject-related examples. A few teachers pointed out that the general unwillingness to debate in essay tasks may contribute to the relatively low level of critical thinking among students. Accordingly, participating in more seminars, debates, and arguments is recommended. This result echoes Gao & Bartlett’s (2014) claim that critical thinking is challenging to teach in China due to culture differences.
The questionnaire data at XJTLU showed that case studies (mean of 1.99) are thought to be helpful for the majority of respondents (55%). Whereas most UoL students (85%) claimed that the case study learning in EAP class was helpful, as they indicated in open-ended type questions that this skill enhanced further their ability to express ideas and analyse problems. Students advocated that case studies help in the following ways. They included learning how to exchange ideas and develop critical thinking skills by discussing issues and examples in groups and understanding others’ ideas. It also expanded their knowledge in major related areas. Additionally, case studies offer them examples to learn, facilitate discussion, enhance their speaking skill, and help them identify how the articles are structured. Furthermore, the ability to have a clearer idea of how to start to analyse by thinking in English, show original understanding, and gain key points from the article is also strengthened.
Some students maintained that the topics of case studies are transferrable to their majors and are thus helpful in generating inspiration. Case studies make abstract concepts more specific and have developed their ability of structuring sentences. They are also considered to be interesting and helpful for freshmen to understand EAP skills as the examples are easier to understand. As S14 remarked: ‘Case studies are helpful for the generation of ideas as it serves as a tool for brainstorm and development of critical thinking and problem solving (e.g., cultural misunderstanding, risk management) when the cases are well designed and carefully selected’. This suggests the role case studies play in cultivating students’ ability to think critically and solve problems effectively.
However, some students still indicated that some case studies are not detailed enough to be related to their majors. Some students argued that they did not receive enough training on that and some case studies were simplified versions of real cases, and therefore of little usage to actual major learning because they are not specific enough. Nevertheless, some students still indicated the value of the introduction of case studies in EAP lessons for some majors such as marketing and business, but not for all disciplines. As an applied mathematics student mentioned, the case study benefited business students more, as the content they learnt would likely become the topics of real cases. Another mathematics student also suggested that the extent of usefulness depends on the depth and topics of the case studies. Therefore, it seems that more targeted material for different majors is needed when conducting a case study in EAP teaching.
Research question 2: What are the suggestions for future improvement of EAP lessons to enhance students’ academic studies?
Although the above findings suggest that students made improvement in many areas, some students are still weak in a variety of fields including grammar, vocabulary, spoken English, listening, writing for exams, and critical thinking. Some students said that they still have difficulty in freely communicating with teachers and classmates with relatively accurate expression. For example, one-third of student interviewees felt uncomfortable in informal spoken communication with native speakers. Also, when they are faced with exam essay questions, it is not an easy task for them to effectively organize their ideas. Both students and teachers then provide recommendations in EAP lessons.
Initially, students indicated difficulty in understanding different accents. For instance, two students majoring in biological science noted: ‘The pronunciation of certain specialist terminology such as different parts of a plant might confuse us due to unintelligibility of lecturers’ accent’. Therefore, providing training for students to comprehend teachers with different accents is essential for their success in their academic disciplines.
Regarding class pace, there is a different perception between XJTLU and UoL students. One student argued: ‘EAP teachers who are native speakers of English should pay more attention to the way they talk in order for better comprehension among us students’. This suggests the need for EAP native speaker tutors to adjust their way of thinking, choice of words, and pace of speech in order to serve students’ comprehension better. In fact, not only should EAP teachers pay attention to class pace, subject teachers should also take it into account. A teacher from architecture reported a similar view: ‘Teachers should pay attention to the cultural specificity of Chinese students. For example, if students don’t understand you, they can still nod, which is an indication of attention to the sound the teacher is making, which is quite different from what we normally understand in a western context’. This indicates the need for teachers to be fully aware of the need to adopt adjustment into different thinking and perceptions due to different cultural norms and customs, in order to better communicate in class. This result added further considerations in accent training and class pace in EAP lessons or even EMI instructions.
One student noted that EAP teachers should acknowledge first-language Chinese as a source of practical assistance during EAP teaching and learning. Constructuve criticism from the teacher could be useful. This suggests the need for EAP tutors to realize the legitimacy of Chinese and treat Chinese as a first language as an asset or facilitating tool instead of an obstacle for English as a second language (ESL). At the UoL however, as shown in the findings in research question 1, no teachers noticed class pace or Chinese language as a helpful tool in class. This indicates that class pace at XJTLU may be an aspect for teachers to consider since the majority of students are Chinese students. Teachers should modify their approach to meet the needs of students at the average level, and cannot just teach and ignore whether students can follow or not. At XJTLU, one subject teacher from Europe thought that sometimes Chinese can help Chinese students understand better, not only English. This was supported by Chinese academic staff interviewees. However, class pace is not a problem at UoL, as the majority of students are non-Chinese students.
Suggestions on writing were addressed by teacher participants. Teachers recommended that there should be more in-class writing exercises and more practice in writing longer reports and essays as well as the development of vocabulary and grammar. In addition, it was felt that some students cannot write long sentences. This indicates more writing training is still needed including timed-essay writing practice, despite the fact that writing was reported as the one skill students improved the most.
In terms of communicative skill, UoL teachers suggested that verbal communication should be enhanced. More training on discussion is also needed. Teachers from both XJTLU and UoL suggested that students should integrate with international students at XJTLU and the U.K. to practice English more often. UoL teachers suggested that XJTLU students need to work with local or non-Chinese students in Liverpool in order to develop better communication skills. As one UoL teacher said: ‘It’s common that XJTLU students when working as a group among themselves will speak Chinese rather than in English, so I am guessing this is the case when they were at XJTLU. It would be desirable to encourage them to use English more often in group projects’. Another UoL teacher gave another example in this suggestion:
Students from Spain, France, Romania, and Arabic, all of them are better than XJTLU students. It is because those XJTLU students do not interact with local people, while European students mingle with local students. They made a rapid progress after some time when they arrived in Britain, while Chinese students do not communicate with local students.
These findings suggest that more training in communication is needed in EAP lessons. Moreover, two participants from mathematics and telecommunications both suggest that students’ learning objectives for EAP vary from major to major. For example, for mathematics students, they will focus on the terms and logic of the articles but pay less attention to case studies or daily communication skills. Therefore, different materials related to their specialized modules are always advocated.
Finally, based on the discussions in research question 1, more training on note taking, delivering presentations without preparation, critical thinking, and more specific materials in case studies are also recommended in EAP lessons in order to reinforce students’ skills in these fields.
This paper has presented students and teachers’ perceptions of students’ academic performance after two-years’ EAP training at a university in China and a university in the U.K. While some good development and improvement of EAP skills was indicated, some students still need to further develop their academic English and study skills. The close correlation between the ability to carry out group discussions, deliver presentations, and have good communicative skills sheds some light on pedagogical interventions, suggesting training of English-speaking skills in EAP lessons could employ a variety of different class activities, namely, group discussion, individual presentation, and even debate. All of these could be incorporated in teamwork due to the rather high correlation between teamwork and group discussion. Areas for further improvement include accent recognition and encouraging students’ western way of thinking in order for better transition to their further academic study.
The evidence of the integration of critical thinking, case studies, and teamwork skills indicates that the materials used in case studies can be complex enough to indeed practice critical thinking, and the format of a case study can transfer from study by pairs to larger groups. More presentation and discussion occasions are beneficial for their speaking and listening. Frequent reading assignments are also needed to help them adapt to further study.
However, there are some limitations in this study. While both students and teachers perceived positive achievements in students’ academic study with EAP training, there is no test to provide evidence to prove it. In addition, there were less than ten teacher interviewees in both universities. More teacher interviewees could provide more concise insight. Therefore, a further study is necessary to provide more evidence.