Recent developments in EIKEN and TEAP testing in Japan try to ensure that students can write to a suitable standard and express their thoughts concisely whilst making use of correct academic conventions. However, as many teachers are aware, a large percentage of their university students are incapable of writing even the most fundamental sentences, despite having studied the language for six years. Indeed, large numbers of students wishing to attend universities in the UK and other overseas countries find it difficult to convey meaning accurately in English. They face similar problems with content and structure.
This paper examines how three classes, one of 35 students and two of 34 students, at one university were assessed on their written ability and demonstrate that, even with the most rudimentary instruction and feedback, many were able to increase their writing performance significantly. I write this paper before the onset of a more detailed active research project I hope to conduct and feel confident that the initial findings substantiate further research into this field. Additionally, I am collaborating with a colleague to develop assessment software for the educational sector. In the following paragraphs I will discuss the methodology and reasoning behind the research project before discussing the findings.
Keywords: Action research, written analysis, timed-writing, quantitative findings, qualitative findings.
I teach English at a number of institutes from junior high schools to universities and I have always wondered how I might be able to help or encourage my students to improve upon their writing skills. Since I also grade written work for EIKEN pre-first examinees and TEAP examinees as well as deliver seminars on correct EAP conventions, I noticed that a large number of students make similar and repetitive mistakes in their written work. At the time of writing, I am collaborating with a colleague to develop assessment software for the EFL market and I wanted to test the appropriateness of this software on a number of students, receive their feedback and suggestions and make any necessary alterations to the planned software design before making an investment.
The reasoning behind the software is to allow students to analyse and assess their own work as well as that of their peers in real time, provide and receive detailed feedback and raise awareness of writing techniques. Also, by providing continual assessment in real time, students can gain maximum benefit from their studies and become aware of and address their own shortcomings. Wiliam (2007/2008) discusses how studies in formative assessment demonstrate that student learning rates are doubled. Assessment for the promotion of learning purposes rather than summative checking of learning is a useful tool for both teachers and students.
Incidentally, it took me a number of months to analyse and provide feedback for the students in these classes; a time consuming exercise that allows only the instructor to provide feedback. It is therefore highly impractical in the day-to-day classroom, as teachers simply do not have the time to commit to such detailed and thorough examination of student work. Assessment software would allow for teacher and students feedback, provide scores and advice for improvement as soon as the work has been completed. Although this article will focus on written work, the software program would also allow for feedback on the other skills and could be adapted to highlight various kinds of activities such as presentations, one-on-one exchanges and group discussions as well as academic writing and other forms of writing, either in-house or at home. A number of studies have raised concerns over ‘high-stakes’ testing and assessment, especially when applied to younger students (Jang, 2014), and imply that a negative influence on achievement can result (Gardner, Tremblay & Masgoret, 1997). However, when language students receive assessment that provides informed feedback and crucial pointers on how their ability is developing, they are then able to utilise the information to help them in future studies. The software I am working on is intended for use as a teaching aid rather than a way to monitor which student is best and foster ‘unhealthy’ competition. This should be made clear to students at the onset. The idea is to help all students and inform them of their individual shortcomings.
Before investing in the production of the software, I wanted to trial how detailed feedback would be perceived by students and to discover whether or not it would prove to be beneficial. Early results indicate that students were highly motivated by having their work thoroughly analysed and were able to improve upon their writing as a direct result. Indeed, many students informed me that they had never had such thorough critique of their work and some felt embarrassed or ashamed by the number of mistakes they had made. It seems that during their time at junior high or high school the most they could hope to receive by way of feedback was a mark at the top of their paper indicating an ‘A’, ‘B’, or ‘C’. Disturbingly for me, a number of students had never had an opportunity, or claimed that they had not, to express their ideas in writing during their school years. I wanted to investigate whether a simple approach to helping students with their written work over a short time period could result in observable, positive outcomes. The results of the study seem to indicate that it can.
In this section of the paper, I will briefly discuss the participants and then focus on the procedure of the action research and provide a rationale for my reasoning.
Many tests at Japanese high schools, it appears, are only interested in grading student ability to memorize archaic grammar, vocabulary without context, and short sentence structure. Little is done to help students become creative writers or to use academic conventions correctly. Reinking, Hart and von der Osten (2001) discuss the qualities of good writing and explain reasons for behind it. Many students, it seems, lack this awareness and see writing as a burden rather than a means of expression. I believe this to be a major flaw in the Japanese system, and it is a problem to which my assessment software should directly address. I chose an action research project as according to Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2011.344) it ‘is a powerful tool for change and improvement at the local level.’ As educators, we have ample opportunity on a daily basis to try to make changes for the better for our students, and for ourselves, and it is incumbent that we seize these opportunities. The following framework for an action research project (Figure 1) is based on Tripp’s (2003) cycle of reconnaissance, planning, acting, research action and evaluating action and is found in Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2011).
Figure 1: A framework for action research.
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As can be seen, at each stage of the research, time is given to reflection in order to consider the best approach to the next step. The process is continuous and upon completion of step (8), the cycle begins again in an attempt to further solving or managing any particular problem area. Hirose (2018) discusses how many studies on student writing focus on factors such as fluency, lexical and syntactic complexity. The aim of this study is to discover whether students could respond quickly and over a short period to classroom feedback and instruction. Many educators perhaps make the wrong assumption that students, upon entering university, are aware of proper conventions regarding essay structure. Hirose (2018) also points out that many students only practice writing at the sentence level and do not have much experience or practice of structuring essays. This study attempted to discover if students were able to improve upon this shortcoming in a short period of time and after minimal instruction.
In total 104 first-year university students comprising three English conversation classes from the same university took part in the study. The first class (C1) consisted of 35 students, 26 boys and 9 girls; the second (C2) of 34 students, 24 boys and 11 girls; and the third (C3) of 34 students, 11 boys and 23 girls. All classes were first year students. All students were aware of the fact that their written work was being analysed for research purposes and all signed agreement forms with the understanding that complete anonymity would be provided at all stages of the project.
I examined, in detail, written work from three classes, two of 36 and one of 37, at one university in Aichi. This action research project was both quantitative and qualitative and students were asked to submit a questionnaire upon completion of the written tasks. All three classes were held on a Friday afternoon, periods three to five, times being from 1:00-2:30, 2:45-4:15 and 4:30-6:00. Factors such as students being tired in the class immediately after lunch or in the final class of the day were not considered. Prior to the research, students were informed of the reasoning for doing it and upon completion they were asked to sign a consent form if they did not object to their work being used. Not one person objected.
From the outset, students were not informed that the writing exercise would last for three weeks. Initially, they were under the impression that it was a one time writing exercise. Similarly, in week two, they were under the assumption that they would write no more that two essays. I chose this approach so that students would not save the best for last.
Students were asked to choose a topic from a list of eight and write on it for twenty minutes. The topics they chose from were as follows:
1. My Family
2. Memories of my High School
3. My Best Friend
4. My Hopes for the Future
5. My Ideal day
6. My Favourite Restaurant
7. My Best Holiday Ever
8. My Favourite High School Teacher
As students chose their favourite topic on week one, it can be assumed that the content of the first essay might be the most detailed. I deliberately chose this tactic to help assess the content and structure level after their third choice essay.
Table 1. Breakdown of the topics chosen each week between the three classes
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As can be seen, in week one the most popular choice among all groups was essay number #2. This suggests that, as they were in the early stages of being first-year university students, they held dear and fresh memories of their high school days. This also helps with grading the papers as the majority of students discussed a similar topic. Reid (1991) discusses results of different essay topics conducted on a number of students from different countries. There does seem to be a direct correlation between topic choice and syntactic, lexical and fluency variables. It is also notable that some topics were not of interest to mist students. This is also useful information for instructors as they can avoid such topics of discussion in class until such time that students are more comfortable discussing them.