International students’ perceptions of curriculum and social integration

Common to many universities, English for Academic Purposes (EAP)1 programs support international students in developing the language skills and academic strategies that are useful in their studies. With an overall focus on academic language and acculturation – integrating students into the ‘culture’ of academic thinking and representing – these programs may overlook the role of social acculturation, and how EAP students are integrated with the local population.

In their study on EAP graduates, Dr. Greg Tweedie and International Foundations Program instructor Marcia Kim investigated how these students felt their EAP curriculum experiences prepared them for their current undergraduate studies. While social acculturation was not the sole focus of their study, it represented a perceived need in the EAP curriculum; the students described facing cultural and linguistic barriers in attempting to participate in university life after graduating from the EAP program.

The research team interviewed 7 students, from 5 nationalities – 6 international students, and one new immigrant to Canada. The students identified 4 areas of alignment, and 4 of misalignment, between their EAP studies and what they thought would be helpful in further preparing for their current degree work.

Strengths of the EAP Program

The students found that group work provided them with opportunities to interact, to share ideas, and to become more culturally aware. The students felt that group work helped them to develop the listening skills required to work with a wide variety of classmates, which was a feature of their current classrooms. Similarly, the strategies for constructing, organizing, and revising assignments and papers was thought to be beneficial.

Note-taking represented another important area of academic preparation. The students commented that their strategies for organizing and retaining information was helpful in lectures, and in the learning process. Speaking, and the ability to practice using the language aloud, was another strength. By helping students with their pronunciation, and the articulation of difficult sounds, they could better communicate with their peers.

Areas of Misalignment

The students also found several areas in which they thought they could be better prepared. Several of these areas related to their social and cultural connection with local students, as well as their academic performance in their programs.

While speaking activities in EAP were helpful, students spoke of the challenges of participating in group discussions with native speakers. As the conversation moves quickly, some students found it difficult to keep pace and participate meaningfully. One student highlighted that they are only exposed to other English Language Learners (ELLs) in their programs, which did not prepare them for discussions with others.

Further, the students perceived a lack of relevance in some of the vocabulary they learned during the program. The students commented that they might simply memorize the vocabulary and not use it again, especially if it was not connected to their faculty and area of study. One student suggested engaging students in self-directed studies or in areas of interest that might better connect their vocabulary instruction. This irrelevancy was also seen in reading. Students suggested that a greater focus on academic texts, and strategies for reading the large amount required in their courses would be helpful.

Making Connections

The friendships the students made in the EAP program were commonly described in the interviews. They shared examples of successes and challenges, expressing the desire for practical strategies to help them connect socially during their studies. Concerns included having a strong accent, a lack of connection to everyday uses of English, and limited exposure to local, native speakers. One student reported the benefits of learning specific, Canadian vocabulary, which she thought had a positive effect on how her Canadian classmates perceived her.

While the students thought the explicit, academic curriculum emphasized and provided them with important skills, they found that their interactions with local students were largely missing. The students suggested pronunciation instruction, meaningful and authentic interactions with university students outside the EAP courses, and opportunities to integrate with the local culture as central to their experience and learning. This provides EAP program providers and instructors with considerations for potential curriculum planning – addressing both academic and social acculturation aspects for EAP students.

See more from Dr. Greg Tweedie on his profile

See more from Marcia Kim on her profile

Connected Citations

Tweedie, G. M., & Kim, M. (2015). EAP curriculum alignment and social acculturation: Student perceptions. TESL Canada Journal/Revue TESL du Canada, 33(1), 41-57. Available Online.

1 In the Werklund School of Education, the International Foundations Program offers English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses as part of its Bridging and Preparation streams