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Enhancing Writing and Communications Skills for Earth Sciences Students

Grant recipients:
Brewster Conant Jr., Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Judi Jewinski, Provost's Office
Julia Williams, English Language Studies and Applied Language Studies
 

Photo of Brewster Conant, Jr.  Photo of Judi Jewinski     Photo of Julia Williams

    Brewster Conant, Jr.               Judi Jewinski                      Julia Williams

(Completed.  Project timeline: September 2013 - August 2014)

Project Description

Our LITE project responds to the call for studies of “best practices” expressed in the final report of the Task Force for English Language Competency (2012). It builds a structure of social support for 2+2[1] Earth Sciences students, in a ten-week extracurricular program addressing extra-linguistic competencies.  Rather than continue in ESL classes, which reinforce the students’ same-culture friendships, this project involves them in discipline-related activities supported by faculty and peer mentors: a field trip, a tour of labs, and a public speaking event. Students not only complete multiple drafts of typical Earth Sciences assignments, with the help of trained markers, but also work collaboratively to improve their intercultural communication skills. If successful, this co-curricular support could become a model for mandatory support programs for all 2+2 students in the Faculty of Science and elsewhere on campus.

Questions Investigated

In piloting EARTH 10, a non-credit course, we sought to address the needs of 2+2 students for ongoing social and academic support in their first term at Waterloo in Earth and Environmental Sciences.  By engaging them in guided co-curricular activities (designed to improve English competency, help them adjust to academic and department specific requirements, and integrate them in the Waterloo community), we expected the 2+2 students to become more confident  speakers and writers and, therefore,  more successful  students.  We also expected a secondary benefit: the close involvement of peer mentors and professors would help them understand the challenges and determination of students from a different cultural background. 

Findings/Insights

Only fifteen 2+2 students completed EARTH 10 because twelve of the original class members dropped the course. In interviews conducted at the end of the term, they reported being overwhelmed by the workload associated with their academic programs and expressed regret at not being able to participate. Metrics to assess the success of the fifteen students who remained included self-assessments in pre- and post- course interviews and questionnaires, comparisons of draft assignments to final submissions, a post-program survey of peer mentors (assessing their participation), and comparisons of course grades and major averages.  The fifteen students in the class universally reported having positive experiences and benefitting greatly from their participation. They were able to improve their writing measurably from first draft to second on the two written assignments, and videotapes of their group presentations confirmed significant improvement in oral and interactional skills. Undergraduate peer mentors were key to the success of the course.  On an exit survey, all of these senior students described their experience as worth repeating. Perhaps the most important observation is that the fifteen 2+2 students performed demonstrably better in other EARTH courses in both Fall and Winter terms than those who dropped EARTH 10. As a result of this success, the department has committed itself to continue offering EARTH 10 not only as a way of supporting 2+2 students but as help for any student wishing to improve communication skills and develop a better connection to the Earth Sciences community. The Fall 2014 offering has lightened the workload to encourage students not to drop the course and provided more opportunity for peer mentors to be involved with the students. 

Dissemination and Impact

  • At the individual level: The success of the initial offering has been shared with students and colleagues through an article in the departmental newsletter.  Twelve new peer mentors, including one graduate from last fall’s EARTH 10, have been recruited for this year, and 31 students are currently registered in the course.  
  • At the Department/School and/or Faculty/Unit levels: The principal investigators have shared a template for the provision of communications support with other 2+2 programs in the Faculty of Science, Faculty of Arts, and Faculty of Environment.    
  • At the institutional (uWaterloo) level: The principal investigators delivered a presentation (pdf) at the fifth OND conference on May 1, 2014, which was attended by 28 participants. In addition, we developed a template to share with colleagues, and we attend department meetings when invited.
  • At the national and/or international levels: The principal investigators plan to develop a presentation for the 2015 TESL Ontario conference including a revised template and comparison of results from 2013 and 2014.  

References

Project Reference List (pdf)

[1] 2+2 students are students from Chinese partner universities who come to Canada in year 3 of their academic programs; when they complete two to three years of study satisfactorily, they graduate with two degrees. Because they have less time in an English environment than other Waterloo students, there have been many concerns raised about their ability to communicate effectively.

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