Give credit where credit is due?

By Tyson Seburn, University of Toronto

I’d like to believe that the work my colleagues and I do with our students in their pre-sessional EAP year at the University of Toronto greatly contributes to their eventual appearance in a convocation parade, but officially, it really doesn’t. We’re not part of their GPA. It looks like we had no effect on their ability to succeed academically. Our year together improving language, study and cultural adaptation strategies, not to mention great stress and great reward, evaporate once over-its success only inferred only from the other grades that appear.

Figure 1 - (c) Photo taken by "Quan" under CC license (http://flic.kr/p/4RuNut)
Figure 1 – (c) Photo taken by “Quan” under CC license (http://flic.kr/p/4RuNut)

EAP is the love of my life. I wish most of my students felt the same, but sadly, they do not. Some do recognise its long-lasting value, but a great many others see it as a burdensome means to an end: successful completion equals ability to take degree courses. I don’t like it, but I understand their attitude.

One reason is the critical reading and writing course I teach (along with six others I coordinate) is non-credit. Luckily for me (not so for many other EAP teachers), the stakes are very high – a pass results in a full offer of university admission. Even still, the eventual result appears as the faulty ‘CR’ (or ‘credit received’) at the end of the year, even though no actual degree credits are given. Non-grade, non-effect on their GPA, non-credit. It screams ‘Get at a 60%, move on to where you want really want to be! Start earning real credits towards your degree!’ Unfortunately, this neglects two important factors: a visible reward for hard-work; and motivation to excel at the language components that best prepare them for the demands of their future coursework.

Figure 2 - TESOL endorsed the need for credits in EAP courses in 2012
Figure 2 – TESOL endorsed the need for credits in EAP courses in 2012

While the thought of teaching a credit-course has been a passing fancy, it wasn’t until TESOL released the affirmative position on the issue a little over 18 months ago that I considered it more concretely. How would it affect me, my students and my job?

Is there ample rigor to deserve credit?
Some stakeholders, many of whom know little about EAP contexts, suggest that an English language course remediates the skills (linguistic, critical and academic) required for credit. Perhaps this isn’t inaccurate initially, but EAP courses quickly scaffold the skills, building them towards proficiencies often on par with or even ahead of native-speaking first-year students by course end. Reading and writing strategies practised in my course resemble and (dare I say) surpass the demands of those in credit-worthy communications courses many local students in different universities are required to take. Our emphasis on developing critical thinking skills is no different than that in other undergraduate courses.

Additionally, EAP courses often mimic the length and double the contact hours of credit courses. With this similar timing comes the opportunity for readings, assignments and the need for time management – all reminiscent of a content course. Furthermore, the quality and challenge of EAP courses by design, mean to prepare students for the demands of their content courses, so should they not be equally rewarded? Believe me, come March (near the end of our academic year), students experience the pressure, stress and time management of all other undergrad students. I argue these factors constitute the adequate rigor required of a credit.

Do students master something worth credit?
The meaning a university credit has come under debate regarding EAP as well. It is mastery of university-level content, which EAP aims to support. Does this preclude us from bearing credit because they lack the content needed for mastery?

EAP generally does not test content itself, but the application of skills learnt on one source of content onto another source of content (e.g. guessing the meaning of unknown vocabulary in a new text). I’d argue that this is the point of content courses as well: successful application of skills learnt and demonstrated through the year. Let’s face it, content courses that encourage simple memorisation and test such are on their way out, or at least should be.

Another way to look at this is that if one were to take a language course other than EAP, let’s say French, wouldn’t they receive a credit for their work in that class? A more strenuous task, we equip students to succeed in university-level courses in that other language. This mastery of content is no less than any other language course. Indeed, it’s more.

Would it affect motivation and value?
A true demotivator is when the stakes of taking an EAP program don’t include a lasting effect on paper, students often approach our courses with a few unfortunate perspectives. They can feel:

  • putting effort into a course other than credit-courses is a misplaced use of time
  • punished for being required to take a non-credit course

For teachers, credits would be a swell pat on the back (or boost in the arm) if our courses were considered as intrinsically valuable, particularly from the get-go.  If they were worth credit and appeared on their transcripts affecting their GPA, they would be.

Becoming credit-bearing may also change the way universities view the EAP programs offered in different faculties. It may increase university support and recognition from stakeholders, improving optics and encouraging others who could benefit to enrol. Increase enrolment equates to increased prestige and may improve working conditions with more money coming in.

Could we become unqualified?
Yes, that is a danger. Most EAP teachers have years of classroom experience and graduate degrees, but rarely PhDs. Credit-bearing courses may require unionised employees, which depending on the university’s policies, may require teaching staff be academics i.e. PhD holders. Would a change like this suddenly affect our employability? Would we all be necessarily replaced by researchers with less contact experience?

Once the course bears credit, university and union rules may implement other restrictions. Outside of union restrictions, EAP programs are free to implement curriculum decided in-house, including contact hours. Would the needed hours with students be decreased by union rules? Maybe. In this dystopian future, however, I doubt EAP programs would survive. Quality would decrease and eventually hiring rules would have to change.

Give credit where credit is due
I realise that I’m painting the EAP landscape with a broad stroke. Not all contexts are equal in duration with content courses, nor do they always include courses at all. Ultimately, for me the pros outweigh the cons, so I say yes: give credit where credit is due.

This post is revised and updated from an earlier post here.

About the author
Tyson Seburn teaches critical reading and writing to undergraduate students in the International Foundation Program at the University of Toronto. He manages 4C in ELT and founded #tleap (formerly #EAPchat), a collaborative community of EAP educators.

6 responses to “Give credit where credit is due?

  1. I think we have to also take into account the purpose of a credit course. It’s purpose is not to validate or provide a seal of approval on a course; it is a component of a degree requirement. In recognizing a non-credit course as a credit course, the non-credit course would have to reconcile itself with the criteria for credit courses (e.g. time measured in instructional hours, assessment requirements, criteria for hiring instructors, how the credit factors as part of a degree requirement, etc. ). So, I think the real issue is reconciling the design and purpose of the EAP course (it is probably different in every program) with the criteria for a credit course in a degree program. The University of Waterloo has a model where the EAP course is designed similarly to a credit course (e.g. same number of instructional hours) but other models should be possible too. My thoughts.

    1. Good point about it fitting somehow into an existing degree program. Perhaps it could simply fit within a communications degree or a humanities degree? I’m sure all courses are housed within some faculty and department, but are they all essentially tied to a particular degree program?

  2. Hi Tyson,

    Thanks for putting this together – you raise some interesting questions.

    The thing that jumps out at me here is that students registered on degree programs, and I’m thinking of my own studies at Concordia in Montreal as another Canadian example, are required to complete a certain amount of credits to meet the requirements of their degree. So, following this, if EAP courses in Language Centres were to become credit-bearing this would mean students are either going to have to do extra credit in EAP in addition to the university courses run by their departments that they’d like to or feel they need to do…or to do less of these department-run university courses .

    In theory this could work if each department had EAP support to run specific EAP course components relevant to their academic language and communication needs e.g. researching and writing for engineering. Indeed, this is how I would like to see things go with EAP in terms of cross-curricular collaboration with departments. By embedding ESAP support within departments and university course learning design we would be directly contributing to credit-bearing courses that have relevant ESAP affordances. We are starting to see this happen in drips and drabs as Language Centres reach out to various university departments, and with mixed results so far. Perhaps we should give due credit to those in EAP working in this way? 🙂

    1. I like the the concept of the organisation you suggest, Alannah. I would, however, prefer the language learning to remain under the control of a centralised department itself. When every university department starts opening their own language learning centres and courses therein, things get messy and quality doesn’t remain consistent. After all, the stakeholders of a Physical Sciences department aren’t language learning experts, so they aren’t really the best to put together and design a course that works efficiently with how EAP does (e.g. they may not include ample # of instructional hours, qualified teachers, etc). In my ideal world, EAP would be housed in its as own department, from which they design courses for each faculty/department’s students. These courses (0.5 or 1.0 year) would bear credit that could be applied towards a degree program, but would require entry of some sort, i.e. personal interview. Yes, this would necessarily replace a 0.5 or 1.0 credit course from their degree, but could be in the place of a breadth requirement instead.

  3. Hi Tyson,

    Context is everything obviously and so the situation in the UK is different from Canada. In our context, EAP courses are often credit-bearing, as part of a Foundation Program or as in-sessional add-ons to degree programs. Both these modes operate at my university, Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh.

    This leads to several benefits in my view. Rather than the different departments opening their own language centres, the physics and engineering lecturers talk to the EAP specialists about language and communication and we talk to them about physics so a fruitful dialogue emerges. I’m dead set against EAP students being corralled in their own little language learning ghetto – the language centre. If students can study English in classrooms in the Physics department, they begin to feel like they are part of their discipline. The language center retains control over the organisation and delivery. Another benefit is that credit-bearing courses have to go through your university quality assurance procedures so your colleagues learn more about what you do and come to see the value of it. EAP no longer adopts a deficit model – making students ‘oven-ready’ for their degrees – but instead transfers to an apprenticeship model, helping students find their identity in their academic disciplines. This has a lot more face validity for the students.

    Olwyn

    1. Thanks for the insight into how EAP programs operate in your context, Olwyn. Glad to see credit is borne somewhere for what we do.

      In my particular program at University of Toronto, our EAP program is pre-sessional for an academic year, so our students are not yet within their degree programs. Instead, they take a sheltered first-year credit History course within our department and EAP courses alongside it, as well as a discipline-specific half course in the latter half of the year. Our department is embedded within the Faculty of Arts & Science though, so they gain a breadth requirement credit through the History course and so we don’t operate as a typical language centre like those you describe. Because of this, we have a strong dialogue with the History professor and TAs, that allows our courses to work off each others’. Still, with the amount of work and courseload our students have, it’s a shame they are not given credit beyond the one course.

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