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Setting language standards in Higher Education. Challenges & opportunities faced by both institutions and international students alike. Introduction from the Chair. Andrea Robertson, Director of Customer Application Services, UCAS. IELTS Facts and Figures.

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setting language standards in higher education

Setting language standards in Higher Education

Challenges & opportunities faced by both institutions and international students alike

introduction from the chair
Introduction from the Chair

Andrea Robertson, Director of Customer Application Services, UCAS

reason for taking ielts academic 2007
Reason for taking IELTS (Academic) 2007
  • Higher education extended course
  • Training/work experience
  • Immigration
  • Registration as a nurse (incl. CGFNS)
  • Employment
reason for taking ielts general training 2007
Reason for taking IELTS (General Training) 2007
  • Immigration
  • Employment
  • Higher education extended course
  • Training/work experience
  • Personal reason

Setting Language Standards in H.E.

“The Wandering Scholar”

Sarah Michelotti

Head of English Language Programmes


Challenges and Opportunities

  • Context: The University of Surrey
  • International Student Mobility
  • The Exchange Students’ Experience: - The academics’ perspective - The students’ perspective - The English tutors’ perspective
  • Implications
  • Conclusions

University of Surrey

  • 1966 Battersea College of Technology became the University of Surrey
  • 1968 Relocated from Battersea to Guildford
  • Approximate student numbers: 12,700 total
  • - Undergraduate: 8,095 Postgraduate: 4,532
    • - International students: c.2,800
  • - Students from the EU: c.1,250
  • - Approximately 120 different nationalities
  • Total staff: 3,000 (c. 1,800 Academic)

International Student Mobility

  • “The internationalisation of higher education is first of all a reflection of the universal character of learning and research. It is reinforced by the current processes of economic and political integration as well as by the growing need for intercultural understanding.” (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation 1995: 10)
  • Bologna: Aim to harmonise university education in Europe to facilitate academic mobility (1999)
  • c.60% of the world’s top 100 universities in English speaking countries

Implications for the UK

  • Development of international universities e.g. the ‘European’ university ‘University of the Transmanche’
  • Numbers of European students in UK likely to grow to 170,000 by 2020 (Vision 2020: British Council 2004)
  • Multilingual and multicultural resource for employers and universities in the UK
  • Role of English language: no longer the sole preserve of the English-speaking peoples
  • Providing challenges and opportunities for Higher Education Institutions, academics, students & their families.

The Experience: Academics

  • “Outstanding” students, motivated, participate
  • Contribute to cross-cultural discussions
  • Assessments different, unfamiliar requirements (essays)
  • Lack of confidence
  • A lot of pastoral care involved
  • I student went home after 1 day “…didn’t like the food…”
  • Tutors need to understand exchange curriculum
  • Different semester length
  • Visiting students promotes links e.g. for research

The Experience: The Students- Language

  • Need for Everyday English
  • “It’s easier to speak about international law than about the latest movie or match”
  • Difficult to understand the English-speaking students
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Pronunciation
  • “I can write it but not speak it”
  • Need to think in English
  • Lack of confidence

The Experience: The Students - Study

  • “I didn’t understand anything, I just copied from the board”
  • Essay-writing: “We’re not used to it”
  • Fewer lectures – lecturers as facilitators
  • More debate/interaction in the classes
  • Lectures not the same topics as the assignments/essays
  • Need for discipline & independent research (“nothing to do”)
  • Plagiarism: - Harvard referencing style - Serious offence - Heavy penalties

Academic Culture

  • “Academic cultures are the systems of beliefs, expectations and cultural practices about how to perform academically”. (Cortazzi and Jin 1997)
  • Academic Culture in the UK
  • Independent learning
  • Critical Thinking, students expected to challenge
  • Creativity, inductive learning
  • Memorisation may not be important
  • Participation, engagement in dialogue
  • Pair and Group Work, teacher as a facilitator, organiser

The Experience: English Tutors

Skills needed:

Listening: - Listening in lectures - Listening for gist - Listening for detail - Effective note-taking - Understanding their peers

Speaking: - Seminars & discussions - Giving presentations - Different registers - Everyday English - Pronunciation - Online discussions


The Experience: English Tutors

Skills needed:

Reading: - Skimming - Scanning - Inferring meaning - Understanding attitude & purpose - Note-taking from textsWriting (Essays & Reports): - Structure - Introductions & conclusions - Building an argument - Academic style - Paraphrasing - Referencing (Harvard style)


The Experience: English Tutors

Skills needed:

General Study Skills: - Research Skills - The Library - Organization - Time management - Exam techniques - Referencing - ‘Academic culture’


English Language Support Programme

  • Essay Writing, Technical, Dissertation Writing
  • Academic Reading & Note-taking
  • Grammar Revision
  • Oral Skills, Pronunciation
  • Presentation Skills
  • Academic Listening
  • Legal English
  • British Culture & Humour
  • Contemporary British Society

Implications: Advance Preparation

  • University of Surrey normally requires IELTS 6.0 minimum
  • Students may take other exams e.g. TOEFL
  • IELTS - international benchmark
  • Pre-Sessional English programmes
  • Preparation in skills for study as well as language
  • “It would be better to prepare”


  • Perceptions are positive from all perspectives
  • Need for preparation in 3 areas: - Practical orientation - Language - Study skills
  • Need for greater awareness of the realities of the experience on the part of academics and co-ordinators
  • Students are “learning to communicate across cultures and communicating for learning across cultures” (Cortazzi and Jin 1997)


  • British Council/UUK/IDP (2004). Vision 2020 Forecasting international student mobility, a UK perspective. (London, British Council)
  • Cortazzi, M. and Jin, L. (1997). ‘Communication for Learning Across Cultures’. In McNamara, D. and Harris, R. (eds), Overseas students in Higher Education. London, Routledge.
  • Dow, E. (2006). Britannia meets Bologna: still making waves? Perspectives 10/1. (Taylor and Francis)
  • EC Commission (2004). The new Generation of Community Education and Training Programmes after 2006. Communication from the Commission 156, 9.3.2004
references 2
References (2)
  • Graddol, D. (2006) English Next. London, British Council
  • Reichart, S. and Tauch, C. (2005). Trends IV: European UniversitiesImplementing Bologna (Bergen). Available online at:
  • Scott, P. (ed.) (1998). The Globalisation of Higher Education. Buckingham,SRHE/Open University Press.
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (1995). Policy Paper for change and development in Higher Education. Paris. UNESCO

Thanks also to:

  • Staff at University of Surrey, in particular: Dr Tim Brown Professor Andrea Dlaska Mr Tim Fletcher Dr Theodore Konstadinides Mrs Annette Strauss Mr Eric Urvoy
  • Students at the University of Surrey, in particular: Loic Cheminade Marianne Faye Antonia Jartschuk Tobias Kleine Antoine Martin Gabriel Potier

Sarah Michelotti

Head of English Language Programmes

T: + 44 (0)1483 682861

setting language standards in higher education is compromising a false economy

Setting Language Standards in Higher Education: Is Compromising a False Economy?


International Education Conference


Dr Sacha DeVelle

3 December 2008

  • Relating IELTS test scores to language ability
  • Key findings from IELTS funded research programme
    • Educational admission purposes
    • Predictive validity of test scores
  • IELTS Scores Explained DVD package
  • Standards setting research in collaboration with Cambridge ESOL
the use of ielts scores for educational admissions purposes
The use of IELTS scores for educational admissions purposes
  • A New Zealand context – (Smith & Haslett, 2007)
  • Attitudes of tertiary key decision-makers towards English language tests in Aotearoa New Zealand: Report on the results of a national provider survey.
  • Decision making often made without expertise in language testing.
  • A potential for greater liaison between course providers an external standards setting bodies.
  • “IELTS” well known: needs to maintain dialogue with end-users
  • IELTS Scores Explained DVD package (2006)
the use of ielts scores for educational admissions purposes30
The use of IELTS scores for educational admissions purposes

A United Kingdom context – (Hyatt & Brooks, forthcoming)

  • Investigating stakeholders perceptions of IELTS as an entry requirement for higher education in the UK
  • Entry requirements very different across institution and sector
  • Increasingly competitive environment tension between standards and the need to recruit
  • Majority admitted not having a clear understanding of the IELTS content and process.
predictive validity of test scores
Predictive validity of test scores
  • Definition of Predictive Validity:

An indication of how well a test predicts future performance in the relevant skill.

  • Complex relationship between language proficiency and successful academic outcomes.
predictive validity of test scores32
Predictive Validity of Test Scores
  • Rea-Dickens, Kiely & Yu (2007)
  • Student identity, learning and progression: The affective and academic impact of IELTS on ‘successful’ candidates.
  • Fairly strong link between IELTS entry score and subsequent academic success
  • Other significant factors that influence this process
  • Greater understanding needed of what IELTS scores mean in decision making process
predictive validity of test scores33
Predictive Validity of Test Scores
  • An Australian context: Ingram & Bayliss (2007)
  • IELTS as a predictor of academic language performance Part 1

Research Question

  • To what extent is the language behaviour implied by their IELTS scores reflected in the language behaviour of university students during the first 6 months of degree programme?
predictive validity of test scores34
Predictive Validity of Test Scores
  • An Australian context: Ingram & Bayliss (2007)
  • Generally able to produce language behaviour measured by IELTS score in context of academic studies.
  • Individual students can perceive their language proficiency levels quite differently.
  • Course language demands
what is ielts scores explained
What is IELTS Scores Explained?
  • A DVD intended to raise the awareness of stakeholders who wish to understand what IELTS scores really mean.
  • Covers all 4 skills:

Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking

  • Updated version including half-band reporting for Writing and Speaking
ielts scores explained dvd
IELTS Scores Explained DVD
  • Examples of IELTS test tasks and evaluations of Writing and Speaking performances.
  • Writing band descriptors
  • Speaking band descriptors
  • Example conversion Tables: Listening and Reading
  • Procedures for setting standards for IELTS scores
standard setting
Standard Setting

Two key questions:

  • What is the minimal level of English needed?
  • How does this minimally acceptable level translate into IELTS scores?
standard setting tools
Standard Setting: Tools
  • User questionnaire on DVD
  • View sample Writing Test scripts and Speaking clips
  • Consider sample Reading and Listening material
  • Recommended reading:
  • Cizek, GJ (2001) Setting Performance Standards: Concepts, Methods and Perspectives, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers
research on standards setting
Research on Standards Setting
  • Recommending a Nursing-Specific Passing Standard using the IELTS Test.
  • (National Council of State Boards of Nursing - The United States)
  • O’Neill, T, Buckendahl, C.W, Plake, B and Taylor, L (2007) Recommending a nurse-specific passing standards for the IELTS examination, Language Assessment Quarterly, 4:4, 295-317.
research on standards setting40
Research on Standards Setting
  • Content Mapping of IELTS GT to the Canadian Benchmarks (Canadian Immigration and Citizenship)
  • Cambridge ESOL commissioned the BUROS Centre for Testing at Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Buckendahl, C.W; Foley, BP and Rodeck, E (2005) Canadian Language Benchmarks/ International English Language Testing System standard setting study.
  • IELTS test scores and language ability
  • Key findings from IELTS funded research programme:
  • Educational admission purpose
  • Predictive validity of test scores
  • Standards Setting
  • IELTS Scores Explained DVD
  • Standards setting research in collaboration with Cambridge ESOL.