In this issue of Teaching Assistance, a graduate student describes how she teaches English to undergraduate students outside the regular program offered at a private university. Facing a falling population in Japan, private universities are trying to shore up declining enrollment by easing up on entrance examinations, attracting students from overseas, and increasing class sizes. In addition, they are rationalizing expenditures by reducing the cost of teaching faculty salaries. Larger classes are more profitable, but students with marginal entry level qualifications can quickly fall through the cracks if burdened professors cannot attend to their specific needs on a one-to-one basis or during shortened office hours. One way to pave over these cracks is to offer remedial education to students identified as likely to drop out because of difficulties keeping up with peers in larger classes.
In this case study, offering extra assistance in basic subjects such as English, Japanese and mathematics also proved popular with parents who asked for support in guiding their offspring towards a more promising career. Teaching opportunities were offered to English education majors at the Master’s level such as to Nozomi Iwazume, who wants to improve her chances at passing Ministry of Education qualification exams set for Junior High School English teachers. Teaching these sheltered-learning classes allows her to practice teaching and learn firsthand the problems of students who have troubles learning in a regular environment. She found that the low-achieving students in her class tended to confide their concerns to her first rather than to classmates or teachers in the faster moving “gateway courses” of the regular curriculum. Her colleague, Yuta Kawamura, observed her classes and took photographs for this article.
Most undergraduates study in college-level courses that are integral to their academic pathways. When they face challenges in mastering a gateway college-level course, they can usually receive academic support from student assistants, teaching assistants, or during office hours. Some university students find that they have not been sufficiently prepared during their high school years to succeed in gateway courses. However, this case study describes how graduate students can help them in a sheltered-learning class environment outside the mainstream curriculum. Remedial education can assist students who are underprepared for college-level classes but nonetheless don’t want to drop-out.
From 2016, at the university where I study English Education at the graduate level, a remedial education program was constructed for first-year students as a single semester pathway into mathematics, English, and Japanese language courses. These three subjects were identified by career development administrators as essential skills required in most careers in Japan. These three kinds of remedial subjects are taught by retired teachers, part-time teachers, and graduates students.
The goal of these extra-curricular classes is to help undergraduates take and pass college-level courses as the first step toward college success. The classes help encourage students who might otherwise drop out of school. First-year students are free to continue to take the classes during all four years of university study. The ultimate goal is for students to feel comfortable during their school years, graduate, and find fulfilling jobs.
The maximum number of students in each class was set to 25, and 20 students voluntarily registered for my English classes. The class is equally divided between males and females and 19 of them are first-year students and one third-year student also decided to take these classes. The students major in Intercultural Studies, Economics, and Social Welfare and Child Studies. Therefore, my remedial support is delivered through a community language learning approach in which I try to get to know each student. For example, one female student who volunteered to take my class had refused to attend English classes during her junior high school years. When she entered senior high school she couldn’t keep up with the other students and feared English lessons. She was, however, able to pass the entrance exam at my private university. I also instruct a third-year student who decided to register because he was neither able to understand nor pass the regular English Oral Communication credits required for his university diploma. A student who registered from the Faculty of Economics said, “We are economics majors, so our regular English classes are incomprehensible and paced too quickly. We are not English majors and cannot keep up.”
Figures 1, 2, and 3 depict the regular sequencing of my lesson plans.
In Figure 1, I am explaining English grammar at the front of the classroom. I am using Japanese and translating sentences into English. This is very similar to a normal class instructed by a regular teacher, except for the size of the class. Regular classes can exceed 35 students in oral communication classes and approach 80 students for reading. It is important to note that at this stage, I’m writing in Japanese on the board similar to how English is taught in junior high school. I’m simply teaching how to use the phrase “can you ~.” This course covers only the junior high school levels of English. Learners are only expected to understand the basics of English grammar.
In Figure 2, I am asking a student simple questions such as, “How are you today?,” “How did you come to university today?” and “Do you understand the grammar in today’s class?,” I approach each student quietly and speak softly. The key point of this face to face approach is to help the students feel more relaxed. I try to communicate one to one with students because they rarely communicate with each other during classroom activities such as pair work. The class is equally divided between males and females and 19 of them are first-year students and one third-year student also decided to take these classes. My goal is to help these students feel more comfortable by interacting with them in English and by teaching them a junior high school level grammar lesson for 60 minutes. A regular class is 90 minutes while 60 minutes is usually allotted for a lecture, and 30 minutes for a pairwork activity. Therefore, during the 30 minutes after my easy grammar class, I give the students time to chat with me, read books, eat, and rest. I should probably play soft music and share a coffee with students at this time, but I haven’t yet.
In Figure 3, students are writing sentences in English on the whiteboard using the grammar learnt that day. I will give the students hints so that they can correct their own mistakes. This is similar to the demands of a teacher in a regular classroom. I realize they will make many grammatical errors on the whiteboard, but they don’t feel embarrassed because of the small class size. There are usually 20 students in this classroom but only seven students on this day because of heavy rain and the scheduling of make-up classes by the regular teachers.
The ultimate goal is to keep students attending classes in a regular class environment rather than scare them away. Some students seem eager to speak in my classes because they had traveled abroad. I encourage them to speak up when they attend regular classes. Some students seem reluctant to even move a pencil, though. I quickly found that students do not normally want to participate in pair work exercises. Only if they are seated beside friends can they be encouraged to speak to one another. The building of confidence and trust is important to elicit communication between students in the remedial education program. I try to lower the hurdle created in normal classes and help get students over the bar easily and comfortably. Students receive this easier remedial instruction as a kind of scaffold or sheltered learning environment while enrolled in a regular gateway college-level course that I hope they will succeed in. There are diverse levels of language skills in my classroom, but it was decided to not assess students by testing them. No final examination is given in the remedial class, nor are students asked to take TOEIC or other measures that assess student skills. I am not pushing students to study faster and faster, I am trying to pull them along gently in tandem with their mainstream professors.