Towards an understanding of ESL students' approaches to learning: a study of conceptions of learning, perceptions of situational demands, learning approaches and learning outcomes

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

An hypothesised relationship between levels of proficiency in English of ESL (English as a Second Language) students and the approaches to learning which they adopt, in situations in which English is the language of instruction, is the focus of this study. An attempt was made to identify the extent to which students, who are required to learn in a second language, adopt undesirable approaches to learning as a consequence of linguistic or cultural factors. Such students appear to adopt reproductive strategies to pass examinations and retain only isolated pieces of information for practical application. In a sense, they graduate but remain unqualified. Quantitative responses of 307 students, relating to their contextualised perceptions of the demands of the learning situation, were gathered and analysed using a learning approach categorisation procedure. Qualitative responses of 120 students, relating to their descriptions of the context and content of learning, were gathered in semi-structured interviews to supplement and enrich the quantitive data collected. Levels of proficiency in the language of instruction were measured using integrative tests of comprehension of spoken discourse and written texts presented in actual lecture situations. Students were given the opportunity to rate the lectures and reading material from which they were expected to learn and self-esteem was measured as a construct considered likely to affect perceptions of the demands of the learning situation. Concurrently with the above, a group of students from each of 3 year groups was taught a new topic over a short series of lectures and tested for understanding in the language of instruction. Balanced groups, from each of the 3 year groups, were taught the same topic and tested for understanding in the mother-tongue. This procedure was subsequently replicated with a second topic of similar complexity, across all three year groups, with languages switched. Critical aspects of the teaching/learning situation were kept constant. These procedures provided compelling evidence, after analysis of quantitative and qualitative data, of a relationship between proficiency in the language of instruction and the ways in which students engage in learning tasks. Difficulty with the language of instruction appears to increase the demands of the learning situation and the likelihood of adopting reproducing strategies, which are not normally associated with success in terms of learning outcomes.

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