This process will give you, your colleagues, administrators, and most of all, your students great confidence in what you and your colleagues are teaching your students. It will serve as a legitimate basis for the goals and outcomes of your courses.
This empowering process is called a needs analysis. It is one of the most important things I have ever done as a professional, and I’ve done this everywhere I’ve taught.
And on top of all that, it can be stimulating and rewarding to do.
In brief, a needs analysis in an ESL context means finding out what skills students will need in order to be successful in the future. The future can be the following term when they will be in the next level of a program; it can be when they finish their ESL instruction and will be in college courses (e..g. English Comp); it can be when they are traveling abroad; it can be when they enter the workforce.
These range from simple surveys of a small group of former students to more involved interviews with college instructors.
How to find out what skills students need to know once they leave our course or our program
Soon after I was hired to teach in the academic ESL program at an American college several years ago, I noticed quite a bit of tension among the teachers. They couldn’t agree on what skills should be focused on in each course, and thus, everyone basically taught what they assumed students needed to learn. (See Non-Credible Rationale for What Teachers Teach )
At the same time, I heard complaints from college professors (especially English Comp) that the international students who had completed our program didn’t have the skills necessary to be successful in their courses. I even heard this from the college registrar.
Clearly, there was a mismatch between what was being taught in our academic ESL courses and what students needed. To find out what skills the instructors at our college expected, I decide to ask them.
Personal interviews are much more effective / interesting than paper surveys for needs analysis
Needless to say, conducting one-on-one interviews rather than just sending out paper surveys takes a lot more time. However, the benefits of the interviews are exponentially greater.
- I was assured of getting answers, especially ones that were thoughtful. I was able to find out specifically what skills our students needed and which ones they were weak in.
- I could ask follow-up questions for more details and clarifications.
- Surprise benefit: I was able to establish a relationship with others on the campus. Many of them were unaware that there was an ESL program on campus (or even what ESL meant!) Because of this personal relationship, I was able to later follow up on how our international students were doing in their classes, and more specifically, which ones were failing and why.
Which and how many instructors to interview
In one college that I taught at, there were some disagreements among my academic ESL colleagues about what students would be expected to do in English Comp. For example, some felt that a direct thesis statement (e.g. In this essay, I will explain …) would not be acceptable. So I interviewed just 10 English Comp instructors, especially ones whose classes our international students tended to take.
At a different college, there were many disagreements about what students would need to do in most college courses. For that one, I interviewed 30 instructors from a variety of disciplines.
Customized questions to ask the instructors
For that multi-discipline needs analysis, I came up with just 5-7 initial questions that I wanted to ask. These were largely based on the assumptions that the academic ESL instructors in my program had. For example, they assumed that in college courses:
- Students need to participate in class discussions.
- Students need to know how to give speeches / presentations in class.
(Some academic ESL instructors devoted a large amount of class time to discussions and student-presentations because they believed these would be required in college courses. Other assumptions were:
- Students will be required to write long papers.
- Students should know how to write research papers.
(Some academic ESL instructors assigned 10-15 page papers assuming that students would need to do this in the future.)
You can find the results of these interviews in a paper I subsequently wrote that was published in the JALT Journal.
Some changes made as a result of these needs analysis interviews
In some cases, we just made some adjustments to the content of one course. For example, in an Oral Skills course, instead of spending three weeks having students give presentations, they spend only three days, allowing more time for small group discussions.
In a different case, we completely changed some courses. For example, in a Writing course that previously was focused on writing research papers, we changed that completely. Instead of research-paper writing, we focused on the basics of good writing, organizing and paraphrasing, which college instructors across the board had said would be most helpful for students entering their courses.
Results of the changes made after the needs analysis
In the program in which we made major changes to the Writing courses, we looked at the grades our international students received in English Comp before and after the changes.
Grades of former Academic ESL Students in English Comp
|% of former Academic ESL students who got an A in English Comp||% of students who got a B||% of students who got a C or lower|
|Before needs analysis changes||26%||50%||24%|
|Four years after the changes||40%||56%||4%|
|14 years after the change||85%||12%||5%|
We were pleased with these results and with the fact that the complaints from college instructors about international students’ skills disappeared. However, to be honest, we cannot say definitively that the higher grades were a result of the changes to our courses. It could be that, for some reason, we started getting higher quality students enrolling, and thus, they performed better in English comp. Or it could be a combination of several factors including the changes we made in our program.
Nevertheless, the needs analysis provided us a foundation upon which to build our program and to justify our goals to the instructors in our program, to administrators, to instructors on campus and to our students.
In the next posting, I’ll describe a needs-analysis process that doesn’t take as much time to conduct but is still very effective.