International Student Success

By: Cory Habermehl
Monday, June 15, 2015

First year university can be tough. The classes are large, the lectures are long, and it can be hard to keep up. But for many international students at Western, an additional challenge looms; since courses are taught in English, these students must complete their program in a non-native language.

To help address this challenge, Matt Bazely, administrative director of the Western English Language Centre (WELC) and Michael Atkinson, professor of psychology at Western, have recently partnered to create a unique, non-credit version of Psych 1000 – a popular first-year course at Western – aimed specifically at English as a Second Language (ESL) students.

“We focused the course not only on content, but also on skill development,” said Bazely. “We’ve included lectures, multiple-choice tests and a written paper requirement – all elements international students will encounter during their first year of study, and all elements in which they’ll need to excel in order to succeed.”

It is the first time WELC – which teaches English for academic purposes to international students looking to pursue a degree at Western – has incorporated a course of this nature into its curriculum, and marks a cutting edge approach to academic preparation for second language learners.

The class, which started in May, is conducted in groups of 50 students rather than 800, as is typical in the first year course. While content is based on the Pysch 1000 course, Atkinson, a recipient of the 3M National Teaching Fellowship and a multi-year recipient of the UWO Western Psychology Association Psychology Professor of the Year Award, delivers his lectures at a slower pace, giving students an authentic experience and helping them gain a better understanding of what’s to come in their first year of academic studies.

“I really want these students to understand the material, not memorize it,” says Atkinson. “So we take our time and make sure everyone is on board.”

To offer additional help to students, WELC instructors provide wrap-around language support by attending lectures and working with students afterwards to help them understand any unique expressions or metaphorical language from class or from the textbook.

“Psychology has a lot of complicated terms,” says Atkinson. “Prosopagnosia; lateral inhibition; fusiform gyrus; computerized axial tomography; cephalocaudal; and the list goes on. Now imagine learning that if English isn’t your first language.”

The course is offered to students in the high-advanced level of WELC, the highest of four levels offered, and the last level students must pass in order to move on to their degree at Western or one of the affiliate colleges.

Bazely selected psychology as a topic because a large number of international students go on to pursue degrees in business or the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, each of which has the first-year psychology course Psych 1000 as a requirement.

While the content is specific to psychology, the skills developed in the course are useful on a much broader scale, and applicable within a variety of different disciplines.

“We’re giving them tools to use for success in any first-year course,” said Atkinson. “These students were good enough to get accepted to Western, so let’s make sure we do everything we can to keep them here.”

That, says Bazely, is exactly what the partnership is all about.

“Students graduating from WELC are going to be better prepared and better supported than ever before,” he said. “This course will help our students succeed, and help us enrich Western’s reputation on an international scale.”