SHARJAH // More than half of all Emirati entry-level university students are anxious about writing in English.
Research conducted by Sulaiman Hassan, who is completing his PhD at the British University in Dubai, interviewed 110 students in their foundation or remedial year in four institutions, public and private.
“When you ask students to write in English you can see they are anxious, and I wanted to see what was the cause of this and what mitigating factors there may be to resolve this,” Mr Hassan said.
He also wanted to see if using computers could help to lessen the anxiety but found that, despite universities’ increasing reliance on iPads and laptops, students “prefer to use a pen and their hands”.
“There was a strong correlation between those with a high level of English and a low level of anxiety,” Mr Hassan said.
He said there were several causes, but most of the worry centred on written tests including “cognitive and linguistic factors, unfamiliar topics, unclear prompts in questions, word count and time constraints”.
Social factors also added stress.
“There is the psychological fear of failure and the social impact of that,” Mr Hassan said. “There is an inability to organise ideas, poor understanding of the mechanics of writing, little knowledge of grammar and poor vocabulary and poor spelling.”
Sabeena Salam, head of English at Dubai Pharmacy College, said students’ oral English skills were normally their strongest.
“The gap between school and college is huge,” Ms Salam said. “The students’ reading is poor as they simply don’t read, so of course their writing will be poor if they struggle with reading.
“They are usually strongest in speaking when we assess them for entry at the college. The kind of writing they were doing at school was not of the standard expected by us.”
Mr Hassan said students who did not fear making mistakes had lower levels of anxiety.
“They had set strategies for themselves for building their confidence as well as being motivated,” he said. “They felt failing wasn’t the end of the world and created positive attitudes towards making mistakes.
“They consider making mistakes part of the learning process. Many also did relaxation exercises which helped manage exam stress.”
The teachers in a focus group set up by Mr Hassan said building confidence and learning to accept constructive criticism would be crucial in helping anxious students.
At Dubai Pharmacy College, the lowest level students are segregated to help build them up mentally and academically.
Its English programme, split into four levels, applies to all first-year students and focuses on vocabularies specific to their subjects.
“There really needs to be a focus on writing,” Ms Salam said. “The students learn by rote so there won’t be any correlation between their exams and really what skills they have.”
Dr Natasha Ridge, head of research at the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah, said students leaving school without the necessary skills remained a problem “in spite of improvements in the English curriculum”.
“The way English is taught still doesn’t give students sufficient practice in writing to prepare them for university,” Dr Ridge said.
“Reading is also something that’s lacking. There isn’t such a thing [among Emiratis] as reading for pleasure and that needs to be inculcated in both Arabic and English.”
She said learning by rote at school would lead to anxiety in testing outside of that familiar environment.
“I imagine Emirati students are no different to students around the world when it comes to exam anxiety,” Dr Ridge said. “Poor writing skills is also an issue around the world.”