August 2014
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Heather Torrie, Purdue University Calumet, Indiana, USA


Offering elective course options is sometimes seen as a perk to attract students to an intensive English program. Over the years, I have taught various electives—study skills, English for engineering, business communication, for example. As an instructor, it can feel exhilarating to have the freedom to create a course from scratch, incorporating various themes and content to make English learning engaging. However, once students get into the rhythm of the semester, they often become more absorbed in their core classes and take their electives less seriously.

This past year, I was eager to develop a course that was useful, but at the same time did not require much of the students or me. I wanted it to be a relaxing change of pace, which translated into little or no homework or outside work.

The course I created and taught for the first time this past spring was “University Lecture Series.” The main goal of the course was to expose students to the university as much as possible. Because nearly all of the students at our IEP have been conditionally admitted into the university and plan to complete undergraduate or graduate programs here in engineering, I wanted to help ease the future transition. At the same time, I wanted to give them authentic practice listening to and interacting with native speakers at our university. To achieve the goals of the course, my plan was to invite faculty, staff, and domestic students as guest speakers each class period.

Course Design

Below are the presentations I arranged. Each presentation was slightly different in format and length; some presenters were very formal and had PowerPoint slides, while others simply stepped into the classroom and talked informally with the students. The library and the Simulation and Visualization Center were both tours outside of our normal classroom.

In addition to the presentations, the students would participate in pre- and postlistening discussions and complete a reflection form. The reflection form required that the students take notes, summarize their notes, and reflect on what they learned. Each form was customized to the particular presentation, asking slightly different questions.

Campus Resources

Counseling Center
Student Activities and Student Clubs
Student Employment Center
Student Success Center
Campus Police Department

General Education Courses

Communications 114 Instructor
English Composition 100 Instructor
Psychology Professor
Linguistics Professor

Engineering & Technology

Simulation and Visualization Center
Engineering Professor
Senior Design* Students
Math/Statistics Tutor
Former English Language Program (ELP) Students (engineering majors)

*Senior Design is an experiential learning course that all engineering undergraduate students take their final year. This course involves completing a major group project, usually for an outside client.

Combined Activity with Mainstream Class

In addition to these presentations and tours, two class periods were also spent in a combined class activity with a mainstream university class. One of the professors in the English and Philosophy department approached me regarding the possibility of doing a joint class project with her World Literature class. She wanted to help her domestic students be able to interact with international students to broaden their world view and also possibly help to shed some light on the literature they were studying. Initially, I was hesitant because I worried about my ESL students’ reading skills. But we were able to find a short story that both qualified as worthy literature for the mainstream class and was accessible to advanced ESL students. The story was “Wings for Dominga,” by the Ecuadorian author Monica Bravo. This was also a good fit, given that the majority of my class was from Ecuador.

The first class period consisted mainly of the students getting together in their groups and becoming acquainted. We required them to arrange a study group meeting to discuss the story and devise two discussion questions for the whole class to discuss in our next combined class, 2 weeks later.

When we met together again, the world literature professor led the discussion. She started the class by saying, “Okay, we are here to discuss this piece of literature. Who is going to start?” There was silence for a few moments, but finally one of the American students made a comment regarding the question that his group had discussed. More students began chiming in. The ESL students, however, seemed extremely shy. As the discussion continued, the professor eventually was able to bring some of the ESL students into the conversation.

This was quite a bit different from our ESL classes. While we heavily emphasize leading and participating in discussions, we usually provide a lot more structure and guidance. For instance, in an ESL class, we would provide them with specific questions to discuss. Or, the students would be given turns to lead the discussion and ask the discussion questions they had formulated. To me, this experience helped to awaken the students to the realities of mainstream classes and the fact that they may not get as much hand-holding as they do in the ELP.

Student feedback on this particular activity came from the reflections written by both the ESL students and the American students. Comments from the ESL students were unanimously positive; all felt that while this experience was a bit scary for them, it was very helpful in preparing them for what they face in their future classes. One student wrote:

The class discussion was the first class that I assisted and interacted with American students. I was kind of nervous because I didn’t understand the reading at all, and as it was a class discussion I knew that I had to express my thoughts and my perception about the reading. Also, I was kind of shy. It is hard for me to start a conversation with American students, so at the beginning nobody from my group talked and there was an embarrassing silence. Then, it was fine. Despite these moments, it was a great experience to be part of a class discussion and learn how it is. Going to that class lets me know how students participate, how the professor behave during the class, how students can be graded and how students interact with each other. All of what I learned that day will help me have a better performance in my classes that I will take after the ELP. Even though I will take a different kind of classes as I will study Mechanical Engineering, now I will know how the participation and behavior of students and how the classroom environment is.

The mainstream students seemed to benefit as well from the interaction. For instance, one student wrote,

I felt that this project was very beneficial to me as a student and as a future educator. In our group, we were able to teach the international students more on the literary aspects of the story, while they gave us a deeper insight into the cultural and religious aspects of the story.

Another mainstream student wrote,

[The ELP students] came having already read the story and they even underlined parts they did not understand. There was a funny moment when Leo [one of the ELP students] asked Jeff and I what exactly a “shroud” was and we looked at each other because we too were not exactly sure. We all sat and Googled it…

This comment illustrates first how this activity helped reinforce the study skills and academic responsibility that we try to teach in the ELP. Second, I saw that this activity may have helped our ELP students realize that mainstream students do not automatically know everything relating to English. That should be of some comfort to my students.


It was gratifying to see the students interacting with these mainstream professors, staff, and students. Although some of the students were quite reserved and hesitant to ask questions, many of the presenters helped by involving students in the discussion. In addition, I assigned students to write on their note-taking sheet one question for the presenter, and rewarded an additional point for actually asking the question.

At the end of the semester, I had the students complete an evaluation form, rating each session. The most popular sessions were the campus resource presentations, such as the one from the Counseling Center, and of course the combined class activity. Suggestions for improving the course included more tours and visits to engineering facilities, such as laboratories. Overall, I was satisfied with the outcome in delivering a low-stress but extremely beneficial elective course to help ESL students prepare to transition to mainstream university studies.

Heather Torrie is a full-time instructor and the testing coordinator in the English Language Program at Purdue University Calumet.
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