An Interdisciplinary Summer for Interdisciplinary Students

Our latest monthly post from the Forum committee, Dr Glenn Hurst from the Department of Chemistry reflects on working collaboratively to facilitate active learning.

Following their FORUM workshop on active learning, Glenn Hurst and Jill Webb, from the York Management School worked together once again to facilitate a component of the new summer activity for students studying Natural Sciences in Chemistry. Glenn and Jill specifically designed this activity to help students to apply their understanding of first year chemistry to establish and run a sustainable chemical company.

The half-day activity challenged students to work effectively in small groups (4-5) to build a business case that they pitched to the “dragons” in the hope of gaining an investment. Students had to manage their time very effectively in order to choose their product, design a synthetic route that was both green and scalable, consider costs and advertise the product to their target audience. Students even took the initiative to collaborate with other companies (other groups) to combine their expertise.


In order to further enhance their personal development skills, all communication between other groups and the instructors had to be made via a telephone call. Students identified that making telephone calls was “the most daunting form of communication; even more than doing presentations”. Being able to effectively communicate on the telephone is an essential skill for most forms of employment and we took this as a perfect opportunity to develop this further.

After the groups of students had formulated their business strategy, they prepared a short (10 min) presentation, which they then pitched to the dragons (to include Dr Brian Grievson, senior lecturer specialising in industrial placements for chemists). This proved to be an excellent opportunity for students to practise how to deliver presentations and communicate science to their peers in a fun and low-pressure environment, for which will form part of their summative assessment in second year.

Further to enhancing their personal development skills by working in groups and communicating effectively, the activity allowed students to contextualise their knowledge in the “real world” incorporating a strong business element to improve their commercial awareness. This activity was designed based on the requirements of companies wishing to recruit graduates. We hope that in completing this activity, it will contribute towards developing the employability skills of our students whilst enhancing the degree of constructive alignment within our degree programme.

A more detailed account of this component of the summer activity together with a discussion of the other constituents will be provided in the upcoming Autumn 2016 edition of our institutional FORUM magazine.

Glenn Hurst, Department of Chemistry

Annual Learning and Teaching Conference: One size does not fit all: ensuring all students reach their potential

Logo_LTConf2015_Rev2The 2015 Learning and Teaching conference was held on 10 June 2015, with almost 150 delegates, from across the university and externally present. This is the University’s annual event to celebrate, showcase and disseminate the wealth of good practice in learning and teaching across the University.

This year, the main conference theme was based around addressing inclusivity, diversity and equality within the classroom and curricula. The conference will explore the implications of diversifying delivery of programmes and how students are supported in the process of achieving their potential.

Session summaries and materials are now available for the sessions.

L&T Session F – The Multi-cultural classroom

i) Effective group work in the multi-cultural classroom: a video presentation

Chris Copland – Education

Abstract | Handout: Session F | Forum magazine article Recording (University of York login required)

This session was run as a groupwork session (appropriately enough) framed around a sequence of three video clips*, with specific topics to focus on before watching each video:LT-Forum-06-15-91

  • Video 1 (multi-national PG group, mix of native/non-native speakers of English): focus on clarity of instructions, and interaction between native/non-native speakers.
  • Video 2 (all PG students with Chinese as a first language): focus on the participants’ skills in English and the quality of the discussion.
  • Video 3 (multi-national group, mix of UG/PG, all non-native speakers): focus on the benefits vs. limitations of having different cultural perspectives in the group.

The group noted that the videos appear to show normal group behaviour, with some students not participating very much. However, Chris said he felt that some students found the presence of the camera ‘face-threatening’ and thus behaved in a more reserved way. We can’t always infer from someone’s behaviour what the motivation of the behaviour is.

ii) Chinese students – an amorphous mass? : Raising awareness of the diversity of Chinese students in British HE communities

Ping Wang (Abby) – Education

Abstract | Recording (University of York login required)

In this talk Abby reported the results of a survey study that she carried out, alongside her PhD research, arising from her experience as an IELTS tester prior to coming to the UK. The literature on the IELTS exam presents a varied picture, with different components of the test (reading, speaking etc) found to correlate best with later academic performance, in different studies. One study (ref) notes that students’ perception of their own general academic ability is affected by their IELTS score and/or how easily they were able to achieve that score.


Abby then presented some background information about the numbers of Chinese studying outside China now, and the amount of English practice they will typically have had prior to coming to the UK. Most IELTS candidates in China are from the major urban centres in the east of China such as Shanghai and Beijing. Training and testing for IELTS is a major industry in China, and individual can re-sit the test repeatedly. There are training ‘factories’ helping students increase their IELTS score due to intensive practice and test-preparation.

The study comprised 20 students of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and 20 students in other social science subjects, who completed a questionnaire and participated in focus groups/interviews. Their motivation for coming to the UK to study was quite varied, but all were primarily driven by the possibility of better job prospects back in China after their studies. The majority of the students had taken IELTS twice in order to meet the required overall score of 6.5. A question is whether a score resulting from repeated testing reflects a real improvement in their English proficiency, or just an improvement in their test-taking techniques.

Abby closed her presentation with a question: should the number of times a student has taken the test, prior to meeting the IELTS requirement, be used as a diagnostic to identify students who may benefit from additional help?

Sam Hellmuth, Language and Linguistic Science, University of York 

L&T Session A – Giving everyone a voice ­ All students in small groups want to say something

Victoria Jack – CELT Education

Abstract Presentation: Session A | Session A: Group work, background text | Forum magazine article | Recording (University of York login required)

Victoria Jack Facilitates WorkshopReport  
Victoria Jack from the Centre for English Language Teaching (CELT) at the University of York led Session A at the 11th University of York Learning and Teaching Conference which took place on 10th June 2015. The title of the session was ‘Giving everyone a voice: all students in small groups want to say something’ and it was attended by around 40 students, lecturers and academic support staff. The session was cleverly designed to be a seminar in which participants worked in groups to share their thoughts and ideas and discuss literature on seminar-based teaching. I found talking about the very teaching method in which I was participating to be a very powerful and thought-provoking approach. The use of different group sizes for the discussions from 2 to 40 people was particularly enlightening as it allowed us to see first-hand how the number of people in the group matters when trying to ensure that everyone has a voice. Overall this session made me very more aware of how session design influences group dynamics and has led me to develop a wide range of ideas for encouraging more active student participation in discussions during my own seminar teaching. These include appointing student chairs for small-to-medium group discussions so that someone takes responsibility for ensuring everyone has a voice, and varying group sizes within single sessions (e.g. from pairs to whole class discussions) so that everyone has an opportunity to work in an environment in which they feel comfortable. Seminars clearly hold an important place in higher education as they give students the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and ideas with their peers and to extend and apply their knowledge. However, it is well-established that issues with engagement and preparation can mean that students do not get the benefit from these sessions. Victoria’s session at #YorkLT15 should help those involved in programme design to maximise the benefit that students gain from small group teaching, and will also hopefully help the students participants to engage more effectively in future seminars within their degree programmes.

Claire Hughes, Environment Department, University of York 

Workshop participants

Effective group work in the multi-cultural classroom

Chris Copland explores group dynamics and how the international classroom can be advantageous


society, togetherness and diversity conceptWorking in groups is one of the most productive forms of active learning. It maximises opportunities for each class member to play a part. Skills can be shared and concepts examined from a variety of perspectives. Moreover, learning becomes a social activity and a base from which to develop broader life skills: collaboration, leadership, decision-making, trust building, conflict-management.

Given the cosmopolitan and diverse nature of the student community, this kind of interaction may involve working with learners of a different nationality, mother tongue or culture, not to mention gender, generation, social background or life experience. This does, of course, present challenges but also an opportunity to broaden outlook and to prepare for the ‘global’ society in which the current generation of students will live and work. Group work is thus a vital part of the HE curriculum but, ironically, as Mills and Alexander (2013) point out:

In many HEIs small group teaching is apportioned to the institution’s least experienced teaching staff… This means that some of the most intimate and complex of teaching practice… is the responsibility of those who are often least experienced and lowest paid.

What, then, are the complexities of small group teaching and how can the multicultural make-up of the average classroom be made an asset in this process rather than a liability?

Group dynamics

A shortcoming that is often identified in this area of teaching is that groups are self-selecting. A large-scale survey of UK students (Osmund & Roed, 2010) concluded that ‘‘[they] preferred to choose their own groups and would often choose people with the same ethnic background because they felt comfortable and able to communicate well.’ The obvious response to this situation is for teachers to assert the right to decide who works with whom, thus ensuring a greater balance of skills, backgrounds and personalities among groups.

However, even in the most balanced groups, the more vocal, ‘pushy’ students may well try to dominate. Mills and Alexander (2013) suggest that this may not simply be an issue of individual personality. ‘Power relations’ that exist in wider society, whether relating to gender, age and social status or language and national background, inevitably creep into the classroom.

Some educationalists, (e.g. Johnson & Johnson 1997) argue that, in fact, conflict in any new social structure is inevitable and this should be accepted as a normal part of class behaviour. Groups are thus allowed to move through the so-called stages of forming, storming and, once a kind of hierarchy has established itself, norming. If this may sound a little A9_copland 3like an academic version of a reality TV show, there are alternative approaches, the simplest being to establish principles of collaboration and equity from the outset.

One excellent guide on establishing a cooperative ethos in the HE classroom is ‘Finding Common Ground.’ The author (Arkadis, 2010) advocates using class tasks ’that require students to communicate and engage with peers from diverse backgrounds… in order to consider or compare different perspectives on an issue or topic, and to then critically reflect on the group process.’

Making the most of diversity

Arkadis provides a number of examples of such activities but perhaps an application from closer to home might clarify the approach better. The topic chosen for a structured discussion in a CELT module this year was that of the voting age. Conversation focused initially on the British context: sixteen year olds participating in the Scottish referendum and the case for extending this precedent to the wider electorate. The international make-up of the groups, however, gave a scope to the discussion that would not have been possible in a class of ‘home’ students. Germans were able to outline the pros and cons of the system in their own country, where the voting age in local elections is lower than in federal and national polls. Brazilians related their populous country’s experience of granting the vote to all citizens sixteen and above. Chinese class members, on the other hand, expressed misgivings about the ‘umbrella’ movement in Hong Kong where they felt that the young had been easy prey for manipulation by ‘subversives.’ I did not accept all the points made but, as a British voter, I found the whole conversation illuminating and one which provided a multi-faceted dimension that would have been unavailable through reflection upon the texts alone.

A9_copland_7This task was, in fact, part of the module assessment and this underlines the recommendation Arkadis makes: that if a commitment to group interaction is to be demonstrated, then it has to be credited in assessments. In the task on voting age, marks were awarded for both individual performance but also for how successfully the group as a whole collaborated. An incentive was thus provided for both individual performance and team work.

Using current events as a stimulus for interaction in a diverse group may be particularly appropriate in, say, Humanities or Social Sciences. However, in any discipline, the allotting of specific roles to individuals can help engender collaborative working. An example of this is the Reading Circle activity that is currently being used in CELT classes for Education students.  This again focuses on the standard seminar task of preparing a reading text for discussion. However, in addition, each group member is given a specific role and responsibility: discussion leader, text summariser, connector, vocabulary expert or text analyst. This not only encourages active participation by all but also integrates reading, speaking and communication skills, all in the context of critical thinking.

These are a few ways of refreshing group work and turning the international composition that most classes now have to an advantage. At the Learning and Teaching conference, I will be showing video of different classes at the university with contrasting combinations of students, engaging in a variety of tasks. Hopefully, this will stimulate some productive discussion from colleagues about how the current crop of students can play an active role in the international classroom.


  • Arkadis, S. (2010) ‘Finding Common Ground: enhancing interaction between domestic and international students.’ Melbourne: Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Retrieved on 17 March 2015 from:
  • Osmond, J., & Roed, J. (2010). ‘Sometimes it means more work’: Student perceptions of group work in a mixed cultural setting. In E. Jones (Ed.), Internationalisation and the student voice (113–124). New York: Routledge.
  • Johnson, D. W. Johnson, F.P. (1997). Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills. Boston: Allyn Bacon.
  • Mills, M. & Alexander, P. (2013) ‘Small group teaching: a toolkit for learning.’ York: HEA. Retrieved on 17 March 2015 from:
  • Osmond, J., & Roed, J. (2010). ‘Sometimes it means more work’: Student perceptions of group work in a mixed cultural setting. In E. Jones (Ed.), Internationalisation and the student voice (113–124). New York: Routledge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChris Copland is a Senior Tutor in the Centre for English Language Teaching.  He has also taught for the Universities of London and Hong Kong, as well as for the Open University. One of Chris’s professional interests is Educational Technology and he has been granted the English Speaking Union President’s Award and a U of Y Rewarding Excellence Award for the recent work he has done on digital video, in collaboration with Huw Llewelyn-Jones. Chris is a Consumer Representative at the National Cancer Research Institute.

Hearing Silent Voices: Diversity in Seminars and Group Work

Victoria Jack, explores why students might be reluctant to contribute to groups and how we might address this



Teaching staff often report frustration at student reticence to participate in seminars/group work or that these interactions are frequently dominated by a small number of students.  The aims of this article are: (i) to present an insight into the reticent student experience with reference to findings from current research projects associated with International and Intercultural Communication (IIC) courses run by The Centre for English Language Teaching; and (ii) to present an approach to seminar/group work which could serve to address this issue.

Overseas students attending IIC courses express a strong desire to participate in seminars/group work but report a sometimes overwhelming frustration at their failure to do so.  They consistently provide the following explanations for their reticence.

  1. Fear of making grammatical or lexical errors
  2. Affective factors regarding the “native speaker”
    a) Fear of being judged as inferior intellectuals if their English is not “native speaker” in style
    b) Inability to “fight against” the dominance of native speaker student argument
  3. Lack of native speaker conversation strategies ie interrupting, expressing strong disagreement
  4. Fear of a lack of understanding of subtle points made through use of idiomatic language or cultural references

The lack of confidence that these students experience in seminar/group work is clearly a barrier, not only to their own learning, but also to the potential knowledge the more confident students could gain from hearing other ideas and experiences

.  Shy Bold Switch Means Choose Fear Or Courage

Insights into the reticent student experience

The fear of making mistakes (the first explanation for reticence) is a known phenomenon (Woodrow 2006, Liu 2006) and could be said to stem from an English language education which –  because of the apparent need to assess and grade students through examination of fine points of grammar or vocabulary –  generally focuses on accuracy to the detriment of fluency.  The IELTS exam, which universities use to judge English language ability, is similarly accuracy-focussed and, therefore, those international students with a high enough IELTS score to enter the University have been trained to focus on their mistakes.  This seems to serve as a gag when these students attempt to participate in seminar/group work activities where fluency is valued.

Affective factors regarding the native speaker (explanations 2-4 above) would seem to indicate that the confident ‘native speaker’ occupies a position of linguistic and cultural superiority  in the minds of these students.  The reasons for this are far beyond the limitations of this article; however, it may be worth considering whether that superiority is implicit in the nature of some seminar/whole class discussion activities.  This raises several questions

  • Is the way in which the more dominant students express themselves or communicate with the facilitator somehow demonstrative of a tacit superiority belief?
  • Does the facilitator, by responding to this dominance with extended interaction, somehow emphasise and confirm its existence?
  • Or does the facilitator make it clear that everyone’s contribution, regardless of the style it is presented in or the cultural background it refers to, is valid, welcomed, celebrated or, at the very least, considered?

Finally, awareness of what some scholars (Crystal, 2003; Graddol, 2006; Nickerson, 2005; Seidlhofer 2000, 2001; Skapinker, 2007a, 2007b) in the field of intercultural communication have alluded to as “The Native Speaker Problem” may provide an understanding of the issues outlined in points 3 and 4.  This refers to the argument that native speakers, even when participating in intercultural interactions continue to make cultural references and use idiomatic language and vocabulary or sentence structure which is complex or obscure. (Sweeny & Hua, 2010).

In addition to all the above points, the influence of the seminar/classroom environment itself may also be an element worthy of consideration.  The work of Littlewood (2000) focusses on the beliefs of international students about the authority of the teacher and the flow of knowledge which seem to suggest that the classroom environment itself may represent a barrier to the equal participation of students.  Basically speaking, it could be the case that if there is a classroom full of students with a “teacher” at the front, this may be sufficient to discourage some students from contributing.

Addressing the Issue

The evidence around the five points above would seem to indicates that a holistic approach to teaching small groups is appropriate:  it cannot just be a case of “fixing” the students who do not participate.  Rather, it is perhaps necessary to consider all aspects of, and stakeholders in, this scenario.

Firstly, since this is the teacher’s (facilitator’s) domain, it could be considered to be her/his job to address these issues and initiate changes in the classroom (Bond 2003, Cleveland-Jones et. al. 2001, Curro & McTaggart  2003), The facilitator must develop strategies to create an environment of trust and a supportive learning community within the classroom (Baier, 1986; Lee, 2007; Robinson and Kakela, 2006; ).  There may be the need to spend some time at the beginning of the course to encourage the establishment and later maintenance of effective working relationships between students in group situations.  The facilitator may also need to adopt techniques to encourage information sharing at pair or small group level before moving on to larger group discussions and to ensure all students have a level of competence as successful group participants.  Departments could develop a means of assessing these skills, even if only at a formative level, and incorporate them into student and teacher handbooks.

The students themselves can be encouraged to take responsibility for the success of group interaction, in addition to the management of their own contributions.  They could perhaps be encouraged to participate in pre-seminar study groups to ensure that the subject knowledge and background has been built up and discussed prior to participation in the seminar situation. This would therefore ensure that the group discussion in the presence of the tutor could serve its purpose to further construct knowledge with an “expert” on hand to direct and enhance this process.

More dominant students may benefit from developing awareness of other students’ experiences in group work and be given an opportunity to reflect on their skill as communicators, sharers of knowledge and team members.  This may serve to improve their performance, not only in student-to-student interactions, both social and academic, but also perhaps in future employment.  The development of effective cross cultural communicative competence is highly valued by employers across industries and national boundaries. (British Council, 2013)

The development of cross cultural communication skills would similarly be of benefit to the less confident students.  The opportunity to share experiences or at least to reflect on the issues they face in seminar and group work situations has proved extremely valuable for students in IIC classes.  They report that simply identifying and sharing issues served as a catalyst for change and encouraged them to consider how to address problems of confidence which they had previously felt to be insurmountable.  Through their IIC experience, they were able to develop communication strategies and improve generally as communicators both in and outside the classroom.

By recognising the issue of “the reticent student problem” as one that all stakeholders in the academic environment are responsible for, strategies emerge which could serve to ensure that the seminar situation is one of the rare opportunities in the University setting allowing for a real opportunity for the shared construction of knowledge with diverse participant voices.


  • Baier, A (1986): ‘Trust and Antitrust’ Ethics, 96: 231-60
  • Bond, S. (2003). Engaging educators: Bringing the world into the classroom: Guidelines for practice. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Bureau for International Education.
  • Robinson, C. and Kakela, P. (2012). Creating a Space to Learn: A Classroom of Fun Interaction, and Trust. College Teaching, 54(1), 202-207.
  • British Council, Booz Allen Hamilton and Ipsos Public Affairs (2013). Culture at work. The value of intercultural skills in the workplace. British Council.
  • Cleveland-Innes, M., Emes, C., & Ellard, H. J. (2001). On being a social change agent in a reluctant collegial environment.  Planning for Higher Education, 29(4), 25-33.
  • Crystal, D, (2003) English as a global language. (2nd ed. First ed., 1997), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Graddol, D (2006). English Next. London: British Council.
  • Lee, S. (2007). The relations between the student-teacher trust relationship and school success in the case of Korean middle schools. educational Studies, 33(2), 209-216.
  • Littlewood, W. (2000). Do Asian students really want to listen and obey? ELT Journal 54/l, p. 31-36.
  • Liu, M (2006), Anxiety in Chinese EFL students at different proficiency levels, System 34, (2006) 301-306
  • Nickerson, C. (2005) English as a lingua franca in international business contexts.English for Specific Purposes 24: 367-80.
  • Robinson, C. and Kakela, P. (2012). Creating a Space to Learn: A Classroom of Fun Interaction, and Trust. College Teaching, 54(1), 202-207.
  • Seidlhofer, B. (2000). Mind the gap: English as a mother tongue vs. English as a lingua franca. Vienna English Working Papers, 9, 51-69.
  • Seidlhofer, B. (2001). Closing a conceptual gap: The case for a description of English as a lingua franca. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 11 133-158.
  • Skapinker, M. (2007a). Clarity and the question of how the cookie crumbles. The Financial Times. Retrieved from .html S
  • Sweeny,E.& Hua,Z.,(2010), Accommodating TowardsYour Audience:Do Native Speakers of English Know How to Accommodate Their Communication Strategies Toward Non-native Speakers of English, Journal of Business Communication, October 2010 vol. 47 no. 4477-504.
  • Woodrow, L (2006), Anxiety and Speaking English as a Second Language, RELC Journal 2006 37: 308, DOI: 10.1177/0033688206071315

A8_Jack-bioVictoria Co-ordinates the Open Access programme in the Centre for English Language Teaching (CELT).  Her interests lie in the internationalisation of Higher Education and training teachers for international education.  Please contact Victoria ( to discuss how CELT can help improve internationalisation in your lectures, seminars, courses and/or department.

Victoria Jack will be facilitating a workshop during the Learning and Teaching Conference 2015 entitled Hearing Everyone’s Voice:  Techniques for Ensuring All Students Participate in Seminars and Group Work.  The workshop aims to offer the opportunity to experience an inclusive approach to seminar work which works towards ensuring all students have equal opportunities to contribute in seminar and group work.  During the workshops, participants will be integrated with a mix of home and international students and will gain first hand experience of seminar leading methodology which develops an atmosphere of trust and ensures more active participation of all group members regardless of their background.