Low achievement in English language learning: a case study of a Chinese tier-3 university under the lens of complex systems theory

Ma, Fei (2018) Low achievement in English language learning: a case study of a Chinese tier-3 university under the lens of complex systems theory. EdD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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The context of current research is a tier-3 university in Ningbo China, where English education is compulsory for all students. As an English teacher working in this university for 17 years, I note that each year a large number of students have very poor performance and are struggling in English learning. My inquiry aims to find out the major reasons giving rise to their low achievement, so that a more effective intervention could be designed to help them. My literature review leads me to focus on 12 factors that are traditionally claimed to have associations with English low achievement. Meanwhile I remain open to the new factors arising during the whole research process. The priority of this research is to identify the key causal factors and reveal the nature of these factors.

Through extensive reviews, I realize that English language development could be best viewed as a complex system consisting three sub-systems, i.e., the learner, the teacher and the learning environment. English low achievement is the negative emergence of this system. Plenty of contributing factors are involved in this process. They are intertwined and interactive in intricate ways. Because of this complex interaction, the outcome of learning might be more than or less than the sum of the factors. Exploring the independent factors alone cannot draw a clear picture of how low achievement is developed. Complex systems theory integrates the parts and the wholeness, therefore offers a deeper and more encompassing theoretical framework for current research.

My research design is a case study with mixed methods. I purposefully selected three sample classes which represent students from three different disciplines, i.e., natural science, arts and humanities, and social science. Three tools are used to collect data, namely non-participant observation, semi-structured interview and questionnaire survey. I observed the classroom teaching of each class for two or three times, and their after-class self-learning activity for two or three times as well. In addition, I interviewed seven low-achieving and two high-achieving students from the three classes, as well as their three English teachers. Furthermore, I conducted questionnaire surveys in the three classes, and among the English teachers in this university.

My findings demonstrate that there are three categories of factors in respect to English low achievement. First, the literature shows that the factors such as gender, family background and IQ have close association with academic achievement. However, the current study reveals that they are less likely to be the major causal factors for English low achievement. Second, some factors have moderate associations with the low achievement, that is, they do not play the critical roles in contributing to this learning outcome. These factors include lack of integrative motivation, peers’ adverse influence, poor learning strategies, lack of self-confidence, the problem of curriculum, and the negative attitude toward learning. Last, most importantly, this inquiry finds that four factors are likely to be the key reasons resulting in English low achievement, i.e., lack of effort, lack of interest, poor prior attainment and teacher’s adverse effect. Generally the low achievement is chiefly the result of interactions of these four factors.

Under the lens of complex systems theory, it is revealed that the sub-systems consist of the learner him/herself, the teacher and the learning environment, and that the causal factors display the nature of interconnectedness and dynamism. Failure of one of them may lead to failure of dependent others. English low achievement is likely to be the result of chain reactions of multiple failing factors. In addition, the sub-systems and their constituent factors are not static, but in flux. In one time period, a factor may exert positive influence upon English learning; over time, the factor may change and exercise negative influence. In education, therefore, it is important not only to stimulate but to maintain key favourable factors in dealing with low achieving students.

This inquiry draws the learning trajectories of low achievers by exploring their learning experience. Their performance is usually good at the outset of their English learning. In their secondary schools, a negative perturbation usually breaks into their academic life, which causes a butterfly effect, then, a slippery slope starts. They are stuck into the attractor of low achievement, which is difficult to escape from without external assistance. Most of them once tried to improve their performance, but failed. As a result their low achievement continues till university in which some turn the tide with the positive change of the three sub-systems.

This research finds that a certain percentage of English low achievers are reversible, however it demands the concerted and persistent effort of all three parities, i.e., the learner, the teacher and the university. As far as the learner is concerned, the intervention should primarily deal with the affective variables with regard to his/her problems related to effort, interest, prior attainment and teachers.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (EdD)
Supervisors: Feng, Anwei
Hall, Christine
Keywords: EFL education, low achievement
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education
Faculties/Schools: UNNC Ningbo, China Campus > Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of Education
Item ID: 51951
Depositing User: MA, Fei
Date Deposited: 13 Aug 2018 05:50
Last Modified: 07 May 2020 17:02
URI: https://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/51951

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