Tokai University Foreign Language Education Center Journal. Vol. 16. Oct. 1996. (pp. 147 - 151).

Issues in Student Selection for Elective English Classes

by Tim Newfields
Tokai University

To English, Japanese, German, and Spanish Summaries

One issue many teachers face during their first class each semester is what to do if more students wish to enroll in their course than is feasible. Like many universities in Japan, Tokai University attempts to limit the size of its oral English classes to thirty students. Though teachers can allow more students to enroll in a classes, most instructors seem to prefer smaller classes. The question therefore arises: what is the best way to limit class size?
"Since students' early classroom impressions do influence how they feel about a course, it is imperative that teachers find efficient, educationally valid, and psychologically acceptable ways of reducing class size."

Decisions regarding class size involve both pedagogical and administrative concerns. Since students' early classroom impressions do influence how they feel about a course, it is imperative that teachers find efficient, educationally valid, and psychologically acceptable ways of reducing class size.

At some universities, teachers make no particular effort to pare down their classes and allow "natural attrition" to gradually scale back student numbers. Advocates of this approach maintain that less interested students will naturally leave a class over time. Viewing classrooms in terms of a social Darwinian framework, they recognize that by the end of each semester only "the fittest will survive". Such teachers do not concern themselves with the psychological fallout of students dropping out midway through a course: their classrooms are jungles in which only those with persistence and talent survive.

At many universities, teachers do not have to make decisions about the size of their elective classes, since the administrative staff limit classroom enrollments prior to the first lesson - usually on the basis of a "first register, first enter" policy.

Those teaching elective conversation classes some institutions, however, must decide early on who can register for their courses. Instructors with popular electives therefore need to formulate procedures for limiting class size. This paper considers some of the ways teachers go about accomplishing this task and concludes by offering one proposal for limiting class sizes.

Student Screening Approaches

How should student screening for elective classes be accomplished? I interviewed sixteen teachers at five different Japanese educational institutions between Jan. - March 1995 and found five basic selection methods: (1) random selection activities, (2) written aptitude tests, (3) oral screening, (4) written essays, (5) other criteria. Some teachers employ multiple criteria. Each of these five basic criteria are briefly discussed below.

  1. Random Selection Activities -

    Recognizing the limitation in any attempts to screen many students in one class period, many teachers opt for arbitrary selection activities. The most common method of screening students, in fact, is some random method. A common procedure is to ask students to write down any number between 1 - 500, select a number at random, then allow students with numbers closest to the number to take the class.

    Random selection activities have two advantages: they can be quickly administered and save face - failure is a matter of chance rather than ability. Random selection activities do not attempt to address issues of student aptitude or attitude. As a result, those with only a nominal interest in a class might enter, while others who are keen on taking might be held back.

  2. Written Aptitude Tests -

    Some instructors prefer to use short written tests as classroom selection tools. The content of these tests vary considerably - some include global listening components and short composition exercises; others focus on discreet aspects of grammar, syntax, or vocabulary. Most teachers design their tests so that they can be easily corrected in class, using multiple choice questions.

    Written aptitude tests do measure some aspects of student performance uniformly and are convenient to administer. However, such tests do not address issues of student motivation, oral fluency, and students who fail them are disheartened.

  3. Oral Screening -

    A few teachers attempt to conduct oral screening during their initial class. The most common approach to this is to interview groups of 3-4 students while other students are engaged in some different classroom activity. If there are 50 - 100 applicants, this procedure of what to ask is fraught with problems. If a teacher asks the same questions to all students to make a test more reliable, then persons who have completed the interview commonly report back to those who haven't, giving students who are interviewed later during this procedure an unfair advantage. However, if the teacher varies the interview questions, the test reliability may be skewed.

    At best, oral screening may represent some attempt to evaluate students' conversational proficiency. However, a one or two minute screening is superficial and unreliable. Many students will say whatever they believe the teacher wants to hear to heighten their chances of entering a class. Moreover, students who are shy or do not respond well under sudden face-to-face pressure tend to do poorly in oral interviews.

  4. Written Essays -

    Some instructors ask students to compose essays during their first class, explaining why they wish to take a particular course. Such essays are then used as a primary (or secondary) selection criteria. If the essay is in English, the ability of respondents to express their thoughts in foreign language can be assessed. However, it would appear that many students have problems writing essays even in Japanese, let alone English. The art of essay writing is not emphasized in the Japan to the degree it is in many parts of the West.

  5. Other Criteria -

    There are a number of other methods to limit class size. Some instructors, for example, screen applicants on the basis of their academic year, giving priority to third and fourth year students. Others allow students majoring in fields where English is considered vital to have priority over other students majoring in fields where English is deemed less essential. Students majoring in international shipping, for example, would be allowed to enter a class ahead of those majoring in ocean engineering.

    What seems clear, when considering these various selection criteria, is that each method of screening has its advantages as well as drawbacks.

One Proposal

Faced with the dilemma of devising a uniform scheme of selecting students during the first session, I attempted to adopt a procedure that (1) is easy to administer, (2) attempts to measure some aspects of student motivation, (3) assesses some aspects of students' listening, vocabulary, grammar, and cultural knowledge, and (4) contains gamelike elements to make the process enjoyable.

Rather than base the selection process on a single criteria, I decided to use multiple screening batteries. Appendix 1 contains a pre-lesson screening exercise. This contains five questions designed to asses students' attitudes towards a course [Section A], a number of listening, vocabulary, grammar, and culture-capsule questions [Section B], and five bonus points [Section C].

Chronological Index Subject Index Title Index
Copyright (c) 1996 by Tim Newfields