Academic Literacy Development and Identity Construction of Undergraduates at an American University in the UAE
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Informed by an interpretive framework of research, this study explores the challenges encountered by six Arab students enrolled at an English-medium American university in the UAE, who are all non-native speakers of English and share the common desire to develop fluent control of the academic literacy practices that will ensure their success in their undergraduate careers. In addition to exploring the nature of challenges the students encounter, the study also aims to illuminate the impact of going through these challenges and the role played by social context dynamics in the development of each participant’s identity. I used frequent in-depth interviews conducted regularly with each student participant throughout an entire academic year, document analysis, and interviews with the professors as the main methods of data collection for this study. The findings highlighted the importance of three factors in forming the students’ perspectives on the academic literacy requirements: the perceived significance of grades, weakness in reading and writing skills, and doubts about the contribution of these requirements to their general academic and professional development. Starting their academic journey with this perspective, the students faced a number of challenges such as lack of time, transition to English medium of instruction (EMI) at undergraduate level, adapting to the changing requirements of academic reading and writing practices across the curriculum, using the library and doing research, and building socio-academic relationships. They tried to cope with these challenges first through studying for extended periods of time, using several corner-cutting strategies, and finally consulting with knowledgeable others and developing assignment-specific study strategies. While going through these experiences did not change the students’ initial perspective on the academic literacy requirements, eventually they got better at responding to these requirements, though they continued to question their purpose. The findings also highlight the impact of the above mentioned experiences on the students’ construction of identity. Their declining academic standing and the difficulties they faced in building socio-academic relationships led the students to develop an identity of deficiency and incompetence, standing in contrast to their former view of self. This emerging identity was partly constructed by the real difficulties they faced and also reinforced by others in their new discourse community, directly or indirectly. Nonetheless, certain literacy practices that they could relate to and that supported their understanding and performance through pair/group work, regardless of the grades they received, helped many of the participants overcome this negative sense of self to some extent. However, the identity of deficiency and incompetence manifested itself throughout the whole study in the cases of two participants who were required to take a non-credit remedial course in spring. Finally, the analysis of the interviews with the professors highlighted the discrepancy between their expectations and students’ knowledge of the required academic literacy demands. It was also revealed that many of the professors were not fully aware of the struggles students go through to meet the expectations. These findings emphasize the significance of understanding the complex nature of challenges undergraduates face and the problem with a remedial approach. Based on the findings and their implications, it is suggested that an inclusive curriculum-integrated model of academic literacy instruction could help English-medium higher education institutions in the UAE to address students’ academic literacy development needs more effectively, thereby saving them from most of the challenges described earlier as well as the identity adjustments brought about by those challenges. Other recommendations include an increased emphasis on academic reading instruction, more effective reading and writing assignments, helping students build effective socio-academic relations and positive identities, enhancing communication and collaboration between English language/writing experts and academic staff in the disciplines, and eliminating non-credit, remedial course requirements for students who are on academic probation.
EdD in TESOL