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ICOTS8 (2010) Contributed Paper

Abdelbasit

TEACHING STATISTICS IN A LANGUAGE OTHER THAN THE STUDENTS’

Khidir M. Abdelbasit Department of Mathematics and Statistics, College of Science, Sultan Qaboos University, Sultanate of Oman khidir@squ.edu.om

In many developing countries the language of instruction at universities is English, while teaching at pre-university level is in the local language. The common reason is that most of the scientific literature is in English and teaching in the native language may leave graduates at a disadvantage. Statistical concepts and methods are most effectively taught through real life examples that the students appreciate and understand. Almost all the textbooks used satisfy this requirement for western students, but most of the examples and exercises used are completely alien to students in the developing world. With limited English they have serious difficulties understanding what is explained in lectures and textbooks. The result is loss of interest in the subject and concentration on passing tests instead of acquiring the intended knowledge and skills. The paper discusses language and cultural difficulties faced by the students in learning Statistics and the challenges to instructors.

BACKGROUND

In many developing countries the language of instruction at universities is English, while learning at pre-university level is in the local language. The main reasons for using English are the lack of textbooks and enough literature in the local language and the fact that English is the language of science worldwide. It is thus believed that teaching in the local language is disadvantageous to graduates. At Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) students are required to achieve a specified level in English (about 4 IELTS score) before they can start their science courses. The majority of instructors do not speak Arabic, and the university adopts a policy of communication in English only in class rooms and office hours. This article is based on my experience at SQU, but I believe that the situation will not be very different in universities, where the medium of instruction changes to English.

LANGUAGE AND CULTURAL PROBLEMS

“Language plays a crucial role in the class room” as Kaplan, Fisher et al. (2009) state. Coutis & Wood(2002) report that several studies have shown that students have difficulty with all forms of academic language: reading, writing, speaking and listening and that students from a non- English speaking background (NESB) have more trouble than those from English speaking background(ESB). Problems that face students learning Statistics in a foreign language were brought to the attention of ICOTS at least twenty years ago (see Hubard, 1990; Wood, 1990). The two authors discuss problems faced by students from a NESB in Australian universities. Koh (1994) addresses similar issues for Japanese students in USA. Lessor and Winsor (2009) report experiences with Spanish speakers in USA. It is recognized that such students face language difficulty, cultural related problems in addition to the common difficulty of academic language (see Coutis & Wood 2002; Blignant & Venter, 2002). Difficulties identified include:

  • Technical terms and phrases not well explained in dictionaries.

  • Confusion caused by the difference between common and technical use of some words.

  • The need for more time to process information and hence difficulties in following up in lectures.

  • Difficulties in verbalizing their understanding of the text and thus resorting to memorization.

  • Tendency not to listen to explanations in lectures and choose to look at the formula and plug in numbers to get the Statistic.

The students in mind in all the above live (at least while studying) in an English speaking community with which they have to communicate and interact daily. Their language is bound to

In C. Reading (Ed.), Data and context in statistics education: Towards an evidence-based society. Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Teaching Statistics (ICOTS8, July, 2010), Ljubljana, Slovenia. Voorburg, The Netherlands: International Statistical Institute. www.stat.auckland.ac.nz/~iase/publications.php [© 2010 ISI/IASE]

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