Identifying student needs for the year abroad preparation

Author: Ulrike Bavendiek


The author examines student needs in preparing for the year abroad, looking at the relationship between metacognitive learning strategies and linguistic development during the year abroad, and how students' subjectivities relate to their linguistic development. The author summarises her findings by producing a list of steps that would ideally be included in a year abroad preparation course.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Introduction

The year abroad has been shown to be the most influential factor for the linguistic development of students in a Modern Languages Degree course (Coleman 1996:8). It is therefore crucial that universities spend time and resources to identify individual needs and thus streamline the year abroad preparation to help students maximise their language learning whilst in the target language community. This article sets out to answer the following research questions:

  1. Is there a significant systematic relationship between the reported use of metacognitive language learning strategies and linguistic development during the year abroad?
  2. Which subjectivities can be identified in students' talk?
  3. How do these subjectivities relate to linguistic development during the year abroad?

Based on the results I will develop some recommendations for the preparation for and support during the year abroad.

2. Subjects and data

The data for this longitudinal study was collected from a cohort of 24 post A-level and 2 post AS-level students of German in the School of Modern Languages at the University of Liverpool. The cohort had been involved in a learner development scheme aiming to raise their language learning awareness during their first year at university in 2000/01 (Bavendiek 2001:130-131). They graduated in June 2004.

Students' linguistic development during the year abroad was quantified using the mean of their combined marks from both semesters of the year 2 and year 4 language courses, respectively. The year 2 mark was then subtracted from the year 4 mark, to result in a positive score if the year 4 mark was higher than the year 2 mark. This score reflects language classroom and examination performances according to the implicit institutional expectations regarding the students' progress during the year abroad.

A questionnaire based on the Strategy Inventory for Language Learners (Oxford 1986), administered during the last week of year 1, aimed at the reported use of metacognitive language learning strategies.

The qualitative part of the study is based on transcriptions of eight retrospective, semi-structured interviews with selected students from the cohort.

3. The relationship between linguistic development and the reported use of metacognitive language learning strategies

The range of the linguistic development in the sample is 16, with 10 being the highest and -6 the lowest score.

The bivariate analysis identified a weak positive linear relationship with a Pearson correlation coefficient of r = .30 between the two interval variables linguistic development and students' reported use of metacognitive language learning strategies at the end of year 1, as illustrated in the scatterplot in diagram 1. The relationship is not significant ( p < .05).

diagram 1 - scatterplot

A closer inspection of the data explains the more extreme cases. The two outliers in the bottom right hand corner represent two students who were restricted by health and personal problems in their final year. The outliers above the upper line indicate that reported use of metacognitive strategies after year 1 is not the only predictor for linguistic development during the year abroad, but that other factors such a motivation, personality and language aptitude play an important role. However, most students reaching less than the minimum score of 50 in diagram 1 might have benefited from further strategy training during the second year.

4. The relationship between linguistic development and subjectivities

Subjectivities are some of the permanent or transient characteristics of the subject who is acting as informant in the interview (Wengraf 2001:9).

The qualititative analysis of eight retrospective interviews with students in their final year focused on the identification of students' subjectivities. The subjectivities were then linked with the linguistic development score to establish the impact they have on language learning during the year abroad:

- impact on independent language learning during the year abroad +
Others/circumstances are to blame I am to blame
I have to live with other peoples' (negatively perceived) behaviour I can assert myself
I am passive / others have to initiate and control enjoyable learning events for me I am active / I can initiate and control learning events I enjoy
I am influenced/controlled by my attitudes and motivation I can influence/control my attitudes and motivation
I tend to see the world as right or wrong I qualify and differentiate
I am trying to meet other people's aims and objectives I am trying to meet my own aims and objectives
I have no genuine interest in the target language culture I have a genuine interest in the target language culture

The subjectivities can be grouped around three key aspects of learner autonomy: feeling of control, detachment and ownership. Students holding subjectivities which are beneficial to autonomous language learning progress more during their year abroad than other students.

5. Conclusion and recommendations

The main characteristics to be fostered in an efficient year abroad preparation scheme seem to be the use of metacognitive language learning strategies, and, on the level of affective-social strategies (Cohen 1998:7) responsibility, tolerance of ambiguity, cultural understanding and integrative motivation.

A year abroad preparation scheme should therefore entail the following steps:


  • Raise students' consciousness of the learning process in a learner development scheme (usually year 1).
  • Identify students' reported use of metacognitive language learning strategies.
  • Identify problematic subjectivities, e.g. through PDP sessions.

During the year abroad preparations:

  • Raise awareness of metacognitive language learning strategies for (selected) students, e.g. encouraging them to write a learner journal.
  • Challenge problematic subjectivities in individual learning conversations (Augstein 1991).
  • Encourage students to assert themselves (e.g. to use the target language) and to detach themselves from the situation (e.g. counsel an isolated/homesick fellow student) in role-play sessions and through email exchange with students abroad.

During the year abroad:

  • Help students gain awareness and take an observer's role using portfolios, email exchange with fellow students at the home university and generally following an ethnographic approach.


Augstein, S. (1991). Learning Conversation s. London. Routledge.

Bavendiek, U. (2001). Three approaches to promoting independence in language learning in Higher Education. In M. Mozzon-McPherson and R. Vismans (eds.), Beyond language teaching towards language advising . London. CILT.

Cohen, A. (1998). Strategies in learning and using a second language. London. Longman.

Coleman, J. (1996). Studying languages. A survey of British and European students. London. CILT.

Oxford, R.L. (1986). Strategy inventory for language learning. Tuscaloosa.

Wengraf, T. (2001). Qualitative research interviewing. London. Sage.