Nonpartisan Education Review / Articles: Volume 6 Number 2
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The relationships between EFL student cognitive functioning,
curriculum diversification, and ethnic culture differences
Saad Fathy Shawer
This study examines the relationship between student cognitive functioning and curriculum diversification, Arabic-speaking students’ patterns of strategy use, and how Arab learners differ from other ethnic groups in their learning strategy use. The study made use of survey research (research strategy), standardized questionnaires (data collection method), and MANOVA (Lambda) and ANOVA (Scheffé) (data analysis techniques). Working with college EFL students, the results indicate a relationship between course diversification and student use of compensation (but not memory, cognitive, metacognitive, affective, and social) strategies in favour of the scientific track of study. Arab learners were frequent users of metacognitive and social strategies but moderate users of memory, cognitive, compensation, and affective strategies. Disagreement about establishing a relationship between ethnic culture and patterns of strategy use continue. The study casts serious doubt on unmediated deterministic relationships between ethnic culture and cognitive functioning. It recommends more recognition of influential cognitive factors, including curriculum designs, instructional strategies, strategy training, and individual differences as more decisive in learning strategy use than ethnicity. Clear identification of effective cognitive strategies can guide classroom-level and school-level curriculum developments and facilitate curriculum implementation.
Keywords: Learning strategies, diversification, differentiation, curriculum and instruction, ethnicity, foreign language learning.
Despite having similar academic abilities, some learners significantly outperform their counterparts in academic achievement. Other learners give up within-ability cognitive enterprises and even courses. Concerns have therefore been voiced about the patterns of strategy use that influence student cognitive functioning and ultimately academic success. Learning strategies have long been a major factor for effective language learning in general, and English as foreign language learning (EFL) in particular since early 70s (Oxford, 1990a; Shawer, Gilmore & Banks-Joseph, 2009). For example, cognitive strategies enable students to process information, whereas metacognitive strategies enable them to plan, organise and monitor their learning (Cohen, 1998; O’Malley & Chamot, 1990; Oxford, 1989; Shawer, Gilmore & Banks-Joseph, 2008).
Practical concerns have been also expressed about the influence of different curriculum diversification programmes on student development and use of different learning strategies. Curriculum diversification concerns matching curriculum to different tracks of learning. For example, secondary education students can be diversified into a general, technical, or agricultural track of study (Pollard & Triggs, 1997; Saez &Carretero, 1998; Shawer, 2010). Further concerns pointed to the influence of ethnic culture on student cognitive functioning in terms of learning strategy use (Rahimi, Riazi & Saif, 2008). Some empirical research examined various variables, including motivation, proficiency, gender, age, language background, cognitive style, and methods of teaching (e.g., Abu Shmais, 2003; Chamot, Barnhardt, El-Dinary & Robbins, 1996). Other research has studied the relationships between ethnic culture and learning strategy use, but their findings contradicted each other (e.g., Hong-Nam & Leavell, 2007; Grainger, 1997; Qingquan, Chatupote & Teo, 2008).
Finding contradictions in previous research results, this study examined possible relationships between learning strategy use and ethnic culture. Because actual student records indicate that science track students outperform their counterparts in the humanities track in language performance, this study further examined possible relationships between curriculum diversification programmes and learning strategy use. It addressed these concerns through testing the following hypotheses:
1. There are no statistically significant differences at the 0.05 level of the mean scores between the four programmes of study (Arabic, Community Service, Biology, and Mathematics departments) in student use of memory, cognitive, compensation, metacognitive, affective, and social learning strategies.
2. There are statistically significant differences at the 0.05 level of the mean scores between EFL Arabic-speaking learners and learners from other ethnic backgrounds in their use of the six learning strategy types.
Because of insufficient research evidence to assume relationships between learning strategy use and curriculum diversification programmes, the first hypothesis was null; whereas the previous research findings contradictions about cultural stereotypes of learning strategy use required a two-tailed research hypothesis.
2. Conceptual Framework
To put this study into context, this section critically reviews the literature around the main research issues: cognitive styles, learning strategy use, cognitive functioning, curriculum diversification, and ethnic culture.
2.1 Cognitive styles, Learning Strategy Use, and Cognitive Functioning
Cognitive style concerns student 'preferred and habitual approach to organising and representing information' (Riding & Rayner, 1998, p. 15). When learning tasks contradict student congenital predispositions, they find difficulty in processing incompatible tasks because they do not possess the strategies that concur with their inborn cognitive processors (styles). For example, some students prefer to deal with words rather than numerals, because they possess innate verbal processors. When faced with abstract tasks, including numerals, they need to develop strategies that enable them to process mathematical tasks that they are not naturally equipped to handle. This causes some people to process comfortably verbal tasks while they have difficulty in processing numbers, and vice versa.
As such, cognitive style is the psychological make-up whereby learners process information in particular fixed ways rather than others, while learning strategies are the mental operations students employ to process tasks incompatible with their habitual style (Shawer, et al., 2008). Coordination between curriculum content and classroom instruction is therefore necessary in order to equip students with learning strategies compatible with their habitual styles. If cognitive styles affect learning strategy use and ultimately cognitive processing, will different learning strategies influence cognitive functioning?
2.2 Learning Strategies and Cognitive Functioning
Learning strategies play a significant part in language processing and production in real-life communication and assist learners in processing, storing, and retrieving information (Brown, 1994; Chamot & Kupper, 1989). Students use cognitive strategies as 'steps or mental operations used in learning or problem-solving that require direct analysis, transformation, or synthesis of learning materials in order to store, retrieve and use knowledge' (Wenden, 1986, p. 10). Precisely, cognitive strategies are in action when students ask questions and check and revise (Riding & Rayner, 1998) in addition to making analogies, memorization, repetition, writing things down, self-testing, and making inferences (Hedge, 2000).
On the other hand, students use metacognitive strategies to plan, regulate, and monitor first-order cognition (Shawer, et al., 2008), being 'general skills through which learners manage, direct, regulate and guide their learning, i.e. planning, monitoring and evaluating' (Wenden, 1998, p. 519). Metacognitive operations therefore enable students to overview, pay attention, set goals and objectives, organise and self-monitor learning (Hedge, 2000), debrief discussions, and document progress through learning logs (Rasekh & Ranjbary, 2003). Communication strategies also play an important role in facilitating communication as 'techniques learners use when there is a gap between their knowledge of the language and their communicative intent' (Wenden, 1986, p. 10).
However, some learning strategies facilitate learning particular language skills and tasks better than others. Writing skill makes more use of planning, self-monitoring, deduction, and substitution, whereas speaking skill benefits more from risk-taking, paraphrasing, circumlocution, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation. By contrast, listening comprehension depends on strategies of elaboration, inference, selective attention, and self-monitoring. Moreover, reading comprehension better occurs through previewing, skimming, reading aloud, guessing, deduction, and summarizing.
Research found positive correlations between language improvement and strategy use (e.g., Chamot & Kupper, 1989; Cotterall & Murray, 2009; Hong-Nam & Leavell, 2007; Kasper, 1997; O'Malley & Chamot, 1990; Oxford, 1993; Rasekh & Ranjbary, 2003; Rossi-Le, 1989; Rubin & Thompson, 1994; Yu & Wang, 2009). If learning strategies influence the route and rate of cognitive processing, will diversification programmes of study determine strategy use?
2.3. Curriculum Diversification and Patterns of Strategy Use
Diversification involves a number of educational tracks of study (e.g., vocational and general secondary education) and curriculum designs for each track to offer secondary and university students in particular several study options from which they can choose a preferred career (Sifuna, 1992). Being so, it involves paying 'attention to the classroom with a heterogeneous group of students; attending to special needs students; and helping to produce curricular adaptations for the diversification programme' (Saez & Carretero, 1998, p. 727). Differentiation involves adapting a course to match specific student needs (Pollard & Triggs, 1997). However, diversification involves differentiation within tracks. For example, students can be diversified into science and humanities tracks in secondary education who can be differentiated according to ability into slow or fast learners (Oakes, Gamoran & Page, 1992; Saylor & Alexander, 1966).
Curriculum differentiation seeks to address different abilities by categorizing students according to learning ability into mentally retarded, slow, average, fast, and gifted. Moreover, differentiation could occur according to cultural or economic status by categorizing students into culturally- or economically-deprived. Students could be also grouped according to overt behaviour and emotional stability (problem learners) into pre-delinquent, delinquent, socially maladjusted, and emotionally disturbed (Saylor & Alexander, 1966). This study, however, is concerned only with examining the relationship between students' track of study (diversification) and their learning strategy use, by examining if different programmes of study imply certain patterns of information processing.
Previous research examined almost all possible factors that influence EFL learning strategy use. For example, high proficiency and motivation rather than gender influence student strategy use (Rahimi et al., 2008), whereas high graders outperform low graders in cognitive and metacognitive strategy use (Chen, 2009). Similarly, successful students outperform unsuccessful counterparts in metacognitive strategy use (Qingquan, et al., 2008). Moreover, monolinguals use compensation strategies most and affective strategies least, whereas bilinguals use metacognitive strategies most and memory strategies least (Hong-Nam & Leavell, 2007). In addition, tutored students make more use of metacognitive strategies, whereas non-tutored counterparts often use social strategies (Alptekin, 2007).
Despite such abundant research on strategy use, none seems to have investigated the impact on or relationship between curriculum diversification and patterns of learning strategy use. If a paucity of research exists on the relationship between curriculum diversification and patterns of strategy use, could it also be the case regarding ethnicity and patterns of strategy use?
2.4 Ethnic Culture and Cognitive Functioning
The debate over the influence of ethnic culture on cognitive functioning is far from agreement. Culture refers to accepted behaviour patterns a group of people share, which distinguish them as a particular race, ethnicity, religion, or social class (Savignon & Sysoyev, 2002). Some believe ethnic culture influences cognitive functioning and ultimately information processing (Hofstede, 1986; Oxford, 1990a; Watson-Raston, 2002). "There are, in every society, unstated assumptions about people and how they learn, which... invisibly guide whatever educational process may occur there" (Singleton, 1991, p. 120).
Previous research provides contradictory results about the influence of ethnic culture on learning strategy use. Some studies indicate that college EFL learners from certain ethnic backgrounds are predisposed to use certain strategies rather than others. For example, Eastern students tend to use traditional cognitive strategies of repetition and rote learning (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990; Politzer & McGroarty, 1985). Taiwanese and Japanese students are structured, analytical, memory-based, and do not favour social interaction (Rasekh & Ranjbary, 2003). Similarly, Chinese learners use memory and cognitive strategies more than metacognitive and other strategies (Peacock & Ho, 2003; Yu & Wang, 2009). However, recent research evidence challenged these results. Students of Eastern ethnicity used metacognitive strategies most and memory strategies least, including Chinese (Chang, 1991; Qingquan et al., 2008), Koreans (Hong-Nam & Leavell, 2007; Oh, 1992), and Iranians (Riazi & Rahimi, 2005; Rahimi et al., 2008).
Other studies report that European students outperform Eastern counterparts in use of higher-order strategies, such as metacognitive, social and affective (Grainger, 1997). Moreover, Americans were frequent metacognitive strategy users while low users of affective and memory strategies (Green, 1991). Again, other research challenged these findings. For example, Spanish learners who are European tend to use traditional memory strategies (McGroarty, 1987), whereas French students are average users of cognitive and metacognitive strategies (Merrifield, 1996). Abu Shmais (2003) conducted a study that examined patterns of strategy use among EFL Arab students in Palestine. The findings indicate that metacognitive strategies were used most while compensation strategies were least used. If research findings disagree about the influence of ethnic culture on patterns of strategy use, can we find evidence that puts such influence to doubt? If so, what other factors influence learning strategy use?
2.5 Curriculum and Instruction, Ethnic Culture, and Cognitive Processing
Holliday (2005) and Palfreyman and Smith (2005) view with suspicion the attempt to establish deterministic relationships between ethnic culture and cognitive functioning. Alternatively, they indicate that influential factors, such as curriculum content, instructional strategies, strategy training, and individual differences (due to cognitive style and motivation), determine what strategies students tend to use, rather than ethnic culture.
Research seems to take their side. For example, Chinese EFL learners use memory and cognitive strategies more than other strategies due to teacher-centred instruction and information delivery. The study recommended moving classroom instruction culture away from fixed-type materials, such as textbooks, and toward multi-source and authentic curriculum materials. It also recommended a move from teacher-centred instruction and information delivery to communication-oriented and student-centred instruction in order to assist students in developing and using higher-order learning strategies (Yu & Wang, 2009). Coyle (2007) and Liggett (2008) reached similar results. In the light of the literature survey, the current study seeks to answer the following research questions:
1. To what extent are patterns of strategy use (memory, cognitive, compensation, metacognitive, affective and social) determined by course diversification (Arabic, Community Service, Biology, and Mathematics departments)?
2. What language learning strategies do EFL Arabic-speaking learners tend to use?
3. To what extent do EFL Arabic-speaking learners differ from other ethnic learners in their learning strategy use?
3. Research Design
Figure 1 illustrates how this quantitative study used survey research to describe and interpret the status quo concerning the most frequently used learning strategies among the research subjects. A survey describes what is going on better than other research strategies. In particular, the study used a cross-sectional design to study different subjects at one point of time (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2000; Lester & Lester, 2010). Figure 1 also illustrates how the data were collected through standardized questionnaires and analyzed through descriptive statistical techniques, including percentages, means, and standard deviations. Inferential statistics were used to test mean differences for significance through one-way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA, Lambda) and simple analysis of variance (ANOVA), in addition to a post-hoc test of multiple comparisons (Scheffé) (Coakes & Steed, 2007).
Fig 1: Cross-sectional survey research design