Wednesday, May 7, 2008

NNS vs. NS: A Brief Reflection

As the second semester of our first year of teaching draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on which group of composition students I most enjoyed teaching. And, to my surprise, I believe I’ve determined that I preferred the class of Non-native students (NNS) to my current class of native ones (NS). I’ve come to this conclusion based on a number of considerations, but there are two primary factors: One, and perhaps most obviously, NNS generally appear to be more invested in their academic success than the NS. Whether this is due to some fundamental contrast in cultural attitudes toward education, or to the reality that NNS have a more acute sense of the sacrifices made either by them or on their behalf for the opportunity to study at the university, I don’t know. Whatever the case may be, and it is probably some combination of those and other factors, NNS are no doubt more driven to succeed than the NS (based only on my limited experience with either, of course), which fundamentally affects student-teacher dynamics. So even though the language barrier I was so fond of bitching about all last semester presented an enormous pedagogical obstacle, I found that my persistent efforts at working over, around, and through that obstacle were more or less rewarded by the NNS’s reciprocal efforts at trying to do well on each assignment.

Moreover, I’ve also determined that, if given multiple opportunities to improve upon a particular assignment for the chance at a better grade, NNS are more likely to take advantage of them. I had quite a few students last semester that turned in three and sometimes as many as five or six drafts of a single paper. Granted, this presented its own challenges in terms of grading and trying to determine if some drafts merited a better grade or not. In contrast, I’ve only had two NS come to me this semester asking if they could potentially revise a paper for a better grade. And though I consented and explained to them how to proceed, neither student has since turned in a revision.

The second principal reason why I preferred my NNS to my NS is that, contrary to what I presumed going into this semester, I thought that having (almost) full recourse to my vocabulary would improve my efficiency and effectiveness, as well as student participation/feedback. However, this was not the case at all (with the exception of a few good in-class discussions/debates). Sure, it was much less time consuming for me to explain assignments and respond to student questions this semester than last. Nevertheless, my NS rarely asked questions or participated in any kind of class discussion unless I called them out. The same went for my NNS, too, but at least they have their legitimate struggles with the English language to help justify their relative silence in class and/or their failure to satisfactorily complete an assignment. Even if that’s a complete rationalization on my part, I still can’t help but notice that I felt a greater sense of accomplishment and success with regard to my instruction of the NNS than I do with that of my NS, at least in terms of my perceptions of what both groups learned along the way.

I may be making much of nothing, here, and I concede that many of my troubles and frustrations with my NS may be due to the whole Spring Fallout Syndrome that we’ve heard so much about; still I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with their overall performance and lack of enthusiasm. Turnabout being fair play and all, I acknowledge that they may harbor similar sentiments regarding my performance and enthusiasm, as well.


Kara said...

I think part of NNS students' initiative is a fear of failure, a sincere gratitude for your willingness to be patient with them, and an excitement about learning a new language/culture.

I, too, in my own limited experiences with both groups, find NNS students to generally be an all-around more pleasant group of students to work with--partially because they bring interesting perspectives to the table and partially because, well, I appreciate being appreciated.

BeardedFury said...

I think you definitely articulated something I failed to, regarding NNS: "I appreciate being appreciated." I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but you're exactly right to suggest that that element is certainly part of the pleasure of teaching NNS.

LBusby said...

How do you compare your NS 203 to you NS 110?? Are the same problems prevalent? Or does these problems seem more inherent in the ENG 110 classroom?
I know in my ENG 203 class, I have almost perfect attendance at every class meeting, as opposed to my 110 where I am lucky to have half the class show up. I also find that 203 students are eager to talk more than 110 students. Is it just the subject matter? Maturity?

smm933 said...

When you think about the NNS motivation for learning, you have to think of it in terms of we're just catching them in mid-stream. These students have been intellectually driven (or pushed) since grade school. One student told me that when he came to college, it was the first time since he started school that he was able to get more than 5 hours of sleep a night. It's a miracle to me that these countries have any sane people left - well, sane is a relative term. Another of my students told me that in order to be accepted for college in his province in China, there were 100 openings for 35,000 students. Somewhat competitive, you might say. If that weren't enough, in order to get a good job, most foreign companies will only hire students who have their degrees from a university over here - it's all about being able to compete globally. For the student to do that, they have to pay double what we pay for tuition - and then add room, board, etc on top of that. If they need to work while they're here, it takes about three months minimum to get the paperwork completed and they can only work on-campus. You get the picture.

On the other hand, I sympathize with your frustration from last semester. They can be incredibly quiet students - until they realize that there will be no penalty for talking - another cross-cultural difference. One student told me I made her feel brave because I had asked her opinion on something.

The real difference between the two classes is that the NNS students ask you to take a picture with them when the semester is over. I applaud your decision to give it another shot.

Tim Knox said...

One of the questions I've always wondered, and still wonder about is whether or not NNS students should be cut some extra slack in grading since they don't have the advantage that NS students have. I have had the opportunity to read graduate level papers by NNS that I thought were deplorable. It made me wonder if they were held to a lower standard than I have been held to. I'm not advocating that NNS should immediately be held to the same standards that NS do, but at what point do you decide that they can no longer use their NNS status as a crutch to attain higher grades at a lower standard?