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High Ielts score beats ability in quest for academic results


Pre-sessional courses don’t boost academic results for weaker test performers, study finds

Why do international students do worse than their native-speaker counterparts academically?

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency have shown that they gain proportionately fewer first and upper second-class degrees than UK home students.

And now, a UK study has found that while the Ielts scores students obtain before they arrive at university are a good predictor of academic results, attending a pre-sessional course has no significant effect on the outcomes of students with lower Ielts scores on entry.

This finding has led the author to suggest that the entry level should be ‘equivalent to an Ielts score of 7.5’, – higher than the typical score of 7 required for masters courses.

Researchers also found that the vocabulary size of foreign students starting university is a good predictor of academic success.

The study covered two groups of social sciences students in the UK: 63 Mandarin-speaking Chinese doing a one-year masters and 64 first year BA students, all of whom were English mother-tongue.

Female students accounted for over 80 per cent of both groups and all were new to the UK higher education system.

Both groups were tested at the beginning of their course, and again after eight months.

Results from an initial vocabulary knowledge test showed that the international students in the sample had an average English vocabulary almost half the size (8,000-word families) of that of the home students (15,000-word families).


Significant differences were also highlighted in a reading comprehension test, where the Chinese scored 33 per cent lower than the L1 students.

When asked to write a summary of a written text, they remembered one third fewer points.

However, there was no difference between the groups on general cognitive abilities assessed through non-verbal reasoning tests. No strong link between language and literacy skills and academic grades was found in the sample of British students who spoke English as their native language.

At the end of eight months, results from the second ‘follow-up’ test showed that living in an English-speaking environment helped the Chinese students to make some progress, from 7.24 points in summarisation, for example, to 8.32. However, as the British had also progressed, the gap between the groups had not narrowed.

The study found the best predictor of a Chinese student’s academic success was their overall Ielts score on entry. These scores ranged between 6.5 and 7.5. Some 38 per cent of the Chinese students initially fell below the university’s Ielts entry threshold and attended a six-to-ten-week pre-sessional course.

Students’ academic results however, correlated to their initial scores with or without a pre-sessional. Lead researcher Danijela Trenkic told the Gazette:

‘Our study cannot provide a definitive answer, but it suggests that the threshold (for entry) should be set at, or above, a level equivalent to an Ielts score at 7.5’.

The researchers pointed out that further studies of the subject needed to address a gender imbalance in the sample of students who took part.

‘Further research needs to establish whether our findings generalise to other international students, particularly to speakers of languages that are typologically closer to English,’ the researchers added.

⇒ Language and literacy skills of home and international university students: How different are they, and does it matter? https://tinyurl.com/ybghxvl3