How to create and run pre-sessional courses to enhance future success

A team from the University of Nottingham Ningbo China outline the starting points for providing short-term English proficiency courses for non-native speakers

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27 Oct 2023
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Pre-sessional courses are typically short-term English programmes that students take in order to improve their language skills. They are designed to help students be better prepared for their programmes of study and potentially meet offer requirements if a particular level of proficiency is required. For example, at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, the institution provides both optional four-week courses for students who wish to refresh and hone their skills and mandatory eight-week courses for learners who need to meet the terms of conditional offers.

Designing pre-sessional courses

In order to ensure that pre-sessional courses are as well designed as possible, it’s important that providers design courses that are student-centred. This means they help to develop and improve English language abilities, familiarise the students with the academic standards and study skills that will enable them to subsequently thrive at that institution and facilitate a growth mindset that promotes and develops academic independence. With these considerations in mind, providers and the teams responsible for course development constantly need to tap into institutional knowledge in the areas of curriculum and materials design, assessment practices and procedures, administration, and staff and student recruitment (among other areas), and then channel and direct this effort. This requires experienced and reflective leadership at all levels and in all areas. It also necessitates good collaborative, interpersonal and time-management skills.

Running pre-sessional courses

Beyond the initial set-up and delivery of a pre-sessional course or suite of courses there are a number of additional areas that, if we as educators get things right, will mean the end-point outcomes can be significantly enhanced, in both the immediate term and going forward.

1. Staffing is important. If you can draw on your own teachers, rather than outsourcing staffing, you have a teaching base that really understands the needs of the learners and the context in which they are going to be working. This might be achieved by managing workloads throughout the year, or time off, while keeping an acute eye on year-round availability.

2. Workload is a key feature. Educators who have been working all year round will have to give up parts of their summers to work on these programmes, so if staff are reasonably well remunerated, feel valued and appreciated (which costs nothing) and have a balanced workload, then their contributions in the classroom are likely to be enhanced because they feel fresher and more engaged. This differs from professionalism, which teachers are expected to live up to regardless.

3. Relationship management is another key area. If the aim of the experience is to provide the paying customer with an end product that prepares them as well as possible for what is to follow, then input from academic departments, schools or academies is important because it can enhance the authenticity of the learning. It is also essential to provide pastoral support to these students, because initiation into a new learning environment can be challenging and well-being is paramount. This necessitates building and maintaining positive working relationships with all stakeholders, a lot of which can be achieved through social channels, such as institutional activities and events.

4. The student and staff voices are essential. Listening to key stakeholders, taking their views seriously and letting them know that these are valued cannot be underestimated. Just as we would collect feedback from staff teaching on a course or programme in order to enhance the delivery of it, so too is the voice of the learners of paramount importance. Not only do we demonstrate a willingness to engage and learn, but we also highlight the type of community that the students are now becoming a part of. To achieve this, multiple informal and formal feedback channels can be used.

5. Finally, having some external voices to provide us with impartial feedback is vitally important. This enables us to take a step back and hear an objective evaluation of the work being done – and not an emotive and/or invested one. External examiners and accrediting bodies can provide valuable contributions in order to achieve best practice, while listening to staff not working on the course can also be insightful.

Shayna Kozuch is the deputy head of the Centre for English Language Education at University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC), where she manages external programmes and pathways including commercial programmes, summer programmes, teacher training and outreach.

Dawn Buckley is a module convenor on the eight-week pre-sessional programme and an English for academic purposes tutor at UNNC. She has taught on pre-sessional courses in China and the UK, and worked on a range of programmes in Ireland, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Turkey and Spain.

Michaela Seserman is a
module convenor on the eight-week pre-sessional programme and an English for academic purposes tutor at UNNC. She has taught in India, Turkey, the UK and China.

Geoffrey Gao is the manager of pre-sessional and in-sessional support at UNNC’s Centre for English Language Education. He is a trained educator who also supports the writing lab at the university.

Gareth Morris is senior tutor in English for academic purposes at the Centre for English Language Education at UNNC.

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