EARLIER this semester, a friend of mine met with his group to discuss about one of their coming exams. During their meeting, they wrote down in one piece of paper, literal essays, on possible questions that might appear in the exam.
My friend, due to his comparative level of English, was assigned with the task of architecting the essays, which were later photocopied and distributed, so everyone can have a copy to go over at his/her personal time. During the exam, by pure luck, similar questions appeared. My friend and his group in that moment of exhilaration straightway delved into their answer sheets and poured all the information they memorised.
My friend and his group delivered one of the best essays according to their lecturer. But here is the twist; all of their essays were the same, word by word, giving an impression of literal cheating.
This situation is sticky for the students and lecturer who marked the exam. For one thing, no copying in the exam was noted by the invigilators, and second the essays indeed were the best, compared to the rest of the students. Many of the university students have this tendency of writing essays and cramming them prior to the exam. It’s a gamble they take since if questions contrary to what they crammed come up, they will be at a disadvantage.
And even if similar questions appear, they might panic and forget each and everything they had memorised in advance, leading to their failure.
I think students do this because of many reasons, but the major one is the lack of command of the English language. The fear of not being able to answer the questions drives them to cramming.
This is more challenging for theory-based exams that require essays that are logical. Students feel they will fail to word out their thoughts in more concise manner and their fortress becomes memorising.
It’s a challenge that tertiary education needs to address. First of all, I feel the burden on their shoulders of transforming students coming from secondary schools that used English in a very minimal level or not using English at all.
Second, the challenge of transforming these students within a threeyear or four-year program is inherently difficult. I wouldn’t blame this entirely on tertiary education.
The debate on the usage of English in secondary school education is a heated topic in Malaysia. Nationalism has been the stronghold of the advocates for using national languages as medium of instruction in schools.
In the midst of this debate, I would like to say the following. There are students in universities going through a very difficult time because they’ve been using BM in secondary schools and all of a sudden they’re required to use English in universities.
Their lives are miserable. They have to cram everything because they don’t know their meanings. Even if they want to find out the meaning, the process is tedious, taking into account the depth of their subjects. They spent many hours filling their heads with words.
Their inability to use English is translated in many other different areas. For example, they cannot discuss in class since they cannot mouth their thoughts. This in itself demolishes their selfesteem and lowers their confidence.
But hope isn’t lost since there’re models we can follow. In other countries for example, secondary education is tailored around English. Every subject is taught in English, apart from the national language. This model gives out students able to take the university coursework. And if you analyse the students from these nations, you will clearly see that they haven’t lost their sense of patriotism or nationalism just because they have a better command of English.
These countries have realised that patriotism is not achieved when students get a hard time coping with their university coursework, resulting from their inability to comprehend the language of instruction.
They’ve realised that it only exacerbates antipatriotism since these students will resent their country for passing policies that make it difficult for them to learn.
The reality is patriotism is achieved when the country is making the lives of its people easier.
University education in essence requires students to be at a certain level that our secondary curriculum is not producing. We need to rethink whether high school to university transformation is even ethical in the status quo.
We need to decide whether English has any importance, and whether we need to invest in it.
Can one semester of English course prepare students to take up the university coursework?
Isn’t there anyway we can model our secondary education so that the transformation is smoothsailing?
I know we might have anti-English sentiment taking into account colonialism and what not, but we need to be realistic today.
The forces of globalisation and lingua franca are too strong to resist, whether we like it or not.
We blame students for not speaking English. But has our education system been responsible for giving them the required skills that can assist them to do so? These students are our children, brothers, sisters and friends. Their plight needs to be heard.
The writer can be contacted at stephencollin86@gmail. com