Student identity, learning and progression: The affective and academic impact of IELTS on 'successful' candidates


Pauline Rea-Dickins

Richard Kieley

Guoxing Yu

Date Published:

27th April 2007

This study examines the possible affective and academic impacts of the IELTS performance of a group of postgraduate students.

The institutional use of IELTS for university admissions reflects an implicit claim for a student’s language development and growth. The extent to which such potential is realised, or not, can therefore be considered a consequential validity issue of the IELTS examination. To date, there has been relatively little focus in IELTS impact studies on the different IELTS profiles of ‘successful IELTS students’. This research adopted a case study approach and tracked 26 postgraduate students over a five to 11 month period in one English university. Framed as a post-IELTS impact study, it has examined the possible affective and academic impacts of the students’ IELTS performances (in all four language skill areas) from the point at which they start their academic programs of subject learning. Identity is conceptualised from a socio-cultural perspective: drawing on the work of Lave and Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998), the development of identity involves negotiation of access to communities of practice. Identity and learning are performed, and through narrative accounts of performance in learning journals, interviews and student workshops, we document the process of learning by international students. This process is further informed by two other data sets: i) the accounts of academic tutors and administrators, and ii) assessments of learning power, as represented by the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (Broadfoot 2005; Deakin Crick et al, 2004).

Student performance on IELTS has been analysed in relation to the four language skill areas.

Two approaches have been taken to the analysis of the data: (a) ethnographic accounts of subject learning through the medium of English, and (b) categorical analysis using winMAX (Kuckartz 1998). The findings from this research are several and point to: (i) the affective dimensions of the struggle of postgraduate students and the ways in which these derive from the test itself; (ii) the linking of this struggle with how they work through the four language skills; (iii) an overwhelming lack of awareness of admissions staff about IELTS; and (iv) the assumptions about the test by tutors and how these might impact on student performance.