Validation of a Post-Entry English Language Assessment for Commencing Undergraduate Nursing Students

Saturday, 26 July 2014: 9:10 AM

Paul J. Glew, EdD, RN, BN, BEd, GradCertClinSc (ICN), MAAppLing (TESOL), MN
School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Western Sydney, Penrith South, Australia
Sharon Patricia Hillege, RN, RM, BHS, PGCert, PhD
School of Nursing & Midwifery, The University of Western Sydney, Penrith South DC NSW 2751, Australia
Yenna Salamonson, RN, BSc, CCUCert, GDNEd, MA, PhD
School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Western Sydney, Penrith South DC NSW, Australia
Kathleen Dixon, RN, BA, MHA, PhD
School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Western Sydney, Penrith NSW 2751, Australia
Anthony Good, BSc (Hon), PhD
National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), School of Science and Health, University of Western Sydney, Penrith, NSW 2751, Australia
Lien Lombardo, BN
Office of the Associate PVC (Education-Health & Science), Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), University of Western Sydney, Penrith, NSW 2751, Australia

Background: The Australian society has become increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse as a consequence of migration and globalisation, and this diversity is reflected in students choosing to take up nursing studies in higher education (Salamonson et al. 2012). Similar trends are also reported in other developed countries, for instance, the United States (American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 2012). Although these students may meet a minimum entry requirement for university admission, some, in particular, those with English as an additional language (EAL) experienced slower rates of progression (Salamonson et al, 2011), which suggests that they may not be adequately prepared with the language and literacy skills necessary to successfully meet the linguistic demands of their studies. In response to this, a large Australian nursing school in Sydney used a post-entry English language assessment (PELA) tool to assess the writing skills of commencing undergraduate nursing students, to identify those requiring support, and to implement effective support interventions.

Aim: The primary aim of this study was to evaluate the utility of the PELA tool, for use with commencing undergraduate nursing students. The study also examined the relationship between students’ performance in the PELA writing task and their levels of English language usage using the English language acculturation scale (ELAS), a previously validated instrument (Salamonson et al, 2013).

Method: Using a prospective survey design, between 2010 and 2013, commencing students who enrolled and completed a nursing communication unit (with a focus on academic literacy), and who attended a course commencement session were invited to complete a brief survey. In addition to socio-demographic information, students were also asked to complete the ELAS. A writing test using the PELA tool was also administered to grade students’ writing skills, which took less than 20 minutes for students to complete.  The PELA grading levels were based on a literacy criterion with Level 1 (proficient), Level 2 (borderline), and Level 3 (poor and requiring additional support).  Students who received a Level 2 or 3 were recommended to undertake support interventions involving literacy workbook tasks, accessing essay planning podcasts, and attending consultations and workshops with literacy and English language specialist support staff. We sought participant’s consent to link their completed survey and PELA to their enrolment status and academic grades.  The university Human Research Ethics Committee approved the study.  A value of <0.05 was considered as statistically significant. 

Results: Of the 3957 students who completed the nursing communication unit over the 4-year period, 2669 (67%) completed the ELAS, the PELA writing task, and provided consent for their enrolment status and grades to be linked. The following participant groups were significantly more likely to achieve Level 2 or 3 on their PELA writing task: a) non-Australian-born (chi-square: 520.6, df: 2, p<0.001); b) spoke other than English at home (chi-square: 490.2, df: 2, p<0.001); and c) international students (chi-square: 225.6, df: 2, p<0.001). There was an inverse and statistically significant relationship between participants’ ELAS scores and PELA Levels (r=-0.52, p<0.001), showing that participants with higher English language usage were more likely to achieve Level 1 in their PELA writing task. At follow-up, upon completion of the nursing communication unit, participants who achieved better levels in the PELA writing task were also significantly more likely to achieve higher scores in an essay assessment (chi-square: 40.2, df: 2, p<0.001), overall final mark (chi-square: 218.6, df: 2, p<0.001), and higher GPA (chi-square: 100.8, df: 2, p<0.001).

Conclusion: The results of this study underscore the importance of using a post-entry English language assessment as a screening tool for commencing students, particularly those at risk of academic underachievement. The study also revealed that students’ performance on the PELA writing task have a direct relationship with student English language usage, and predicted academic performance in the nursing program.