Learner Involvement at Arabian Gulf University Self-Access Centre

Diane Malcolm, Arabian Gulf University, Bahrain

Malcolm, D. (2011). Learner involvement at Arabian Gulf University Self-Access Centre. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(2), 68-77.

Paginated PDF version


The English Unit self-access centre (SAC) at Arabian Gulf University, Bahrain, has been an important part of our English for medical purposes programme for first year students for over 12 years.  During that time, efforts have been made to involve these students in contributing to the SAC in order to augment their experience of learning English, personalize the facility and increase their responsibility for out-of-class English learning within the institutional setting.  This article describes an initiative to elicit student contributions to the SAC, as well as evaluating how successful it was in achieving these aims.  The article concludes with a recommendation to those directing similar small scale self-access centres to encourage student participation and involvement in all aspects of their running, without imposing pre-selected ideas and practices for autonomous learning that may not accord with the perceived needs and wishes of the SAC users themselves.


Arabian Gulf University (AGU) College of Medicine and Medical Sciences was established around 25 years ago to train students in the Arab Gulf states, including Bahrain, where it is located, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman to become doctors of medicine (MDs) using the problem-based learning approach (PBL). As is the case in most regional higher education institutions, entering students are expected to be proficient in English, the language through which course content is delivered. In reality, many students do not achieve the desired standard in English, thus must take one or more semesters of English language training before beginning their academic studies. IAGU has an annual intake of around 150 students of widely varying English proficiency levels, but has only recently begun to accept some students to a foundation English programme. Before that, our small English unit had to find ways of helping the least proficient improve their English skills, while providing a basis in English for medical purposes for all students, within the same course framework. Our self-access centre (SAC), though small and definitely not state of the art, has had an important role to play in accommodating the different students’ needs and interests, supplementing their course material and providing opportunities for increased language exposure.

Self-Access Activities at AGU

All students entering the first year of the six-year medical programme at AGU are required to take the same courses, consisting of pre-medical science courses such as biology, physics, and biochemistry, and two-credit English courses, one in each semester. In order to encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity to improve their English during this first year of their medical programme, we have evolved a number of different schemes to increase their out of class involvement in English learning, while staying within the structure of our English courses. Because of the many demands on their studying time from science-based courses, we felt students needed an incentive to put in extra hours on English improvement, so time spent working in the SAC has been a required (but not graded) part of their English course work. Another requirement involving out of class work is the project assignment, described in detail in Malcolm & Rindfleisch (2003). In this assignment, students contract, in consultation with their instructor, to carry out, over the course of an academic semester, a small-scale project to enhance an aspect of their English language that they feel needs improvement. This project might involve using resources available in the self-access centre, such as reading, summarizing and maintaining a vocabulary notebook for a specified number of pages of a graded reader, or might be done at home, for example, writing and revising a journal. While students are responsible for project selection and completion, teachers continue to monitor their progress by stipulating that the project must have a product, and students provide evidence of their work at specified time intervals.

SAC Contributions

About ten years ago, I started an initiative to involve students as contributors to the SAC.   This came about partly as a response to the criticisms leveled at self-access language learning (e.g. Benson, 1994; Littlejohn, 1997) for an ideological orientation that promoted a passive role for learners as consumers of content pre-selected by others. The more active role envisaged for the learners also seemed appropriate to our particular needs, as many of our students are already highly proficient in English, and thus, quite capable of producing contributions that would be useful, relevant to their needs as future medical students, and culturally appropriate. The rationale for the student contributions that we required of our students, along with a detailed description of the procedures, directions and some sample student-generated tasks are described in Malcolm (2004). At that time, our small self-access centre had limited worksheet resources, had no dedicated staff member, and was mostly used by other instructors as a teacher resource room. To start with, I asked students to contribute by showing them model tasks taken primarily from Tasks for Independent Language Learning (Gardner and Miller, 1996), which students could use as templates for their own tasks. Some of the tasks described in Ellis & Sinclair (1989), Gardner & Miller (1999), Scharle & Szabó (2000), Sheerin (1989) and Sheerin & Dexter (1999) also served as models. However, the initial attempt at worksheet production experienced a number of problems and was not popular with either teachers or students, so in time the assignment was modified to allow other types of contributions. Students were given a handout which explained the assignment as shown in Figure 1 below


Because we want students to think of the self-access as their own centre for improving their English, and we want it to be as useful as possible for students studying at Arabian Gulf University, we want to encourage our students to become involved in making it better.  Therefore, we are asking students who already have good abilities in English to do their part.  There will be many different opportunities to make a contribution, such as preparing worksheets or answer keys, or joining a committee to advise about materials, ways of working and other ideas for self-access.  As you do for your projects, you will discuss with your instructor and the SAC supervisor what contribution you would like to make.  Some examples and suggestions will be found in the SAC.

Figure 1:  SAC-based Contribution

Along with these general instructions, students were given a list of examples of possible contribution types. Only higher proficiency students were required to contribute, and, if appropriate, they were encouraged to derive their contributions from their self-directed English projects. Students of lower proficiency had different requirements. These included attending additional English skills workshops along with completing a specified number of hours of independent work in the SAC. As part of this SAC study, these lower proficiency students were requested to review the worksheets contributed by their more proficient peers, using a form on which they recorded their comments about the usefulness of each worksheet.

Evaluating the Contributions

The requirement for students to contribute to the SAC was continued for several years, although it is no longer part of our programme. During that time, students contributed worksheets for practicing reading skills, vocabulary, grammar, and outlining, among others, many of which were about medical topics, as well as word puzzles and other word games (often concerned with medical terminology), posters, and realia including jigsaws of body systems and anatomical models. Useful contributions were also made in the form of student time, committed to arranging and cataloguing materials in the SAC, creating and checking answer keys, or donating (sometimes even making) videos and CDs, along with accompanying exercise sheets or commentaries.

In order to gather feedback about different aspects of student self-directed work included in our English courses, I designed and administered a questionnaire. The results revealed a mostly negative opinion about the usefulness of SAC contributions. A large proportion of students disagreed with the statement “Student contributions to the SAC are important” (38% versus 33% who agreed; the rest were non-committal). Most students also disagreed with the statement “All (higher proficiency) students should have to contribute to the SAC” (45% of respondents disagreed, while 33% agreed). However, most students (72%) agreed that the project work (which was often the basis for a SAC contribution) done outside of class helped them develop their English ability.

Another problem related to the contribution initiative was the response of some teaching colleagues who were also unenthusiastic and preferred the teaching roles they were used to, thus probably conveyed their ambivalent attitude to their students. Without follow up in the form of feedback, suggestions, and encouragement from the instructors involved, it is unlikely that any initiative will survive very long. Teacher reluctance is quickly noticed by students, who understandably need convincing of any change in expected procedures or roles. Although many contributions were well done and original, some students took short cuts, handing in purchased or recycled books or DVDs as contributions, without the additional step of explaining why this material should be in the SAC or how students could benefit from it to improve their English.

On reflection, I feel that my own enthusiasm for my “bright idea” blinded me to the reality that much of what was produced was of dubious quality and little lasting value, and to the fact that the assignment helped create resentment and resistance from some colleagues in our small unit. Over the years these colleagues moved on, to be replaced by others who were more enthusiastic and supportive, while students continued to make contributions, filling several box files with worksheets. Unfortunately, very few of them were used by students in later years, since finding an effective way to make the worksheet contributions accessible to new students was another problem we had difficulty in solving. Just recently, during a general SAC clean-out most of the worksheet contributions were discarded. However, it is encouraging to note that some students, on their own initiative, are still contributing original and well-designed materials that are relevant to their own setting and specific English language needs for general student use in the SAC. For example, a current year-one student recently contributed a “snakes and ladders” game about body systems she decided to make as her project for students to play in the SAC.

Learning from Experience

From the contribution experience, I learned a few valuable lessons about involving others in SAC activities. First, it is never wise to assume that your ideas will be shared by your teaching peers, or that they will be equally committed to the goals of self-directed learning and prepared to take the necessary steps to help learners achieve them. In addition, I learned not to force students into roles they are reluctant to take on, or inexperienced at, without proper explanation, guidance, and encouragement. Mostly, I learned to respect students’ own voices their ideas of contributing to the SAC and to their own and their peers’ independent learning may not fit into the plans we have in our minds about the best way to do this. By providing templates and suggestions I was guilty of exactly what I had hoped to avoid, that is, imposing my own teacher-centric notions of what makes a “good” contribution. Of course students will do what their teachers tell them they must, especially if marks are involved, even if they are not sure how to do it. I am, however, beginning to be convinced that true learner involvement depends on keeping channels open for the learners to contribute in a way consistent with their own particular wants and needs. In other words, a “bottom up” approach, originating from the students’ own ideas, may be more valid than a “top down” one, based on instructors’ conceptions of what is needed to help students on the road to learner independence.

Students’ previous experience and training as English learners, the educational setting, student expectations of their own and their English teachers’ roles in language learning, and their short-term and long-term goals, are just some of the variables that influence their response to self-access language learning. As self-access facilitators, it is important that we keep these background factors in mind, especially when dealing with a group of learners from a traditional, teacher-centred, input-poor background. While the students who were involved in the contribution initiative described above were, for the most part, already quite independent and competent language learners, this was not the case for the learners who are now the main users of our self-access centreand whose reaction to self-access learning is described in the remainder of this article.

Foundation Students and the SAC

In the past year a change in policy has brought a new group of students to our SAC, low proficiency, Arabic-speaking students, mostly from Saudi Arabia, who have been admitted to a foundation year because their entry scores were too low for direct admission to year-one of the medical programme. In spite of several years of studying English at their high schools, most of them have little experience using English outside of the school setting, and virtually none have studied academic content in English. As part of their English training, these foundation students are required to work independently in the SAC for a designated number of hours each term, keeping track of their activities in a file reviewed by their instructors. The students were oriented to the SAC at the beginning of the academic year, shown the different kinds of materials available and given some general information about the role of the self-access centre in their English study. After that, they were free to come at any time, and work on whatever they chose. At first, most students seemed at a loss, and asked the supervisors what they should do. We often suggested starting with the graded readers, especially those with CDs for listening practice. As the students were quite unused to the concept of self-access we often had to choose a suitable book for their level and literally put it into their hands. Students also tended to work on supplementary exercises in their workbooks as directed by their class teachers, often asking the supervisor for help “solving” the exercises. At times the SAC seemed more of a study hall than an independent learning centre, but students were coming regularly, and using and improving their English out of the class setting, something that they had had little experience of in their previous English training. As time went by, and student confidence and language proficiency grew, the foundation students began to explore and use other resources in the SAC, especially those recommended by their teachers, such as Internet listening sites, reading texts with exercises, grammar books, games, and movies. They grew less dependent on the supervisor to tell them what to do, and many established their own study plans to improve specific skills and focused on achieving their goals. Overall, it has been heartening to observe how many of the students have adopted the SAC as their own study centre, coming to study and practice there every day even after over five hours in their intensive English classes. Undoubtedly one of the main attractions for our SAC users is the chance to interact in English with the supervisor. The small size of our centre also facilitates this communication, helping create a friendly, sociable atmosphere in which we get to know the learners as individuals, enabling us to help them with their particular needs and personalizing our involvement.

Student Feedback

Another reason there has been such a good response to the self-access centre among these students is the feedback they have received from previous students. One in particular found his time spent in the SAC so fulfilling he volunteered to come to the orientation of students joining at the beginning of the current academic year. After asking permission to explain in Arabic, he told the new students how much he had benefitted from his SAC experience and encouraged them to use the opportunity to study on their own as much as possible. The student had started the academic year in my year-one class, before getting the chance to join the foundation, so I knew how moody and disruptive he had been in class and how little he seemed to be progressing in his English skills. At first, this attitude continued in the self-access centre as well, but as time went by he became more comfortable working there, and began to offer to help by contributing some materials he had found useful for his own English study. These took the form, at first, of a bilingual phrase book that explained in Arabic how to learn English, as well as bilingual story-books such as King Midas, with English on one page and Arabic on the other. Although these were children’s books, he said they had helped him with his English, so he wanted to donate them to the SAC for others to use. It is unlikely any of us in the English Unit would have chosen these materials, but they were appreciated by some students, as they provided needed first-language support at the beginning stages of their independent study. Thus, this may be considered an example of “bottom up” involvement in materials selection in that the choice was dependent on the learner’s rather than the teacher’s assessment of usefulness for language practice.

Recognition for SAC Efforts

As an incentive and an acknowledgement of their efforts, last year we had a small award ceremony at which we gave certificates and small prizes to students who had achieved self-study goals, such as reading a designated number of graded readers at a certain level, or, in the case of the student who is now such a strong supporter of independent learning, spending over 100 hours during the semester working in the SAC. This student’s enthusiasm for self-access learning continues to inspire the current group of learners, many of whom are set on surpassing his record number of hours of self-access attendance, so that they might also be recognized with an award and, like him, a commemorative picture on the wall of the SAC.

As he had made the SAC his second home, I asked the student what had brought about the turnaround not only in his English ability, but also in his attitude to learning English. When describing his experience over the past year, he said, “English was my enemy, now it’s my friend.” By this he meant that at first he had floundered to understand the academic content that was delivered in English, and the probability of academic failure, for the first time in his life, took over all his thoughts and affected his actions. It took some time for him to realign his thinking, and accept that his demotion to foundation English study was not due to lack of intelligence, but was rather a golden opportunity to improve his language ability to help his chances of succeeding in the demanding environment of the medical college. The self-access centre became his refuge, and a place he could control his learning, receive validation and encouragement from the supervisor, and not be judged for his deficiencies in the language. His hard work in the SAC, contributed to his becoming not only a competent user of English, but also a strong advocate of self-study, conveying the message to his peers that English improvement depends largely on the individual, not the teacher or school setting.


Matching our expertise in setting up and administering a self-access centre with the needs, experience, and expectations of its users is the challenge that faces us as proponents of self-access language learning. Each self-access centre evolves to fit the requirements of its users, thus building a sense of community that enhances their experience of self-directed learning. A small SAC such as ours at Arabian Gulf University, serving an equally small and undoubtedly motivated group of learners, promotes personal involvement in a way that might be difficult in those centres serving a larger, more diverse student body. While the SAC supervisor plays a vital role as a guide, facilitator, and source of encouragement to students, especially those unfamiliar with self-access learning, I feel we have an equally important role in creating an atmosphere that allows learners to contribute their own ideas, suggestions and experiences, through providing incentives and above all a comfortable environment where they enjoy working. When the learners truly feel the SAC is their home, they will be more inclined to take steps to improve and upgrade it, for their own benefit and that of future students. My attempt to direct this process to suit my own ideas of what a SAC contribution should be led to a less satisfying and sustainable outcome.

Notes on the contributor

Diane Malcolm is the English Unit Head at Arabian Gulf University (AGU), Bahrain, where she has taught first-year medical students for many years. She established the AGU English Unit self-access centre in 1998, and has coordinated its activities since then.


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