EPFL students show an excellent level of English
EPFL assessed the English-language skills of its final-year Master’s students in the fall 2020 semester. The results showed that the students’ skills tend to improve as they go through their degree programs, with most of them reaching a C1–C2 level by the end.
English is used widely in science and engineering and is a must-have for students who want to succeed in these fields. That’s why EPFL’s Language Centre has been assessing the English-language skills of all first-year Bachelor’s students since 2013. And the good news is that their skill level has been steadily improving. But what about Master’s students – and especially those who are about to graduate? To find out, EPFL conducted an assessment of the English-language capabilities of final-year Master’s students in the fall 2020.
The assessment was voluntary and 32% of eligible students (or 394 people) agreed to take an English test at the Language Centre. In addition, 30% of eligible students (or 370 people) completed a survey given by EPFL’s Teaching Support Center where they were asked to evaluate their own level of English and explain the steps they have taken to improve their proficiency.
Substantial progress over the years
The assessment found that for written comprehension, 82.5% of participants had a C1–C2 level of English – the highest under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. For oral comprehension, the figure was 71.5%, and for written expression, 53.8%. Writing in English was apparently the most difficult task for students.
The assessment also revealed that students’ level of English tends to improve substantially during their time at EPFL. As shown in the figure below, the percentage of students with a C1–C2 level doubled from the first year of their Bachelor’s to the last year of their Master’s. “This progression is remarkable, and it’s great news,” says Kathryn Hess, the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Outreach. “It’s not really surprising, though, given the number of classes that are taught in English at EPFL, especially at the Master’s level, and how much practice they get writing in English during their projects.” Prof. Hess adds: “EPFL has a highly international community, which gives students many opportunities to develop their oral comprehension.”
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Should English classes be added to degree programs?
In light of the assessment’s findings, it’s no wonder that over 70% of participants said they felt well-equipped for careers in the research or business world. The ways students improved their English ranged from reading articles and other scientific publications to doing their coursework in English and getting experience abroad. And in their free time, students also brushed up their English with movies, TV series and videos, and, to a lesser extent, through casual reading and conversations with non-French-speaking friends.
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While most participants didn’t feel it was necessary to include English-language instruction as a mandatory part of their degree programs, 46.3% did say that optional classes would be useful. Daniel Chuard, who is Prof. Hess’s deputy at the Associate Vice Presidency for Student Affairs and Outreach and who ran the Master’s-level assessment, says: “A number of EPFL sections are looking into incorporating language-learning classes into their curricula, and our Associate Vice Presidency is working on an initiative to develop these types of transferrable skills.”
EPFL Prof. Yves Bellouard teamed up with teachers at the Language Centre in the spring 2021 semester to include English-language skills acquisition as part of his Manufacturing Technologies class. The results of this initiative were encouraging. This fall, Language Centre teachers twice visited the Product Design and Systems Engineering class that Prof. Bellouard gives with Prof. Edoardo Charbon, in order to coach students on how to deliver effective project presentations in English and manage the Q&A sessions. This was also a positive experience and will be repeated next fall. Various other EPFL teachers are adopting similar approaches to help students improve their English in a way that’s tied directly to their studies.