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Diaries as Learning Support for the Year Abroad

Contents Page

1 Introduction 1

2 Diaries in Higher Education 2

2.1 Nomenclature 2

2.2 Different Purposes 4

2.3 Diaries for the Year Abroad 6

3 Survey 6

3.1 Scope 6

    1. Findings 7

    2. Proposals for Best Practice 9

4 New Diary Formats 10

4.1 The Second Semester Diary 10

4.2 The Foreign Language Assistants’ Diary 11

5 Mailing List 12

5.1 Context 12

5.2 The Sheffield Approach 14

    1. Student Involvement 15

    2. Outcomes and Development 16

    3. Concluding Comments 18

6 Conclusion 19


A Bibliography 21

B List of Institutions contacted and respondents 25

C Questionnaire 42

D Detailed answers 48

E Sheffield Year Abroad Diary 66

F Examples of Diaries received from Other Institutions 96

  1. Introduction

In many UK higher education institutions, the period of residence abroad is an integral part of courses students undertake. However, in contrast to the other years they spend at their home institutions, what happens during their year abroad is largely outside the control of the home university. For students, this period can be a wonderful opportunity for maturation and growing independence, on the other hand, it can become a “lost year”, where they feel they have lost contact with their home university and their fellow students. The sub-project “diaries as learning support for the year abroad” focuses on the crucial period students spend in other European countries and aims to offer some ideas and suggestions on what the home universities can do to help secure the best possible outcomes from a period of residence abroad without stifling independent development or “controlling” their students. Diaries as learning aids can offer a means to develop more independent study skills. They are also one possibility to catch the “imminence” of students’ experience abroad.

This report will give an overview of the use of diaries as support for the year abroad is in UK higher education institutions, and which particular forms of diaries are in use. Some guidelines for good practice in the use of diaries will also - we hope - evolve from this survey. As an alternative means of maintaining contact with and between students during their period of residence abroad, a mailing list has been trialled at the University of Sheffield over the last academic year. Since this venture is rather new and untested1, the workings of the mailing list, its benefits and problems are reported on in detail. Achievements so far and areas of the sub-project still open for further investigation are discussed in the concluding pages of the report.

The bibliography in Appendix A provides references for the current literature on diaries as learning support.

Appendix B lists all the institutions contacted and respondents who answered our survey questionnaire which can be found in Appendix C. In Appendix D, detailed answers to the questionnaire are provided to allow for further scrutiny of practice in a range institutions. These are supplemented in Appendices E and F by examples of diaries from Sheffield and other Institutions.

  1. Diaries in Higher Education

    1. Nomenclature

Language learning diaries have in recent years received considerable attention from several points of view and under a range of different names. Diary, Logbook, Journal are the most frequently used. Before considering the different types and purposes of language learning and learning diaries, we should consider the terminology in more detail. Although the terms diary, logbook and journal are used in the literature almost always interchangeably, it would be useful to distinguish more clearly between different types of diaries2. Given the variety in format and purpose, a clearer nomenclature would benefit the researcher as well as the reader and the user.

The term diary refers to two different and easily distinguishable types of written material:

  • On the one hand the personal and reflective notes on events in the recent past, written with the purpose of aiding reflection, expression (possibly of feelings which are private and not vented in a different way) and memory through later consultation of notes. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1983) a diary is a “daily record of events or transactions, a journal; specifically, a daily record of matters affecting the writer personally.”

  • On the other hand, a calendar used to note down happenings of the day and future plans or appointments. Its purpose here is mainly as a memory aid, for organising and time-tabling. (Or in the words of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: “A book prepared for keeping a daily record; also, applied to calendars containing daily memoranda”.)


  • The term journal can be used in the same sense as diary the first definition of above i.e. personal notes on events in the recent past (The New Oxford Dictionary, [1998], defines it as: “a daily record of news and events of a personal nature; a diary”); but also in a more professional context, as notes accompanying the progress, course and outcomes of a professional endeavour, e.g. an experiment or the creation of a work of art. This journal can form the basis of a report written later. In a sense that is not immediately relevant for our context, journals have also evolved as a form of publication of scientific communities, where members of this community report on their professional work, providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and of information for the wider public. See Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1983): “A daily newspaper or other publication; hence, by extension, any periodical publication containing news in any particular sphere”.

Logbook or Log

  • Notes accompanying professional endeavours is a definition that might also be applied to a logbook, although the emphasis here is on less artistic, more mundane professions, e.g. lab-books. see The New Oxford Dictionary, (1998); “a regular or systematic record of incidents or observations: e.g. keep a detailed log of your activities”)

  • In a related, but slightly different sense, logbooks are also highly structured records of events, usually formulaic, regular entries in a given format (pilot’s log, ship’s log). The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines a logbook as: “Naut. A book in which the particulars of a ship’s voyage (including her rate of progress as measured by the log) are entered daily from the log-board. Hence transf. and fig,, a journal of travel.” The pre-established format of the logbook decides which events, occurrences and measures are perceived as essential for the specific context.

Obviously, there is some overlap in the use of these terms, which might justify the repeated mention of all three forms in articles on the topic (see, e.g. Bailey and Ochsner [1983] ; Numrich [1996]). Their categories are perhaps best defined in terms of distinctive features (see Table 1 below).
Table 1


reflective diary


pre-structured logbook







personal / professional


personal / professional




personal reflection

project / professional (publication)

data recording








expressive factual / speculative

factual / speculative


All of the above mentioned forms of diaries have been employed in higher education in the support of language learning. In our nomenclature, the diary used by the University of Lancaster would fall into the category ‘reflective diary’; Homerton’s approach is based on a ‘calendar-diary’; Sheffield’s structured learning aid contains elements of all forms. Other institutions have specifically asked their students to keep a diary as a basis for a report they have to write later.

    1. Different Purposes

Apart from the descriptive distinction between these 4 different formats, diaries can be differentiated by their purpose. Three main areas can be distinguished: research, pedagogic use and personal use. Although this report will mainly deal with the pedagogic use of diaries, a brief note on the other two areas might help to clarify the subject matter.
Personal Use

Diaries can be used for organisation and time management (calendar-diary), as memory aids or, in a more goal-oriented way, to further self-development through reflection and expression of feelings. Although they are not normally intended for a wider public, personal diaries can also become the source material for literary publications.


Diaries or journals written contemporaneously with research or artistic projects allow later reconstruction of the process and can contain valuable insights that may not be obvious in the end-product. In language learning and teaching specifically, diaries have been used as a tool for data-collection. The obvious advantage of a diary for collecting data on language learning and cultural integration is that it offers introspective and subjective accounts. Emotional states can influence language learning (see Bailey 1983), and diaries offer access to data that may otherwise be lost, ignored or “forgotten”. Especially for periods of change and development, like the period of residence abroad, the important events may not be objectively measurable but rather internal reactions to external circumstances.

Pedagogic Use

The pedagogic uses of diaries are manifold and in no way restricted to specific subjects. Diaries as learning aids have been used in nursing education, the arts, social sciences, pure science subjects and engineering, as well as in language learning and teacher training.

Moon (1999b) notes 18 different purposes for the use of learner diaries:

• To record experience;

• To facilitate learning from experience;

• To support understanding and the representation of the understanding;

• To develop critical thinking or the development of a questioning attitude;

• To encourage metacognition;

• To increase ability in reflection and thinking;

• To enhance problem solving skills;

• As a means of assessment in formal education;

• For reasons of personal development and self empowerment;

• For therapeutic purposes or as means of supporting behaviour change;

• To enhance creativity;

• To improve writing;

• To improve or give ‘voice’; as a means of self expression;

• To foster communication, reflective and creative interaction in a group;

• To support planning and progress in research or a project;

• As a means of communication between a learner and another.

In the specific context of language learning support, some of these purposes take on a rather different meaning. Diaries can be used as a form of writing practice or, on the other hand, to encourage reflection and improve ‘thinking skills’. If the emphasis is on practice, then practice in the target language to ‘improve writing’, for example, is taken to be more valuable than writing the diary in one’s mother tongue. Similarly, developing a ‘voice’, or finding ways to express oneself in a foreign language, requires knowledge of lexis and stylistic skills which make the task of recording one’s reflections more demanding than a similar exercise in the mother tongue.

In subjects other than languages, improving writing or practice in writing have less importance than improving ‘thinking skills’, e.g. critical thinking, making connections, metacognitive skills. This aspect of keeping diaries can be beneficial for language learners as well, regardless of whether the diary is written in the mother tongue or in the target language. The record of experience, development of critical thinking, encouragement of metacognition and support of planning are valuable features that can be integrated in a language learning diary and there is evidence that a higher level of metacognitive skills improves students’ ability to learn independently (Wenden 1998:520).

This distinction of purpose can have considerable influence on the format of the diary as well as on its integration into the curriculum. Criteria for assessment, for example, will differ considerably according to whether the accuracy of the linguistic product is taken into account or only the process and level of reflection.

2.3 Diaries for the Year Abroad

Using diaries to support students’ learning during a period of residence abroad raises some difficulties and is subject to significant limitations. Students undertaking a period of residence abroad can expect little continuing guidance or feedback on their work. Asking them to keep a diary is one way of structuring their learning and it allows later reconstruction of progress and development. However, due to the nature of this mainly independent exercise, students need either an introduction to diary writing, its style, format and purposes, or the diary itself must contain enough information and guidance to enable students to work through and with it independently. Although diaries are widely in use to support teaching and learning of languages, little research on this topic has so far been published3.

3 Survey
In an attempt to map the current practice in using diaries to support students of UK Higher Education Institutions during their period of residence abroad a survey was conducted4.
3.1 Scope

The first part of the survey was based on the reports on the HEFCE Quality Assessment of the teaching of Modern Languages in English and Northern Irish Higher Education Institutions conducted in 1995-65. Five language departments had mentioned using diaries, journals or logs for the year abroad. Representatives of these institutions were contacted via email and two detailed responses were received from the Bolton Institute of Higher Education (Elisabeth Planella) and the Department of German of the University of Leeds (Sydney Donald).

Further information on the use of diaries during the period of residence abroad was elicited from the National Residence Abroad Database (NRAD) at the University of Portsmouth6. This suggested that 112 different courses in 46 higher education institutions were using diaries to support students during a period of residence abroad. Accordingly, the 46 individuals named as being involved in their use were emailed and asked whether they would be willing to participate in the survey. 13 positive answers were received and a questionnaire on the use of diaries to support students during their period of residence abroad (see Appendix C) was sent out to them.

So far, 11 replies have been received as have 4 examples of diaries and one extract of a diary. One respondent pointed out a mistake in the NRAD (the institution is not using diaries) and one indicated the intention to use diaries at a later stage when students had reached year 3 of their studies. In total 15 detailed and evaluable responses can be presented (8 from the questionnaire, 2 from the initial survey, 2 consortium members replying to the questionnaire, 3 existing information from other consortium members). Detailed answers to the questionnaire and short descriptions of the diaries can be found in Appendix D.

3.2 Findings

Three main ways in which diaries are currently being used have emerged from our preliminary investigation: logbooks (in the narrower sense of fairly structured diary pages), personal diaries (or unstructured diary pages) and the suggestion to students (or requirement on them) to use a diary or journal as basis for later reports or essays. 4 respondents mention specifically the use of diaries for keeping in contact with students. The manner in which this is achieved varies: Some tutors ask for reports, exercises or diary pages to be sent back at regular intervals; others use their visits to host institutions to monitor their students’ progress and use of the diary.

Although 8 respondents mention cultural awareness as a focus of a year abroad diary, there is evidence of formal, structured guidance or focus on cultural aspects in only five of them7. For example, in the University of Manchester’s Learning Log, learning objectives for the year abroad are divided into “linguistic/academic”, “cultural” and “personal”. Trinity and All Saints (Leeds) suggest 5 different headings in their guidelines: “Organisation and Initiative”, “Communication in Spanish”(French), “Personal and Interpersonal”, “Cultural Awareness”, “Intellectual and academic”. Very similar are the 6 headings in the University of North London’s Personal Development Portfolio: “Organisation and Initiative”, “Communication”, “Personal and Interpersonal”, “Cultural Awareness”, “Intellectual” and “Other Skills and Competences”. St Martin’s diary also contains headings for different aspects, “school experience”, “perceived linguistic progress”, “cultural differences” (where students are “encouraged to remark on ‘surprises’ / ‘shock’ or even perceived ‘blunders’.”8) and planning objectives for the next week.

The University of Manchester’s guidelines for cultural learning remain fairly information based9, it encourages its students to observe and warns against being judgmental. The University of North London expects students to “reflect on experience” in their diary entries. Suggested areas for cultural awareness are:

  • “Tolerance of different practices (Overcoming prejudice/stereotyping)

  • Participating in Local/communal/regional activities

  • Festivals/cinemas/theatres/music/gastronomic: food and drink/social and political organisations”10

Trinity and All Saints offers by far the most elaborate suggestions for work on cultural awareness:

  • “Becoming familiar with and reflecting on the new culture as you experience it; making contact with the culture in positive ways, e.g. leisure time (film, music, theatre, etc.);

  • Identifying, understanding and learning to be tolerant of different cultural practices; reacting confidently to unfamiliar types of behaviour which are ‘normal’ within the host culture;

  • Participating in local community activities such as sport, special interest groups, etc.;

  • Getting used to explaining your own culture, beliefs, priorities and assumptions about life; coming to terms with being and ‘outsider’ in the host culture.”11

Other structured diaries focus more on personal development during the year abroad (e.g. Leeds, Middlesex, Portsmouth), allowing students to use their experiences during the year abroad as a basis for later job applications.

    1. Proposals for Best Practice

  • Considering the mainly independent writing of diaries, initial guidelines and structure of the diary pages will necessarily influence what students will write.

  • The ideal year abroad diary will therefore state the purpose and expected content of the diary with clarity from the beginning. Clear instructions to the diarist must include suggestions on language and style, appropriate for the level of language proficiency of the particular cohort of students.

  • Although we would hope that highly motivated students will undertake the diary task for its own benefit if suitably briefed it may be advisable to consider the necessity or desirability of additional incentives in the form of credits. A feasible alternative to integrating a diary task within the university curriculum seems to be extra-university accreditation (e.g., City & Guilds) which offers the students a valuable asset for their future careers. In specific cases, writing practice in the target language could be considered sufficient “surplus benefit”.

  • A year abroad diary should cover all aspects of the year abroad experience, i.e. linguistic progress, cultural awareness, self-development, independent learning. This allows the students to shift their focus according to current events and alerts them to the multi-faceted aspects of their period of residence abroad.

  • The structure of the diary should be relevant for the particular type of placement of the student. If a department offers a choice of different placements (e.g., university course, FLA, work placement), the diary has to take into account that the students’ experience will be different according to their activity during the period of residence abroad. It may be possible to design one diary that is suitably flexible for all types of placement, but this would entail the danger of leaving “blank spaces” for elements not covered in one particular type of placement. Ideally, diaries should be tailor-made for the different types, i.e. focus more on academic achievement for university placement, more on professional development for FLA and work placement.

  • Last, but not least, the diary - if it is indeed more than the blank pages of a note book - needs to be accessible to the individual student. Whether this takes the form of putting a version of the diary on a WebPages or handing out the diary in printed form to the students will be a decision taken in the light of practicalities.

4 New Diary Formats
Two new diaries were developed by the MLTC for this sub-project. Firstly, a diary for the second semester of the year abroad, and secondly, a diary specifically for students working as foreign language assistants.12

    1. The second semester diary

The second semester diary was based on our structured learning aid for the first semester (developed and reported on in 1998-99) and was offered to students of the MLTC as an optional module for the second semester of their year abroad. Based on the assumption that students who had already spent 3 to 4 months in their host country would have mastered the initial problems and already attained a reasonable level of language proficiency and cultural integration, we decided to make the second semester diary more challenging. The aim was that it should be employable as a basis for independent learning and help students to develop a higher sensitivity towards their host culture.

The second semester diary consists of four parts: 1, introductory pages, 2, self-evaluation in language and culture, 3, diary pages for weekly entries and 4, assessment. Parts 1, 2 and 4 are very similar to the first semester diary. The main innovation lies in the diary pages and their structure. Two areas of development are specifically dealt with: Language and Culture.

Language development in the second semester takes the form of identifying skills, strengths and weaknesses in specific situations. Students are encouraged to observe their own use of one particular language skill (reading, writing, speaking or listening) under a variety of different circumstances and analyse which factors influence their performance. After this first step, they decide on measures to improve their performance and note their strategies. During the next week they implement the strategy and comment on success or failure at the beginning of the next entry. These guidelines are repeated three times overall in English, thereafter three times in the target language.

The cultural development pages are divided into two “mini-research projects”, each lasting three weeks. The first project is to be documented in English, the second in the target language. Students are asked to choose an area or a particular aspect of the target language culture that puzzles or interests them. In the first week, they describe any previous knowledge they have about it and compare it with their own culture. In the second week they are asked to select a research tool from a number of possibilities offered to them, e.g. questionnaires, interviews, participant observation. Over the next week they have to undertake the research. In the cultural page for the third week, students note down their research findings and how the “mini research project” has altered their views on this particular aspect of the target language culture.

4.2 The Foreign Language Assistants’ Diary

The FLA diary13 was developed as a result of students’ written comments in the first semester diary of cohort 2 students and remarks of students in interviews conducted with cohort 1 students. One of the problems reported by cohort 1 students was that they felt to be insufficiently prepared for their work as FLAs despite the support offered by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges and equivalent institutions in their host country. Furthermore, the diary had been perceived as focusing on students following university courses rather than working either as FLAs or in industry.

Addressing these problems, we decided that experience of teaching or dealing with classrooms could not be replaced by any written documents but that writing a diary during their first experience of teaching might help the FLAs to tackle their perceived problems differently, focus their attention on valuable insights and support forward planning. Diaries have been successfully employed in language teacher training, especially ELT, to record novice teachers’ experience and for professional development (see, e.g., Jarvis 1992; McDonough 1994; Numrich 1996).

The FLA diary is based on the first semester diary. Introductory pages have been altered to encompass the specific situation of FLAs. For example, the self-evaluation grid for language awareness which is included in the initial pages of all diaries and should be filled in by the student at the beginning of the period of residence abroad has been expanded to include questions on classroom language.

In addition to Tips on Language Learning and Tips on Cultural Awareness, we have included a page with Tips on Language Teaching, a selection of suggestions and strategies that can be employed by FLAs in a variety of classroom situations. We decided to keep the tone of this page very positive to encourage future FLAs and add a separate sheet with advice on how to tackle problems at the end of the diary. This last sheet includes some tips on problem solving (clarification, communication, lines/ports of call for enquiry and complaint) as well as a few suggestions for material.

The diary pages themselves for the areas of language learning and cultural awareness have been taken from the original diary. They have been extended to include a specific page for language development at the beginning of the diary and one weekly page for classroom experience, called “Professional Development”. The language development page is an overview page, guiding students towards planning and reviewing their learning over longer periods of time and not just from one week to the next.

On the Professional Development pages FLAs are invited to comment on the success or failure of classroom activities, note down references to materials used and sources of support (e.g., peer, mentor). They are also alerted to the advantages of planning ahead as well as reviewing past lessons.

The diary will be used by FLAs from three language departments of the University of Sheffield in the academic year 1999-2000 which will enable us to evaluate its effectiveness. The FLA diary aims to offer students the means of structuring a new and unfamiliar experience, allowing them to keep track of their own development in different areas and encouraging them to become more reflective in their work.

  1. The Mailing List

5.1 Context

The decision to set up a mailing list for students undertaking periods of residence abroad was taken in the light of interviews conducted with the first cohort of students on the Interculture project. Some students mentioned that they had had difficulty getting in contact with Sheffield, others expressed a feeling of being left alone while abroad. The disadvantage of losing contact with fellow students was another concern expressed in the interviews. Almost identical concerns were identified in a survey of student satisfaction with their placement experience carried out by the University of Bournemouth in 1995. Students had indicated that they “felt isolated from their friends” and “didn’t feel part of the University” while on placement.14

This shows that although departments are making great efforts to support students during their period of residence abroad, some students may need more frequent or personal contact, whereas for some others a means of contact dissociated from their home departments and any ideas of “control” or assessment might be a welcome addition to more conventional and tutor-focused means of support, e.g. a visit from the department.

The balance between supporting students during their period of residence abroad and allowing them to develop a higher degree of independence and self-sufficiency is a delicate one in all circumstances. Nevertheless, we considered distinctly negative feelings, like loneliness or perceived lack of interest or neglect by the home university might have detrimental effects on the students’ emotional well-being and consequently on their integration in the target language culture. We searched for a way to counteract these negative and detrimental impressions by offering as many students as possible the chance to participate in a voluntary email exchange and stay in contact with their home university.

Information technology provided us with an appropriate means for almost instantaneous and widespread contact. Unlike individual phone-calls, letters or visits, internet-based communication can offer a number of individuals access to the same information and participation in the same discussion regardless of physical distance. For a cohort dispersed over Europe (and in some cases also Latin America), this seemed the only feasible way to set up a communication network; although relying on information technology and the internet meant that students without access to computers would be excluded from this option. Nevertheless, in our view the advantages outweighed the limitations: the internet is relatively cheap and offers more flexibility and greater opportunity for contact compared to telephone or visits and it is structured as a network rather than as a series of one-to-one contacts.

Of all the internet-based group communication options (internet phone, video conferencing, discussion lists, etc.) we wanted to have a low-tech, easy access, low maintenance form. In contrast to other projects (e.g. the Placement Support Project in Bournemouth15), we could not offer our students any material support (modems, email accounts) but had to rely on the technical equipment they would find in their host institutions. In practice, a number of students going to France or Spain get their email accounts from “hotmail” or similar providers rather than the individual host institution. A possible future measure which might strengthen the role of the mailing list would be to inform outgoing students of their options (and the likely cost) for getting personal internet connections and email accounts in their host countries.

Mailing lists are basically a collection of email addresses which are entered on a central system. Through a common address, every addressee receives any message sent to the list at the same time and every member can send messages to the central address. Access to an email account is the only technological pre-condition for joining a mailing list.

Mailing lists can be organised in different ways:

  • An open list allows any person with an email account to enrol on it via a central email address. A closed list is centrally administered and allows a co-ordinator to add to it the individual email addresses of participants in the list; only people centrally registered can send and receive email messages to or from this list. Thirdly, a monitored list can be an open or a closed list, but in contrast to the above, every email received is checked and approved by a central list manager before being forwarded to the list and thereafter received by all list members. Opting for an open list would mean establishing a self-organised discussion group on which students can enrol themselves and from which they can withdraw at will. The main disadvantage of this type of list is that it is open to abuse from people not involved in the project and commercial organisations using the web to advertise their products. A discussion forum - on which contributors do not have to enrol but can participate freely - can be set up locally, on the university’s servers (which would not fulfil the purposes of our project) or publicly on the World Wide Web. The latter gives students throughout Europe and in other continents access to the list but entails the potential disadvantages of nuisance mail and loss of privacy.

  • A closed list provides a ‘discussion forum’ for a select group and thereby perhaps minimises concerns students might have about confidentiality. The disadvantages of this kind of list are that it needs organisational input from a co-ordinator and that students have initially to write to a different email address from that which they will subsequently use, to request inclusion in the list.

  • Even more labour-intensive for the co-ordinator is a monitored list. This can be open to everyone but to avoid nuisance mail or private messages being sent to the entire list, the co-ordinator must read, approve and then forward every single message.

5.2 The Sheffield Approach

We decided to set up a mailing list from Sheffield and make it accessible to all students and year abroad tutors who were interested. We felt that confidentiality and avoidance of unwanted or nuisance emails outweighed the benefits of easy access and self-organisation so membership would be centrally enrolled. This central enrolment of interested parties only would, hopefully, make detailed screening of every message unnecessary.

We set up a closed mailing list with one list co-ordinator in Sheffield. For reasons of confidentiality we opted for an informal archive of messages in the hands of the co-ordinator rather than the web-based storage of all the received email messages. Messages directed to the mailing list are stored in a message tray and backed up on a word file and students were offered access to this if they wanted to re-capture the discussion that preceded their joining the list or simply to re-read old messages.

Once these basic organisational decisions had been taken, the publicising of the mailing list started in May 1998, at the end of the Spring semester of the academic year 1997/98 with staff informing outgoing students about this new option. Together with other Year Abroad information, cohort 3 students from Sheffield received an information sheet (1 page of A4) detailing the two new initiatives that had been taken in respect of residence abroad: the Year Abroad Diary and the Year Abroad Mailing list. They were asked to send their email addresses to the co-ordinator of the mailing list in Sheffield (U.Stickler) if they wanted to take part in discussions and keep in contact with fellow students and their home university during their stay. In addition, year abroad tutors in the language departments and the MLTC were asked to provide email addresses of students who might be interested in joining the list as and when they received them.

The mailing list was set up on 3rd September 1998 to allow for students arriving in their host countries early. At first only the email addresses of 11 Sheffield University tutors were included and the first outgoing message informed them that the mailing list would be ready to receive students forthwith. The first student was added on 15th September 1998 but the first message to students was not sent out before 4th of October when 3 more students had joined.

Overall, 40 students on their year abroad were enrolled on the list. Of those, only 13 had sent their email addresses directly to the list co-ordinator, the other 27 contacted their home departments’ or the MLTC’s year abroad tutor and their addresses were forwarded to the co-ordinator by the latter. After further requests for membership of the year abroad list from tutors in November and April, the overall number of tutors on the list was 14; for most of the year 13 tutors were members. One tutor was added for the Spring semester when he replaced another year abroad tutor and one tutor left for study leave in May and was consequently removed from the list.

From the beginning of the Spring semester, students on the MLTC’s Placement Preparation Modules and all year 2 students in other languages departments preparing for their year abroad were offered the opportunity to join the mailing list to participate in discussions and send their specific enquiries to their colleagues currently abroad. The way for students still in Sheffield to join the list was to send their email address to the list co-ordinator or ask their tutor to do so. They were invited by the list co-ordinator via an email sent out to all MLTC students on PPM courses and to language department tutors. The majority of students who joined at this point were students from the MLTC (30 out of 36). This is certainly no coincidence since the option and its benefits were advertised most widely in the MLTC courses and the list co-ordinator is at the same time tutor of the PPM module in German. 35 students asked directly for inclusion on the list, 1 student’s address was forwarded by her tutor.

5.3 Student Involvement

The exact manner of their joining the list does not seem to have much influence on whether or not the students contributed. Of the 40 students undertaking a period of residence abroad, 21 sent at least one email message to the list. 8 of them had self-enrolled, 13 were forwarded by their tutors. It seems that regardless of the initial effort to ask for enrolment on the list, only 8 out of 13 students who had done so made the additional effort to contribute a message to the list (app. 60%). Of the 27 students whose addresses were sent by their tutors, 13 sent at least one message.

The rough average of 50% for silent members16 holds true for the rest of the list-members, as well: Of the 14 tutors who were in the group at least for part of the duration of the mailing list (including the co-ordinator), 6 contributed at least one message, 8 kept silent throughout the year. The numbers are similar for year 2 students added in the Spring semester: 18 out of 36 students based in Sheffield and preparing for their own period of residence abroad sent at least one message (mostly enquiries) to the list, 18 did not communicate to the entire mailing list. (Whether or not they contacted individual members of the list is not possible to ascertain with our technical means, and would not be informative for this study, anyway.)

Over the year, the mailing list received 82 email messages: 36 were sent by students from abroad; 22 messages were from second year students in Sheffield sent in the second half of the year. 17 messages were sent by the list co-ordinator (who also forwarded 3 messages which were sent to her private address) and the remaining 7 messages were sent by other tutors in Sheffield.

In addition to these messages to or clearly intended for the mailing list, the co-ordinator received 7 specific enquiries to her personal email address from individual students. One of them, a student from the French department, was asking for an email address, the others were students from the MLTC asking about module choices for the next academic year17. Obviously students recognised the mailing list co-ordinator as a source for information or contact with their home university.

Of the 17 messages sent by the list co-ordinator, the first was sent to tutors to remind them of the existence of the list. The next two messages were greetings messages for new members of the list. 8 messages about technical and organisational points - such as, how to send messages to the list or to individual participants, and a list of members - were sent out. The other 6 emails were sent to stimulate discussion and provide students abroad with some information about events in Sheffield.

5.4 Outcomes and Development

Looking at the sequence of messages, a clear pattern emerges for the first half of the year: a majority of students’ contributions are responses to the list co-ordinator’s messages. The first message to students (04/10/98) received only one joint reply from two students in Toulouse owing to the limited number of list members at this stage (i.e. 11 tutors, 4 students). The next message sent out by the co-ordinator on 21/10/98 received 6 responses. Students started detailing their experience and describing their surroundings. Reacting to this, 2 more students sent comments to the list over the next 2 weeks.

The next email message from the co-ordinator (“Getting darker...” 28/11/98) received 7 answers in only three days. Students reacted to a question about what people do when it gets colder and darker outside, comparing temperatures in various places in Europe, detailing events and customs for the winter time and introducing themselves if they hadn’t done so before (“Dear All, I am a mechanical engineer called Dave and I though [sic] that it was about time that I said ‘Hi’ to everyone out there.”). Two students showed particular appreciation for receiving mail (“...it’s nice to think some one cares about us back home in sunny Sheffield.”).

Email messages containing only technical tips on how to use the mailing list, how to send messages, etc. did not normally receive any replies.

In the Spring semester, due to the changing membership of the list, the messages took on a new and slightly different quality. Instead of reports from various places and events in the host countries as responses to the list co-ordinator’s questions, students abroad and other tutors in Sheffield started responding to enquiries sent by second year students to the list.

Although the first mail sent by a Sheffield student was rather general, asking about “studying abroad”, most of these enquiries were about specific places abroad. Queries about Rennes, Versailles, Regensburg, Malaga, Seville, Hamburg, Montpellier and Clermont-Ferrand all received answers (overall: 8 specific queries, 11 answers). Students asking for details about Augsburg and Neuchâtel did not receive any answers via the mailing list. There are no students currently studying in Augsburg, but one student in Neuchâtel is on the list, and we are informed that she did correspond privately with the second year student preparing for her stay in Neuchâtel.

The mailing list has served two distinct purposes: in the first half of the year, the main benefit was for students abroad to be able to exchange views on their placements and to get in contact with fellow students in similar situations in Europe and further afield. In the second half of the year, students in Sheffield preparing for their own period of residence abroad could get invaluable advice and information directly from other students who have already gained experience abroad.

Although messages sent in the Spring semester tended to be more technical, practical and straightforward in general there were two notable exceptions: First: the very general enquiry about studying abroad in a German speaking country produced a detailed and enthusiastic response from a regular contributor, listing all the benefits of a year abroad experience and the specifics of his own host town and university (Graz, Austria). Second, two students enquiring about Seville and worried about their level of Spanish got detailed responses from a student currently there and a story of a friend of her who also had very little Spanish when she started.

Some students abroad chose to use the list only as a starting point for one-to-one email exchanges, offering their colleagues in Sheffield to write to them privately in more detail. One of the few such message to reach the entire list begins with an explanation for this phenomenon:

“I don’t really know why I hit the ‘reply to all recipients’ key other than to show everyone else out in Europe at the moment that they are truly missing out by not being in Graz!”

This preference for a more private exchange does of course narrow the range of messages open for us to evaluate, on the other hand, it shows willingness to co-operate and help fellow students, hopefully leading to useful preparation on one side and reflection on the other which is one of the purposes for which the list was set up in the first place.
5.5 Concluding Comments

Overall, the mailing list can be seen as a success, although there are a few problems which should be avoided next year with more experience and know-how behind it.

Firstly, it was recommended by our technical support in the Corporate Information and Computing Services (CICS) not to use the “reply-to-all” option for the mailing list, as every member could choose whether to reply to the sender or to the list themselves and “reply-to-all” is an option that might cause technical problems. As a result, some messages came directly to the list co-ordinator or the tutor who had sent out the message although they were clearly intended for the entire list. These messages had to be forwarded. After Easter, the “reply-to-all” option was installed and messages came back to the list. Throughout the year only two stray messages (messages obviously intended for one individual but sent to the entire list) were received.

The main benefits of the list remain: It stimulates students spending a year abroad to report on and compare their experiences in different European countries; it helps them to keep in informal contact with their home university; and, last but not least, it offers students preparing for their year abroad the unique chance to solicit support and information from fellow students who have already experienced the troublesome initial period of their residence abroad.

All students on the mailing list have been invited to a de-briefing meeting in September. We hope to ascertain in a more detailed evaluation from returning students whether or not the mailing list helped to diminish their sense of isolation and how they perceived their own helping role as expert advisers in the second half of the year.

  1. Conclusion

The period of residence abroad is a time where students naturally will become more mature and independent. The home university can support this development in various ways.

Autonomous or independent learning demands certain skills on the part of the students. They need to be able to set themselves goals, define content and pace of learning, select methods and techniques (and material), monitor their progress and evaluate what has been achieved (see Holec 1981). Learner diaries can help to further independence in a number of ways, depending on their structure and use. Writing a diary can help organisation and forward planning (given the necessary structure); it can further metacognitive skills, e.g., finding out what type of learner one is, what type of tasks one can successfully do; encourage reflection, especially if the diary contains a structure for repeated reviewing and evaluation; and it is certainly a means of monitoring one’s progress.

The sub-project “diaries as learner support for the year abroad” has so far provided an overview over the use of diaries in UK higher education institutions, offered a number of structured learning aids to further students’ independent learning in the areas of linguistic progress and cultural awareness and - in the case of the foreign language assistants’ diary - professional development and has explored the benefits and problems of online contact with students abroad.

An important factor in providing structured work for the PRA is the students’ continuing relationship with the home university. Autonomous learning does not have to mean “learning in solitude”; a diary can provide the means for students to contact the home department, and, on the other hand, a means for the tutor to follow a student’s development and progress. Rather than feeling left alone on their placement, students will perceive a continuing interest and care from their tutors18.

The mailing list, too, can offer students the opportunity to learn from each other in exchanging reports on their experience and comparing highs and lows of their period of residence abroad. In terms of immediacy, it certainly has advantages over a pre-structured diary written on paper. According to the reaction of students on the mailing list, this instrument seems to provide a useful means of contact with fellow students abroad and with the home university. The introduction of second year students in Sheffield to the list in the second half of the year seems to have been appropriately (though fortuitously) timed. It helps to stimulate exchange on the mailing list when the immediate needs of the students abroad to keep in contact with their home university has slackened off after Christmas.

Desirable further activities for the project would include the publication of learning aids for wider use in UK higher education institutions19, if possible on the internet. A pre-fabricated diary would allow other institutions to employ or modify it according to their particular purposes and - hopefully - alert their students to the benefits of a structured approach to independent learning of language and the pursuit of cultural awareness. To cover all areas of students’ placement during the period of residence abroad, a diary specific to work placements should be developed.

The benefits of the mailing list as it now exists for students at the University of Sheffield could be widened by stimulating specific discussions on intercultural issues. Furthermore, it is a support mechanism that could be fruitfully employed by other HEIs, depending on the number of students with email-access. A publication of guidelines on how to establish and maintain contact with students during their period of residence abroad on the internet could help to spread good practice in this area.

This sub-project has focused entirely on the period students spend away from their home universities; in the future we hope to widen the field of investigation to include aspects of de-briefing students on their return.

1 To our knowledge the only comparable scheme has been undertaken by the University of Bournemouth supporting students on placements in industry in the UK and abroad. The University of Portsmouth offers students preparing for their period of residence abroad online access to information students from previous years have volunteered on their future places of study. See online: http://www.hum.port.ac.uk/slas/fdtl/traffic-light.html

2 For the sake of brevity, we will use the term diary generically whenever we refer to diaries, logbooks or journals in our context, generally.

3 exceptions are, e.g. Donald (online: http://www.lle.mdx.ac.uk/hec/journal/CCSS/sdonald.htm) and Mulhaus and Loschmann, 1997

4 For details of institutions contacted and responses received, see Appendix B.

5 Searchable extracts of the reports can be found online: http://nrad.fdtl.ac.uk/nrad/qaintro.htm

The full HEFCE reports on the teaching quality in modern languages can be found online: http://www.niss.ac.uk/education/hefce/qar/modern_languages.html

6 See online: http://nrad2.fdtl.ac.uk/

7 This survey disregards the diaries produced for the sub-project in the MLTC of the University of Sheffield; detailed description of these are to be found under sub-heading 4 of the report. The University of Lancaster’s letter to cohort 2 students mentions “cross-cultural miscommunications” and “successful communication in spite of cross-cultural barriers” in particular.

8 see Appendix D, p. 12

9 e.g., “What is the political composition of the local authority?”

10 University of North London, School of Languages and European Studies: Personal Development portfolio for the year abroad. Briefing Pack.

11 School of Modern Languages: Intercalated Year Abroad: Diary/Logbook

12 see Appendix E: Sheffield Year Abroad Diary

13 see Appendix E

14 A summary of the survey can be found under :


15 For a report on the project see Fleming and Huchings 1998.

16 50% may not seem a high proportion of active participants but compared to other mailing lists it seems a satisfactorily high interest.

17 Five of the enquiries were from former students of the co-ordinator, two were from students of other courses.

18 We are aware of the fact that this is not unambiguously positive. Depending on individual personalities, students may well interpret this as interference. One way to avoid negative feelings of control and “patronising” is to offer voluntary contact rather than impose it on the students.

19 The reply from Leeds Metropolitan University (see Appendix D, p. 16) does certainly suggest that there is a certain need for easily accessible ideas and suggestions on diary use for the PRA.

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