Understanding the Language Learning Approaches of EFL Students in an Intensive English Course

Brien Datzman, Center for Language Studies, Nagasaki University, Nagasaki, Japan

Datzman, B. (2019). Understanding the language learning approaches of EFL students in an intensive English course. Relay Journal, 2(1), 137-148. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/020118

[Download paginated PDF version]

*This page reflects the original version of this document. Please see PDF for most recent and updated version.


In this paper, the author presents case studies of two Japanese university learners of English, specifically in reference to psychological factors that may help understand differences in their English learning outcomes. Data was collected in semi-structured interviews, coded for emerging themes, and presented in summary form for analysis. Emerging themes included learner beliefs, motivation, and language learning strategies. Findings stress the role of prior language learning experiences and motivation in the development of learner beliefs and choice of language learning strategies.

Keywords: language learning, beliefs, motivation, language learning strategies, case study


Literature Review

In any one individual, there are a number of psychological factors that may play a role in their effectiveness as a language learner including, but not limited to, affect, aptitude, motivation, personality, learning style, appropriation of learning strategies, and beliefs.  Analysis of any one of these factors, ultimately, leads to an examination into where they originate, i.e. what are they a result of, and what effect they have on the learner and learning process, i.e. what are their consequences, and these examinations, often, point to other psychological factors. The psychological factors of a language learner are inextricably bound, and the shift in recent research in the field reflects this reality.

Research has moved from a view of individual differences as being stable, isolated, monolithic, and learner internal to one in which they are viewed as temporally and situationally variant, interactive, complex and componential, and socially interdependent (Dornyei & Ryan, 2015). As a consequence of this new perspective, research methodology in the field has also shifted, from predominantly quantitative methods to an increase in mixed methods. The psychology of the language learner is a product of the interplay of numerous complex and dynamic variables, and qualitative approaches produce data that allows for researchers to observe and analyze the emergence and interplay of these variables (Gan, Humphreys, & Hamp-Lyons, 2004).

The current study aimed to discover and understand key psychological factors that played a role in assisting and/or hindering two individual’s language learning process and outcomes. Through semi-structured interviews with two Japanese learners of English, three primary factors emerged: beliefs, motivation, and strategy-choice.

Beliefs, motivation, and strategies

Benson and Lor (1999) suggest that in regards to beliefs, learners can be grouped into two broad categories, quantitative/analytic and qualitative/experiential. Quantitative/analytic learners view language learning as learning grammar rules and vocabulary, translating, and memorizing, while qualitative/experiential learners view it as learning how to listen and speak, paying special attention to acquiring social strategies, dealing with language ambiguity and focusing on authentic language use.

A learner’s beliefs may be a result of language learning or other educational experiences, the nature of instruction in a given course, or, possibly, cultural background (Little, Singleton, & Silvius,1984, as reported in Ellis, 2008;). Although evidence for a strong relationship between beliefs and proficiency has not been found, it is posited that they have an indirect impact on learning in their influence on a learner’s strategy choices in language learning (Ellis, 2008).

Providing a connection between beliefs, and motivation is attribution theory (Weiner, 1979). Attribution theory seeks to understand an individual learner’s achievement and motivational disposition through what they believe is the cause of their success or failure. Causes are classified by their type and whether they are internal or external, stable or unstable, controllable or uncontrollable. In addition to ability, effort, luck, and task difficulty, learners may attribute their success, or lack thereof, to other people, mood, and personality, among a number of other factors (Mori, Thepsiri, & Pojanapunya, 2010).

In addition to viewing motivation from the perspective of traditional constructs such as integrative or instrumental (Gardner and Lambert, 1972), and more recent internally focused concepts such as intrinsic or extrinsic (Noels, Pelletier, Clement, & Vallerand, 2000), motivational research has been exploring motivation in terms of a dynamic concept of self.  One product of this examination of self is Dornyei’s L2 motivational self-system (Dornyei, 2005). This system examines motivation in terms of an individual’s view of their possible future self and what makes those future self-guides effective. It consists of three dimensions: ideal self, ought to self, and the L2 learning experience. Among the numerous factors that distinguish the effectiveness of future self-guides are availability, distance, elaborateness, plausibility, and the appropriation of relevant effort, activation, and strategy use (Dornyei & Ryan, 2015).

Research on language learning strategies began with identifying those strategies that good language learners use (Rubin, 1975; Naiman, Frohlich, Stern, & Todesco, 1978), and then moved to investigating the number of strategies learners use and how often they employ them (Oxford, 1990), to observing how learners use them and how appropriately they apply them to learning tasks and goals (Oxford, 2011). Ranalli (2012) notes the importance of strategy research, “specific learning behaviors are the raw material of learner agency and a key to understanding achievement, or lack thereof.” The question then becomes, what is the ‘raw material’ made from?

There are various factors that may have an influence on language learner strategy choice and use. Factors such as age, motivation, personality, learning style, beliefs, experience, social, and situational factors have all been shown to have some effect on strategy choice and use (Ellis, 2008). The current study aims to examine the broad approach to language learning strategy choice and use of two language learners in relation to their prior experiences, beliefs, and motivation.

Research questions

The primary aim of this study was to discern and explain any possible differences in the broad approach to language learning strategy choice and use of two students who participated in an intensive English language program at a Japanese national university. The two participants in the study were chosen based on the results of their pre and post-course TOEFL iBT scores.  One student saw a significant increase in their score, while the other saw a slight decrease. After reading relevant literature and choosing participants, the following broad research questions were developed.

  1. What broad approaches to learning strategies do the learners report in their English learning?
  2. What factors potentially influence learner choice and use of language learning strategies?
  3. What potential effect does learner choice and use of language learning strategies have on their TOEFL iBT score?



The IE (Intensive English) course is an optional course offered by the university to first year students and is designed to increase student TOEFL scores, increase interest in studying abroad, and to prepare students for academic experiences while studying abroad. It is a year-long program beginning in the second semester, running from September to August, in which students are required to attend a listening and speaking class as well as a reading and writing class two times a week each semester. In addition, there is one weekly class and two short intensive courses designed to familiarize students with the structure and content of TOEFL, as well as to introduce and practice test taking strategies specific to the TOEFL.

Students are required to take the TOEFL iBT prior to beginning the course and after finishing the course. Scores are not incorporated into student assessment. Instead, the TOEFL scores are used as an assessment for the course itself by the university. In order to pass the course, students must take the TOEFL iBT two times, maintain an average of C or above in all classes, and attend an English camp.


Two participants for this study were selected based on the recommendation of two IE instructors. The instructors were asked to choose one student they considered successful and one student they considered unsuccessful from the previous year’s course.  In their view, they felt that most students were successful on the course in terms of classroom performance. However, there were some students who stood out in terms of their TOEFL iBT scores from pre-test to post-test.

Yuto (pseudonyms are used for both participants in this study) is a 22 year-old economics major and is currently in his second year at university. He was described by one of his instructors as upper intermediate. He attended all classes, completed all assignments, and his performance in class was described as above average. In class he was attentive, engaged, and showed high levels of participation. However, he was one of only three students to see a decrease in his TOEFL iBT score. His was the largest decrease, dropping 14 points, from 467 to 453.

Yui is 19 years old and, at the time of the course, was a pharmaceutical-sciences major. She was described by one of her instructors as strong intermediate. She also attended all classes, completed all assignments, and was described as an above average student in terms of class performance. She was also described as quiet, but engaged in class and an active participant when it came to group work. Yui saw the largest increase in the program on the TOEFL iBT, raising her score from 497 to 573, a 76 point jump.

Data collection

The present study used semi-structured interviews with both of the students involved as well as their instructors. Interviews with each student and their instructors were conducted individually and lasted 20 to 30 minutes. The student interviews focused on their language learning history, attitude toward language learning, preferred language learning activities, main sources of motivation, and their views of and experience on the IE program. Every attempt was made to let the interviewee take the lead. A list of the guiding questions is provided in the appendix.

Data Analysis

Interviews were transcribed by the researcher. Transcripts were first analyzed for evidence of possible factors influencing the learning process and learning outcomes. Successive analyses were then performed to determine how these factors affected each other until; ultimately, a picture of the individual learner’s psychological makeup, related to language learning, began to emerge from the data.  What follows is a summary and subjective analysis of the interviews with each learner.

Case Study 1: Yuto

Experience. Yuto began studying English in junior high school. He immediately disliked it. His lessons were mostly of a grammar-translation nature and the teacher could not speak English well. His experience in high school was similar, with most English classes focusing on the English center test for entering university. Classes were not enjoyable, he could not speak English well, and he did not wish to continue his English studies or travel abroad.

Prior to graduating high school, Yuto failed the university entrance exam. One reason was his low score on the English section. He recalls other students hearing his score and telling him he wouldn’t be able to enter university. After graduating high school, he concentrated on his weakness, English, and practiced by repeatedly reading sentences out loud from a grammar book. This did not increase his interest in English, but was rather “like eating vegetables.” Eventually, on his third attempt, he passed the entrance exam.

Upon entering university, he had to take a mandatory Oral Communication course. Yuto credits his current interest and motivation to study English to the instructor on this course. The communicative nature of the course and the instructor created in him an interest in English, other cultures, and living abroad.  This is why he applied to the IE program.

Beliefs. In regards to language learning, Yuto believes that to learn a language is to speak a language. He cites his classmate, who scored over 800 on TOEIC as being an example of how not to learn a language and representative of most Japanese people, “He knows many vocabulary words, but still can’t speak English.” Yuto strongly feels the best way to improve your English is by meeting and interacting with new people.

Motivation. Yuto feels more comfortable speaking with foreigners than other Japanese people and this is one reason why he wants to live abroad in the future. The behavior of some of his IE classmates, complaining about the class in Japanese so the instructors wouldn’t understand, caused him to dislike many of his Japanese classmates, and it has extended to his life and conversations outside the classroom. He feels badly about this, and hopes to remedy it by living and working abroad.

For Yuto, learning a language is reward enough, but he is also excited about the opportunities and possibilities it brings. His initial motivation for joining the IE course was his first English course in which the instructor stressed communicative competence and emphasized strategies for maintaining conversations.  In regards to the IE class, his motivation has only increased since finishing the course. He felt he improved a lot, and his instructors felt he clearly improved in all four language skills.

Yuto’s goal for his time in university is to become proficient in four languages by the time he graduates. After graduating, he would like to live and work or study abroad, but is not sure what kind of work or study he wants to do.

Strategies. During his time on the IE course, Yuto was more focused on communicative competence, and as such, his approach to learning strategies reflected this. He would search out foreign people to talk to at English parties or English cafes at the university or in the city to improve his English.  He would often continue these relationships through phone calls. At home, he would watch YouTube videos about topics he was interested in. He made a conscious effort to do these activities on an almost daily basis, monitored his understanding, and managed his time spent on these tasks.

Analysis. Yuto’s beliefs about language learning are clearly qualitative and experiential in nature. His beliefs appear to be strongly informed by his past and present experiences.

Prior to entering university, Yuto’s experience with English was unenjoyable and unproductive, and this has resulted in an aversion to activities often associated with traditional language classroom practices. Upon entering university, Yuto had his first experience with instruction that focused on communication and strategies for initiating and maintaining conversations, and he attributes his success in, and approach to, English learning to his experience in this class.  Interestingly, his approach also seems to be a reaction to strategies often associated with Japanese learners (rote memorization, etc…) and the Japanese education system, which is largely based on testing. Findings have found that learners in a highly structured uniform educational system, such as Japan, develop strategies that reflect that system (Ellis, 2008). Yuto appears to be purposefully employing strategies that are the opposite of what he feels most Japanese learners, the majority of whom are unsuccessful in his view, use to learn English.

Yuto’s ultimate goal is to live abroad and to do this he understands that he will have to be able to function in natural, communicative contexts and his approach to learning English is closely tied to this goal. However, this goal for, or vision of, his future self, at the moment, is broad in nature, living abroad. Once he has a more concrete and specific goal for a future career, his motivation may become more focused and result in a more balanced approach to his language studies, incorporating more traditional academic strategies to increase his test scores. For now, he does not have a specific goal, career or academic, that he is working towards, and as such, improving his score on a test, such as the TOEFL iBT, is not a concern for him.

Broadly speaking, Yuto’s approach to language learning during his time on the SCAS course can be seen as highly social and metacognitive, and strongly shaped by his past learning experiences, his present motivation, and present beliefs. From his perspective, this approach has helped him develop into a successful language learner.

Case study 2: Yui’s story

Experience. Yui attended an elementary school in Tokyo from 1st to 4th grade where students learned English, Korean, and Japanese. She remembers the experience as being fun and communicatively oriented. She has been interested in language ever since. After 4th grade, her family moved to another city and she did not have any language classes until English in Junior High School. Her experience there was not enjoyable, with a focus on grammar and reading. She did, however, spend two months in the Philippines to study English. Instruction was one to one, her English improved greatly, and the experience created in her an interest in foreign countries and cultures.

In high school, her classes were boring, consisted of just reading and writing, and focused on passing the entrance exam. She passed the entrance exam for a major national university on her first try. Her first English course at the university was not enjoyable, as it was teacher-centered, and there were not a lot of opportunities to speak English. This is why she decided to apply for the IE program; she wanted to talk with native speakers and make friends.

Beliefs. Yui believes that, in addition to reading and writing practice, speaking with others is a good way to improve one’s English skills.  Two other aspects of learning a language she feels are important are learning about other cultures and making friends.

Motivation. Yui is a highly self-motivated student. Her mandatory university classes were not providing her with enough opportunities to speak or enough feedback on her performance, so she decided to join the IE program. She cites the IE course as increasing her motivation. She enjoyed the class because the small number of students allowed for more communication with peers and instructors and more personalized feedback on her performance, especially writing.

In her time on the IE course, Yui developed a new professional goal, to work as a Doctor Without Borders. She is currently working hard to improve her English, specifically on improving her TOEFL score, because it would be very useful for this job and for possibly studying at a foreign university in the future.

Strategies. In order to improve her English during her time on the IE program, Yui made a conscious effort to speak with her teachers and classmates in English as much as possible, and she purchased a TOEFL practice book, which she studied on a daily basis. In addition, she instant messaged with Filipino friends on a weekly basis about life in general, and sometimes about language-related questions.

Analysis. Yui’s approach to language learning is balanced and focused, and appears to be highly influenced by her past experiences and future goals.

Yui has had a variety of experiences learning English, including at an early age in elementary school, one to one in a foreign country, and in typical Japanese secondary school classes. Her early experiences learning English, in elementary school and in the Philippines, involved more qualitative and experiential learning. In addition to building a language learning foundation, these experiences may have helped her put into perspective the more traditional classroom language learning experiences she had at a Japanese junior high school and high school, and, thus, limited the potential for demotivation.

Yui has a specific goal for her future, to work as a doctor in foreign countries, and thus, she recognizes a need for reading and writing skills for both certifications and job-related functions, in addition to communicative skills.  Yui’s approach to language learning is reflective of her experience, beliefs, and goals. Her approach is conscious, comprehensive, balanced, and focused, and her communicative competence and improvement on the TOEFL iBT is evidence of its effectiveness.


The conscious decisions a learner makes on how to approach and manage learning a language is influenced by a number of factors, including, but not limited to, prior experience, present motivations, and present learning beliefs, and these factors, in turn, have an effect on each other. Examining the combination of these factors, qualitatively, helps provide a clearer picture of why learners make the learning strategy choices they do and ultimately, as Ranalli (2012) stated at the beginning, help explain learner achievement, or lack thereof, at any one point in time on any given task.

It should be noted, however, that in neither case presented in this study is the learner considered to be unsuccessful. Learning a second language is a complex, dynamic, and highly individualized process. Program evaluators, syllabus designers, and instructors, as well as learners, should keep in mind that achievement, or success, defined at the institutional or classroom level may not always be the same as achievement, or success, as defined by the learner.

Notes on the Contributor

Brien Datzman is an assistant professor at the Center for Language Studies at Nagasaki University.  He has an MA in TEFL from the University of Birmingham and is currently working on an Ed.D. in TESOL at Anaheim University. His research interests second language acquisition and study abroad.


Benson, P., & W. Lor. (1999). Conceptions of language and language learning. System, 27, pp. 459–472.

Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in second language acquisition. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dörnyei, Z., & Ryan, S. (2015). The psychology of the language learner revisited. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ellis, R. (2008). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gan, Z., Humphreys, G., & Hamp-Lyons., L. (2004).  Understanding successful and unsuccessful EFL students in Chinese universities. Modern Language Journal, 88, 229-244.

Gardner, R., & Lambert, W. (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House.

Little, D., Singleton, D., & Silvius, W. (1984). Learning second languages in Ireland: Experience, attitudes, and needs. Dublin: Trinity College, Centre for Language and Communication Studies.

Mori, S., Gobel, P., Thepsiri, K., & Pojanapunya, P. (2010). Attributions for performance: A comparative study of Japanese and Thai university students. JALT Journal, 32(1), 5-28. Retrieved from https://jalt-publications.org/files/pdf/jalt_journal/2010a_jj.pdf

Naiman, N., Frohlich, M., Stern, H., & Todesco, A. (1978). The good language learner. Research in Education Series No. 7. Toronto: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Noels, K. A., Pelletier, L. G., Clement, R., & Vallerand, R. J. (2000). Why are you learning a second language? Motivational orientations and self-determination theory. Language Learning, 50, 57-85.

Oxford, R. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Rowley, MA.: Newbury House.

Oxford, R. (2011). Teaching and researching language learning strategies. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Ranalli, J. (2012). Alternative models of self-regulation and implications for L2 strategy research. Studies in Self-access Learning Journal, 3(4), 357-376.

Rubin, J. (1975). What the “good language learner” can teach us. TESOL Quarterly 9: 41-51.

Weiner, B. (1979). A theory of motivation for some classroom experiences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 3-25.


2 thoughts on “Understanding the Language Learning Approaches of EFL Students in an Intensive English Course”

  1. Dear Brien,

    As a fellow Japan-based, university-level language teacher, I found this to be an engaging read. Your analyses of the two participants help to paint rich and nuanced portraits of them as language learners. The double case-study design makes it possible to compare and contrast the two participants and gain insight into how their language-learning experiences have shaped their beliefs about language learning and vice versa. Your conclusion that “success” in language learning is relative to learner goals and beliefs, as well as to context, is an important piece of wisdom that all language educators should keep in mind.

    The relationship between learners’ experiences and their beliefs about language learning, and how these aspects of learner psychology are revealed in personal narrative data, is an area that fascinates me, too. Your two case studies illustrate the value that this kind of inquiry has for exploring issues related to individual learner subjectivity, the learning environments that they find themselves in and/or construct for themselves, and personal goals and other factors that affect learner motivation.

    Allow me to give one piece of constructive criticism. The literature review covers beliefs, motivation, and strategies; and the analyses also include these same sections. The research questions, however, focus solely on strategies. I think that the connection between the research questions and the study as a whole could be improved. Perhaps rewriting the research questions would be the simplest way to accomplish this. While the post hoc revision of research questions is to be avoided as a rule, I think it can be justified in a qualitative case study using an essentially grounded approach to the data analysis. After all, in this kind of study research questions are likely to evolve as salient themes emerge from the data.

    And in the name of reflective dialogue, let me throw out one question. Do you have any suggestions, based on your conclusions in this study, for concrete actions that we as educators might consider taking in order to reconcile the differences between institutional and individual definitions of achievement and success?

    In conclusion, let me say that I truly enjoyed reading this well-considered and well-written profiling of the language learner psychology of two participants. I look forward to your future contributions.

    Henry Foster

  2. Dear Brien,

    Your article highlights a number of important and timely considerations on language learners. I enjoyed reading it, and it is a good reminder of the complexities of learning a language and the myriad aspects that can and do impact how individuals approach language learning. In the article, some of the aspects of experience can have in motivation and approaches emerge in the respective two cases. For example, that of entrance exams and studying for the test is a well-known consideration not only in Japan, but in many countries. My experience with Japanese learners, both in Japan and elsewhere (as well as those from other countries with similar foci), is that it can impact how individuals feel about language learning.

    Beyond a handful of minor issues in writing mechanics that are easily addressed, one consideration is the TOEFL iBT. In the article, the TOEFL iBT mentioned as one criteria for determining if students had improved over the course of the year. As it appears to be a an important consideration, a discussion on the TOEFL iBT (and perhaps other such tests such as IELTS) might be of benefit as well as a note of whether or not any courses, etc. the participants take focus on things such as strategies for the TOEFL iBT.

    In terms of your conclusion, I appreciate that you note the influence of factors such as motivation, beliefs, experience, etc. I think the article might be strengthened with a clearer connection to the specific two cases in the study. In other words, to synthesize what you found and incorporate that in your conclusion (or perhaps a discussion section prior to the conclusion). Thus beyond more general factors, is there any specific other ways that your study could help inform the work of language educators?

    Thank you again for your work on this as continued work in helping to understand student approaches to language learning is something that we can benefit from greatly. I can imagine a number of ways that you might take this work and develop it further through future studies to the benefit of language educators in Japan and beyond.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *