Mizuki Shibata, Kanda University of International Studies
Chihiro Hayashi, Kanda University of International Studies
Yuri Imamura, Kanda University of International Studies
Shibata, M., Hahashi, C., & Imamura, Y. (2020). Reflection on learner-led study abroad events in a SAC from three perspectives: A learner, an administrative staff member, and an advisor. Relay Journal, 3(1), 66-79. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/030106
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This paper reports on a case study of learner-led study-abroad events in the language learning space at a Japanese University. We present multiple reflections on the events from different perspectives: the event organizer (student), an administrative staff member, and a learning advisor working at the center. We also introduce the support system that a group of administrative staff members and learning advisors are in charge of helping learners to hold their events. Moreover, throughout our reflections, several factors that made the learner-led study-abroad events sustainable and successful are demonstrated.
Keywords: learner-led events, language learning spaces, reflection, study-abroad
Social dimensions as an aspect of learning have been getting more attention in Language Learning Spaces (LLSs) (Murray & Fujishima, 2013; Mynard, 2019), supporting learner-led events and communities is believed to be conducive to promoting social interactions. There are several studies on student communities in LLSs (i.e. Hughes, Krug, & Vye, 2011; Kanai & Imamura, 2019); however, papers focusing on not only learners but also LLS practitioners are needed to further understand the diversity of support that exists beyond the classroom. Thus, this paper attempts to include multiple reflections on a series of learner-led study abroad events from three perspectives: a fourth-year student organizing the events, an administrative staff member, and a learning advisor (LA) working at the center.
Located in Chiba, Japan, this private university specializes in foreign language studies and international communication, with a student population of approximately 4000 undergraduates and postgraduates. The university has had its self-access learning center (SALC) since 2001, in which students can explore their own learning processes, with support from learning advisors or their fellow students.
Since the current SALC opened in 2017, social interactions for learning have become a central priority in the space, and in line with this shift, several LAs and administrative staff members were allocated to a learning community team starting from the 2019-20 academic year. The team’s main role is to help students to organize learning communities and/or learners’ events. Learning communities are groups of learners who learn about a common interest and language goal together. Learners’ events are events in which learners can share things that they are passionate about (e.g., Scandinavian culture). The events are normally held just once each (SALC Brochure, 2019). One thing we would like to highlight is that every learner, including not only students but also teachers and university staff, all have access to both learning communities and learners’ events. In the 2019-20 academic year, 10 learning communities have been active, and more than 30 learners’ events were held. We expect the number of learners’ events to increase in the upcoming academic year.
Support for learners’ events
The organizers of learners’ events are mostly student groups, classes, or individual students. They can submit a learners’ event application form through the SALC website by themselves, or they can talk to an LA first in order to brainstorm their ideas and then submit the form later. The fields on the learners’ event application form include the organizer’s name, type of event (e.g., presentation, discussion, show, or other), event title, date, place, purpose, target audience, and language. The organizers are encouraged to choose one language other than Japanese in order to promote target language use in the SALC. After the submission, the organizers meet with an LA and an administrative staff member in order to discuss the contents. After getting approval from the SALC, the organizers start preparations and promotion for their event. The administrative staff member prepares any materials requested by the organizers and advertises through the online campus bulletin board, social networking services, and posters that are displayed in the SALC (see Appendix A for an example of event posters). The organizers, LA, and administrative staff member have a final meeting prior to the event day to confirm how the organizers will proceed on the actual day of the event.
Study Abroad Prep
There were a series of three learners’ events called Study Abroad Prep that we are reflecting on in this paper. They were intended to support students planning for or hoping to study abroad. Each event was held for 45 minutes at lunchtime.
Language use. Our events were held in both English and Japanese because the SALC encourages students to use their target language to some degree. Thus, the handout and the feedback form (via Google Forms) were written in English. As for speaking, the theme of each event was mainly introduced in English; yet, our participants could choose their preferred language in discussion. This choice was because the event organizer (Shibata) expected that many first-year students would join our events, so the use of Japanese was helpful for them to ask questions that they might not be able to explain in English.
Place. One of the classrooms in the SALC was used for holding the events, because the desks and chairs were easy to move. Also, the room contains a projector so that the event organizer and upperclassmen can show their photos taken while studying abroad if needed. While holding the events, we intentionally opened all of the doors in order to welcome anyone interested in our events (see Appendix B).
Meeting minutes. We held seven meetings in total for the planning of the three separate study-abroad events. In every meeting, we kept everything we discussed in our meeting minutes in a shared Google Docs document. Although we had taken physical memos individually for previous events, we used Google Docs for these events’ meetings in order to share ideas for poster designs and handouts, as well as for feedback from the event participants, which could then include in the same, shared document. Utilizing the meeting minutes was helpful for us to look back on the previous event(s) and plan for the next event based on our reflection and the feedback. We feel this has helped us to develop a more effective, sustainable planning process.
Before Holding the Events: Our Motivation
In this section, we describe what led to our interest in organizing and/or supporting the study-abroad events. Reflections are included from the LA, administrative staff member, and event organizer.
Perspective from the LA (Imamura)
Student-initiated study-abroad events have been held in the SALC annually for a number of years. In 2018, one of the SALC student staff members shared her study-abroad experience with me, particularly with unexpected struggles she had experienced and actions to deal with the problems. This casual advising session later led her to hold a study-abroad event. That event was focused on the challenges that students experienced when studying abroad. While observing the event, I noticed that many underclassmen seemed relieved after considering possible solutions for the issues with older peers. In addition, I felt that the event was a great opportunity to build new relationships between participants and event organizers, and that feeling inspired me to keep supporting events on studying abroad.
Perspective from the administrative staff member (Hayashi)
When I was transferred from the student affairs division in 2018, I saw the same study-abroad event that Imamura mentioned above. I noticed that students had their enthusiasm to share their experiences, and their eyes sparkled with passion. During the 2019-20 academic year, I began working as a member of the learning community team in order to support event organizers. In particular, I have tried to encourage their ideas and motivations for holding events. The organizers need to prepare adequately, consider what is possible or not for their event, and find their own answers in order to make the event come to fruition. My motivation is to see the growth of the organizers. As for the study-abroad events in 2019, I asked Shibata whether he was interested in holding a study-abroad event, because I knew that he had studied in the U.S. for a year in 2018. When I worked in the student affairs division, I was in charge of organizing the Freshman Orientation Camp (FOC)––i.e., where freshman students gain basic understanding of the university and meet with their classmates, upperclassmen, and teachers. Shibata had also joined the FOC as one of the upperclassmen so as to help underclassmen set their own goals, learn about self management skills that can be useful in their university lives, and build new relationships with their fellow students. I saw Shibata’s outgoing personality, leadership, and talent for involving other students in the camp. He shared both his good and difficult experiences at the time when he finished studying abroad and came back to the university. When I asked him if he was interested in holding an event to share his experiences, he told me many ideas and images he had for the event. Therefore, I introduced Shibata to Imamura, hoping that he could gain something from holding a learners’ event. This is what subsequently led to the study-abroad events in 2019.
Perspective from the event organizer (Shibata)
Hayashi told me about the possibility of holding an event about studying abroad. I was thinking about holding the event in order to create an environment where underclassmen planning to study abroad in English-speaking countries could talk and create connections with students who had already studied abroad. I had three reasons for wanting to hold this event. My first reason was to promote more opportunities for underclassmen to connect with upperclassmen. This is because I had been getting many questions about studying abroad from students when joining study-abroad fairs organized by international affairs. I thought they needed to hear from students other than myself to get more information about studying abroad. Secondly, I wanted to promote opportunities for them to express their thoughts. Although it is obvious that talking to students who have already studied abroad is important, it is also helpful for students to talk with peers who are in the same situation and share their plans or problems while they are planning. Finally, I wanted to help students think about actions that they can and/or need to take for studying abroad effectively while still living in Japan. This is important for students who are planning to go study abroad to know how to best prepare before heading to another country.
While Organizing the Events
In this section, we introduce how the event organizer (Shibata) held the study-abroad events, including the theme of each event as well as reflection from SALC practitioners (Hayashi and Imamura).
Event information and the event organizer’s reflection (Shibata)
There were three events in total, and we had a theme for each event. The first event was for upperclassmen to share their stories from studying abroad. I assembled four of my friends who had studied abroad in the previous year. I intentionally invited them because they had studied abroad in various ways, such as an exchange program organized through the university (in Japanese, kokan ryugaku) and self-funded study-abroad program (in Japanese, shihi ryugaku). We made five groups and shared our stories about studying abroad, including information such as where we went, what we studied, and where we stayed. Then, we rotated between groups so that each participant could get a chance to talk with each of us in a small group. Later, feedback and requests for the next event were collected from the participants. The event was smooth and had no problems, but when participants asked me some questions, they asked me about the country or the information that they can look at using the school’s student web portal. Therefore, when talking with them, I could feel that the participants desired and needed more information connected to studying abroad.
In the second event, we focused on helping participants who want to study abroad in the future think more deeply about their plan and make it more specific. I decided upon this theme based on my reflection on the previous event. I wanted participants to have more specific plans for studying abroad, so we provided an opportunity to think about what they needed and to research further regarding studying abroad. This is a common struggle that inexperienced students have. They have the desire to study abroad, but they tend to lack information about what they can do while abroad, or about programs available while studying abroad, or about countries, and especially about non-native countries of English such as Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. For instance, in Sweden and Finland, students can join a program in which they visit elementary or junior high schools and learn about the educational system, and they can get the information beforehand. For our event, I made a goal setting worksheet (see Appendix C) and gave the event participants time to discuss what they wrote on the worksheet and share their ideas. On the worksheet, I put “Why” on each question such as a country they want to study abroad in order to let them write the reason for each answer. To think about “Why” on each question invites participants to think deeply and specifically about their own future plan to study abroad. During the event, we collected feedback from the participants because it was very useful for us to see their needs. We shared them in the following meetings when deciding the next event theme. During the event, I noticed everybody was focusing on the worksheet, and they were sharing a lot of information. Some of them were taking notes on the worksheet during the discussion, which can both help them remember things later and allows them to look back on their notes. If I could have had more time for this discussion and let the older students into the cycle of discussion, the event participants may have been able to have a more effective conversation with their older peers.
The third event was on how to study effectively while living in Japan. I decided upon this topic because developing study skills inside and outside the class is crucial to help students to succeed in studying abroad. In addition, I hoped the theme would also help students who will not be able to join a long-term study-abroad program to consider possible options that they can try in their language learning while living in Japan. For this event, I invited three older students who have experienced interesting ways to learn English: joining an English presentation contest, participating in volunteer organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, and effectively using the SALC as well as working as a peer advisor, a student staff position. During the workshop, the participants decided on one or two goals that they could try to achieve for their English learning over the Christmas break. We encouraged them to display their goals somewhere they could see them every day. It was a precious time for us to share our experiences and think about what we needed to do during the winter break. About 10 people participated in this event, so we could make small groups for discussions between underclassmen and upperclassmen.
Reflection from the administrative staff member (Hayashi)
I noticed Shibata’s growth after the first and second events. Imamura and I supported him in thinking of the event name and how he can advertise it in our first meeting, but after the first event, he was able to think of the next event title by himself and offered many ideas for the events. This may be because he had more confidence in holding an event in the SALC, but in any case, I felt I did not have to help him too much.
While supporting other learners’ events aside from the study-abroad events, I have recognized when the effective time to intervene is. I like helping students with their project; on the other hand, I often felt my intervention might often prevent them from taking the opportunity to grow. Thus, while I have tried to support event organizers and their growth, I have also made it a point to not interfere with their projects through direct intervention. For example, Shibata did not need much support from Imamura and me, but I actively talked to him in order to get updates about his event plans related to the administrative work. Another student was skilled at planning events, but that student was not good at involving other people. Therefore, I tried to ask the student to involve other students several times. I always discover the different personalities and skills students have and try to support what they need specifically. This held true for the study-abroad events, too.
Reflection from the LA (Imamura)
It was my first time to be in charge of a learner-led event as a member of the learning community team, and I was a bit worried about our first meeting. This insecurity was because I was not sure about the procedure for accepting learner’s events or for supporting them as an LA. My initial feeling, however, was swept away while listening to Shibata’s experiences studying overseas and passionate ideas for hosting a study-abroad event. After listening to his stories, I thought that if we held a series of regular study-abroad events, upperclassmen that had studied abroad and underclassmen that are thinking of studying abroad can build an ongoing relationship. As mentioned earlier, learner’s events are normally held once; thus, I wanted to see how monthly events would have an impact on learners as well as the SALC.
While observing the study-abroad events, I noticed that many participants had joined each successive event. It seems what Shibata and I hoped for, which was building a continuous relationship between older students who had studied abroad and inexperienced ones, came true. In addition, I felt that his and the upperclassmen’ presence motivated a number of participants to join the events. For instance, they wrote feedback such as, “I want to be like the older students (who had studied abroad)” and “Thanks to the event, I got high motivation.” Based on my observations, it can be said that regular events helped event participants build an ongoing relationship with their peers as well as positively affecting their motivation.
After the Study-Abroad Events
In this section, we reflect and consider elements that might help us hold a successful continuation of events: importance of needs analysis, regular meetings with the event organizer and SALC practitioners, communication skills and motivations of all the people who were involved in the events, and leadership skills.
Perspective from the event organizer (Shibata)
In order to make the event sustainable, organizers need to collect feedback in order to learn about what support the event participants need, and to assemble friends who will help when needed. The post-event questionnaire from participants is important to glean information about how valuable the event was. In my case, I wanted to hold multiple events related to studying abroad, so I asked what kind of problems younger students have or what kind of events they want to participate in. In order to hold the event with someone else, we need to make sure that everybody has the same view about the event. Therefore, Imamura, Hayashi, and I had a meeting once a week. Also, in terms of gathering upperclassmen, I invited students who had studied abroad in various countries like the US, Europe, and Australia. By doing this, participants will be able to adopt a variety of ideas about studying abroad, and this will help them in planning for studying abroad.
Perspective from the administrative staff member (Hayashi)
I believe that in addition to the event organizer, the upperclassmen with experience studying abroad as presenters and the participants played a crucial role making the events sustainable––particularly on their motivation and communication skills. Shibata had a specific vision of the study-abroad events from the first meeting. He shared his vision with Imamura and me, and involved the other students in the study-abroad events. Shibata talked to the participants and listened to what they wanted to know and their concerns in the first study-abroad event. He reflected on this first event and the feedback from the participants, upperclassmen, Imamura, and myself when planning for the next event. The upperclassmen also communicated with attendees actively, and they shared their ideas with Shibata. I believe the willingness to listen to others is an important communication skill. It seems that participants’ motivation and passion also helped the event organizer to continue holding the study-abroad events. That is why I thought that the motivation and the communication skills of the organizers, presenters, and participants were important in making the study-abroad events sustainable.
Perspective from the LA (Imamura)
While supporting Shibata for the study-abroad events, I saw that not only him but also the other students who helped him during the events had great leadership skills that could make the events successful. Fujishin (2007) defines leadership as “the process of influencing the task and social dimensions of a group to help it reach its goal” (p. 122). He also emphasizes that “all group members can share leadership” (p. 123). In the events, both Shibata and other upperclassmen shared the same aim of wanting to help underclassmen to succeed in studying abroad in the future. I believe that their leadership skills made the events grow every time and thus made them sustainable. In addition, participating in the study-abroad events encouraged some upperclassmen to hold a new event on Scandinavian culture, Let’s have FIKA. It was a very interesting product of chance that one Learner’s Event influenced other students to organize a new event.
This paper introduced one of the learner-led events in our LLS. There can be many ways to make a learner-led event sustainable depending on events, event organizers, the participants. This case study of our learner-led events on studying abroad showed the effectivenesses of analyzing the needs of the participants and sharing the feedback with the event organizer and LLS practitioners while developing the event. Moreover, in addition to the event organizer’s motivation and leadership skills, the participants’ motivation is also crucial to make the study-abroad events sustainable.
We would like to thank to Kazuki Fujii, Yuka Kawashima, Shotaro Ogawa, Risa Otsuka, Hikari Shobu, Yusei Takahashi, and Sayaka Yano for your massive support to make the study-abroad events fantastic and sustainable. We also appreciate Isra Wongsarnpigoon for proofreading our paper and providing insightful feedback.
Notes on contributors
Mizuki Shibata is an undergraduate student in English Department at Kanda University of International Studies in Japan. He studied sports management at Florida International University in 2018-2019. He organized a series of learner-led events, “Study Abroad Prep #1, 2, and 3”, in the Self-Access Learning Center in the 2019-20 academic year.
Chihiro Hayashi is working as an administrative staff member in the Self-Access Learning Center for the English Language Support Section on behalf of the Office of Faculty Affairs at Kanda University of International Studies in Japan, where she has also worked in the Center for Foreign Language Proficiency and Student Affairs. She is currently working as a member of the Learning Community team.
Yuri Imamura is a learning advisor in the Self-Access Learning Center at Kanda University of International Studies in Japan. She completed her MA in TEFL at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research interests are learner motivation, translanguaging in language learning, and language learning spaces.
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