Pre-sessional identity: from IELTS student to smart scholar

In his poster presentation, Alex Runchman, from University College Dublin, reflects on the transitional identity of pre-sessional students.

Students enrolled on pre-sessional programmes have a transitional identity: that prefix ‘pre’ immediately defines them as not yet fully belonging. For many of them, successful completion of their programme is, in the most literal terms, their visa into higher-level education in the English-speaking world. Of the many transformations that pre-sessional students have to undergo, the change from conceptualizing themselves as IELTS students to scholarly undergraduates or postgraduates is possibly as challenging as the acquisition of new skills and language. Due to governmental and institutional policies, students in the UK and Ireland are accepted onto pre-sessional programmes on the basis of IELTS scores; and yet these programmes are designed, in part, to help students ‘unlearn’ an IELTS mentality they may have laboured to acquire. What does it mean to slough off one’s identity – no matter how temporary – as a highly-trained exam strategist and become a smart independent learner?

Many EAP specialists have questioned both the validity and authenticity of IELTS as preparation for academic life. Cyril Weir et al, for example, have outlined how IELTS Reading texts tend to fall far short of authentic academic materials, while Julie Knight has drawn attention to the degree of imprecision permissible, even at high levels, in part 2 of the Writing Paper. This paper is less concerned, however, with the limitations of the test itself than it is with the self-perception of the students. Drawing upon a project that I am currently undertaking with my colleague, Dr Anna Nunan, at University College Dublin’s Applied Language Centre on pre-sessional students’ progress, perceptions and gains, I will examine students’ prior understanding of pre-sessional programmes, their sense of their own needs, and the ways in which their learner identity evolves over the course of a ten-week programme.


The PDF version of the poster can be accessed here.


alex-runchmanIn his role as Lecturer in Academic English at University College Dublin, Alex Runchman co-ordinates three summer pre-sessional programmes. Formerly a specialist IELTS teacher, he has also lectured in English Literature at Trinity College Dublin, and is the author of a study of the American poet Delmore Schwartz’s transatlantic identity. You can find out more about him in his LinkedIn profile.

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