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Changes in language learning beliefs during a transition to tertiary

study: The mediation of classroom affordances


Jian-E Peng
Shantou University, 243 Daxue Road, Shantou City, Guangdong Province 515063, China
Received 15 January 2011; accepted 25 May 2011
Abstract
Drawing on an ecological perspective, this paper reports on an investigation into the changes in one rst-year college students
beliefs about English teaching and learning since his enrollment. These changes in beliefs are part of the empirical ndings of
a multiple-case study conducted in the Chinese EFL context. Semi-structured interviews, classroom observations, and learning
journals were used to collect data over a period of seven months. Qualitative content analysis with the assistance of the NVivo
software was applied to data analysis. The ndings revealed substantive changes in this participants belief systems, mediated by
classroom affordances across different situations. This inquiry emphasizes that learners transition from high school to tertiary
study is a critical period, during which their beliefs about second language learning are subject to contextual mediation. The in-
depth ndings of this inquiry indicate the potential for adopting an ecological theoretical framework to explore the emergent,
dynamic, and context-responsive nature of learner beliefs.
2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Learner beliefs; Transition to tertiary study; Ecological perspective; Classroom affordances
1. Introduction
Learner beliefs about second language acquisition (SLA) have been considered an important factor inuencing the
learning process and outcomes (Ellis, 2008). A number of studies have investigated different types of learner beliefs
(Horwitz, 1988; Wenden, 1987) and their relationships with other factors, such as learner autonomy (Cotterall, 1999)
and learning strategy use (Yang, 1999). Consistent with the recent call for a situated approach to SLA research,
researchers have highlighted the context-embedded, emergent, and dynamic nature of learner beliefs (Amuzie and
Winke, 2009; Kalaja and Barcelos, 2003; Riley, 2009).
Despite considerable research interest in SLA, little is known about how beliefs change when a learner moves from
high school to tertiary study. This transition can be difcult (Xu, 2003). Classroom management and teaching
methods, among other things, are different at the two educational levels. For instance, in China where English is
learned as a foreign language (EFL), high school classes are characterized by teacher lectures, but in university classes
students oral participation is required (Wang, 2008). Researching learners belief changes during this adaptive period
could offer implications for facilitating smooth transition to tertiary education.
E-mail address: pengjiane@stu.edu.cn.
0346-251X/$ - see front matter 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.system.2011.07.004
Available online at www.sciencedirect.com
System 39 (2011) 314e324
www.elsevier.com/locate/system
2. Researching learner beliefs from an ecological perspective
In this section, previous research on learner beliefs about SLA is rst reviewed and an ecological perspective
centered on affordance that underpinned this study is introduced. Difculties involved in a transition from high school
to tertiary study are nally addressed.
2.1. Learner beliefs about SLA
Learner beliefs are a multifaceted concept due to complexities of the human mind. In SLA research, multiple types
of beliefs such as self-efcacy beliefs, motivational beliefs, and metacognitive beliefs have been studied, and it seems
that no list or taxonomy of beliefs can be conclusive (Dornyei, 2005). In this sense, learner beliefs are considered an
elusive concept that is difcult to dene (Barcelos, 2003a).
Learner beliefs were originally researched with a focus on their cognitive dimension. The cognitive beliefs, also
known as metacognitive knowledge (Wenden, 1987), concern beliefs about the nature of language and language
learning, which reects an underlying assumption that beliefs are relatively stable mental representations. Accord-
ingly, a normative approach (i.e. questionnaires) (Barcelos, 2003a) has been adopted to classify beliefs (Horwitz,
1988) and examine their relationships with other factors such as learner autonomy (Benson, 2001; Cotterall, 1995,
1999), use of learning strategies (Elbaum et al., 1993; Yang, 1999), motivation (Graham, 2006), and language
achievement (Peacock, 1999) (for a comprehensive review, see Barcelos, 2003a).
Recently the sociocultural dimension of learner beliefs has been increasingly recognized (Alanen, 2003; Barcelos,
2003a; White, 2008). Kalaja (1995) argued against equating metacognitive knowledge with learner beliefs because
this oversimplies beliefs to merely static entities residing in learners minds. Language learning does not happen in
a culture-vacuum context and learner beliefs are born out of particular sociocultural contexts. Cortazzi and Jin (1996)
proposed culture of learning to account for Chinese students culturally-based beliefs. This sociocultural perspective
also highlights that beliefs are emergent, dynamic and context-dependent (Barcelos, 2003a). Beliefs have been
observed to change throughout learners interactions with their teachers, peers, and other contextual contingencies
(Amuzie and Winke, 2009; Kern, 1995; Riley, 2009). In Rileys (2009) study with 661 Japanese EFL students, the
number of participants who strongly believed that guessing the meaning of unknown words is ok was found to
increase by 11% over a nine-month period.
Learner beliefs can inuence learners meaning-making of the language classroom. Benson and Lor (1999) pointed
out that learners attitudes toward communication practice are associated with their beliefs about effective ways to
learn a language. These beliefs also affect learners preference for teaching methods. Sakui and Gaies (1999) survey
of 1296 Japanese EFL students indicated a clear distinction between beliefs about traditional and contemporary
approaches to language learning and teaching. In the Chinese context, it has been speculated that students prefer
teacher-fronted lectures to role plays or games (Cortazzi and Jin, 1996), while recent studies have reported that
contemporary Chinese students favor communication-oriented lessons (Littlewood, 2010; Shi, 2006). This implies
that learner beliefs are evolving and need to be interpreted contextually to avoid any stereotypes.
2.2. An ecological approach to SLA
An ecological approach to SLA research considers language constructed in social interaction instead of static
linguistic elements readily found in input and output. The interaction of language learners and the surrounding
environment is prioritized. It is closely aligned to the tenets of the sociocultural perspective (Bernat, 2008), which
emphasizes the understanding of human minds and actions as being intertwined with, or mediated by, social and
cultural contexts (Lantolf, 2000).
A central concept of the ecological approach is affordance, which refers to a particular property of the envi-
ronment that is relevant efor good or for ill eto an active, perceiving organism in that environment (van Lier, 2000,
p. 252). Affordance is relational, reecting the way that individuals relate the environment to themselves or, more
specically, their expectations or needs. van Lier (2004) maintained that the environment is full of meaning potential.
Affordance occurs when things available in the environment match the individual, and thus fuels perception and
activity, and brings about meanings e further affordances and signs (van Lier, 2004, p. 96).
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From the ecological perspective, learner beliefs are likely to interact with the classroom environment that offers
meaning and semiotic potential for learning. Teaching practice, learning tasks, and group cohesion, among others,
may function as classroom affordances, boosting or reconstructing the participants beliefs. A language classroom,
according to Breen (2001), is an arena of subjective and intersubjective realities which are worked out, changed, and
maintained (p. 128). As such, learner beliefs may be mediated by particular classroom affordances.
2.3. The transition to tertiary language classroom
The transition from high school to college or university can be a tough process (Terenzini et al., 1994). In China,
for instance, language classes in high school are highly teacher-fronted, focusing on textbook knowledge and geared
to examinations. Tertiary English education, however, emphasizes all-round English ability especially oral
communication skills (Higher Education Division of the Ministry of Education, 2007). Benson and Lor (1999)
stated that such a transition from learning English for passing examinations to professional communication
could be difcult. Adjustment difculties often constitute entrance shock among Chinese rst-year college
students (Xu, 2003).
Learners are likely to become aware of and even reconstruct their beliefs along their adjustment path to tertiary
study. The participants in Nunans (2002) action research addressed their awareness that college education mandates
self-exploration of knowledge instead of spoon-feeding. However, it remains largely unknown how learner beliefs
change in response to contextual affordances in this critical transitional process.
3. One students changing learning beliefs when starting tertiary study
This inquiry is part of a broader study into four students willingness to communicate (WTC) in Chinese EFL
classes, in which learner beliefs emerged as one inuential factor. The students were recruited based on their WTC,
measured by a scale adapted from Weaver (2005). Two students reporting the highest and lowest WTC in a rst-year
class were chosen and, similarly, the remaining two were recruited from a second-year class.
The participant reported here was the rst-year student with the lowest WTC. Whereas a wide range of beliefs have
been identied, this article focuses on the changes in this students beliefs about English and communication-oriented
approaches to teaching and learning. This narrow focus has allowed an in-depth analysis of the phenomenon under
study. The research questions are as follows:
1. How do the students beliefs appear to change during his transition from high school to tertiary English learning?
2. In what ways does his learning environment appear to inuence his beliefs?
3.1. Participant and context
The focal student, who was given a pseudonym Weitao, was a medical student from a medical college in
southern China. He started formal English education during Grade Five in primary school and had been learning
English for seven years before entering college. His college entrance English examination score was 122 out of the
full score of 150, which indicates an average or above level of English prociency. He was admitted to a combined
bachelors and masters degree program (i.e. seven-year program), upon graduation from which he would obtain
a masters degree.
This college implemented an intensive English learning program among the seven-year program students in the
rst semester to promote their English prociency. Credit hours for the English course amounted to 18 h per week,
which was an unusual case contrasted to four class hours in many universities in China (Wu, 2001). Students were
required to nish studying two units in a Reading, Writing, and Translation textbook and two units in a Listening
and Speaking textbook per week. This process was accompanied by online self-study in the computer lab. Starting
from the second semester, they moved on to take Medical English, which focused on medical vocabulary and
basic understanding of medical topics. At the beginning of each academic year, orientation sessions were organized
to instruct the freshmen about the importance of communicative competence in English and related curriculum
goals.
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3.2. Data collection
The inquiry was conducted over a period of seven months, which was across one and a half semesters in the
academic year 2007e2008. The data were collected through semi-structured interviews, classroom observations, and
learning journals kept by the focal student. The detailed data collection schedule is shown in Table 1.
As seen in Table 1, the data were obtained from six interviews, six observations, and 22 journal entries. Each
interview was conducted in Chinese, digitally recorded, and lasted about 30 min. In the rst interview, questions were
initiated regarding this students past experience in, and opinions of, English learning. The following interviews were
conducted after each classroom observation to inquire about his recent classroom situations and reections on what
was recorded in his journal entries and observed in his class. Appendix 1 shows the interview guide. Probing tech-
niques such as repeating questions, asking for clarication, and paraphrasing (Neuman, 2003) were employed to
assure accurate information.
Classroom observations were made by tallying the students voluntary verbal and non-verbal behaviors. I also took
eld notes on classroom activities, critical scenarios and my reections during and immediately after class. This
student was also invited to enter, on a fortnightly basis, journal entries using Chinese based on a framework that
included: a) topics and activities in class; b) self-perceived classroom performance and progress; c) classroom
atmosphere; d) degree of his willingness to communicate in class. This framework and the interview guide were
designed to elicit a broad range of data for the larger research from which this study arose. The data in this paper came
mainly from the interviews.
3.3. Data analysis
The data were subjected to qualitative content analysis. This involved a cyclical, inductive process during which the
students narratives were coded, and recurrent categories and themes were identied (Berg, 1998). This process was
assisted by the software NVivo 8 (Bazeley, 2007). Initial codes were rst recorded as free nodes (i.e. discrete smallest
units). When more free nodes emerged, tree nodes were established to display thematic relationships of the free nodes,
which allowed for the formation of themes and categories.
The issue of trustworthiness was addressed through providing thick descriptions and establishing inter-coder
agreement (Lincoln and Guba, 1985). This study has obtained and provided thick descriptions of the participants
perceptions, behaviors and surrounding environment. These thick descriptions could create a transparency and assist
the reader in judging the transferability of the ndings (Ary et al., 2009). An inter-coder, who is a scholar specializing
in SLA research, was invited to independently code one entire interview transcription based on a coding scheme that I
inductively developed from the data. Coding comparison indicated an acceptable level of agreement of 93.88% (Miles
and Huberman, 1994).
Table 1
Data collection schedule.
Semester Data collection Time
1st Semester 1st interview October 6, 2007
1st observation October 8, 2007
2nd observation November 5, 2007
2nd interview November 7, 2007
3rd observation December 3, 2007
3rd interview December 7, 2007
4th observation January 7, 2008
4th interview January 11, 2008
Learning journal (13 entries) October 2007eJanuary 2008
2nd Semester 5th observation February 27, 2008
5th interview March 1, 2008
6th observation April 16, 2008
6th interview April 18, 2008
Learning Journal (9 entries) February 2008eApril 2008
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4. Findings
Weitao, the focal student, was found to experience substantive changes in his belief systems as mediated by
classroom affordances at roughly ve stages of his study: the beginning, middle and end of the rst semester, and the
beginning and middle of the second semester. The following sections present the ndings. The excerpts cited were
English translations of interview transcriptions unless otherwise indicated.
4.1. Beginning of the rst semester: oral communication in class is important
Upon his arrival at the college, Weitao appeared to show positive attitudes toward his English class. As observed,
communication activities such as group discussions, role plays, and oral presentation were frequently carried out in his
class. As reported, these had never been experienced in his high school. Unexpectedly, Weitao expressed his
acceptance of, and even enjoyment in, these activities in his rst interview. When asked about his most effective way
to learn English, Weitao reported that English was a tool for communication and the best way was to communicate
with others:
Extract 1. We can master English better in the process of communication.[.] [Oral communication in English] is
important, because in terms of written English, we have learned English for a long time in our high school. But we
are quite weak in the oral aspect. It is really helpful to improve our English through oral practice. (October 6,
2007)
Classroomcontextual affordances may have given rise to Weitaos beliefs in the value of oral communication. First,
the communication activities appeared to trigger meaning exchanges and thus, as described by Weitao, were attractive
and productive. He recalled an activity when each learning group designed a poster advertising a language program
they developed and hypothetically ran on the Internet. In class, each group showcased their poster, trying to convince
their peers to register in their program. Weitao later commented, I like this activity, and this feeling of talking freely
and coming up with a product (November 7, 2007). Second, the nature of meaning exchange inherited in authentic
communication seemed to relieve him from concerns about grammar. The following remark indicates that subtle
changes in Weitaos beliefs were happening:
Extract 2. After these two weeks, I have come to realize some basic techniques in oral communication. For instance,
when communicating with others, we sometimes do not need to follow grammar rules strictly. It is acceptable to use
wrong grammar when expressing our intended meanings. If we persist in achieving correctness, we cannot fully
express ourselves. (October 6, 2007)
More importantly, newly developed beliefs appeared to be reinforced by the support of his teachers and
classmates. As Weitao reported, in his high school English class he had often been laughed at for making
mistakes, yet in the college class his teachers and classmates were supportive and grammatical mistakes were
highly tolerated.
Extract 3. In my class, because we are all active in speaking English, it doesnt matter if we make mistakes. The
teachers also often give us encouragement [to speak English]. (October 6, 2007)
While the above ndings appeared to indicate a relatively smooth conceptual transition to the tertiary English
class, they did not preclude another possibility that Weitaos reported beliefs might be inuenced by his teachers and
the institutional administration, particularly in the freshmen orientation sessions conducted to inform students of the
curriculum goals (see Section 3.1). Moreover, he was observed to seldom speak up at this stage. Fig. 1 shows the
frequency of Weitaos voluntary verbal behaviors in whole-class, group or dyad situations. While verbal behaviors
can be inuenced by many other factors apart from ones beliefs, speaking in whole-class situations may signal
a stronger belief about the value of communication practice. Because these situations are inherently anxiety-
provoking or face-threatening, students who embrace communicative approaches may be more likely to speak
up in class.
As seen in Fig. 1, Weitao volunteered no spoken communication in whole-class situations when observed for the
rst time. This may imply that his expressed endorsement of oral practice was possibly appropriated from his
instructors and he had yet to act on his beliefs.
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4.2. Middle of the rst semester: English is close to me
At the middle stage of the rst semester, Weitaos beliefs about English appeared to change tremendously. In the
rst interview, Weitao admitted that he had learned English only for passing examinations. In the second and third
interviews, however, he reported several times that English was close to him and learning English had become a habit.
This was probably because he had been using English in everyday classroom communication on various topics. These
topics, such as Chinese and western etiquette, body language, and personality were, according to Weitao, closely
related to students life experiences. In other words, there were plenty of classroom opportunities for using English to
discuss issues in ordinary life that provided affordances to reconstruct his beliefs:
Extract 4. I have come to view English as more common. Previously I thought English is only used in examinations.
Now I nd it can also be used in ordinary life. I feel I amcloser to English and the foreign culture and customs it stands
for. For instance, for the word furniture, if I hear this word, the instant image popping in my mind is the Europe-style
tment, which bears the avor of the English-speaking countries. (November 7, 2007)
Weitaos initially developed beliefs about communicative approaches were also reinforced at this stage. He
continually acknowledged his enjoyment of his English classes. A typical comment was made in one of his entries in
which he rated a 100% degree of WTC:
Extract 5. Today we designed a questionnaire about agents on campus and conducted interviews among the class-
mates. I liked this activity. [.] When interacting with each other, I talked actively to my classmates. (Entry 7,
November 19, 2007)
My observations also indicated more active oral participation from Weitao at this stage. As shown in Fig. 1, he
voluntarily spoke up in whole-class situations for three times in the third observation. In this class, the learning groups
presented the results of their previously conducted surveys and answered questions fromother groups. Weitao not only
volunteered to answer two questions for his group,
1
but also willingly raised three questions to other groups. When
reecting on this episode, Weitao attributed his active participation to the interesting topics, peers enthusiasm, and the
teachers facilitation. He explicitly expressed his preference for communicative approaches:
Observations on Weitao
0 0
3
0
2
1
5 5
4
10
4
7
0
2
4
6
8
10
12
14
16
18
20
22
2007-10 - 08 2007-11- 05 2007- 12 - 03 2008- 01-07 2008- 02 - 27 2008 - 04 -16
(1st) (2nd) (3rd) (4th) (5th) (6th)
Voluntary speaking in
whole class
Voluntary speaking
in group/dyad
Fig. 1. Weitaos observed voluntary verbal behaviors.
1
They were not counted into the frequency of voluntary behaviors because Weitaos group was obliged to answer questions in this situation.
319 J.-E. Peng /
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Extract 6. I like this teaching method. It gives us wider room to practice our English, especially the oral skills. Now
studying English has become a habit to me. (December 7, 2007)
It could possibly be inferred that Weitao had increasingly identied with the new approaches. If, at the initial stage,
his reported positive beliefs about these approaches mirrored the opinions of his instructors, it was quite likely that he
actually perceived their value in the middle of the rst semester.
4.3. End of the rst semester: English becomes a task again
Near the end of the rst semester, however, Weitaos positive beliefs about English and communicative lessons
were found to diminish. According to his reection, in one class they were required to nish an exam paper simulating
a nationwide written test known as College English Test Band Four (CET-4). Passing this test was a prerequisite for
graduation from this college. He felt great anxiety because he found this test difcult. Also the nal examination was
approaching at this stage. The communicative activities that had once inspired him became less appealing. English
learning, he felt, became a dreaded task:
Extract 7. This semester learning English has become interesting to me, but recently I have to prepare for exams. I
feel learning English is suddenly a task again. (January 11, 2008)
This shift in Weitaos beliefs implies that affordance is relational and depends on how learners perceive the
environment. Apparently the stress of examinations corresponded strongly with Weitaos mental activities and/or
concerns near the end of this semester. Consequently, the emerging belief that learning English is for communication
was replaced by the earlier one that English learning is about examinations.
4.4. Beginning of the second semester: communicative activities are of little use
A more dramatic shift in Weitaos beliefs was found when he took the Medical English class in the second
semester. He rmly asserted that communicative activities in class were of little use and not needed. The formation of
his beliefs may be related to classroom contextual inuence. My observations revealed that the Medical English
class was mainly teacher-fronted. In the fth observation, for instance, the teacher rst checked students memories of
prexes and sufxes of medical terminology, and then lectured on other word parts with examples and drills. Although
Weitao spoke up twice in this class (see Fig. 1), his speaking only involved spelling two medical terms. There was little
interaction among students for the sake of exchanging ideas. This teaching method, as Weitao expressed it in the
follow-up interview, created in him a sense of substantial learning, which was not perceived in his past communicative
classes:
Extract 8. This method gives us a clearer learning target, [.] for instance, she taught us prexes and sufxes, their
meanings and word examples. Then we would try to memorize these things. [.] Last semester, however, I had no idea
what I had learned. (March 1, 2008)
Weitaos comments seem to pinpoint the importance of addressing students needs and wants in EFL teaching,
which, in most cases, is passing examinations. Students may not see the relevance of their studies unless their learning
is authoritatively assessed. Probably because their oral achievement in English was not ofcially assessed in the rst
semester, Weitao failed to recognize the progress or achievements he had possibly made.
Weitao also undermined the importance of oral English competence. While this belief might emerge from the
classroom environment where oral communication was not encouraged, it also appeared to be appropriated from his
instructors:
Extract 9. Our teacher said in the rst class that in the [Medical English] class, grammar is not important and neither
is word choice. We only need to express the meaning of the terminology using simple words. [.] To a medical
student, it is more important to be able to read and comprehend English materials. You know, not every student will be
going or studying abroad. Thus, the speaking aspect is not important. (March 1, 2008)
The above account indicates that the teachers, teaching methods, and classroom management in the Medical
English class constituted affordances for the emergence of Weitaos negative beliefs about the value of
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communication in language learning. His vocalized beliefs correspond to the traditional teaching methods that
emphasize knowledge transmission.
4.5. Middle of the second semester: oral communication activities are needed
Unexpectedly, in the middle of the second semester, Weitao again voiced his belief that communicative activities
were needed in class. This belief change, as revealed in the data, may be explained by classroom affordances,
including teachers mechanical lectures, confusing goals, and an overwhelming amount of difcult medical vocab-
ulary and texts. Weitao complained that some teachers lectures were monotonous and boring. He was often confused
about what he was supposed to learn e English or medical science e because some teachers always spoke Chinese in
class. Many times he found himself failing to memorize medical terminology and comprehend reading materials.
Consequently he hoped for lively class activities so as to sustain his interest:
Extract 10. NowI think it is better to have more activities and interaction in class. Our teachers just kept talking and
explaining things. It seems students reaction did not matter to them at all. This dampened our enthusiasm. [.] I
think the function of communicative activities is to raise our enthusiasm and activate the interaction among
students. [They are] important to me. But their function is to raise our enthusiasm rather than foster competence.
(April 18, 2008)
It appeared that in Weitaos perception communicative activities functioned to retain learning interest instead of
facilitating the learning per se. That is, he did not perceive the value of oral communication in his English learning.
This belief was in sharp contrast to his belief elicited in the beginning of the rst semester when he elaborated many
times that engaging in oral communication was an effective way to learn English.
5. Discussion
This inquiry explored the inuence of classroom affordances on a rst-year college students beliefs about English
learning. The ndings demonstrated substantive changes in this students beliefs during his transition fromhigh school
to tertiary language classrooms. The nature of English was rst viewed as a communication tool and later simply as an
academic task or a burden. His beliefs about communication-oriented approaches wavered across various situations,
ranging from endorsement in communicative classes to resistance in teacher-fronted classes. When overwhelmed by
boring classes, he again expressed a preference for communicative activities, although for the sake of enjoyment
rather than usefulness. These beliefs correspond to the perceptions of contemporary and traditional approaches (Sakui
and Gaies, 1999), or of communication-oriented and form-oriented lessons (Littlewood, 2010). The endorsement of
traditional approaches in this inquiry could be interpreted from the longstanding culture of learning in China that
considers learning a process of accumulating knowledge which is transmitted by teachers and textbooks (Cortazzi and
Jin, 1996).
The current ndings indicate that beliefs are emergent and context-responsive. Local classroom affordances,
including meaning-focused activities, familiar topics, support from the teacher and peers, teaching methods, and
lesson goals, were found to give rise to the emergence of learner beliefs. When these affordances were meaningful and
accessible, or matched the learners, they served to fuel afrmative thinking about communicative lessons. In contrast,
when the affordances were unavailable or not consistent with the learners, counterproductive beliefs such as a denial
of the value of these lessons arose. Whereas learner beliefs about traditional and contemporary approaches have been
reported (Littlewood, 2010; Sakui and Gaies, 1999; Shi, 2006), the current inquiry took a step further by empirically
revealing that these seemingly conicting beliefs could constitute the developmental trajectories of an individuals
perceptions depending on contextual mediation.
A question of great interest is the extent to which self-reported beliefs have been genuinely assimilated into
learners belief systems, or functioned to regulate action. Alanen (2003) pointed out that beliefs are constantly
constructed and reconstructed in social interaction, some of which become tools mediating action while some
others remain content item(s) (p. 62) with little regulatory function. In this inquiry, although it was impossible
to assess whether the student genuinely perceived the value of oral communication in the beginning (see Section
4.1), his more active oral performance later observed might be a sign that his beliefs began to regulate his learning
behaviors. It is fair to say that this newly-arrived student was at a critical intersection where, as Alanen (2003)
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emphasized, the contextually-constructed beliefs may or may not become part of (his) knowledge reservoir (p.
66). Regrettably, the observed students emerging afrmative beliefs eventually were not internalized into his
belief systems.
This inquiry has shown how easily students can become demotivated, and at the same time students can be
motivated when convinced that what they are learning is what they need. Signicant others could be a resource in
the construction of learners beliefs (Alanen, 2003). In particular, the teacher as an important communicator
needs to clearly explain the purposes and rationale behind each activity and class (Barcelos, 2003b, p. 194) to
support and encourage positive changes in students beliefs. The inuence of teachers may be particularly
signicant in Chinese society where teacher authority and submissive ways of learning are culturally valued (Wen
and Clement, 2003).
It could be seen that in the transition from high school to tertiary study, learners belief changes are subtle and
complex. This inquiry revealed the possibility that students adjust themselves to contemporary educational ideology
when given facilitating contextual affordances. On the other hand, the stress of examinations, monotonous lectures,
and an overwhelming learning schedule could easily undermine any attempts or efforts to foster informed beliefs
among students. As found in this inquiry, although the observed student reversed his beliefs to prefer communicative
activities, he no longer perceived these activities as benecial to his learning.
The current ndings have elucidated the effect of classroom affordances in shaping and reconstructing learner
beliefs. These results have implications for tertiary institutions and language teachers in China and similar EFL
contexts. For the purposes of cultivating informed beliefs among learners and developing their foreign language
competence, tertiary educators need to create a learning environment that constantly promotes authentic language use.
This requires long-term educational investment and consistent policy guiding both curriculum design and local
classroom teaching practice. Meaning-focused learning tasks or projects tailored to linguistic features, as suggested in
this inquiry, could offer effective affordances for construal of beliefs. Formative assessment of oral language
achievement can also be adopted to encourage practical language use and positive learner beliefs.
There are two limitations of this inquiry that need to be addressed. First, these ndings are restricted to only one
student and to changes in beliefs about English and communication-oriented approaches. It is a worthwhile avenue for
future research to investigate the dynamic changes of a wider strand of learner beliefs among a larger group of
students. Second, while this inquiry has identied the effect of classroom affordances on learner beliefs across
different contexts, it has not yet revealed direct cause-and-effect relationships between detailed affordances and
beliefs. This would be a challenging task because learner beliefs are inherently latent conceptions that are not readily
observed. Future studies may consider using other methods such as audio or video recordings, think aloud or stim-
ulated recall to explore context-related beliefs.
6. Conclusion
This study revealed substantial changes in learner beliefs about English language and its teaching and learning
approaches over a prolonged, transitional period from high school to college study. The ndings indicate that
learner beliefs are uid, contextual and emerging. Affordances in language classes could offer tremendous
possibilities, or pulls or pushes for the construction of beliefs. Facilitating positive beliefs among EFL college
learners seems to be within the ability of language teachers and curriculum designers. What appears to be more
important is the consideration of how to provide sufcient affordances to empower learners beliefs to self-
regulate learning action.
Despite the stated limitations, this inquiry represents the rst attempt to explore learner beliefs as responsive to
classroom affordances. Its in-depth ndings suggest that the ecological perspective is an informative theoretical
framework for exploring the role of classroom affordances in mediating learner beliefs about SLA.
Acknowledgments
I am very grateful to Lindy Woodrow who generously provided me with insightful comments and guidance in all
phases of this study. I would also like to thank Ana Maria Ferreira Barcleos, Paula Kalaja, and the anonymous
reviewers for their helpful comments on the earlier versions of this article.
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Appendix 1. Interview guide
1. Past experience of English learning in high school.
2. Benets of good English prociency.
3. Effective ways to learn English.
4. Function of communication in English in class.
5. Opportunities to speak English in class.
6. Situations of being most willing and least willing to speak up in front of the class.
7. Situations of being most willing and least willing to speak in groups.
8. Participation in classroom communication using English in recent classes.
9. Classroom activities in recent English classes.
10. Relationship with classmates.
11. The atmosphere in recent class.
12. Participation in extracurricular activities and possible inuence on English learning.
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