Time wasted on learning present and past tenses at university.
That was one of the concerns that prompted the introduction of the Malaysian University English Test (MUET), says Prof Datin Dr Zubaida Alsree, chairman of the MUET Syllabus Revision Committee.
“The Education Minister then, Datuk Seri Najib (Tun Razak), was appalled that many undergraduates were using their time at university learning basic grammar, and hence MUET was conceived,” she says.
Introduced in 1999, MUET is used as an assessment tool to measure the English proficiency of those wishing to pursue tertiary studies.
It tests listening, speaking, reading comprehension and writing skills, classifying candidates according to six bands or levels of achievement, from “Very Good User” (Band Six) to “Extremely Limited User” (Band One).
Band Three, which rates learners as satisfactory, is recommended as the minimum band needed for students to cope with the level of English necessary for academia.
Nonetheless, it has not been made compulsory for pre-varsity students to “pass” MUET (or get at least a Band Three) to be eligible for university as this was deemed an unfair disadvantage for rural students.
Most universities instead provide remedial or language intervention programmes for students who enter university with low bands in the MUET test; however, they are not forced to attend them.
“You don't have to worry much about the integrity of MUET as an instrument,” Prof Dr Zubaida stresses. “How it is used is more the issue.”
Prof Dr Zubaida, who is also Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Postgraduate Studies Institute dean, was presenting a paper entitled “Introducing the revised MUET” to teachers, lecturers, ministry officials and other stakeholders at a four-day seminar held to brief them on the new test specifications.
A session entitled “Implications of the changes in MUET for teaching and learning” was conducted by trainer Vasantha Mallar to further clarify the revisions for participants.
To help teachers familiarise themselves with the specifications, training workshops for each skill specification was conducted, with participants getting to use the new MUET kit that included a teacher's guide and multimedia resources.
More importantly, the seminar provided participants with a platform to share experiences.
Prof Dr Zubaida headed a 16-men panel set up to work on revising and updating MUET's test specifications but, as she explains, the changes are more academic than policy based.
“The revision is internal, based on feedback from stakeholders, including teachers and students.
“It is a regular exercise based on the council's policy of reviewing test specifications for all public examinations every five years, so the changes are small though significant,” she explains, adding that the update was conducted to keep up with language learning developments as well as global education trends and international market needs.
According to Prof Dr Zubaida, the changes were made to fine-tune MUET.
“For example, we dropped the summary question from the writing component in the new test because we need to see whether it was testing writing or reading skills. And in this case, it was more a reading comprehension test.”
The new specifications will be introduced to Lower Six students in June, and the first revised MUET will be held at the end of 2008.
Over the years, the number of students sitting for MUET has grown as the language aptitude test gained recognition, she says. However, the results have been consistently poor.
The Higher Education Ministry revealed recently that one-third of public university students who graduated last year have very low English proficiency.
According to the report, 29.2% of the 120,000 graduates scored Bands One and Two in MUET, which identified them as “Extremely Limited User” and “Limited User” respectively.
The vice-chancellors’ committee recommended to the ministry that it be made compulsory for students to score at least a Band Three before they graduate.
Prof Dr Zubaida, however, believes that the issue of low proficiency needs to be addressed before students embark on their tertiary education.
Ensuring that students meet the mark before they graduate is commendable in light of the growing importance of English as an international language, she says, but it may not benefit undergraduates who are weak in English.
“Language is the bridge, or building block, for undergraduates. If they are not well prepared in the English language, how can they cope in university when they need to read widely, write papers and give presentations in English?” she argues.
Although MUET alone cannot solve the issue of low proficiency in the English language, it can help improve the students’ level of English while at university if more importance is given to it.
“MUET is English for academic purposes; students need to familiarise themselves with a range of academic writing and texts such as newspaper focus pieces and editorials, research papers, journal articles and reports.
“Through MUET, we encourage students to read these academic writings. In effect, this will create a reading culture on campus and improve their English proficiency,” Prof Dr Zubaida says.
A big challenge, she points out, is the priority accorded to the test by the authorities.
“After sitting for the test, students get this certificate that says Pelajar sudah memduduki peperiksaan MUET (The student has sat for MUET).
“As a teacher, I believe that if you tell students that a test is not compulsory, they will become less motivated and the test will plunge down their list of priority. There will be no sense of urgency and students will become complacent.
“After all, why shouldn’t they take it lightly if the authorities take it lightly?”
Specifying some sort of ranking for the different bands is important, she says.
“For example, you can implement Band Three as a basic requirement for university, and Band Five and Six for more established universities. This will motivate students to work harder at MUET to get into the university of their dreams.”
The low emphasis placed on MUET by the authorities has affected its effectiveness, she believes.
A teacher who declined to be named concurs, saying that her colleagues in school have had to fight for resources and facilities to teach MUET.
Although teachers are recommended to conduct at least 80 hours of MUET sessions, some schools are doing fewer than half of the specified hours.
Another participant who declined to be named says at her school, only two hours are allocated for MUET weekly.
Participant Gita Lam feels that the solution lies beyond the hands of MUET teachers.
“We have to be aware of the kind of students we are getting. Form Five students are unaware of what academic writing is.
“Universities blame schools, Form Six teachers blame Form Five teachers... it goes on and on. Who is really to blame?” she asks.
Teacher Audrey Koh from Sabah feels that while support from the school administration is vital, teachers also need to put in the hours to prepare students for the test as well as equip them with the right attitude.
“One way is to prepare a checklist for students, to make them more aware of the test specifications and enable them to take responsibility for their learning.”