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The Excitement of Teaching in Uncharted Territory

As the recipient of the Award for Teaching Excellence awarded by UBC Vantage College in July 2019, Academic English Program lecturer Daniel Riccardi has a reputation amongst students for being a driven instructor whose encouragement of the active engagement of his students in the classroom is a driving force behind their success.

Perhaps what motivated Vantage One students most to recognize Daniel as a lecturer worthy of the 2019 Award for Teaching Excellence at Vantage was not only his teaching methods and philosophy, but his ability to see that they’re capable of performing at levels of excellence, as Daniel strives to find ways to draw out excellence in his students.

“What I find most stimulating and challenging is inspiring students to recognize their inner potential and help them develop those talents,” says Daniel.

As a Lecturer in the Academic English Program at UBC Vantage College, Daniel teaches in the language enrichment courses that accompany the courses that focus on the other disciplinary content and takes time to motivate, encourage, and provide resources.

“I feel that a large part of my teaching career has been spent not simply teaching students, but rather placing them in a highly active role, pushing them beyond their comfort zone and making it clear that it’s alright to stumble and make mistakes along the way, because if they don’t, it’s likely that they aren’t being ambitious enough,” says Daniel. “I love observing the change I see in students from the beginning to the end of a course, not only in their proficiency of the course content, but in their larger development as an academic and professional.”

Daniel’s teaching journey started while he was still in his undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, where he majored in social and cultural anthropology. He began as a volunteer, conducting conversation classes with newly arrived international students. Daniel was inspired to work abroad after several South Korean students took him to dinner and introduced him to Korean cuisine.

Daniel has since taught in a range of cultures and institutions. He taught English for Academic Purposes (EAP) at both Korea University and Gyeongsang National University in South Korea, and also with business professionals in Santiago, Chile, before eventually returning to Toronto to teach English for Academic Purposes at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. Daniel then relocated to Vancouver to teach at UBC Vantage College in 2015. Last year, Daniel served as the Chair of the Management program at Vantage College.

Vantage College offers innovative specialized first-year programs for international students who are able to access the integration of language enrichment with other disciplinary content through the Vantage One programs. It’s a challenging program for both instructors and students alike, but Daniel finds those challenges to be rewarding.

“The most challenging aspect of teaching at Vantage is also the most exciting. Because we are working in a very innovative program that delivers first year credit-bearing courses in a variety of disciplines with embedded language support, we have moved somewhat into uncharted territory.”

Daniel explains that his role is to develop and deliver discipline-specific language courses that help students understand and use language specific to the courses they are studying, which entails significant research, class attendance, and consultations with colleagues on the development of appropriate, custom-designed materials.

Daniel was part of a team of researchers who recently published an article based on their findings when looking at how unpacking dense academic language in multiple choice questions can increase student performance. This involves a socio-cultural process between the teacher and learner, in which the teacher adapts his or her support as the student needs, and eventually “fades” in his or her involvement and withdraws carefully and intentionally so that the learner is able to perform independently.

“Although this is challenging,” says Daniel, “it is exciting to begin to share some of our own research-based discoveries that demonstrate how language specialists can assist instructors of any discipline in delivering a curriculum that recognizes the linguistic needs of English as an Additional Language (EAL) students. Our recently published article showcases these findings in greater detail.”

The article, entitled, “Investigating the effects of reducing linguistic complexity on EAL student comprehension in first-year undergraduate assessments,” was published in the most recent issue of the Journal of English for Academic Purposes and can be read here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1475158519300323

By studying Vantage One Program courses—first-year university courses of various disciplines relevant to students’ programs with language-linked EAP courses—Daniel and his colleagues were able to address the performance gap between English as an additional language (EAL) learners and their non-EAL peers through the lens of a collaborative effort between sociology, psychology, and EAP instructors. Through close collaboration between the EAP instructors and psychology and sociology instructors, Vantage One students were provided with increased linguistic space to assess and unpack linguistically complex and highly abstract academic discourse, resulting in a significant and clear increase in student performance. With a goal to see whether reducing the linguistic complexity of multiple-choice test questions increased comprehension for EAL students, Daniel and his colleagues concluded that unpacking dense academic language is essential in order to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of disciplinary content.

The greater goal of the Vantage One program is to enhance not only student comprehension of dense academic language, but also to enable them to produce it themselves in increasingly sophisticated ways, and this is achieved through careful sequencing of the LLED 200 (Introduction to writing in academic and professional registers) & VANT 140 (Integrated Language and Content Tutorials) courses they take.

“The longer I teach, the more I realize that it is essential to make a connection to students and show you genuinely care about their learning experience. In class, I find students value my empathy for the challenges they face in adjusting to first year university life,” says Daniel. “My main aim is to provide them with a rigorous and challenging learning experience while also recognizing that we all have lives beyond the classroom, and our mental well-being is of utmost importance; in fact, it’s the pre-condition for professional success in the first place!”