From IELTS to University – Speaking Assessment

This post will explore some challenges students face when communicating formally, for assessment or otherwise, on their journey to graduation. Many international students who enter western universities find that there is a degree of mismatch between the communication strategies they’ve developed to achieve a high IELTS speaking grade and the types of academic communication that are necessary on both degree and pathway/access courses. As a result, some students can feel unprepared and reluctant to participate when they begin year one or year two at university.

Effective seminar participation

Universities often use a combination of lectures and seminars to deliver the teaching on each course module. All students are familiar with lectures, but many are unfamiliar with seminars, which are group discussions based around a set of themes, topics or questions. One very common arrangement is to have a weekly lecture with a weekly seminar on the lecture topic, where students are given relevant discussion topics or study questions and discuss those topics in a seminar with 12-20 other students whilst the lecturer monitors and guides the discussion. Some universities and pathway/access course providers will grade each student’s seminar contribution during the year by using an engagement score, so every student must be able to participate in these seminar discussions.

The challenge for many international students is that whilst their IELTS speaking courses have prepared them well in terms of giving detailed and well-structured long responses to formal questions, they are less well prepared in terms of managing their role in and contributing to formal group discussion. Here are some strategies to ease this problem:

  • Manage the discussion to suit your needs – when first encountering a seminar discussion, many students start by assuming their responses are limited to agreement and disagreement, and then struggle to interject in the fast-paced discussion. However, it is acceptable to ask another participant to summarise their argument, as well as to ask other participants to explain their position or give examples to illustrate their argument. Also, if you respond by explaining what you understand about a speaker’s statement, and then asking them to clarify the rest, you increase the likelihood of a positive response.
  • Check your pronunciation of frequently-used words – there are two types of vocabulary to consider here. Firstly, functional vocabulary which is used to introduce ideas. A classic example is the mispronunciation of ‘I think…’ as ‘I sink…’; this is a particular problem as a student is likely to use this phrase repeatedly, and persistent errors in pronunciation can make it more difficult for listeners to engage with your arguments. Secondly, key vocabulary which is fundamental to the subject of the discussion. For example, if you are discussing economics, being confident about the correct pronunciation of the names of economists and relevant theories will strengthen your contribution.


Speaking to a group of people in your own language can be a challenge, but even more so when you are speaking in a second language. The combination of nerves and the demands of formal English can make giving presentations a difficult experience for students, particularly when they are unaccustomed to giving presentations in their own language. Some useful guidelines for presentations are:

  • Focus on exploring solutions to a problem, or the strength of an argument or piece of evidence. Don’t just provide an overview of a problem or argument. One of the most common problems with student presentations is that they are too descriptive, and fail to provide sufficient analysis and evaluation to receive a high grade.
  • Focus on timing. Too often, students lose marks because their presentation is too long or too short. It is important to practice speaking for the right length of time.
  • Focus on preparation. Students sometimes assume that a presentation can be prepared in a few hours. Whilst it is possible to create a PowerPoint presentation in an hour or two, the research is the important part, and this should take much longer.
  • Make effective use of visual images. Any images which you include in the presentation should add information to the presentation. Graphs, charts and maps usually work well; photographs of people and places generally don’t.

Speaking to professors and lecturers

International students often have good reasons to seek one-to-one tutorials with professors and lecturers.  Students who don’t have English as their first language may struggle to understand important parts of lectures fully, as well as coursework instructions and other elements of day-to-day academic life. However, lecturers and professors generally have busy schedules of teaching and research, and therefore have limited time available to talk to individual students.  So, it’s important that students do everything they can to maximise the individual contact they have with lecturers. Some useful strategies are:

  • Send an enquiring email to the professor with a list of points you wish to discuss, as well as some suggested meeting times. This allows the professor to direct you to appropriate learning resources for some of your queries, and then focus on the more difficult questions during your tutorial.
  • Make sure your questions are ones about the subject the lecturer teaches, rather than general academic questions. General academic questions, about essay writing or research, are better directed at academic skills support teams, often based in university libraries.
























One comment

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