What do we need to do to create an effective classroom experience for adult English language learners


Objectives: The purpose of this project is to inquire with university and college students who recently completed courses in English for Academic Purposes (ESL) about their experiences of the ESL learning environment.  The learning environment consists of both the traditional classroom and the virtual (online) classroom.  The study seeks to inform ESL lesson planning and future research about improving the learning environment. 

Methods: Questionnaires were distributed to 20 university and college students who had completed ESL courses during the past five years.  They were asked to respond to questions about which aspects of the traditional (face-to-face) classroom and virtual (online) classroom were helpful and which caused anxiety.  Responses were analysed using thematic analysis. 

Results/Analysis: Results indicate that students experience anxiety in situations where they lose track of what is being taught and do not know how to resolve their confusion.  Also, students find it helpful when instructors take time to tailor ESL classes to the individual interests of students, especially the students’ chosen fields of study which they will enter after completing the ESL programme. Finally, computer anxiety may not be as significant a concern for adult learners as it was in years past; thus, the benefits of online learning for adult ESL learners may be easier to achieve than before.   

Conclusions: It is recommended that ESL classes include significant online components, so adult learners can enjoy the benefits of self-directed learning.  It is also recommended that instructors begin courses with face-to-face classes (when possible) to establish their presence and a real interpersonal relationship with students.  Questions should be asked to help determine students’ interests, so the ESL curriculum can be transmitted in a way that is tailored to the individuals in the class. 


            Among English language learners, proficiency in English may be an important predictor of future academic outcomes (Graham, 1987), and empirical research demonstrates that the accuracy of prediction models for anticipating future academic outcomes is largely influenced by English proficiency (Kong et al, 2012). These observations suggest that effective acquisition of English for academic purposes (EAP) can make the difference as to whether or not adult English language learners enrolled in college will achieve their full potential. This paper includes original research to gather information from adults who studied ESL and went on to enroll in university degree programmes.  Researchers can formulate theory based on former ESL students’ responses to survey questions about the aspects of the ESL classroom experience which they find to have been most useful in preparing them for success in higher education. 

            This study was inspired by an email message sent to the author of this paper from a former ESL student. The message was a follow-up to a conversation about creating an online discussion group for people to share their insights about experiences they had in the English classroom.  He writes, “It’s 80-20.  The same rule for business is also the rule for learning English. Students will get 80% of the benefit from 20% of learning” (Kwasianim, 2015). He was referring to a heuristic in business which says 20% of customers will bring 80% of profit, or that 20% of investments will bring 80% of returns.  Conversely, 20% of difficult customers lead to 80% of problems.  This rule of thumb is known as the Pareto Principle (Juran, 1975). It is possible that this principle can be applied to improve outcomes in adult ESL classrooms while decreasing anxiety.       

            When this former ESL student, who is now almost finished with his degree programme in business, sent a message about the Pareto principle, it was a reminder that English learners deserve to have their educations enhanced with the same rigor that is used in the business world.  Improving the effectiveness of classroom experiences for adult English language learners is a complicated business, because adult learning and language learning both are highly researched and multidimensional subjects. The effectiveness of English education also plays a vital role in determining educational and professional outcomes.

            The purpose of this research project is to collect data from adult English language learners about their classroom experiences and analyse them with thematic analysis in order to gain knowledge about what they perceive as the most or least effective components of that experience. This research seeks to identify what aspects of the ESL learning environment they found to be most helpful and what aspects they found to cause anxiety. This includes anxiety associated with interpersonal learning situations as well as ‘computer anxiety’ in virtual learning environments.  This research is based on data about individuals’ experiences of the learning environment in the adult ESL classroom, including the available resources and interpersonal factors such as relationships between students and instructors. The questions presented to participants are related to the environmentin particular, so that the scope of the study is narrowed enough to make a unique contribution to the improvement of English education. 

Definitions of Terms

Learning Environment

            In adult education, the learning environment is defined by Hiemstra (1991) as “all of the physical surroundings, psychological or emotional conditions, and social or cultural influences affecting the growth and development of an adult engaged in an educational enterprise” (p. 8). This is a very inclusive definition, and the breadth of what is comprised by a learning environment reflects the complexity of the learning process. Add to this the observation by Fraser (2002) that the environment is established by the common perceptions of teachers and learners, and the focus on perception helps to establish exactly how the current research should approach topic.  To identify ways to improve effectiveness, this project is designed in a way that will build on recent research studies in the areas of adult learning theory, English language learning, and the learning environment.

Recent Former ESL students

Because the learning environment has been discussed in research reports in terms of perception, this paper is interested in gathering data about the perceptions of recent, former EAP students. In this study, recent former EAP students include anyone who completed an EAP course within the past five years and went on to use it in a degree programme at a university.


            English proficiency is an important factor in determining achievement in higher education (Kong, Powers, Starr, & Williams, 2012); possibly so important that it deserves much more attention than it receives. Kong et al (2012) studied the connection between English language learning and academic outcomes and found, “English language proficiency may be a more important predictor of future academic achievement for ELLs than their previous academic achievement” (p. 18). This finding suggests that proficiency in English can make a world of difference in a students’ outcomes in school, so much that a student with a history of poor academic outcomes could enroll in a degree program and outperform peers who had a history of better academic outcomes if that student has excelled more in English. With this insight, it is clear that there is a need to enhance the quality of the adult ESL classroom environment, because it is the foundation for success in one’s education and career.

            Although it may seem extreme to state that English proficiency has been found to be a better predictor of academic success than previous academic outcomes (Kong et al, 2012), it should not be surprising. English proficiency has far reaching consequences for specific aspects of higher education. When trying to identify what we need to do to create an effective classroom experience for adult English language learners, we should give attention to their perceptions of that experience as reflected in relevant research studies. Perhaps it is easy for people to understand why success in higher education for ESL students hinges so much on their achievement in English, but they still may fail to appreciate all the complex ways it affects the classroom experience.

            Another important focus of this project is the aspect of the environment related to technology.  In modern classrooms the virtual learning environment plays a significant role in any learning process that is partially or wholly administered online.  Participants will answer questions about their experiences of technology resources used during English instruction. ESL students utilize a number of different cognitive learning strategies (Bifuh-Ambe, 2011). In the 21st century many new resources are available for accommodating and augmenting these diverse strategies. Ideally, ESL students should have access to all the resources that could empower them in their English acquisition, but in many cases schools are not able to afford such resources (Cho and Reich, 2008). Thus, the resources needed to enhance the adult ESL student’s experience are inaccessible to many. Even when such resources are accessible in the classroom, they are useless if students do not understand how to use them.  

            The inclusion of anxiety as a theme for this project was not arbitrary. Anxiety is associated with several factors that detract from the effectiveness of any learning experience, including cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of learning situations, and has significant effects on their academic outcomes (Erfanmanesh, 2011). Anxiety has a uniquely high level of importance among adult ESL students because of the emotional and interpersonal nature of language learning and also because the use of computers with adult learners, though a source of opportunity to accommodate their unique needs, also has been shown to be a cause of anxiety. 

            The concept of anxiety plays a large role in this research because of the fact that it affects all aspects of the learning process as well as student outcomes, and one researcher expressed that it potentially has “debilitating effects on students’ academic achievement” (Jiao, Onwuegbuzie & Waytowich, 2008, p. 949). More research is needed in order to contribute to understanding about the factors which cause anxiety in the ESL classroom. For example, a specific type of anxiety results from the use of computers, which have unique importance in adult ESL education.  The findings of several studies suggest that female students experience more computer anxiety than male students (Shoham and Mizrachi, 2001; Noor & Ansari, 2011; Durndell & Haag 2002; Todman, 2000). Yet, other studies showed that males experienced more anxiety (Brosnan and Lee, 1998). It is important to produce more information to clarify the ways computers can cause anxiety for different types of students and how that anxiety can be reduced for a better classroom experience. 

Key Words

Adult learning, English for Academic Purposes, Blended Learning, Computer Anxiety, Thematic Analysis

Research Question

“What do we need to do to create an effective classroom experience for adult English language learners?”


            A large amount of factors are in play for adult learners in ESL classrooms, and in order to improve their experience one must address concerns about the classroom environment, the virtual learning environment, and interpersonal factors. For the purpose of this dissertation, the challenge of enhancing the classroom experience of ESL students will be explored with attention to each of these three areas. They are identified because they correspond to the elements of the definition given by Hiemstra (1991, p. 8) for the term “learning environment.” It includes the following as they affect the learning process:

  • Physical surroundings
  • Psychological or emotional conditions
  • Social or cultural influences

Another definition is based on the way the involved people share a common way of viewing a learning situation, so that environment is treated as a matter of perception: “common perception of students and teachers in an environment where learning takes place’ (Fraser, 2002). This review of literature is based on an adaptation of the definitions by Hiemstra (1991) and Fraser, so that consideration is given to the perceptions of the involved people about the most prominent factors in the classroom or learning environment.  In addition to considering social, cultural, psychological, emotional, and physical aspects of a classroom environment these same factors are considered in the virtual learning environment when classes are offered online.

Physical Aspects of the Classroom Environment for Adult Learners

            The physical learning environment is distinguished from the virtual (online) learning environment. Although the general population of adult learners may not have all the same characteristics as adult ESL students, it is worthwhile to spend some time considering that advances in adult learning. In considering the physical learning environment, the concept of learner autonomy is significant in that the structure of the classroom is part of what determines whether the learner is able to take an active role or forced into a reactive state. Research by Deci and Ryan (2009) shows that environments which allow autonomy for the learner are more conducive to improved performance and wellbeing.  It will be no surprise if students who are asked about their ESL experiences indicate that factors they found to be helpful were ones that increased their autonomy. 

            The research about learner autonomy coincides with the research about adult learning, in that adult learners have been shown to exhibit higher levels of intrinsic motivation that children (Knowles, 1980). In fact, the level of satisfaction reported by former ESL students about the learning environments available to them will likely be affected by their learning styles and preferences.  On one hand, effective classroom experiences are not necessarily the same as preferred classroom experiences, so the responses of participants in studies like the present one may be misleading.  On the other hand, if classroom experiences and learning environments are compatible with students’ preferences they surely will lead to higher levels of motivation which can equate to a higher level of effectiveness. 

            Additionally, it is possible to debate what constitutes effectiveness in a learning environment and the importance of roles played by factors such as preference and motivation.  In addition to such concerns, the preferences of adult learners also include practical matters such as having enough time to fulfil responsibilities to work and family while also completing ESL coursework. Empirical research has shown that adult learners prefer learning experiences that accommodate their need for time-efficiency due to the hectic lifestyles of people nowadays (Faizah and Hazadiah, 2010). The inference that should be made when designing ESL classroom experiences is that the time required of the students should be only enough to achieve the purpose or it will be impossible for them to complete their course.   

            Going a step further, just as it is necessary to consider cultural norms and values when discussing what makes an effective learning environment for adult ESL students it is also necessary to account for individual factors such as learning styles.  In order to accommodate a variety of learning styles it is useful to provide physical learning environments with differentiated instruction so that the adult learners have more than one option for achieving the goal – which is to learn the material being taught in the class. 

            The essence of differentiated instruction is purpose-oriented, active learning in authentic environments.  For this reason, Werben (2001) emphasises the usefulness of field trips for adult ESL students. The nature of a field trip makes it ideal for authentic learning experiences, and authenticity always involves an element of ‘problem-based’ learning in the sense that real world situations present problems to be solved.  A problem-based approach to instruction in authentic, natural circumstances such as the ones that arise on an ESL field trip always have the added benefit of providing instruction that is naturally differentiated.            However, it is not possible to generalise such a statement across all groups of adult learners.  While the work of researchers like Knowles (1980) show how adults learn compared with how children learn, it does not account for different values and norms that make one culture different from another.  Knowles’ observation that adult learners have more intrinsic motivation than young learners should not be understood to mean that all adults are intrinsically motivated.  Perceptions and attitudes toward learning environments differ from one culture to another. 

            Radovan and Makovec (2015) used surveys to measure various attitudes among students from different cultures and found that Russian learners have comparatively high levels of satisfaction with their educational processes, while Slovenian learners are least satisfied with the process, and Hungarian students are least satisfied with the outcomes. Results like this one are the outcomes of an interaction between so many variables that their usefulness for characterising individual cultures is compromised – because expressions of satisfaction and dissatisfaction are influenced by many values and personality traits, and Radovan and Makovec did not control for many variables.  They acknowledge that the differences in levels of satisfaction may result from many factors.  These include actual differences in educational systems, personality differences among respondents, cultural differences from one nation to another, individual affective and psychological factors, and socio-economic factors.

            From the research discussed in this section it is possible to conclude that there is no single set of criteria for setting up an effective learning environment for adult ESL students.  Based on observations about the characteristics of adult learners it is possible to set up classroom environments that lend themselves to the type of practical, purposeful, student-directed, and time-efficient learning that adults tend to prefer, but this is only the first step. The learning preferences that tend to vary according to gender, culture, and other factors also should be considered.  This part of optimising the learning environment can only be done if instructors are perceptive and proactive enough to fine-tune the classroom to suit the particular group of students in the class. 

Computer Use in Adult ESL Classrooms

            In the previous section it was observed that research evidence about the characteristics of adult learners can help ESL educators to know how to set up a classroom in the ways that are best matched with their characteristics as adult learners, such as a need for autonomy (Deci and Ryan, 2009) and higher levels of intrinsic motivation (Knowles, 1980). In addition, as Faizah and Hazadiah (2010) note, adult learners tend to prefer learning environments that accommodate their hectic lifestyles. The virtual, web based learning environment is perfect for enhancing autonomy, harnessing intrinsic motivation, and accommodating busy schedules, so any discussion about creating an effective learning environment for adult ESL students would be incomplete without some thoughts about this new type of classroom.  

            Returning to the concept of accommodating multiple learning styles, it is interesting to note that online learning programmes, which include an online aspect of the learning environment, might be fundamentally inferior to traditional classrooms because they cannot accommodate as wide a variety of learning styles.  The word ‘might’ is appropriate, because that claim is quite controversial.  Some researchers have pointed out that lectures in the form of PowerPoint presentations with audio tracks actually attend to visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learning all at once (Birch, 2009).  However, based on that reasoning it seems that online presentations are being celebrated for their capacity to simulate traditional classroom experiences.  Therefore, it can be argued that classrooms that consist only of virtual environments may not have as much potential for effectiveness as face-to-face classrooms. 

            In support of the argument that online classes lack an element of motivation that traditional classrooms have, some researchers have shown educational outcomes to be negatively affected when the instructor seems invisible to students (Cleveland-Innes, & Fung, 2010), and students often withdraw from classes in which the instructor’s presence is not noticed (Ekmekci, 2013). As a result, it has been suggested that when using online learning platforms, the instructors should ensure that an exchange takes place between themselves and the students, mutually offering feedback in the forms of program evaluation and assessment techniques with which both students and professor receive feedback (Ekmekci, 2013).

            On the other hand, an ESL classroom that does not cover the use of English for online activities is incomplete. The prevalence of computer uses in the 21st century makes it necessary for English education to include computers. Students need to practice using English online, and they also should be given the opportunity to benefit from computer technology which may enhance learning.  For example, in discussing the benefits of recorded lecture presentations Birch (2009) writes, “The table of contents in the left hand column allows students to navigate back and forward through the presentation. [. . .] especially useful for [. . .] ESL students who appear to benefit from both listening and reading the content and can repeat the slide if required.”  In this regard, a ‘blended’ learning environment might be most useful since it has the benefits of both the traditional and the virtual classrooms.

Computer Anxiety

            Even among adult native English speakers the concept of computer anxiety is an important consideration for anyone interested in enhancing the effectiveness of a classroom experience. Researchers are noticing a new trend by which adult learners become frustrated as they realise that in order to go back to university and complete a degree it is also necessary to become skilful with new computer technology (Sivakumaran and Lux, 2011). For adults in an ESL classroom, this same frustration may exist and it will also be compounded by the way a language barrier can interfere with learning to use new Internet resources or digital technology involved in the ESL classroom.

            Looking deeper to gain understanding about the student’s personal experience of the ESL classroom, it may be possible to identify specific facets of an element of learning such as computer use. As an example, computer anxiety has been shown to be inversely related to English achievement, as ESL students with greater proficiency do not suffer from as much anxiety (Rahimi & Yadollahi, 2011). As computers are more important than ever in higher education, this finding is of the essence because anxiety is also a factor which researchers know has potential to limit academic success (Patton, Goldenberg, 1999).

            Sivakumaran and Lux (2011) suggest three steps for helping adult learners overcome computer anxiety: purpose, positive attitudes, support. The concept of purpose refers to the reason the adult is trying to use the computer and what he is trying to achieve. The second is creating a supportive and positive environment where the adult learner can gain skill. The third is a support system that can be accessed by the adult learner to work out solutions to problems as they arise. What can ESL teachers learn from this model for overcoming computer anxiety? The answer may be two-fold.

            First, this same three-step process can be tailored to the needs of ESL student to help them overcome computer anxiety in the ESL classroom. This part of enhancing their classroom experience is important simply because computers play a large role in all aspects of modern education and should be prominent in any ESL classroom. Part of learning English is learning to use it for the purpose of utilising computers, either in continuing their education or professional development. It follows, then, that the way to enhance the experience of adult learners in the ESL classroom includes a process like the three steps recommended by Sivakumaran and Lux (2011) for overcoming computer anxiety, and tailoring it to the needs of ESL students in a particular classroom and the types of computer and Internet resources they are using.

            Second, the challenges associated with learning computers can be compared with the challenges of learning English. Both are important for people who want to be competitive job candidates at particular companies, and they pose challenges for adult learners. It is also important to recognise that both computers and English are used as methods of communication. Human and computer language have so many characteristics in common that we refer to programming ‘languages’ and computer ‘literacy’.

Interpersonal Aspects of the Learning Environment

            In the section above, it was noted that male learners tend to experience less computer anxiety than female learners but that female learners are more inclined toward learning situations that involve interpersonal interaction.  Based on research findings it could be argued that virtual learning environments are better suited for male learners than for female learners, because the authentic interpersonal exchange that can take place between people working together in a traditional classroom, which is motivational to female students, is eliminated.  It is replaced with the convenience of a learning environment on a computer, which may in some cases be more likely to cause anxiety for female learners. Thus, the trend of putting classes online might be disadvantageous to female learners.   

            Moos (2002) expands on the discussion of learning environments and proposes a psychosocial environment with three components: The relationships among the people involved, the personal growth dimension which is very important to adult learners because they are taking classes in order to advance in their careers, and the characteristics of the system where the learning takes place. All three of these dimensions take on new meaning in the adult ESL environment, and they can serve as a useful way to approach the enhancement of their experience.

            Accommodating multiple intelligences is important not only in the ways described in previous sections but also for the sake of improving the interpersonal experiences of students.  In a research study by Soleimani, Moinnzadeh, Kassaian, and Ketabi (2012) an experimental design was used to measure the difference made when a multiple intelligences approach was taken to English learners at an Islamic university. In addition to showing improved outcomes in all skill areas, the multiple intelligences approach also resulted in significantly improved learner attitudes. 

            Any study that attempts to correlate student perceptions with demographic or other factors must control for a wide assortment of variables.  In fact, studies looking for relationships between learning preferences and other factors should control for gender because it is well established that male and female students tend to have different learning preferences (Honigsfeld & Dunn 2003). When ESL educators try to set up the learning environments most conducive to effective learning experiences, and when researchers try to learn more about the role played by learning styles, gender is a primary consideration.  

            One of the many studies that show different patterns for male verses female and learning styles was applied directly for English learners. The study took place in the United States and involved 90 ESL students who were asked about their learning preferences.  The males indicated a preference for logic and mathematical approaches to learning, while females preferred interpersonal approaches to learning (Loori, 2005). Results like this one are supported by similar results from other studies and they are also elaborated by other findings with empirical observations to further describe the differences.  An example is Honigsfeld and Dunn (2003) who showed that male learners from five countries studied – Bermuda, Brunei, Hungary, New Zealand and Sweden – tended to be kinaesthetic learners while females were shown to have more intrinsic motivation.   

            It is also necessary to consider culture.  Despite its limitations this research serves to highlight the importance of considering a student’s cultural background when trying to optimise the physical learning environment for adult students. Culture is a vital consideration in classrooms where students are learning English as a second language (ESL) as students tend to come from a wide variety of cultures. Work by researchers such as Radovan and Makovec (2015) shows how cultural differences equate to different levels of satisfaction and it is logical to assume learning styles and preferences differ with culture as well. 


Setting and Participants

            The setting for this study was a virtual alternative to traditional research settings, as email was used to distribute questionnaires and responses were also given via email.  Because of the specific population targeted for this study, the most efficient method of identifying participants was to use Facebook Groups involving the keywords EAP, ESL, university, and English for Academic Purposes.

            Participants included in this study were limited to those who had learned English for academic purposes within the past five years and went on to use it in a degree programme at a university in the United Kingdom or their home countries.  To participate in this study, individuals needed to have completed at least one full semester at their university after having learned ESL. The rationale for this parameter is that the study is interested in identifying those ESL classroom factors which adult university students report as having proven to be most helpful for promoting their success in their degree programmes. The participants must be people who had these experiences in the past five years, because methods and resources change so frequently that it is necessary to limit the study to the most recent time period. 

Research Question

“What do we need to do to create an effective classroom experience for adult English language learners?”

Materials/Research Instruments

            The following open-ended questions were used to elicit responses identifying the aspects of the learning environment that are most poignant and memorable to participants when reflecting on their ESL learning environments.  They are inspired by the explanation for ‘learning environment’ given by Hiemstra (1991, p. 8): “all of the physical surroundings, psychological or emotional conditions, and social or cultural influences affecting the growth and development of an adult engaged in an educational enterprise.” They were adapted to correspond to two considerations: environmental factors that are most helpful, and those that cause anxiety.  Moreover, these represent an adaptation of Hiemstra’s (1991) definition to make it more applicable in modern learning situations where classes are given online or supplemented with virtual learning environments or online resources. 

  1. Please describe some experiences from the ESL classroom that were most helpful in preparing you to use English in your degree programme.
  2. Please describe any experiences from the ESL classroom that caused anxiety. 
  3. Please describe the experiences with computers that were most helpful in your ESL classes.
  4. Please describe any experiences with computers that caused anxiety during your ESL classes.

            The rationale for using these questions is that the answers given by participants are likely to include discussion of the most memorable factors which either were helpful or caused anxiety. With reference to the aforementioned Pareto Principle, it is possible that the theory generated through thematic analysis of participants’ responses to these questions will help English teachers give priority to the most helpful aspects of the classroom experience and manage the ones that cause the most anxiety.    

            One limitation of this study is that it only addresses the question of how to create effective classroom experiences among adult English Learners is that it only applies to what is effective from the learner perspective.  It does not produce data from empirical measures of effectiveness, such as could be accomplished with an experimental design. However, definitions of the ‘learning environment’ which focus on the perceptions of the learners and teachers (Fraser, 2002) suggest that individual perceptions are what make up the learning environment. The intention behind the design of this study is to ascertain the most important factors identified by English learners from their own points of view.   


            This research was conducted by an English teacher working at a private college, teaching adult ESL students. Questionnaires were distributed to more than 100 students who seemed likely to meet the criteria for inclusion in this study.  First, the researcher used Facebook groups to find students who had recently completed EAP courses.  An invitational message was sent to each potentially qualifying participant via Facebook.

            The researcher set up an autoresponse so that all interested people received an email with the data collection instrument (four open-ended questions).  The researcher reviewed emails sent by those who were interested and discarded responses from all of those who did not meet the criteria for inclusion.  Participants had studied English for Academic Purposes and subsequently enrolled in university degree programmes.  The candidates for participation in this study were identified through the use of Facebook Groups for English Language learners.  Each questionnaire consisted of four questions, listed above. These were distributed to more than 100 people (convenience sampling) until 20 people responded and met the criteria for inclusion.  

            Responses were analysed with thematic analysis to determine which concepts were most prevalent in the respondents’ ideas about each of the four questions.  Thematic analysis is a qualitative method used to identify, interpret, and relate the themes present in participant responses (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Analysis involved coding the data with labels to correspond to the concepts that were mentioned, extrapolating subthemes from these or organising them into categories, and then the most prevalent themes and codes were reported in the findings of this paper. The result is a list of some of the most important concepts for improving ESL classroom experiences.   

Ethical Considerations

            To enhance quality, the researcher followed the recommendation from the university guidelines by seeking informed consent and ensuring participants that their confidentiality would be protected. Participants’ identities are kept anonymous, and their participation in the study was voluntary.  Ethical concerns were minimal, as this research consisted of questions which pose no harm to participants.  The questions require them to reflect on their ESL experiences that were most helpful and the ones which caused anxiety. 

Findings and Analysis

            Analysis of participant responses led to four notable themes that were most salient within the data: instruction tailored to students; anxiety is caused by getting ‘lost’; computers relieved anxiety rather than causing it. 

Table 1: Respondents in the Three Main Categories

ThemeColor on Pie ChartNumber of Respondents
Instruction tailored to students.Red4
Anxiety is caused by getting ‘lost’.Green5
Computers relieved anxiety rather than causing it.Blue3
Did not fit into the three main categories.Yellow8

            One concept that was not as highly prevalent in the data was nevertheless important because of the way it is supported in research literature.  Three respondents indicated that ‘helpful’ classroom experiences included situations where the instruction was tailored to them personally. “The instructor asked questions to help us prepare to explain about ourselves,” is an excerpt from one of the responses.  Asking students questions can also help instructors to follow this advice: “They should know our field [of study].” This comment was made by a student who expressed that it was helpful when the teacher helped students relate the course work to the field they intended to study in college or university.

            Many participants indicated that the aspects of the classroom experience which caused anxiety involved ‘falling behind’.  Only one respondent used this particular phrase, but other similar phrases occurred: “lost”, “unable to ask a question”, and “did not even know what he was saying”.  The notion of being unable to ask a question was explained: “I did not know what to ask because I did not know what I misunderstood. It appears that when remembering classroom experiences which caused anxiety people tended to recall moments when they no longer knew what was being explained and did not know how to ask the right question for resolving their confusion. Although computer anxiety is an issue that has been given a great deal of attention, the responses in this study did not indicate any particular anxiety associated with computers themselves or which online learning.  Some students gave responses which may indicate that the language of computer technology is a helpful way to overcome limitations of their English knowledge: “[computer-based] practice tools helped more than any other kind of practice.” “I learned from the lecture on the website more than the class.” Rather than being a source of anxiety, computers seemed to be a source of relief from anxiety. 

            Of the eight respondents who gave comments that did not fit into the three most prominent categories, some of their remarks included:

Table 2: Comments that Did not Fit in the Three Main Categories

Cause AnxietyHelpful
I experienced anxiety because I thought I would make some mistakes that were foolish or embarrassing.The environment of the classroom had many interesting phrases written in English.
The worst anxiety is role playing.My best part of the learning environment was the learning journal and I still write in it.
Games in the classroom were supposed to be fun but I had anxiety during games.Some of the most common phrases were on a poster in the classroom and I see them all the time.
It causes anxiety when I am asked to start a conversation in English The professor set goals and asked us to set goals to post on the walls so we knew we were making progress.
Using English online is more stressful.The professor suggested that we will record the lessons and listen to them later.


            Based on the scholarly literature about adult learning and computer anxiety, one might expect the results of a study like this one to show that computer-use in the ESL classroom is a significant cause of anxiety because of the multiple ways in which computers must be used during the course and because of the fact that computer anxiety has posed a significant challenge in recent years. However, the results of this study do not include many comments about anxiety caused by computer use in ESL courses, and students emphasized the benefits and usefulness associated with the online parts of their classes or class activities.  This finding may suggest that in 2016 the people enrolled in ESL courses are young enough that computer technology has been ubiquitous throughout all or most of their lives, so computer anxiety may be a thing of the past.  The recommendation based on this finding is to continue taking advantage of benefits of online learning for ESL because of the specific ways it accommodates the adult learners needs for autonomy, time-efficiency, and practical application. 

            Based on the number of participants who indicated that they felt anxiety when they ‘fell behind’ or ‘got lost’ it is again significant to note advantages from online learning environments.  In an online lecture presentation, it is possible for students to click different parts of a lecture to review them multiple times, so they will never ‘get lost’.  On the other hand, in a traditional classroom it is not feasible to stop the lecture every time a student falls behind, and as some respondents indicated the students may fall behind in ways that leave them unsure of how to even ask the right question in order to resolve their confusion. 

            It is recommended that ESL classes incorporate more use of computers now with specific attention to computer resources which promote autonomy and take advantage of the adult learner’s high level of intrinsic motivation.  It is also recommended that courses be tailored to individual students by asking students questions about their chosen fields of study.  This will help students prepare to express themselves when they begin their degree programmes, and it will also help ESL instructors to know what concepts and subjects will be most relevant to the students’ interests.  The authenticity of learning experienced determined whether they are memorable and enables students to resolve challenges in different ways based on their own learning styles. 

            Finally, if it is true that computer anxiety is no longer as significant a concern as it was in the past, and that online learning is being enhanced in ways that improve the feeling that the instructor is ‘present’, then it may be possible to benefit more than ever from the advantages of online learning for ESL students.  The outcome of this study suggests that computer-based learning can actually decrease anxiety, but the existing research literature suggests that students need to feel that the instructor is actually present in the virtual classroom.  It is recommended that blended ESL courses begin with face-to-face classes in traditional classrooms and that meetings take place regularly – and the adult learner should be left autonomous most of the time to use online resources and self-paced learning.  


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