Assess your Academic English (Diagnostic)

A student looking at a teaching film.

This project delivered a multi-skilled online tool to allow international students whose first language is not English to self-assess their academic English and study skills. The ‘Assess Your Academic English' diagnostic is now an integral part of the services provided by the University of Birmingham’s International Academy (BIA) and will further  ensure that all the University’s non-native international students receive 360 degree support from self-assessment through to customised help that addresses the English needs of the individual student as well as departmental and university wide needs.

This project contributes to the University’s internationalisation strategy. From surveys the BIA conducted, it was clear that many departments were struggling to identify students needing academic English support. It has long been shown (Green, 2013) that English proficiency tests are extremely limited as diagnostics/predictors of academic English skills, so their IELTS results offered little help. Thus, without this diagnostic, the first feedback international students receive may be in written assignment feedback in January three months into their programme (at which point it can be too late to help students needing the most support). With the help of this BIA diagnostic, international students on all programmes at UoB can now more promptly assess their capabilities in academic English and use the BIA’s services and resources to develop their skills (enabling all international students to achieve the success they deserve) on arrival. 


January 2018 – October 2019
Beneficiaries: International students (whose first language is not English)
Theme/focus: Online self-assessment
Discipline: Academic English Skills
Cohort size: 1200-1500 students


With Education Enhancement funding the BIA have developed a formative diagnostic quiz to help all international students self-assess their  English for Academic Purpose skills. On entry to the University all students can now access this tool through Canvas.  The 20 questions take students 40-45 minutes to complete and helps them reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in academic English grammar, academic writing skills, paraphrasing/avoiding plagiarism, taking notes from an academic lecture and completing a lecture summary, and groupwork/seminar English skills.

What we did

Building on Ross’s (1998)  model of  self-assessment,  in our tool students respond to questions on each topic before being asked to reflect on their own confidence levels. The (2019-20) 20-question quiz takes students 40-45 minutes to complete and is made available to both Edgbaston and Dubai students.  In addition to training students in the skills of academic grammar/academic writing/note-taking in lectures and seminar skills, another central aim was to check students' awareness of good paraphrasing techniques and check for any bad habits (e.g. accidental plagiarism). On the  assumption that poor paraphrasing and citation skills are often contributing factors to plagiarism (Davis, 2007; Davis & Carroll, 2009), and also based on our experience that many students turn to essay mills and ghost writers through a lack of confidence in their own academic paraphrasing skills, we decided to build part of the diagnostic around lecture extracts demonstrating the simplicity of good paraphrasing and the proper use of  sources without plagiarism.  With progressively more difficult questions, the tool proactively helps students understand the underlying concepts of academic integrity while building their confidence in the skills that help them avoid accidental plagiarism.  

This project has involved a phased launch (culminating in the full launch in September 2019).   In the first phase, due to GDPR concerns, the quiz could not be offered on our main Canvas course so students were invited to a separate Canvas course:  630 students self-enrolled on this course and self-assessed their English skills by December 2018.  In September 2019, 4,000 students will be invited to do the quiz on our main BIA Canvas course.

What we achieved

After doing the quiz, students told us in surveys/focus groups that they 1) had a better awareness of their own skills and 2) had an understanding of how they could autonomously work on their English grammar, academic writing skills, paraphrasing skills, lecture skills and /seminar English skills throughout their academic programme.

(Chinese Postgraduate student) “This assessment has helped me better understand how I need to proofread my academic writing.  I did not know about the BIA before I arrived.  I   now see I need to work on my academic English and will attend lunchtime classes and workshops whenever I can’.

What we learnt

  • A quiz must be either a self-assessment or a summative assessment (it cannot be both).
  • Using ‘practice quiz’ functionality (without a grade) in Canvas avoids several GDPR compliance issues.
  • Non-credit bearing quizzes should have no more than 20 questions.
  • Students preferred to do a ‘quiz’ and receive ‘quiz scores’ (minimising their time on their quiz) to the lengthier ‘Canvas module’ and overly complex feedback with ‘completion certificate’ that we first piloted. They also wanted the ability to take the quiz multiple times.
  • Our Worklink student (software developer) created an extremely innovative Canvas LTi, but the Python scripting could not be supported on the server by IT services. Future HEFi funded projects would clearly greatly benefit from a written list of server constraints and a ‘sandbox’ area on IT services’ server

Looking ahead 

In the second phase (having overcome some GDPR concerns), the quiz has now been added to the main BIA Canvas course and we forecast that 1200-1500 students will have completed this diagnostic by December 2019.  It is envisaged that it will help the BIA build more and more international students’ confidence and support further alternative modes of delivery.

Further links, resources and communities of practice

From September 2019 the diagnostic is hosted on the following open enrolment Canvas course (internal to University of Birmingham staff):


For more information, contact the projects office on, quoting reference CSLP209.