In her interview with TIRF, Dr. Ching-Ni Hsieh, 2010 Russell N. Campbell awardee, discusses her dissertation, current work, how receiving the award contributed to her professional development, and encourages prospective donors to give to TIRF.
TIRF: Dr. Hsieh, last year, you were the recipient of TIRF’s 2010 Russell N. Campbell Award, which is given to the most outstanding applicant each year. The topic of your study was “Rater effects in ITA testing: ESL teachers’ versus American undergraduates’ judgments of accentedness, comprehensibility, and oral proficiency.” What were the main findings of your study for us in a few sentences?
Dr. Hsieh: My research investigated how ESL teachers and American undergraduate students evaluate potential international teaching assistants’ (ITAs) oral proficiency and how they perceive ITAs’ accented speech and comprehensibility. The main findings were that the ESL teachers and the American undergraduates did not differ in their judgments of ITAs’ oral proficiency but the undergraduates were more severe in their ratings of foreign accents and comprehensibility. Results of my study indicate that raters’ exposure to accented speech, their perceptions and their attitudes toward accented speech, and the approaches used to rating oral proficiency all had important bearings on raters’ judgments of ITA speech. My research suggests that in the process of screening ITAs, it is important to ensure ITA tests are fair to multiple stakeholders, including the ITA themselves, the undergraduate students, and the universities that hire ITAs for instructional purposes.
TIRF: What did you learn about doing research in the process of completing your dissertation?
Dr. Hsieh: Throughout the process of working on my dissertation, I developed invaluable research and writing skills. I learned how to think analytically, how to present arguments in a logical and coherent way, and how to manage time well. I also learned how to write grant proposals and seek external funding for my project. Overall, this process has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had. It not only allowed me to grow and transition from being a student to a scholar, but it also helped me define my professional identity as it developed over time.
TIRF: What position have you taken with Cambridge Michigan Language Assessments? What does your work involve?
Dr. Hsieh: I joined Cambridge Michigan Language Assessments (CaMLA) right after I defended my dissertation in January 2011. My capacity as an Assistant Program Manager at CaMLA involves developing large-scale, international-level language proficiency tests and conducting research in test validation. One of my current projects involves the development of a new speaking proficiency test, which is my main area of expertise. I am responsible for creating item writer guidelines, reviewing items, developing examiner training manuals, conducting field testing, and writing up reports for test validation. I have also assisted in the construction of other examinations developed by CaMLA. My current position provides me with a great opportunity to develop a research program that focuses on reliability and validity issues involved in test development.
TIRF: What are your current research interests, and how did your dissertation influence them?
Dr. Hsieh: My current work focuses on speaking tests, rater effects in performance assessments, and test validity. My dissertation project has helped shape my main research interests in speaking tests and the issues of rater severity and rater decision-making processes. Following from my doctoral dissertation, I continue to investigate sources of rater effects in performance assessments, and I’m currently designing a research plan to examine potential rater effects and the validity of a newly developed rating scale. I’m happy to see that I can translate the skill sets I have developed while doing my dissertation into the real world of language testing.
TIRF: What did receiving the TIRF Doctoral Dissertation Grant mean to you?
Dr. Hsieh: Receiving the TIRF Doctoral Dissertation Grant and the Russell N. Campbell Award was a huge surprise – and a great honor! It feels like an affirmation of certain decisions I have made at various points during my PhD study. But I guess more than anything else, receiving the award is a truly humbling experience – a lot of the credit for my achievement belongs to my mentors and friends who have been very supportive and honest with me. Being recognized by well established scholars in the field of English language education, who comprise TIRF’s Research Advisory Committee, also made me feel proud and I am very appreciative.
TIRF: Did receiving the grant instill more confidence in you when approaching your research? If so, how?
Dr. Hsieh: Receiving the grant definitely boosted my self-confidence in doing research. I learned to trust my instincts about pursuing new research projects even though the outcomes are not always clear. It also made me believe that I have the ability and responsibility to make positive contributions to the field of ITA testing and English language education in general.
TIRF: What advice would you give people who are just beginning their doctoral research?
Dr. Hsieh: I think most doctoral candidates have a topic in mind when they first begin their doctoral research, or they have at least a vague notion of the type of empirical study they want to carry out. However, my personal experience told me that turning those preliminary thoughts into a concrete scholarly concept or a research plan requires much more than coming up with a topic. My advice for someone who is just beginning their doctoral research is “RESEARCH.” What I mean is that you should begin your doctoral research with extensive literature review. Identifying and reading important literature on the chosen research area critically and analytically is the key. It is equally important to think “beyond” the literature and find the gaps as you read. I also find it useful to categorize the literature into theoretical literature and empirical literature, because these two major categories can provide the theoretical framework later in your dissertation and help formulate research questions or hypotheses as you go along. That being said, I must confess that I didn’t always enjoy this grueling part of my dissertation research, because at some point I was totally swamped with the endless literature review and not knowing when to stop. However, I also realized that there was no shortcut and no substitute for doing my “research.”
TIRF: What would you say to someone who is considering donating to TIRF?
Dr. Hsieh: TIRF’s research grants have supported so many doctoral students, including myself, to focus on their research without having to sacrifice rigor for want of funds. TIRF’s mission and effort to promote scientific inquiries in the field of English language education well deserve wider recognition from the field and beyond. I was thrilled when I received the Russell N. Campbell Doctoral Dissertation Grant from TIRF and felt wholeheartedly appreciative to the many generous donors who support this fund. I know the need for financial support for highly qualified doctoral candidates is much greater. I want to encourage anyone who would like to help make a young scholar’s dream to make a positive impact in the field of English language education a reality to consider donating to TIRF.