Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2016

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Educational Policy and Leadership Studies

First Advisor

Morphew, Christopher

First Committee Member

Pascarella, Ernest

Second Committee Member

Barnhardt, Cassie

Third Committee Member

Hu, Shouping

Fourth Committee Member

Wesely, Pamela


This study explored the precollege and college level factors that moderate the relationship between language background and college cognitive gains for non-native English speaking (NNES) students. I focused on three college cognitive outcomes, including critical thinking, need for cognition, and positive attitude toward literacy. Because there is limited research on the relationship between language background and college cognitive growth, I first examined the effects of being a NNES student on college cognitive outcomes. Next, I explored the mediating effects of three sets of influences on the relationship between NNES status and college cognitive outcomes, including students’ precollege characteristics and background, college-level academic and non-academic experiences, and institutional characteristics.

Data of this study was from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education (WNSLAE) – a longitudinal study investigating the effects of college experiences on student cognitive and personal outcomes theoretically associated with a liberal arts education. The final sample had a total of 4,304 students, including 4,063 native English speaking students (NES) and 241 non-native English speaking students. Because this study examined NNES students’ cognitive outcomes and was focused on student level rather than institutional level differences, Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression was used for analyses. Results of this study suggested that NNES students demonstrated significantly fewer gains in critical thinking and positive attitude toward literacy than their native English speaking peers after controlling a variety of confounding variables. Moreover, the relationship between students’ native language status and critical thinking as well as need for cognition was conditional on precollege and college level influences.

This study makes three important contributions to existing literature. Firstly, this study is among the first, if not the first, that examines the cognitive gains of NNES students during college using a pretest-posttest design. It adds to the growing body of literature that highlights the effects of student characteristics on college experiences and outcomes and expands our understanding of the role of language background in college student development. Secondly, this study provides empirical evidence on the effects of language background on college cognitive growth using a multi-institution longitudinal data and a pretest-posttest design. It estimates students’ cognitive gains during college through controlling the precollege level of cognitive scores besides a variety of confounding variables. Thirdly, results of this study provides valuable practical insights. This study is a significant addition to the literature that explores the college cognitive growth of underrepresented student groups. As the American society continues to become more diverse in many aspects, implications of this study are helpful for educators and researchers to achieve educational excellence for all students.


ix, 95 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 84-95).


Copyright 2016 Jiajun Liu