Teaching International Students: Pedagogical Issues and Strategies

One challenge that instructors face is how to design a course so the material engages students' prior knowledge and their skills, whether the intent is to build on that knowledge, to interrogate it, or to situate new ways of thinking.  When students bring diverse backgrounds, course design is particularly challenging.  On the other hand, attending to student differences provides valuable clarity for both students and instructors; and drawing on student differences multiplies the teaching and learning exchange in a class.  

 

Clicking the CHECKMARKS below unfolds more detail for each of the following categories noting more about each issue, and listing instructional strategies that respond to those issues.  The ideas are relevant whether the class has a few or many international students, or whether the class focused on international topics or not.   Most of the issues are present to some degree in every classroom, and all of the strategies have potential value to instructors and students.


Click on the blue check boxes to read more.

Bridging differences in background knowledge and classroom practice
Issues
  • Instructors cannot assume background knowledge of American history and cultural references.
  • Skills learned in high schools abroad may not match those expected by instructors used to teaching U.S. students.  Some skills may be far advanced; others may be less advanced.
  • Classroom participation and engagement strategies will be unfamiliar to some students.
Strategies
  • Regularly identify the skills you want students to learn and apply, being very explicit about the extent to which students need to absorb material and the extent to which they should question material presented
  • Incorporate checks for comprehension into the classroom presentation style.  Checks that can identify gaps in preparation for all students include
    • Asking students to paraphrase or apply ideas, and check for comprehension
    • Checking in regularly to ask “what questions do you have?” (not just “do you have questions?”)
    • Asking students to write down the names, events, or other references you make that they are not familiar with, to clarify later
    • Have a CTools or other chat space for students to ask and answer questions that come up because material is unfamiliar
    • Using other classroom assessment techniques (see http://www.crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tssf)
  • Provide clear guidelines for participation and allow time for a participation learning curve (for example, a trial period before participation points can be accrued)
  • Provide specific and clear instructions about policies, grading, and all assignments both orally and in writing
  • Be very explicit about your classroom practices including:
    • Expecting students to ask questions if they do not understand
    • Valuing differences in student experience and preparation
  • Be prepared for gaps in understanding and view them as opportunities for review, collaboration and discussion
Teaching non-native speakers of English
Issues
  • A fast pace of lecture makes effective note-taking difficult for students, particularly for non-native speakers of English.
  • Amount and complexity of academic reading and writing may take more time for non-native speakers of English.
  • Non-native speakers of English may fall behind in class participation, especially in the beginning weeks of a class.
Strategies
  • Use a lecture pace that allows time for note-taking, and checks for comprehension as above
  • Begin with a brief recap of the previous lecture, or review the overarching narrative of the course regularly
  • Provide an agenda or outline for each class
  • Post PowerPoint slides
  • Illustrate key points with visual material 
  • Create study guides and study questions to help students prioritize reading material
  • To enhance participation, ask all students to take a minute to write responses to questions asked in class, and then call for responses
  • Use pairs so all students can talk about an idea, when you break into small groups
  • Utilize online tools to stimulate student exchange (chatrooms, blogs, Piazza)
Improving climate
Issues
  • Differences in fluency may lead native English speakers to finish sentences, or fill in words, for non-native speakers, rather than taking time to listen.
  • U.S.- specific examples, slang, idioms, and U.S.-specific humor in class may be used to liven lecture or discussion, but these exclude international students.
  • Referring to stereotypes of national “styles” or character marginalizes students, if unaddressed.
  • Commonly held preconceived notions about international students that may obstruct communications include:
    • International students are lacking characteristics of U.S. students (individualism, independence, and the like).
    • Asian students are naturally smart in math and science.
    • All international students want to do is study.
    • International students are quiet, don’t want to participate in class, like to keep to themselves.
Strategies
  • When speaking, be attentive to pace of speech, use of idioms and cultural references
  • Identify social differences as being valuable resources in the classroom, facilitating student learning from various cultural perspectives (see learning outcomes)
  • Take time if you hear reference to national stereotypes to question the generalization and its application
  • Focus on whether students have understood your point, not only on how well you stated a point
  • Make use of non verbal communication like gestures and eye contact
  • Discourage sidebar conversations involving subgroups of (U.S. or international) students
  • Facilitate equitable participation and sharing of diverse views and perspectives
  • Get involved in discussions on how to promote international student engagement, facilitation of group work and discussion in a diverse classroom, etc.
Promoting academic integrity
Issue
  • Some international students do not learn the same rules about copying and plagiarism that are fundamental to U.S. higher education.
Strategies
  • Emphasize academic integrity verbally, and include reference to the rules and sources of information in the course syllabus
  • Suggest that students take a test to make sure they know what plagiarism is.  The following link has an excellent test:  https://www.indiana.edu/~tedfrick/plagiarism/item1.html


Other academic resources on campus for non-native speakers of English

Classes, workshops and tutors are available to help non-native speakers of English at the English Language Institute (http://www.lsa.umich.edu/eli/) and Sweetland Center for Writing ( http://www.lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/).
 

References

Brett, J., Behfar, K., & Kern, M. (2006). Managing Multicultural Teams.
Harvard Business Review 84(11), 89-96.

Focus groups with U-M faculty and students with cross cultural experience in higher education (facilitated by CRLT)

Views of U-M undergraduate students during a breakout session of 2010 U-M Summit of International Students

Meeting with CRLT Program Managers in March 2012

Teaching for Diverse Populations: http://fod.msu.edu/oir/teaching-diverse-populations
Office of Faculty and Organizational Development
Michigan State University

 

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