Teaching International Students
There is rich diversity among Ohio State’s international student population. They include exchange students who attend for a semester or two, students from other countries who are pursuing a four-year undergraduate degree, and students whose families have immigrated to the United States. When considering how to include international students in our classrooms, it is important to address both linguistic diversity and cultural diversity.
International students whose native language is not English and who are here temporarily to pursue a 4-year degree have typically studied English extensively in their home country. They tend to be good writers, but have less confidence in their speaking ability. A 2013-14 study at Ohio State showed that international students who considered themselves to have low English proficiency also experienced higher levels of academic difficulty. However, it is often the case that a student’s actual ability in English exceeds their confidence in that ability. Additionally, supportive learning environments promote academic success even for students who are not highly proficient in the language of instruction (Asmar, 1999).
Immigrant students tend to speak fluently, especially if they have attended high schools in the US. They participate in informal conversation easily, but may have difficulty with more formal registers of speech and academic writing.
A student who is learning in their second (third, or fourth) language is working to process both language and course content. The more students have to work to decode the linguistic message while listening to their instructor, the less cognitive space is left for processing course material. Instructors can help non-native speakers facilitate language processing with a few simple strategies.
What Instructors Can Do to Facilitate Comprehension:
- Speak slowly and clearly, and make sure you can be heard, especially in a large classroom space. If necessary, use a microphone.
- Write down any technical terms and disciplinary jargon on the board. If these terms are present on a slide, make sure to point them out and explain what they mean.
- Provide course content in multiple formats, for example, images that illustrate course concepts, or detailed slides and handouts.
- Repeat your statements, or paraphrase them, to give students the opportunity to listen again.
- Sequence instructions carefully. For example, instead of saying “Weigh your sample after adding the third compound to the mixture,” say “Add the third compound to the mixture; then weigh your sample.” The sentence structure in the second instance is simpler, and it matches the order of tasks.
- Avoid idioms and culturally specific references. If you do need to use a culturally specific reference, explain it.
- If you expect students to take notes, pause to give them time to do this. If you notice students not taking notes, it is possible that note-taking was not a habit in their prior schooling (it is not expected in all educational cultures). You can help them build this habit by providing explicit direction about what they should be writing down, whether it is copying what you write on the board, or writing their own thoughts and questions.
- Periodically, pause to allow questions and to check for understanding. Classroom assessment techniques are useful tools for this.
- Use language on tests and quizzes that is similar to the language used in course materials.
What Instructors Can Do to Support Speaking in Class:
You will likely notice a range of behaviors with respect to class participation, just like you would with native-born US students. Some students will be shy about speaking up and others will be eager to raise their hands and contribute. Here are a few simple strategies that you can use to help students whose native language is not English build confidence in speaking in class.
- Be patient and encouraging.
- Give students positive feedback on their English language skills, when you have the opportunity. A boost in confidence can ease students’ anxiety when speaking.
- Allow students to think or formulate a response before they have to speak. When posing a question, ask students to first write down their answers or their thoughts for a minute or two. Then ask them what they wrote. It will be easier for international students to contribute meaningfully if they have a chance to put their responses together before they have to share them.
- Ask for multiple voices. Instead of taking the first response to a question, wait for three or more individuals (or small groups) to raise their hands. Asking for multiple volunteers allows you the chance to call on students who participate less frequently. It is important to wait until the number of volunteers you have called for actually raise their hands. If you don’t get that number, ask students to talk in pairs to think about what they could contribute if called on to share (see the next point).
- Offer brief think-pair share activities, to allow students to speak with just one person, rather than the whole class. This can provide speaking practice in a smaller, less threatening group environment, and it can help build community by providing opportunities for students to get to know each other. It is important to ensure that all students participate, and to make sure that they work with different people as appropriate throughout the term.
Many of our international students are accustomed to a culture of education that may different from that in the United States. In the 2013-14 study cited above, international students reported struggling with misunderstanding assignments, and knowing when to ask questions and seek help.
What Instructors Can Do to Facilitate Adjustment to a Difference Educational Culture
- In general, be very explicit in your instructions for everything, from in-class learning activities to assignments (Carroll, 2005).
- For in-class activities, describe the purpose of the activity, and explain the task(s). For example, it can be useful to explain the benefits of discussion-based learning for students who may not have much experience with it.
- For assignments, describe the knowledge students will use and the skills they will practice in a given learning activity or assessment (Winkelmes et al., 2016). Describe the task in as much detail as possible, including the format that the finished product is supposed to follow. It helps to provide examples of past student work, if available. Finally, explain how the assignment will be evaluated (consider providing a rubric). Distinguish specific requirements of an assignment from guidelines.
- Be clear about when students are allowed to work together and when they are not. Many international students are comfortable working in study groups, but they do not always know at which point they should write up their own, individual version of an assignment.
- When giving feedback, provide suggestions for positive behavior. For example, instead of comments such as ‘unclear’ or ‘confusing,’ provide guidance about what the student should have done, such as: ‘Tell the reader when you transition from describing the author’s viewpoint to describing the evidence that supports or does not support that viewpoint.’
Asmar, C. (1999). Scholarship, experience, or both? A developer’s approach to cross-cultural teaching. International Journal for Academic Development 4(1): 18-27.
Carroll, J. (2005). Strategies for Becoming More Explicit. Chapter 4 in Carroll, J. & Ryan, J. (Eds). Teaching international students: improving learning for all. Abingdon & NY: Routledge.
Tanner, K. D. (2013). Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE-Life Sciences Education 12: 322-131.
Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K.H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students success. Peer Review, Winter/Spring 2016: 31-36. American Association of Colleges and Universities.
Ohio State University Office of International Affairs, Dennis Learning Center, & University Center for Advancement of Teaching. (2013-14). International Undergraduate Student Experience: Academic Challenges. Unpublished Report.