The number of international students coming to CU has tripled since 2009. The profile of the population has flipped during this time; in 2009 there were twice as many graduates as undergraduates; today undergrads outnumber grads by over two to one.
CU’s international students are diverse. The top countries of origin in 2021 are China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, with nearly two-thirds coming from an Asian country that is not considered part of the Middle East. The top undergraduate majors are Computer Science, Economics, and Physics, and more than half of the international undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences select a major in a natural science discipline.
Although all international students must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for admission, their English language proficiencies vary widely across the four language domains (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). While some students bring strong social or conversational language skills, for example, others may struggle with English for academic purposes. Many international students have not necessarily been immersed in an English learning environment unless they attended an English-speaking high school.
Multilingual learners come to your classroom with an array of experiences and backgrounds. Most university faculty have expertise in a disciplinary field and are not likely to have received preparation in English language development. Working with multilingual learners can present some challenges but can also be rewarding. By recognizing the needs of these learners and supporting them in your classroom, you can create a more inclusive, safe, and welcoming learning environment for all students.
Considerations for Faculty Teaching International Students
It is natural for faculty to count on some shared norms for classroom behavior and participation. Cultural differences in expectations for teacher and student roles can create some surprising and even confusing interactions. Here are a few things to consider:
Participation and communication look different. Many students come from cultures where speaking up in class is not common practice. Silence is a way to show respect for the instructor, and in some cultures, it may be a face-saving strategy when a student is not certain of an answer. Silence may also represent a student trying to keep up; learning a new language is difficult and it can take a little extra time to process what is being said. You may need to give students more time to prepare a response before they can participate.
International students often lack contextual knowledge. A student may not have had certain experiences that are common to students raised in the United States, and therefore, may struggle with understanding. For example, using American sports metaphors like, “cover all your bases” or “he dropped the ball” might elicit some puzzled looks. Or when students are asked if they thought they were “Buffs” they might think they are being called overly masculine.
Plagiarism is relative. Academic dishonesty and plagiarism are Western concepts and values that are not universally shared or understood. International students who are being supported financially by family or their home governments often feel tremendous pressure to succeed and may make unfortunate choices before they understand that what they are doing is considered to be wrong. It is not uncommon in some countries to memorize and recite verbatim from experts, without the practice of citation; this may be seen as respecting authority and not as dishonest.
There are cultural differences in the expectations for teacher-student roles. In many cultures, it is common to see teacher-centered classrooms emphasizing passive learning, rote vs. critical thinking, waiting for explicit instruction, and indirect communication. Students may be surprised to be asked for their opinion or to say anything that might contradict their teacher.
Reminders and Recommendations
- If course content is US-centric, include, welcome, and respect global perspectives.
- To address participation/communication, provide a sample email assignment where students are required to email the instructor. For in-class participation, allow for small group work or jot/pair/share to give students time to construct their responses.
- Avoid jargon where possible or explain phrases where contextual knowledge is key to understanding.
- Be explicit about expectations around plagiarism. Use examples to show students how not to plagiarize. (Simply saying, “Plagiarism is a crime” is not sufficient.) Know that in the vast majority of cases this is not done intentionally, and international students may not understand what they are doing wrong. Avoid being punitive right away; rather, work with students to help them learn and try again.
- Be clear in your instructions for course assignments. Provide examples of finished assignments showing format, content, and clear learning objectives.
- Adjust pedagogical approaches. Seek regular feedback from students: Ask, What about this is not clear? What questions do you have?
- Provide students with frequent feedback in multiple ways. Be consistent and clear; even a short response is fine to help them understand how they are doing.
- Use group work effectively. Pay attention to the size and composition of groups. Assign specific activities or roles in the group. Construct groups so that English is used.
- Build redundancy into your course communications: post, email, and announce assignments and expectations. Follow each course meeting with an email with key instructions and deadlines.
- If an international student is not an active participant in the class or your course policies indicate that they should be disenrolled, remember that dropping an international student (or suggesting that a student drop) can impact a student’s immigration status. Contact International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) first to see if this is a possibility.
Your overall approach can go a long way toward helping international students feel welcome in your classroom. Build connection and trust by being intentional in your interactions.
- Learn your students’ names and how to pronounce them correctly.
- Have empathy. Find ways to get to know your international students and their preferred learning styles. Maximize office hours and allow appointments outside of office hours if needed.
- Be authentic. Find ways to share your own life and culture and connect with common experiences.
- Try not to show favoritism to domestic students.
- Learn how to deal with silence. Silence can mean active thinking and could be a sign of respect for the instructor. Provide a longer wait time after asking questions. Give students time to think and understand the cultural dimensions. Create a safe environment where international students can participate.
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Dr. Andrea Feldman is a Teaching Professor and the International Student Coordinator in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado Boulder. Contact Dr. Feldman at email@example.com.