Structuring your class, assignments, and assessments in such a way as to encourage increased learning and productivity from international students does not mean lowering standards or holding a different set of standards exclusively for international students. The tips that follow are intended to help fill gaps so that international students can equitably be held to the same performance criteria as their domestic peers.
Although it is likely that many international student misunderstandings will be due to the challenges of navigating university life in a second language, don’t assume that comprehension challenges are due exclusively to language barriers. The following suggestions should make your lessons accessible to all students and should give them their best chance of communicating their understanding back to you.
- Use visuals whenever possible
Providing visuals such as slides or handouts whenever possible can help international students better understand class content and give them something to focus on while listening to you.
Lecture outlines allow students to understand the organization of your lecture as well as differentiate among main ideas, key details, and examples. In addition, providing such content ahead of time is a good strategy to ensure that your students are listening to you rather than reading from slides or handouts.
- Take advantage of online forums/clickers
Consider having students post questions anonymously or try using clickers in class so students can vote for correct answers. International students will welcome the anonymity that these methods afford them.
- Consider wait time
Non-native English speaking students often need extra time to process questions and formulate responses. If you have the practice of calling directly on students, it is strongly recommended that you present the question first to the entire class before doing so. This will give international students extra time to process the question instead of the “deer in the headlights” reaction they may have if you call on them first before asking a question.
How much wait time is sufficient? This will vary but consider giving each student approximately three to four seconds of wait time before you speak again.
- Explain your rationale for a given activity
In the U.S. classroom, international students will often be asked to participate in activities such as pair work, group discussion, debates, and projects among others. These are activities that they may never have had to do before in their home countries. As a result, many may feel uncomfortable or exhibit reservation. It is often helpful to explain how such activities will lead to expected course outcomes or help them to develop a particular skill. When international students understand the rationale behind a given activity, they are more likely to fully engage, trusting that the professor has a clear purpose for the class direction.
- Help students learn how to decode exam questions
Some international students have trouble knowing exactly what is being asked within a specific exam question. They may need practice in decoding exam questions or word problems to determine what the question is really asking. Consider walking through a few practice exam questions, taking them apart to make certain that students know what is being asked. For example, are students being asked to both compare and contrast two systems of government or just indicate the differences? How does a given word problem in math translate into an equation that needs to be solved? If you expect your students to show their work in a math problem, be sure to indicate so. You may want to give students the opportunity to ask questions about the intent behind exam questions before beginning the exam so that language-related issues do not interfere with performance.
When an exam is returned, be sure to indicate why questions lost points or were incomplete, so that students can get a better idea of what you were looking for.
Addressing Language Issues
Need strategies for working with students for whom English is not their first language? Visit our resource page and discover concrete strategies for helping your students succeed at NC State.Learn more
Writing styles differ widely across languages and cultures. While the Western writing style tends to be direct and linear, this is not true for many languages. Some students may perceive such a writing style to be insulting to the reader as it frequently repeats its main points and assumes that the reader has little to no background knowledge on the subject. It can also be viewed as dry and formulaic, which may be a turnoff for students who have been taught to use more expressive language.
In many countries outside of the U.S., the writing assignments that students are asked to complete tend to focus on summarizing information rather than forming and defending an argument or interpreting a body of work.
Some international students will come to university without ever having written a research paper. They may or may not be familiar with the concepts of citing sources and avoiding plagiarism. Even if they are familiar with the concept of plagiarism, subtleties relating to what does and does not constitute plagiarism will take time to develop and master.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) is an excellent resource for both domestic and international students and is highly recommended.
The NC State Graduate School maintains a list of faculty, staff, graduate students, and professionals who have expressed interest in proofreading for a fee. This resource may prove to be especially valuable for those students in the editing phase of their theses and dissertations.
- Provide examples
If possible, provide models of what you consider to be good work as well as work that does not meet your standards or expectations.
- Give specific feedback
Wherever possible, give specific feedback on student written work so that students can easily grasp what they are doing well and what they still may need to work on. Avoid making comments such as “awkward” or “unclear” on student papers because it may not be readily apparent to the student what the issue is. Does the awkwardness arise from sentence structure, word choice, or something else? What exactly is unclear? Is it the student’s reasoning, evidence, or language? Be straightforward and direct rather than suggestive and indirect in your feedback. Rhetorical questions are unhelpful as students will often interpret them literally and choose to take no action. Be clear on what feedback is an actual suggestion (and, therefore, optional) and which feedback requires action on the part of the student.
- Focus less on grammar
Do not feel obligated to make grammatical corrections to your students’ work unless there are errors that impede comprehension. If students are making persistent errors, you may choose to draw attention to these errors and advise them to make an appointment at the Writing and Speaking Tutorial Center.
Classroom styles and formats also vary widely across cultures and languages. Lectures may be the instructional format many international students are most familiar with. However, even for those students with experience in class discussions, the rules of engagement in such discussions may differ significantly from the U.S. context. Consider the following challenges and accompanying suggestions to make class participation and engagement more accessible to a culturally diverse classroom.
Asking and Answering Questions
International students may feel uncomfortable asking and answering questions.
- Let students know that you expect questions. Remind them that questions are a sign of an engaged and conscientious student. Let them know that their contributions to class are welcomed and valued.
- Consider giving students opportunities to submit questions in writing prior to, during, or after class.
- Vary the types of questions you ask in terms of their respective cognitive difficulty. Begin with questions that elicit facts or memorized content before asking students to evaluate or analyze information.
- Consider asking a question and giving all students a chance to write a response down on paper before calling on anyone.
- Allow students an opportunity to explore an idea in pairs or groups before having them answer questions in front of the entire class.
- Make yourself available after class for questions. Encourage students to attend office hours.
- If you give points for participation, consider easing into this practice by not counting participation during the first two or three class sessions. This will allow international students to become familiar with your expectations before being expected to actively engage with the course content.
You may find that international students may be very reluctant to share their opinions when asked.
- Explain how U.S. style class discussions work by emphasizing that each individual’s opinion is welcomed and needed and that their input (even if it is controversial) is valued. If there is a language barrier, remind students that it is okay to make mistakes in English. It’s important that students understand that for professors, hearing students’ opinions is more important than hearing perfect English.
- Encourage students to give opinions about non-academic topics to get them comfortable: the weather in Raleigh, the food at Talley, their dormitories or apartments etc.
- Let students know that they don’t have to be an expert in something in order to have an opinion. However, emphasize that opinions should be supported, whenever possible, with facts or personal observations or experience. Remind them that it is completely normal for people’s opinions to change over time with experience and additional information.
- Make it clear that you expect everyone in each group to speak and give each member a fixed amount of time in which to speak.
In many cultures, it is considered rude to openly question or challenge the ideas of a professor or even respected peers.
- Remind students that in the U.S. classroom we learn by examining different ideas and viewpoints. Tell students that it’s fine if they don’t agree with the opinions of their professor or classmates. However, when expressing disagreement, it is necessary to be polite and respectful of others’ feelings. You may even want to model how this works.
- Explain that disagreement does not constitute a personal attack. It is the ideas that are being called into question and not the person or his or her character.
- Do not assume that the nodding of one’s head or silence indicates agreement. This may be a sign that a student is following you or is trying to be polite.