Lilly Conference attendees making DNA strands out of candy pieces

Teaching and Supporting International Students

Cultural Experiences and the Class Environment

Many International students’ classroom experiences and expectations with regard to education prior to attending Miami are vastly different than the typical U.S. classroom experience or expectations. These differences in prior educational experiences along with confidence in English language skills may account for both real and perceived difficulties that International students encounter in their classes at Miami.

Awareness of these issues will help instructors to recognize them when they occur in the classroom and to be better prepared to support International students in their classes.

Why are some International students very quiet in class?

Students are or appear silent for a number of reasons both contextually and culturally constructed, such as power structure in a classroom, a student’s limited confidence in second language speaking, and, among some East Asian students, high self-consciousness about making mistakes and losing “face.” Some might be personally constructed, such as little motivation for the student to actively engage in the conversations, due to a lack of interest or accurate understanding of the course content, which are traits shared by domestic students as well.

Linguistic barriers to speaking in the classroom

Some International students might need additional time to understand questions, process information, and translate their thoughts into English speech.

In a study of Chinese students, Tang T. Heng found that “Students reported needing time to collect and translate their thoughts into English before speaking, and described difficulty with the kinds of quick interjections needed to participate in classroom discussions.” (in Redden, 2014, Inside Higher Ed. Read more.)

Cultural barriers to speaking in the classroom

In some Eastern cultures, keeping silent has the following meanings:

  • Students show respect to the instructor by being quiet, and thinking aloud is not appropriate in front of an authority—the instructor.

  • Students want to avoid all possibility of making mistakes or losing “face”.

  • Students appear to be silent, but they may be listening attentively and actively processing information.

Classroom barriers to speaking in the classroom

In addition to some International students’ cultural reluctance to speak, they sometimes report a sense of being silenced by others in the classroom, examples include:

  • The instructor does not comment on or acknowledge their contribution,

  • A classmate interrupts the International student and takes over the conversation,

  • Their classmates give them lower scores on contributions of group projects even when the student has worked hard

  • The teammates insists that the International student’s answer to a problem could not be right with no sufficient justification.

(Lee & Rice, 2007; Song, 2014; Zhou, Knoke, & Sakamoto, 2005)

Instructors are encouraged to provide space or International students to speak in class as well as define class engagement (participation) in a manner that takes the above points into consideration. Instructors also can provide detailed guidance on group projects that includes assigned tasks or roles. Instructors also can provide opportunities for students to write their ideas rather than speak them (e.g., blog posts, discussion boards, 2 minute papers); this can allow students to demonstrate that they were engaged in class even though they appeared to be silent.

The importance of GPA

Grades are the exclusive criterion that determines a student's academic life in some school systems, particularly in China and other countries in East Asia. Therefore, the importance of GPA might be over-emphasized by some students especially in the beginning of their overseas study. The focus on GPA might cause anxiety and, for some students, lead to poor decisions with regard to academic integrity.

The concept of critical thinking

Students from cultural backgrounds that emphasize active listening to and processing of what is being taught may find it psychologically challenging to change from being an information receiver to an active contributor of knowledge. Voicing and providing their own opinions and building their own arguments is challenging for students who were not trained to think independently. Detailed guidance is appreciated and effective in helping students to transition their thinking styles.

Regular Homework Assignments

For some International students, particularly those from East Asian countries, assessment is conducted primarily through exams, and students are not accustomed to completing regular homework assignments or homework assignments that are for credit. Additionally, in some educational systems, when students are given homework assignments, it is common for students to work on these as groups and submit one or the same assignment for each student.

Instructors are encouraged to help students understand the purpose of the homework assignments, be clear about guidelines for how homework is to be completed (individually or collaboratively and what this means), and how the homework is used for assessment and grading.

The concept of academic integrity and plagiarism

Students from other cultures have had very different experiences with the concepts of academic integrity, in particular, plagiarism. In some cultures, even though strict rules about cheating (usually on exams) exist, when cheating occurs, the rules are not enforced, and there are little to no consequences. Such experiences lead students to believe that the same is true at American Universities. Students are often surprised when the rules are enforced and at the severity of the consequences for cheating. Instructors are encouraged to help students understand that the rules will be enforced.

Some students come from cultures in which helping peers and friends is not only encouraged but expected, even if it involves dishonesty. For these students, a sense of duty or community can outweigh a sense of rules-oriented right and wrong with regard to academic integrity. Instructors are encouraged to discuss acceptable practices with regard to working with others and collaboration as well as acknowledge this group pressure. For other students, anxiety about grades, poor time management, or being overwhelmed by the amount of work that is due will lead students to commit dishonesty, which is no different than their domestic peers.

With regard to academic writing and plagiarism, students from other cultures might hold different assumptions about textual borrowing, appropriate use of source material, writing in their own voice, or the mechanics and purpose of citation. Even though international students may take additional composition courses in relation to their domestic peers, many students continue to struggle with writing and source use throughout their collegiate careers and may have difficulty applying the concepts learned in early composition courses to writing in their disciplines. Instructors are encouraged to provide students with specific expectations for citations and source use, provide opportunities for multiple drafts, and to use Turnitin in an educational manner.

Dr. Brenda Quaye, Coordinator for Academic Integrity in CTE, works with both faculty and international students on issues academic integrity.

To view faculty development workshops on teaching International students, go to The Center for Teaching Excellence workshop videos.


References

  • Lee, J. J., & Rice, C. (2007). Welcome to America? International student perceptions of discrimination. Higher Education, 54, 381-409. doi:10.1007/s10734-005-4508-3
  • Redden, E. (2014, April 9). Chinese students in the classroom. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://insidehighered.com
  • Song, L. (2014). Between the cultural push and the cultural pull: An exploration of Chinese students’ self-concept. (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation). Retrieved from https://etd.ohiolink.edu/
  • Zhou, Y. R.,  Knoke, D., & Sakamoto, I. (2005). Rethinking silence in the classroom: Chinese students’ experiences of sharing indigenous knowledge. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 9, 287-322. doi:10.1080/13603110500075180