Supporting your international students, and their writing, online

As we deliver our classes mostly online this Fall, we should be continually reflecting on how our course design, assignments, and assessment uniquely impact international students. This very topic was the focus of a recent workshop (part of our Teaching Writing Effectively in Online Environments series) hosted by Dr. Larysa Bobrova, Coordinator of the English Language Learner Writing Center.

In the workshop, Bobrova shared important insights on how international students have experienced online learning. Did you know, for example, that only 6% of international students say virtual learning aligns with their typical learning style?1 Bobrova went on to discuss challenges international students can face with communication, time differences, cultural knowledge, and other factors. Below we outline some key insights and actions you can take in your class with international students in mind.

Remember that time differences can be significant for international students. You should factor this into decisions on synchronous vs. asynchronous sessions and also assignment deadlines. If your class is fully online, you’ve probably already set up all your assignment deadlines in Canvas and, thus, given students plenty of advance notice. However, if you’re posting assignments as you go through the semester (this may apply particularly to hybrid classes) consider making your deadlines time-zone dependent, not based solely on Eastern Standard Time.

International students benefit from social and cultural cues that you should try to replicate online. Be specific in all your directions. Avoid jargon and explain unfamiliar terms. And be personable. Address students by name in feedback, provide audio and video content that establishes you as welcoming and supportive, and offer regular appointments for virtual one-to-one meetings.

Foster an inclusive classroom community. Favor group work and mix groups up often. This helps students feel less alone and learn from each other. When students respond to their peers’ writing, be clear that the focus of feedback should be on the expression of ideas rather than perfectly polished Standard Written English. Attentively monitor for any suggestions of xenophobia or discrimination (Sadly, this concern is on ~25% of international students’ minds right now).2

Be cognizant of potential technology challenges. When international students are outside the United States they may not have the same access to the platforms we’re accustomed to using on-site at Miami. Stick with tech we know will support students in various countries: Zoom, Canvas, iCloud, WeChat, Panopto, and Piazza.

Understand, too, that some students may have concerns about government surveillance in their country. Be mindful of when your writing assignments are touching on potentially culturally-sensitive topics. You should listen to any student concerns and proactively offer assignment options that would allow students to write about a topic they’re more comfortable pursuing.

Let your students for whom English is not their first language know that the English Language Learner Writing Center (ELLWC) is open virtually throughout the semester. Face-to-face online appointments (real-time interaction via videoconferencing) and written online appointments (no real-time interaction) are being offered. ELLWC consultants are trained to offer collaborative peer interactions that promote confidence. They will focus on a student's writing complexity and proficiency, grammar, self-editing, and intercultural competence. Consultants are happy to discuss writing at all stages, from understanding assignments and brainstorming to organizing main points, discovering disciplinary conventions, and citing sources.

2. SERU Consortium Survey, July 11, 2020