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October 1, 2015

Teaching@Pitt: International students


“How can I help my international students? I’m not sure that they understand my lectures.”

“How can I encourage my international students to participate in class? Some of them are quiet.”

“The international students don’t really mingle with the domestic students. What can I do?”

Instructors who have international students in their classes often ask these questions, and the challenges have been more evident with the increasing numbers of international students enrolling in U.S. colleges. International students come from cultural backgrounds that can be very different from what they experience in the United States. They face challenges due to limited English language proficiency, lack of familiarity with the American context of a discipline, as well as homesickness and lack of social support. Specific strategies to address these challenges will enable you to enhance your international students’ learning experiences, and many of these strategies are effective for all students.

• English language proficiency. Despite adequate scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Graduate Records Examination (GRE), international students’ English language proficiency might not be enough for them to comprehend lectures and textbook readings accurately and efficiently. As an instructor, you can implement these practices to help:

— Avoid excessive use of slang and cultural references, which tend to distract and confuse students who are unfamiliar with American literature or culture.

— Check students’ understanding by asking specific questions. For example, ask students to paraphrase new information or apply knowledge in a new situation. This is an effective way to check all students’ comprehension.

— At the beginning of the class, seek ways to prompt students to recall what they have previously learned through individual responses and/or paired discussions.

— Use writing as a reflection tool. International students who may not have the proficiency to speak up in class may express their thoughts more completely in writing. You also can use writing to gauge all of your students’ understanding of the material. Your international students might surprise you with how much they comprehend, even though they are quiet in class.

— Confirm that students completely understand what you say. Non-native speakers of English sometimes lack awareness of the subtle nuances and hidden meanings of language that native speakers possess. For example, if you say, “I would ask Kelly to find that out,” meaning, “If I were you, I would ask Kelly to find that out,” some international students may think you are the one who will ask Kelly. As another example, the expression “I don’t know if …” sometimes is used to express polite disagreement in American English. For instance, the sentence “I don’t know if that material will last” could be interpreted literally by some international students to mean that you truly do not know, rather than that you are politely disagreeing. Elaboration on the meaning can help avoid confusion.

• Familiarity with American context of a discipline. Whereas disciplines like mathematics and science have universal concepts, this is less the case with subjects like political science and social work because international students are often unfamiliar with American institutions, education, welfare and political systems. As a result, when some topics are the subject of class discussions, international students may not have much to contribute.

To engage all of your students in the discussion, invite international students to share what they know about similar topics in their own country. This will validate their knowledge and allow them to discuss something more familiar to them, as opposed to just listening to material they know little about. This technique also gives your domestic students a chance to learn about global perspectives and explicitly demonstrates the value brought by international students.

• Homesickness and lack of social support. International students can experience culture shock and severe homesickness that can lead to isolation, disorientation and even depression.

— Encouraging international students to interact with domestic students outside of class is not always effective because they tend to gravitate to people with similar backgrounds in a foreign country. Instead, consider how you can provide opportunities to interact during the class for collaborative learning. For example, you might design class activities in which students focus on reading or listening to different parts of the learning materials, a report or an article, and then share information with each other in order to complete an observable product such as a poster or a short summary. Having a concrete goal in mind will allow all students to collaborate in groups for specific purposes, and this process helps international and domestic students to establish rapport as a byproduct of the activity.

— Direct international students to local communities they can join. There are international groups representing many different nationalities in Pittsburgh.

— Suggest local interest groups such as “Meet Up” groups. Newly arriving international students will appreciate the information and will have a chance to make friends with local Americans. This helps them get acculturated in a new society and find support.

Make an effort to understand and recognize your international students’ experiences, knowledge and cultural values by speaking with them and reading about their cultures. Doing so will empower you to make inclusive instructional decisions that draw on their culture and intellect as resources for all students. This, in turn, promotes engagement and enhances learning interest.

Meiyi Song is an instructional designer and teaching and learning consultant for CIDDE.

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