Five useful measures for welcoming students to international classrooms

Preeti Aghalayam explains why it’s worth examining the effectiveness of your teaching, acknowledging the changes needed for an inclusive classroom and how to do it

Preeti Aghalayam 's avatar
24 Oct 2023
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Teaching in higher education institutions too often presumes that students in a class have similar backgrounds and aspirations. Be it knowledge of fundamental concepts in the subject, language and vocabulary or even plans for the future, there are bound to be significant variations among students, particularly in international classrooms. Different groups of students might be taking your class for different reasons – to satisfy core requirements, because it was the only one for which they met the prerequisites, or out of deep interest and passion for the subject. Particularly in classes where the student population is culturally diverse, all these factors and more lead to the fact that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching often does a big disservice.

International, diverse classrooms with students learning and performing at a very high level are not a new phenomenon. However, it is always worth examining the effectiveness of our teaching techniques and acknowledging the changes we need to make for an inclusive classroom. Here are five important measures you should be thinking about in your international class design.

Begin at the beginning

It seems obvious that a course should start with an introduction, maybe a bit of motivation and a perspective on how the field has evolved. However, instructors frequently make assumptions about what students know and, as early as week one, they stand to lose a number of students. It is useful to take a few hours in class to judge the level of the students, learn what they don’t know (and why they took this particular course) and welcome them gently into what is bound to be a hectic term.

Keep it simple

Complex marking schemes, sliding deadlines, unclear demarcation between recommended and suggested readings, dynamic lecture schedules and flowery or vague language are recipes for disaster. Keep the course clear, well articulated and simple. Publish a class and homework schedule right at the beginning, announce exam dates and prescribe readings specifically.

Assign additional reading or resources

As the course progresses, you will be able to clearly identify students who are floundering and those who are not being challenged enough. You could assign additional reading on foundational aspects for those who lack conceptual clarity or state-of-the-art journal articles for the students who are ahead of the curve. Note that this is best done as suggestions given in one-on-one meetings with the students. Sometimes they don’t have the motivation, bandwidth or time to do anything beyond the classroom – and it is also important that we accept this. My top recommendation is to design a few interactive games that provide students with a failsafe means for learning new concepts or brushing up on prior knowledge. Plus, via timed play, this means they can compete with themselves and one another in a healthy way.

Check that evaluation pattern

Even the best efforts at inclusivity in the classroom can be smashed when instructors design exams. Even more than lectures, evaluations need to account for differences in background knowledge, training and future aspirations of the students in a class. Moreover, it is always better to reward both effort and performance, particularly in an international classroom. And remember that breakout-room activities needn’t be limited to online classes – use them for group activities and award points for participation, ingenuity, clarity of thought and so on. Traditional pen-and-paper, closed-book timed exams do have their role to play, but so do other, more innovative means of evaluating students. Instructors would do well to include several modes in the design of the class to accommodate various types of learner.

Engage better

Everyone faces this at some point in their teaching careers – students being too shy, intimidated or uncaring about answering questions (or asking their own). These feelings, and the chasm between teacher and student, can be further exacerbated by differences in accents, vocabulary, fluency in English and so on. Some students might have come from very rigid educational backgrounds where asking questions in the class was not encouraged. Acknowledging these differences, being mindful about not crossing hidden cultural barriers and accommodating diverse viewpoints about classroom etiquette, while difficult, are important. Instructors would do well to adapt their methods for student engagement depending on the people in the class in front of them.

Many of us have had long teaching careers. We may well establish ourselves as a particular kind of teacher and a caricature of us trickles down to student populations over generations. But every class is different and, as we embrace the power of diversity and inclusivity, it is good for us to learn and grow alongside our students. In doing so, we stand to expand our own perspectives, efficiently improve classroom engagement and train robust new cohorts of students capable of contributing more in the supersonic, ever-changing world of today.

Preeti Aghalayam is director-in-charge of the Zanzibar campus, IIT Madras. 

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