How to stop unconsciously discriminating against international students

Using enquiry-based learning gives overseas students agency and helps them decide for themselves how they want to be included in the learning process, says Dylan Williams

Dylan Williams's avatar
Seoul National University
21 Mar 2022
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How to stop unintentionally discriminating against international university students in your classroom through your pedagogy

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Agency can be defined as the capacity to act, as mediated by cultural factors. A common trait shared by today’s almost six million international students worldwide is that their agency is shaped by their home country’s context. They may, consequently, lack familiarity with the teaching practices they are exposed to in an international setting. This raises the question: are international students unconsciously discriminated against through pedagogies they are exposed to in an international classroom?

In contrast to home students, reports on international students’ experiences are often described through the lens of deficit narratives in terms of challenges they encounter or barriers they need to overcome. In international settings, pedagogies often act upon students’ learning experiences rather than give them the opportunity to shape them themselves. And in this respect, institutions appear to assume that student mobility automatically prepares students to learn in a new, foreign environment. To address this, international students need more opportunities to awaken their agency.

To help reduce learning barriers, international students must be equipped with seminar skills. As products of their past contexts, they may be unaccustomed to learning via active processes and may lack familiarity with the seminar format. In this vein, they may prefer to be taught by way of instruction rather than discussion. At the beginning of courses, time should be dedicated to introducing students to the learning philosophy that underpins active learning. As courses continue, time should be dedicated to helping students continuously develop active learning skills.

In an international setting, even “inclusive” pedagogies may sometimes have negative repercussions in that they may unintentionally exploit international students by viewing them as potential resources to share diverse perspectives that may lead to ethical implications. For instance, students might feel stereotyped and/or anxious by being singled out in this way. To help avoid these outcomes, an enquiry-based learning (EBL) approach can help students determine how they want to be included as a potential resource in the learning process.

An EBL approach provides students with learning situations where they are encouraged to explore materials, ask questions or share ideas. For instance, the situation could begin from a common-ground scenario, such as providing student groups with real-world problem statements, and then encourage students to expand further with their individual perspectives, such as opening “channels” for them to utilise their distinct skill set, share their diverse experiences or use cultural examples. In this way, all students may be exposed to unfamiliar practices from diverse countries to develop a broader worldview.

This approach promotes a “safe space” as knowledge is constructed and shared equally, and it allows international students to exercise their individual agency, which may involve them volunteering to share examples from their own culture. In this way, they can also use bodies of knowledge that are rooted in their home country’s context to help broaden their understanding of the taught subject content.

In an EBL approach, the instructor becomes a facilitator of student-led enquiries. Initially, as students adapt to EBL, they may be somewhat dependent on instructors to guide them through the process, and instructors may initially need to assign statements or questions as guided samples of enquiry. Then, as students become comfortable and familiar with the approach, they can self-direct their enquiries by creating their own statements or questions.

Collectively compiling a list of subject-specific terminology on a shared interactive platform is one example of a guided sample of enquiry to assign early in a course. Rather than providing a class with a glossary of terms, each student could be assigned a set number of specific terms where they need to display their understanding of each, using categories such as definition, example and derivation. Such an approach would encourage students to display their comprehension by using their distinct bodies of knowledge.

An EBL approach involves a shift from passive transmission of subject content – which may only provide students with surface-level comprehension – to an active pursuit that fosters a deep approach to learning as students use their distinct bodies of knowledge to make their own connections between different concepts. Gradually, via this process, students will gain ownership over their learning and development.

Opportunities for international students to exercise their agency help break down hierarchies of power. Often, intercultural learning is dominated by the hegemony of the English language, where Western styles of teaching and bodies of knowledge tend to dominate, which may not aid the understanding of international students. By providing opportunities for students to awaken their own agencies, broader bodies of knowledge can help enhance the learning experience for both international and national students.

Thus, agency is not defined by the context you find yourself in currently, it is also defined by where you have been. In other words, it is defined by what you bring with you as an individual moving through time. Therefore, international students’ past context affects future situations. By giving them the opportunity to awaken their individual agencies, channels may then open up for them to enhance their current, intercultural learning experiences by connecting them to and drawing from their past contexts through more ethical and socially just pedagogies. Hopefully, such channels could help international students reposition themselves as equals in intercultural classrooms.

Dylan Williams is a teaching professor at Seoul National University.

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