Let’s make the international student experience as valuable as the degree
Given the unique challenges international students face, how can universities create an inclusive and supportive community? Educators share suggestions for helping international students thrive
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Moving to a new country is a challenge for anyone. For the thousands of international students that comprise a significant proportion of the global student population, this may also involve being away from home for the first time, dealing with a strange academic system, studying in a non-primary or foreign language or coping with a minimal support network.
To effectively engage this diverse and critical student base, we are challenged as educators to make their educational experience just as valuable as their tertiary qualification. Here, we provide a few ways to mitigate the cognitive overload for international students at various points of their student experience.
It starts with us
Engaging with academic staff can be particularly daunting for international students, who are more likely to view academics primarily as authority figures. Host a preliminary teaching session to introduce yourself, clarifying how students should address you as an academic (eg, using your first name or which title you prefer), and offer personal information about yourself, such as hobbies and interests.
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Show vulnerability by sharing parts of your life, but don’t limit yourself to success stories. Instead, include times of adversity, fear and perceived failure. As a result, students will feel “seen”, relate better and develop trust in their educators to seek help if needed. To assist educators in helping students with their well-being, the Mental Health First Aid programme is available in Australia and provides academics with key skills and resources.
Check in with students
Using surveys to build up a profile of each student will help you to provide the support they need. Start the semester with an online pre-class survey in your learning management system or LMS, using questions to gauge student “bandwidth” and identify any barriers to learning, such as access to technology, hours worked in part-time employment and understanding of academic honesty. Later, anonymous mid-term surveys can show how well you’ve understood student expectations and what could be reinforced or evolved. This feedback loop will encourage students to have agency in their education. If engagement is low, tagging the surveys to other summative assessments can help.
Promote student support
The initial weeks of courses can overwhelm international students with information, but it’s important that they know about support services, resources and policies at their institutions. As well as including a URL on the LMS and referring to it during introductory week, create an FAQ page and adopt a multi-hit model, which will present these resources to students at relevant junctures. For example, information about laptop loan schemes may be more pressing early in the semester, while counselling services could be helpful in the lead-up to assessments.
Provide directions and instructions for accessing close-proximity student spaces for group assessments or free-study periods, encouraging student collaboration. These can be developed as a standard set of instructions to include in personalised email replies for efficiency.
Keep it future-facing
Career sessions integrated within courses can help students to understand potential careers and how to achieve them, acting as a great motivator. These can link to career services, offering résumé-writing workshops, interview preparation, LinkedIn advice and providing career focus.
Connect to networks
Foster a sense of belonging by providing connections to existing peer networks and participating in events yourself. At our institution, student-led societies organise social events such as an International Student Welcome or an International Food Fiesta, with relevant staff invited. If these groups don’t already exist, call for student representatives to set them up or even organise events yourself.
This holistic approach to student experience, creating a culture that provides a sense of belonging while promoting transformation in disciplinary knowledge, will allow international students to thrive both personally and academically.
Written by the Effective and Engaging Teaching community of practice members:
Alistair Standish is a senior lecturer in biological science; Catherine Irving is a lecturer in communication and critical thinking; Danijela Menicanin is a senior lecturer in biomedicine; Matthew Arnold is a lecturer in medicine; Navodana Rodrigo is a lecturer in architecture and civil engineering; Greg Hurnall is a technology and digital enablement specialist; Viythia Katharesan is a senior lecturer in biomedicine at the University of Adelaide.
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