Supporting foreign-language students in online class discussions

Online discussions pose a challenge for foreign-language students studying remotely overseas, so instructors should take steps to support their understanding and engagement, says Liyun Wendy Choo

Liyun Wendy Choo's avatar
8 April 2021
Steps to help foreign language students engage with online class discussions
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Supporting offshore Asian international students to acculturate to the norms of a Western university is a real challenge. There are often major cultural and structural differences between the social and schooling contexts of these students’ home countries and the overseas universities they are now enrolled in.

Over the past year, I have been providing offshore international students with targeted academic support. Most of these students enrolled at my faculty are Asian. I offer customised tutorials to assist course groups with assignments, as well as one-to-one guidance. I am also in constant contact with students to ensure they have been provided with support relevant to their circumstances.

Most international students are English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) or English-as-a-second-language (ESL) learners, which has significant implications for their ability to engage with online courses and instruction.

Many courses require students to engage in small group discussions via Zoom and/or online discussion forums to exchange ideas with other students and to obtain feedback on their understanding of the readings. However, offshore international students often experience tremendous challenges when participating in synchronous and asynchronous discussions.

  1. Those studying online in their home countries typically lack an immersive language environment where they can practise their English skills daily and get used to a variety of English accents. They have difficulty following a free-flowing discussion in which different accents come into play on top of poor Zoom connections.

  2. They face difficulty transforming spoken discussions into written forms. This is not surprising given that academic language is more cognitively demanding than basic communication skills used in social situations. The cognitive demands on offshore international students are compounded by them having to learn new concepts in a foreign language in an unfamiliar online “classroom” environment.

  3. Finally, there are cross-cultural differences in reasoning and argument, and formal norms of reasoning are not always universal. Different linguistic cultures do not always have similar ways of articulating arguments. In contrast to the more analytical form of argument required for success in Western universities, indigenous and Asian international students are used to holistic and narrative modes of argument that may affect the ways in which they put across their points in discussion posts or essays.

Taking into consideration the premise that all teachers are teachers of language, how then might we support offshore foreign language students in online learning? 

Here, I offer three broad suggestions for how universities can enhance their online support for offshore international students through greater engagement with class discussions.

1. Offer tools and strategies to transform spoken academic language into written forms

This might involve speaking into an app or program that can transcribe spoken ideas, and then have students transform the text into something more academic. A useful program for students to try is Otter.ai. Additionally, instructors might want to encourage international students to use shorter sentences and focus on making their ideas clear, rather than using complicated long sentences to express themselves. It helps when they hear explicitly from the course instructor that shorter sentences are acceptable, because this advice is likely to be different from what their previous IELTS or academic English language teachers might have told them.

2. Consider how to help students catch the gist of a spoken discussion and its key points

A useful strategy to support international students in following a spoken discussion and to encourage their participation is to periodically summarise the key points or issues raised. For example, after a few students have shared their ideas, the instructor might want to sum up some of the key points made before continuing. This helps international students link the issues their classmates have shared to the course content and supports them in clarifying whether they have understood the points that have been made. It buys international students some time to formulate a response. When the instructor sums up the key points, an explicit discussion of the logic of the arguments can help students internalise the reasoning and structure of argument that Western universities value.

3. Provide discussion questions in advance

A final strategy I recommend is to send students the discussion questions before the online teaching session and have them summarise their key ideas on Google Documents or other collaborative applications. The ideas need not be detailed at this stage. The written ideas not only provide a visual aid for students to make sense of the discussion but can also provide a springboard to support their transformation of spoken discussion into written forms.

These strategies are particularly useful for Asian international students who are not used to online participatory approaches to teaching and learning that require a lot of speaking, writing and listening. By helping them develop strategies to cope with the language demands of online learning, offshore students can engage more meaningfully with the cognitive demands of tertiary learning.

Wendy Choo is a professional teaching fellow in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland.

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