All alone in the crowd

May 13, 2005

International students may feel isolated when they enrol at a university with an unfamiliar ethos. To combat this, staff and institutions must encourage them to mix with their peers and get involved in campus life, say Marilyn Lewis and Hayo Reinders

The presence of international students in English-speaking universities is no passing phenomenon. Economic and political factors mean that countries that once sent only a handful of scholarship students abroad for tertiary studies now pack them off in their thousands. Many overseas students have difficulties relating to the language and enrol for pre-course English support. But few realise that their studies may be made considerably more difficult by the different expectations of universities with Western traditions. What can university staff do to prepare students for this?

Staff-student relationships are potentially problematic. In Western universities, lecturers have very different roles from their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Students may, in some cases, be able to ask only quick questions at the end of a lecture as another class waits to enter the room. After that, the teacher disappears into an office and shuts the door, which carries a notice restricting access to office hours. In China and Vietnam, by contrast, students can approach university teachers outside class, not only regarding study-related matters but also about personal issues. As one student reports: “My teachers would give me advice on problems I had with my boyfriend.” It would be a rare Western lecturer who tried to offer such advice.

Expectations about assessment can also cause misunderstandings. In feedback on essays and other assignments, staff in Western institutions are likely to have a spread of marks in which only the few top students score an A+ or its equivalent. This can come as a shock to international students, many of whom have been at the top of their classes at home and who equate hard work with excellent results. In addition, many overseas students isolate themselves socially by studying in the library or in their bedrooms. Despite a stoical public face, many suffer emotionally, which inevitably affects their ability to achieve good results, let alone enjoy their studies.

Can university staff do anything to help? One obvious strategy is to increase liaison between lecturers and support staff, and for new lecturers to be made aware of potential problems. As an example, one staff member found during an office-hour consultation about a late essay that there was a far deeper problem. The student was depressed and had considered ending more than just his studies. With the student’s permission, the staff member telephoned a counsellor and then took him to the student health centre.

As well as liaison between different branches of the university, there should be liaison between students. Tertiary teachers might think that student-student relationships are outside their domain and that it would be patronising to help organise student friendships. Yet those who have explored the options report that offering even minor opportunities for co-operative learning can have beneficial social and academic outcomes.

Here are three examples. At essay time, one lecturer gave students a chance to work together by making extra material available to small groups for a couple of hours at a time. She even included books from her own professional library. This helped students overcome worries about accessing limited library resources and encouraged them to discuss assignments before starting to work on them. If all the students in a group found an assignment unclear, one of them could contact the lecturer to sort out the matter. Lonely students were included in a group in a way that would have been more difficult in a large lecture room. The end-of-semester evaluations suggested that international students, in particular, appreciated the friendships that arose in the group.

A second example of co-operative learning relates to encouraging students to ask questions in lectures. One teacher who found that only one or two outgoing students would ever respond to his plea for questions in the course of a lecture got a very different result when he allowed students to ask each other’s questions. He would set aside two minutes for students to exchange a question with someone near them. He would then ask if anyone had heard a question that they, too, would like an answer to. Students seemed much readier to report other people’s questions than their own.

The third example comes from tutorials. A tutor increased the amount and quality of student discussion by having a small part of the session conducted in pairs. She prepared handouts that went beyond the usual questions. Sometimes she would include a case study; other times she presented a graph that had to be interpreted. After allowing the students time to talk, she would return to traditional pedagogical style at the front of the tutorial trying to involve everyone. Having the chairs arranged in a half-circle behind desks around the edge of the room meant that there was no need to rearrange furniture in the middle of the class.

These few ideas are based on the belief that international students deserve a learning environment that builds on their strengths rather than their weaknesses, and that takes account of their need to be part of a community of learning rather than seeing themselves as isolated outsiders.

Terry Lamb, lecturer in education at Sheffield University, says: “We have students from 116 different countries. These students contribute to the richness of the learning community, bringing with them their own languages and cultures. To work in such an environment is stimulating for staff and students alike, and it helps us to develop in many ways by challenging our preconceived beliefs about the world.”

Working in such a diverse community can be challenging, but the efforts made by tertiary teachers are likely to benefit all students, not just those who have English as a second language.

Marilyn Lewis is former senior lecturer at the University of Auckland. Hayo Reinders is director of the English Language Self-Access Centre at the University of Auckland and visiting professor at Meiji University, Tokyo. 

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