Career advice: how to teach international students

Get the basics right to ensure overseas learners flourish, say Kevin O’Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

August 31, 2017
Asian tourists in London
Source: Getty

Don’t patronise them
International students on transfer or exchange have not just arrived in front of you by accident – they have had to work very hard to get here. They might struggle to adapt to a new pedagogy, especially if they have been used to a more deferential form of rote learning. Getting over the language barrier is the first hurdle; being clear about their role – and yours – in the classroom is the second.

Pay enough attention to their particular learning needs to give them the best chance of succeeding because this is in your interest as well as theirs.

Set expectations early
Make sure that there is a comprehensive induction that sets out what they need to know about how things work in your university. Take time to explain your role and the role of others, such as tutors and lecturers.

Then, provide a thorough, detailed description of how assessments work: spell out the differences between formative and summative assessments, and make clear the breakdown between coursework and exams. Marking schemes are full of pitfalls and confusion, and they tend to vary from one university to the next, let alone from country to country. If 71 per cent is an excellent mark and 78 per cent represents a breathtaking achievement, make sure you tell students that 80s are rarely used and that gaining a mark in the 90s is about as likely as winning the EuroMillions jackpot.

Internationalise your teaching
Remember that you now teach in a multilingual, multicultural classroom. It is up to you to adapt your teaching to suit your student community. Think about the relevance of some particularly Western concepts, such as corporate social responsibility or Judaeo-Christian notions of business ethics. Yes, you may have to teach them, but perhaps you should also be teaching some of the alternatives, too.

Think also about the recognisable brand-name firms that form the cultural fabric of your own experience. Many of these firms, films, products, brands and reference points might be meaningless to your international students. Not only are they younger than you are, they will also have their own equivalent reference points. Rather than worrying about this, ask them in class to provide you with relevant examples. From one year to the next, you’ll build up a repertoire of appropriate examples.

Signpost the support structures
Your university will have some student support services – be sure to point these out early and often. Do not just assume that your new students will read the handbook and emerge with a crystal-clear understanding of who to ask for help. You will probably need to explain both the support and the academic structures.

Many students are dependent on their tuition fees and maintenance grants being paid from their home country or government. After linguistic challenges, financial concerns are the biggest source of anxiety and stress for them. Financial difficulties, coupled with feelings of loneliness and isolation, are a recipe for unhappy students and poor learning outcomes. Do what you can to prevent such circumstances coming to a head.

Incentivise the right kind of learning
Your new international students may well have excelled in a very different educational context from the one for which you are now responsible. It may well be that what you would disdain as mere rote learning is precisely what they have done all their learning lives. Further, that rote learning may have taken place in a context where it was socially unacceptable to question the official doctrine of the lecturer and/or where significantly more classroom time was the norm. Adjusting to a different education system is a challenge. Having to find the courage to disagree with a lecturer, being allowed so much self-directed study time or being required to write critically can be very disconcerting.

Remember to offer international students practical guidance on some of the tasks that you might take for granted, such as guiding them through the anatomy of a journal article to point out what needs to be read, and what can be skimmed.

Create opportunities to save face
Your new international student may have a lot riding on their learning experience. They may well have been the brightest student in their year group. It could be that their parents, grandparents or both have sunk their life savings into their degree course. Sent forth into the world with all that expectation, anyone might feel awkward telling the folks back home that they have failed. Multiply that discomfort by adding in a national culture that places great emphasis on not losing face publicly, and you can see why some international students simply go to pieces when confronted with a fail grade or worse.

Of course, you are there to uphold academic standards. But the manner in which you convey the news about sub-par progress, the frequency with which this occurs and the possibilities for recovering the situation will all have a huge bearing on how the student concerned handles the situation. A little empathy and some practical advice can go a long way and might actually be the difference between the student’s continuing or dropping out.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blogs It’s Not You, It’s Your Data and thePhDblog.com.

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