7 ways you and your international students can learn from each other

US institutions have a long history of welcoming international students. During 2014-15, they attracted 974,926 of the globe’s 4.5 million international students. But the share of international students coming here has declined from 28 percent in 2001 to 19 percent in 2013.

Though US colleges still attract hundreds of thousands of international students, it’s worth considering what more can be done to create stronger, richer learning experiences for them. Here are seven ideas that could benefit teachers and students alike.

Illustration by Lauren Rolwing

1. Acknowledge and celebrate diversity

An experienced college educator knows how to help domestic students succeed, but methods and procedures may change when teaching international students, who may come from a wide range of cultures and educational backgrounds.

Learn where your students come from and then research their societal and educational cultures. That way, you can tailor existing course materials to better connect with them. This research could help you enrich your approach with domestic students, too.

Celebrate diversity in your classroom. Ask students to introduce their backgrounds to each other, making it clear upfront that their individual cultural examples will be welcomed. By highlighting the value of the different experiences your class can draw upon, you’ll engage students and boost their confidence when contributing.

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

2. Encourage students to use campus resources

Starting a new college course can be daunting for any student, but those leaving their home countries face even greater challenges. For them, everything can take getting used to, from the structure of research papers to the cafeteria’s food. And it’s all coming at them so fast!

To ease the transition, encourage international students to use specialized support services, including student advisors, workshops, counseling, and activities. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a dedicated international student support site offering many programs and resources. One is BRIDGE (Building Relationships in Diverse Global Environments), an international friendship program that helps international and US students connect. Another is International Reach, a cross-cultural speakers program that promotes intercultural dialogue.

Familiarize yourself with your institution’s support services so you’ll know exactly where to direct students for the help they’ll need.

Illustration by Kanae Sato

3. Tailor your communication

International students are often multilingual, with English as a secondary language. Carefully consider your use of metaphors, colloquialisms, and idioms. Be aware of your pace and foster an environment where students are comfortable asking what certain phrases or words mean.

In one-to-one interactions, second-language students will often have thought through what they wanted to speak about before they approach you. Give them a chance to say all they want to say before you respond.

Always look out for cultural difference indicators such as frustration, taking offense, inappropriate response, or lack of response. If you spot these signs, pause to think before acting.

It’s also important to check for understanding rather than simply asking students if they understand. Ask students to explain in their own words before you move on.

Illustration by Lauren Rolwing

4. Give visual explanations

Visual learning is a powerful way to help international students improve their understanding. For some students, it’s difficult to transfer native reading and writing skills. At Claremont Graduate University, educators help international learners by visually reviewing student assignments in front of the entire class. This can give educators fascinating insights into how talented students from other cultures mentally build their analyses and arguments.

Illustration by Lauren Rolwing

5. Explore cross-cultural themes

International students offer an unmissable opportunity for cross-cultural discussions in class or assignments. Ask them to explore academic concepts from their own perspectives. This will strengthen everyone’s learning experience, adding a global perspective that local students and textbooks can rarely provide. Cultures sometimes change fast: speaking with international students offers an immediate opportunity to investigate those changes without traveling.

Illustration by Lucy Vigrass

6. Build confidence

The classroom should be a welcoming environment for discussion. To encourage and appreciate every contribution, avoid being overly critical. Invite discussion before highlighting the “best” academic theories. Offering this freedom can help students gain confidence and become more willing to participate.

Arranging class into smaller discussion groups can also give students greater freedom to voice ideas. In turn, you’ll get to know students more individually and better understand their learning needs. You can also discuss academic theories at a deeper level — which might just trigger fresh ideas for your own research.

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

7. Learn from your students

Instead of viewing teaching international students a series of challenges and obstacles, prize the opportunities for professional development they offer you. While educators are there to facilitate students’ learning, there are many opportunities to learn with and from your international classroom.

To earn the chance to study abroad, your students have been successful learners in their own countries. By discovering the practices and techniques they found effective at home — whether through conversation or surveys — you can improve and diversify your own teaching style. This may be the next step in the internationalization of educational innovation.

Degrees Digital Magazine | Issue 10


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