The long read: Inclusive teaching and learning for International students

What does it mean to be an international student and how can those who work with them in higher education ensure they are given equal access to all available opportunities? LITE Fellow Bee Bond writes here about some of the findings from her project, and provides simple pieces of advice for both students and staff.

There are huge issues with the term ‘international student’.

In purely operational terms, the label of international student acts as a differential in fees structures. It places international students in binary terms against home/EU – what happens post Brexit to this binary remains to be seen.

In this separation then, language and educational culture are not considered, as there are those who speak and do not speak English as a dominant language in both groups.

Different perspectives

It is this financial benefit brought by the international student to the UK that has also occupied most media space.

Yet, when I recently gave a lecture to an entirely international group of students on a pre-sessional programme and asked them what they thought an international student was, not one of them mentioned money.

Their responses focused on their current concerns: students with language difficulties; students from a different educational culture. They placed themselves in deficit, of not being ‘good enough’ or knowing the ‘right things’.

This response is not dissimilar to the one you get when you ask some academic teachers the same question.

From either perspective, the label international student divides and separates, supporting an uneven fee structure or a deficit model of not knowing the language or culture which enables full access to the learning community.

Even when celebrating the cultural diversity of a student population, this is frequently framed through un-nuanced notions of national cultures coming together.

Students also focus on their non-native speakerness, their, for example, Chineseness or the lack of expectation around autonomous learning in their culture as separating them from ‘local’ students.

Equality

Whilst acknowledging that there are specific areas where international students are likely to need distinct and separate support from their university, for example with visa applications.

It is also important to fully include them in all the opportunities on offer, and to view them as individually different rather than simply different to the – equally non-generic – UK student.

By highlighting the international nature of a student, it does draw attention to a different kind of journey.

It recognises the possible need for social, cultural and psychological adaptation processes, and that both educational and social encounters are likely to be unfamiliar and will need extra support in place to ease this transition.

The main difference, however, is that when these students do encounter difficulties, they are likely to be amplified by the distance they are from home and their lack of access to the wider social network of support that students from the UK can generally rely on.

Student concerns

In order to move away from a binary or deficit model of support, it is important that we all develop a more nuance understanding and accept responsibility for supporting this rapidly growing student population.

With that in mind, what follows is a list of the main concerns expressed by post-graduate international students who participated in my LITE project, and the conclusions they eventually reached around them, the aim being to allow future students more informed preparation for study.

These concerns cover a range of areas, all of which ultimately impact a student’s ability to access and achieve in their academic studies.

Therefore, whilst the list better informs students, it is also important for those of us who work at the university to take note so that we are better able to support our students through these sticking points and worries.

We need to be aware of the impact of issues that often seem unrelated to academic study and be able to address them with our students.

As with all lists of this kind, I provide the caveat that it is simplistic. It is presented to engage and ignite thinking, not to provide answers to complex issues, each of which have been an area of much research in and of themselves.

The number of points raised indicates the breadth of the impact of internationalisation; the fact that each point needs to be explored in a far more nuanced way also hints at the depth of understanding required to ensure all those involved find the experience rewarding.

Changing understanding 

If you learned English as a foreign language you probably learned it as an academic subject in a classroom, so you will now need to adjust how you think about the language.

At the beginning of the year, you will be very worried about English grammar. You have, however, probably already been taught most of the useful rules for English grammar and now need to think about how you can use English to communicate complex ideas.

You will realise that whilst IELTS 6.5 allows you onto your programme, this does not mean that you will find it easy to understand everything on your programme.

And you will need to continue to develop your language knowledge at the same time as you study, but also change the way you think about your language learning.

This is now more about how you organize an argument in your area of study, and move from one idea to another than it is about grammatical or even structural accuracy – although it does help if you are accurate as well.

Learning process

There will probably be times when you feel like your English has got worse, not better. You will blame your struggles with English for almost all of the things you find difficult during your time at a UK university.

Almost always, it is not really English language that is the problem, at least not on its own.

You will learn some words in English that you have never used in your own language but these are probably not words that have one, simple dictionary definition meaning.

They are conceptual words that you might spend the whole year working to fully understand. These are often the words that frame the way people think in your discipline, and are the words that everyone on your programme, whatever language they speak, is spending a lot of time trying to understand.

Critical thinking

Post-graduate study is difficult. Everybody should find it difficult. That is the point of it.

It is made more difficult if you are also learning the language used for teaching, but it is the subject you study that is most difficult.

Students from the UK also find it difficult. There are two key concepts that students, particularly, but not only, international students, spend a lot of time worrying about.

These are Critical Thinking and Plagiarism.

Critical Thinking is not something that people in the UK do better than people from other countries. It is also not something that can be easily learned as a separate skill.

It takes time to develop, shows itself in different ways in different disciplines and in different ways of communicating.

READ: Bee’s LITE blog ‘The Importance of Language for Learning’

Teachers often describe the difference between undergraduate and post-graduate study in connection to the level of critical thinking students show in their work, but do find it difficult to say exactly what it looks like.

As one tutor said: ‘I am constantly struck by the difficulty of explaining critical analysis to students . . ., because you just kind of know when you’re doing it.’

Plagiarism 

Students can also waste a lot of time thinking about how they can avoid plagiarism, or other issues of academic Integrity.

This is one area where it really feels like working in a second or third language makes life more difficult. Most academic work, however, is about showing your understanding of and thinking about a subject.

To do this well, you need to read a lot. If you have not read enough, you don’t have enough different ideas to bring together to develop your own.

So try not to spend time worrying about plagiarism as an abstract idea. Instead spend more of your time reading and writing to help you develop your own understanding.

Building and communicating understanding

Reading is key to all of your studies.

You will need to read a LOT. You will be shocked at how much you have to read for the whole year. Again, students from the UK also find the reading difficult.

If English is not your dominant language, you will need to find more time to read as it will probably take you longer to work out what is and is not important to focus on in terms of language as well as content.

Writing helps you to think. Write as often as you can. Never think that the first piece of writing you do will be the one you submit for assessment.

You should write as you read. You should expect to make a lot of changes and give yourself time for many different drafts.

Assignment task instructions are not always very clear and if you don’t understand, ask your module tutor for clarification.

You might find that it is only when you have submitted your assignment that you finally understand what the question meant!

And don’t be disappointed with a grade of 50 in your first assessment, or 40 for undergraduates. It feels like a low score to students who come from a different grading system but it is a pass, and most students improve their scores in later assessments.

Try to learn from the feedback you get from your tutor so that you can improve next time.

Social and cultural differences

Semester 1 will be difficult and confusing and everybody is very tired by the end of November. If you survive this, Semester 2 is much easier and at the end of the year you will not want to leave.

It will change how you think and how you feel about many things, not just your studies.

There are a number of times you might need to make choices between social and academic priorities:

  • The long holiday in December and January looks like a perfect time to travel and make the most of your time in the UK. A lot of International students book 4 week trips around Europe. BUT, this is also the time when you might find that you have four or five different assignments to complete, all with a submission date around 15th.
  • Student accommodation is easy to arrange and convenient. BUT, you will probably have neighbours who have loud parties, drink alcohol and make a lot of noise, especially at weekends.
  • You will want to spend time with people from your own country. They understand you more easily and you can relax without thinking about English again. BUT this might prevent you from finding other friends and from developing your English skills further.
  • You will be tired after class and often want to go back to your accommodation to rest or eat. BUT, a lot of learning happens at this time. Students meet together in computer clusters, libraries and community space in your school.

Practical steps

All of this might help you understand the feelings you have and the situation you are in, but there are some simple steps you can take to get help.

Asking for help does not mean you are failing. It means you have the wisdom to ask for guidance when you need it: it is free, and will save you time as you will understand better what you need to do.

  • Start your time in Leeds in the summer and take a pre-sessional programme with the Language Centre. This will help you develop your language, your understanding of the subject you will study and how to write and present work academically. It also gives you time to settle in Leeds, get to know the city and the university, borrow books from you reading list early and make friends. You will be in classes with other students who are going to take the same programme as you.
  • Arrange to see your personal tutor. If s/he can’t answer your questions, s/he will know who can.
  • Use the help offered by Skills@Library, the Language Centre and the International Student Office.
  • Get involved with the Student Union (LUU). It’s never too late.
  • Try to start reading from your ‘reading list’ before you begin your programme.

There is a lot to think about here, and much not included. I would in no way suggest that the burden of dealing with these concerns is the responsibility of the international student in isolation.

Whilst the majority of international students, when choosing to study in the UK, are aware that this choice will involve more work than continuing to study in their own country, and arrive prepared to adapt, develop and learn, and to an extent to change, it’s also true that many of the concerns listed above are a result of unnecessary barriers to this learning.

As such, those who work in universities must accept the responsibility for making our teaching and academic practices in general more accessible and inclusive for all.

Having been asked for advice a number of times as to how to do this, I hope the following will be useful.

Again, it is a ‘top tips’ list, so is simplistic and provides suggestions that may or may not work for you, all require work to implement and further investigation.

Although written with international students in mind, the suggestions are generally around good, inclusive practice.

General teaching practice

The best place to begin with this is to understand your students’ concerns, so read all of the points above and remind yourself regularly.

Most will not be surprising to you, but we often forget how complex and diverse the concerns of our students are, and how impressive and resilient they need to be to succeed.

The other important thing to remember is that they are all individuals and you should try to treat them as such. This begins by being able to use their name. This is both obvious and difficult to do.

Many of us are embarrassed by our inability to pronounce or remember the names of students from different countries. Use name tags or labels. Continue to use them all year. Be honest with your students and explain why. Don’t worry too much about poor pronunciation. Ask students to say their chosen name, and then apologize that you might keep getting it wrong.

Take time in the first session to go over expectations and ways of working before you begin with the content. Tell the students what they should call you and a little bit about you. Make yourself more human for them.

Encourage participation

A lot of academic teachers worry about lack of student participation in seminars and are unsure how to encourage this.

Generally, there needs to be a re-balancing of expectations. Intercultural communication is likely to be necessary in almost all future graduate jobs.

Communication across languages and cultures inevitably involves more time and thought than most mono-lingual discussions. Allow for this. Do not see it as frustrating or as preventing dialogue to develop and reducing rigour.

So, don’t be afraid of silence. Allow thinking time; this is often longer than you generally feel comfortable with. Try to manage a class so that all students feel comfortable with this silence, occasionally stopping those who don’t from always speaking first.

Remember just because someone isn’t speaking, it does not mean they are not engaged. But if a student does not ever seem to speak, take a couple of minutes on the way out to check that they are okay.

Ask them at this point to tell you what the key points were or what you have asked them to do next. Find other ways to get students to participate.

One example from my project is a teacher who asks students to tweet ideas to a class Twitter account that is open on the screen.

Consider asking students to discuss questions in small groups of two to four before opening discussion to the whole room. This allows rehearsal time and checking of ideas, reducing fear of embarrassment.

Again, using names to nominate people to speak also helps to draw people in.

Clear communication

It is important for students to be able to differentiate between subject specific language that holds complex meaning, and other language that connects these ideas together. Try to make this language as clear as possible, thinking about the following:

  • Use direct language in instructions and explanations. The polite suggestion ‘you might like to consider looking at . . .’ is not as clear as ‘Look at’. This is actually what you mean.
  • Ask a colleague (preferably non-specialist) to read your assessment instructions for clarity. Highlight the question you want students to address so they are able to identify what they need to do.
  • Be clear about the style and structure of the writing you want students to do. Provide examples and explain to students what made it a good piece of work.
  • Allow pauses for thought in lectures. Be very clear when you get to the key point of your lecture. Tell students they are there so they need to really listen.
  • Consider getting students to co-construct lecture notes on, for example, Google docs. This way your students share joint understanding, want to demonstrate they are listening enough to contribute and you can see if they miss key points.

Enabling inclusion

Whilst written with the international student in mind, all of this is applicable to good inclusive teaching practices in general, so a good starting point generally is these guides.

Other ways you can enable students to access the more hidden elements of the curriculum are:

  • Make outside-the-classroom study part of your teaching knowledge. Refer to work you know many students do together away from your teaching and make it part of the explicit expectation. Tell students ‘I want you to look at this together later’.
  • Develop mentoring or buddy schemes where taught post-graduate students new to the UK are mentored by Level 3 undergraduate students.
  • Ask demonstrators or TAs to work most closely with International students during the first couple of sessions, rather than responding to those students who ask questions the most. This way they will be able to explain any hidden rules, e.g. ways of working in a lab, that may be different and model how learning often takes place through discussion around the task.

Neither of these lists are by any means exhaustive. Nor are they concerns that all students face, or teaching suggestions that will work in all contexts. If you have any more suggestions, thoughts or experiences to add to either list, I would love to hear from you.

If you would like to know more about Bee’s project or to read the full final report, please email her at b.bond@leeds.ac.uk