Working with International Students

I’ve been working on this workshop for a while: this is the latest version of the PowerPoint slides. I’m due to teach it again in 2018, so I’m reflecting on how it’s improved so far, and I can improve it before I teach it again.

Changes I’ve made since the first workshop

One of the things I’ve changed is that the workshop no longer has the subtitle, “Overcoming cultural difference in the classroom” (as it did in a previous version). I decided that this was far too negative. One of the many things I’ve learned while teaching the workshop is that cultural difference isn’t something to be overcome, but to be celebrated. As David Boud points out in the introduction to Peer Learning in Higher Education (2001), learning doesn’t just happen when the teacher is talking: “As teachers, we often fool ourselves in thinking that what we do is necessarily more important for student learning than other activities in which they engage” (2). The most educational moments in these workshops didn’t happen when I, and I alone, was talking, but when participants were exchanging their different experiences with one another. In this case, difference was an advantage: if we’d all had the same experiences, we’d have had less to share.

Following on from that, another change I made was to introduce many more student voices into the workshop. Occasionally people balk at introducing ‘raw data’ into one’s teaching: surely it would be better to present the results from a quantitative study that show conclusive, rather than anecdotal evidence? Actually, the rawness is what I love. Sure, one student’s experience doesn’t prove anything – but it doesn’t need to. I can use statistics to do that. What the statistics don’t do is focus our attention on the student as a person. Our own students are of course different to the people quoted, but the student quotations I used serve as a valuable reminder of the affective issues at hand. It’s not just about how ‘well’ the student is learning – how many facts the recall, how well they write. It’s also about how the student is feeling: feelings of exclusion, incompetence and uncertainty affect, and are affected by, their achievements in class. Just as we learned most when sharing each other’s experience, so too we learned more from hearing about students’ experiences.

Looking ahead – changes since the second workshop

As you’ll notice from the slides above, there are quite a few exercises designed to get the class talking. One of the great things about this workshop is that usually the participants are from a variety of countries and many of them have studied in countries or cultures different to their own. They can therefore bring a useful amount of experience to bear: I wanted to capitalise on this, and provide space for participants to share their thoughts with one another.

One of my recent evaluations suggested going further than just talking and including student presentations. I liked that idea – I sometimes feel with this workshop that I spend a lot of time on practical steps, which involves me standing at the front and explaining – one way to include student presentations but retain the practical focus might be to get the participants to generate the practical steps themselves, through presentations.

I’m therefore going to introduce a section of small group presentations. There are several distinct themes that come up: language barriers, classroom participation, academic culture and assessment/feedback difficulties. Instead of presenting on these themes, I’m going to ask the class to divide into four groups. Each group will take on a theme and have 15 minutes to come up with a presentation on their experience in this area (as teachers and as learners) and ways they might overcome these difficulties. I know that some participants may have less experience in this area than others, so I’ll still provide the practical information I did before – just as something that the participants receive at the end, rather than in the session itself.

I’ll ask participants to comment on this, but my hope is that it will get people more active in the session and reduce my own feeling that I was talking too much. It will also help me to gauge levels of understanding on different areas, so that I can address these either at the end of the session or in sending out post-session material. Watch this space for the results!