If You Bring Them, Help Them Succeed

Open Doors, a survey published annually by the nonprofit Institute for International Education, has just reported that approximately 723,277 international students were enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education in 2010-2011.  Whether physically on campus or learning from a distance, there are native differences in learning and culture that can affect their overall academic experience.  Here are some ideas for ensuring that our international students have the best learning and social experiences possible.  

Understanding the profile of international students. 

Students who display good basic interpersonal conversational skills  in English (can talk about everyday topics like family, personal bio, etc.) may not have developed adequate cognitive academic language proficiency to handle reading, writing, speaking or listening comprehension in English at the specialized level needed for university-level content courses. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t intelligent enough to handle university courses but rather that they need time to bring their English-language skills up to speed with their native language abilities.

International students undergo a double set of adjustment experiences—culture shock in adjusting to life in the U.S., but also the expectations of our educational system.   Faculty and staff members would benefit from gaining information about the native cultures of international students in order to form points of contact and avoid stereotyping or misunderstandings that stem from ignorance of their cultures. Reading books, watching media presentations, visiting authentic restaurants, participating in ethnic holiday observances, etc. are ways to build bridges to the students’ cultures. Also, reading sources on intercultural
communication (appropriate eye contact, touching, personal distance and other culturally-shaped behaviors) gives insight into differences in non-verbal communication patterns

Classroom protocols: suggestions for helping international students to adjust to the U.S. educational system

  • Explain the rationale for each learning activity as you introduce it to your class and how students should study/respond in order to gain maximum benefit from that activity.
  • Introduce class participation gradually. International students are often more accustomed to being passive recipients of the professor’s comments because the professor is seen as the unquestioned expert on that topic. For them, questioning the professor or disagree with him/her would be disrespectful.
  • Start with questions that elicit short answers or facts, then follow-up questions, and lastly with opinion or evaluative questions. Assure the students that their contributions are welcomed and appreciated.
  • Look for ways to infuse more multicultural references and models into your course content, using pertinent examples from various parts of the world.
  • Don’t embarrass your international students in front of the rest of the class—self monitor your comments for stereotyping or unconsciously racist remarks;  ask sincere questions about the students’ home culture, but don’t make them the “spokesperson” representing their entire country or ethnicity (are all Americans like you?).
  • Speak clearly in your presentations; provide visuals or an outline for students to follow; use transitional phrases (“now, let’s look at…”) to signal a new topic.
  • Avoid idiomatic expressions and slang that may be unfamiliar to international students (example: “this was a ‘slam dunk’ idea”) .
  • Explain any cultural or historical references your students may not be familiar with (same as trying to talk to today’s U.S. students about anything that happened before 2000!).
  • At the beginning of the semester, meet specifically with the international students to discuss your teaching methods, expectations for attendance, tardiness, other class rules, preferences for self-directed learning, etc. Allow the students to express any concerns they might have. Learn how to correctly pronounce each student’s name.
  • Depending on the student’s home culture, he or she may be more accustomed to an educational approach based on memorization and recitation of facts, rather than independent or critical thinking. The professor may need to provide models of his/her expectations for self-directed learning, as well as encouraging international students to realize that they can and should contribute their own valid observations and reflections as they interact with course material

Academic accomodations for international students who are non-native speakers of English

  • Allow extra time for taking tests and use of English/FL dictionary, if needed.
  • Allow for time to re-write papers in conjunction with help from the Writing Center tutors (the criteria for what constitutes good formal writing varies from
  • culture to culture; students may need to learn to adapt to the Western linear approach).
  • Give specific feedback on assignments (instead of just “re-write” or “awkward,” try “I’m not sure if you’re presenting this idea as fact or opinion—please explain”).
  • In class or conferences, don’t ask “do you understand?” because they will probably politely respond “yes” whether they understand or not; to do otherwise would challenge your authority and competence as a professor. Instead, ask the students to repeat the main ideas of what you’ve said or ask “What more can I tell you about X?”
  • Encourage students to meet deadlines for turning in assignments by presenting them as the students’ personal obligation to you (“I’m really waiting to see what you have for me”) and not just an opportunity to exalt oneself for a good grade in competition with others.
  • Clearly explain your policy and the institution’s stand on plagiarism. In some countries, knowledge is in the public domain to be shared by all (even during a test!) or, if the students have been taught that only the expert’s opinion is authoritative, the students will present that instead of developing their own ideas.
  • Go out of your way to give the students some extra attention so that they know you care about them as people.


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