volume 43, number 5
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

What Faculty Should Know About International Students

By Alistair Howard, Associate Professor (Instructional), Political Science, and Urzula Pruchniewska, Master's Student, Journalism

Language, communication, and participation

   As you might expect, international students’ most common concern is effective communication—they want to comprehend what faculty are saying and convey their learning in their assigned work. Even fluent English speakers may have trouble understanding lectures, especially since many have studied British English and must adjust to American English and its idioms. Some may also be unfamiliar with concepts outside their majors, especially those who specialized before coming to Temple. And a few may simply have underestimated what’s needed to succeed in American liberal education. Whatever the case, lecturing clearly in understandable English will help international and domestic students. And we might also remember that international students have to work harder to get to the same results, because of linguistic and cultural barriers alike. Finally, it’s crucial that we not assume that non-native English speakers are somehow less intelligent for being that.

   While foreign students may seem to lack local students’ public self-confidence, they’re very often quietly eager to participate. As is the case for local students, including international students in class discussion is vital to keeping them engaged and confirming that they’re understanding material. They may simply need more time and different kinds of encouragement from professors and classmates to participate. There are many proven ways to elicit participation from international students without intimidating or embarrassing them. For example, paired-student or small-group discussions that are reported out to the class as a whole is one way of doing this. Calling on students unexpectedly is not. Nor is correcting grammar or pronunciation in a lecture setting.

   It’s easy to create real or virtual ‘safe spaces’ for one-on-one or non-public participation. For example, professors could encourage international students to come to their offices in a special office hour for international students. Simply announcing this may be enough to create a more comfortable climate in which they can grow. Where participation is graded, it’s worthwhile explicitly stating that emailed comments and questions count as much as in-class efforts. Creating a dedicated discussion board for international students is another approach. Any of these efforts can quickly improve student confidence and result in broader participation as the semester progresses.

Friendliness, Motivation and Encouragement

   International students want to make friends with professors and classmates, but they can be shy and feel like outsiders. Some are afraid that other students may think they’re weird. Professors should show more academic and non-academic concern —particularly to first-year international students. Remember that these young people are experiencing culture shock and that you could be among the first five or six people they’ve met in America. It’s a significant relationship that can be rewarding on both sides. And again, if a student feels that the teacher cares enough, they're more willing to ask questions or go to office hours.

   International students are often stressed and may need extra motivation. It’s worth remembering that overseas schools are often dramatically different (regardless of language). As a result, students often find to their horror that they’ve done badly in early assignments. They may even give up on difficult material and fall behind, simply because they’ve not been able to adjust to our expectations quickly enough. We should take into consideration these struggles and strains, and work with them to boost their understanding and confidence.


   Professors should be more culturally-sensitive, and small efforts can pay large dividends. One approach is to find out where their students are from—perhaps in an anonymous online survey, for example. It might then be possible to incorporate relevant and uncontroversial items drawn from those places during lectures. For example, a civil engineering instructor might highlight a major public works project from another country rather than only drawing on American examples. Another approach is to ask how our subjects are taught in other countries, and discuss differences and commonalities. Done sensitively, these kinds of efforts can help international students feel more comfortable and have the added benefit of moderating local students’ parochialism.

   There’s evidence that some faculty miss this opportunity because they assume foreign students are at Temple to learn “American style.” That may be true, but students cannot quickly or effortlessly leap from one academic culture to another. For example, students accustomed to highly ordered, deferential classrooms may resist asking even pressing questions about the material. Remember, too, that students may not know the locally-specific background material we often weave through lectures. We could help by giving a brief overview of particularly relevant culturally-bound material, and also assigning some introductory readings to international students to help them come in with a basic understanding of American culture. Recording and posting a powerpoint lecture on such basics can preserve classroom time for the more important material. And again, this can help our local students as much as our international students.

   Remember that many students came to America for their education, not to assimilate. They may be skeptical about our way of doing things, and it’s condescending and counterproductive to assume or assert the ethno-centric attitude that "America is best, you should all be like us.” At the same time, it’s never a good idea to make an international student a poster child for their culture or a stand-in for foreign people generally. There are a lot of potential pitfalls here: students may be shy, may not feel typical of his or her their country, or have a strong sense that they do, like us all, wear many identity hats at once. In general, students take pride in where they are from and most would be glad for the opportunity to share their experiences, but don’t want to be questioned or attacked about them publicly. A little sensitivity goes a long way, and students do report being embarrassed and even offended by instructors seeking their classroom contributions.

   Most international students don't get our pop-cultural allusions, sporting jokes, and television references. Using these frequently, particularly if they are not central to course content, can further alienate international students. (Of course, since time’s winged chariot draws ever on, many of our allusions don’t mean much to local students either!)

   Finally, correct name pronunciation is important. If you find out you cannot pronounce a student’s name, ask the student how to pronounce it right the first time you speak to them. •