Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges

Steven Volk, November 1, 2015

The number of international students* at U.S. institutions of higher education continues to multiply. According to UNESCO, at least 4 million students went abroad to study in 2012, up from 2 million in 2000. If these students were a country, they would be the 125th largest in the world (out of 257). Students are on the move, and many are headed to one of five destination countries: the United States (hosting 18% of the total), United Kingdom (11%), France (7%), Australia (6%), and Germany (5%).

According to a report published earlier this year by the Department of Homeland Security, 1.13 million international students, using an F (academic) or M (vocational) visa, were enrolled at nearly 8,979 U.S. schools in 2015, the vast majority in college-degree programs. That represents a 14% increase over 2014, nearly 50% more than in 2010 and 85% more than in 2005.

Studying-Abroad-WSJ_03-24-15

Credit: Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2015

These students are coming from all parts of the world, but a few countries dominate the charts. In 2012, China sent about 712,000 students abroad to study. India, the Republic of Korea, Germany, and Saudi Arabia also send significant numbers of students to study abroad.

Indeed, international students are reshaping student demographics on many campuses. Fully one-third of the students at Florida International University are classified as international. The University of Southern California enrolled over 12,000 foreign students this year, and Columbia, New York University, Purdue, and the University of Illinois are hosting more than 10,000 each.

Nor are large research universities the only ones receiving significant numbers of internationally mobile students; liberal arts colleges are becoming a frequent destination as well. In the last few years international students made up about a quarter of the student population at two women’s colleges: Mount Holyoke (673) and Bryn Mawr (346).

Our numbers are smaller at Oberlin, but we have also seen the international student population rise as you well might have noticed in your classes or when walking around campus. In fact Oberlin’s international student population has surged by nearly 40% since 2011. We currently enroll 265 international students; 53% (141) hail from China. What you might not know is that the majority of those students (90 plus two double degrees) are studying in the College of Arts & Sciences, not in the Conservatory. In all, it is our great privilege to host students from 42 nations, with about three-quarters coming from Asia (including South Asia).

International Students Meeting

International Student Meeting, Oberlin College. Photo: William Rieter

Opportunities and Challenges

It’s hard to fully describe all the benefits of an international presence on campus. To have students from Malaysia, China, Tunisia, Chile or Iraq, among other countries, in our classes gives faculty an extraordinary opportunity to expand classroom conversations and tap into a pool of knowledge gained through a wide range of lived experiences and cultural traditions. Students, for their part, have a chance to study and live with peers from all over the world and to locate their own interests and concerns within a much broader context.

But the rapidly growing number of international students can present faculty with some challenges, and this was the subject of an informative workshop last Thursday sponsored by the Office of International Student Services and the Department of Rhetoric and Composition. As Ann Deppman, Associate Dean and Director of International Student Services, explained, “while most international students settle in quickly and thrive at Oberlin, some may need time to adjust to Oberlin’s academic culture.” Deppman and Amy Moniot, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Coordinator and Instructor, suggested that a number of cultural differences may impact academics and advising.

In terms of the former, faculty might experience some difficulties of cultural adaptation experienced by international students as manifested in writing assignments, critical thinking expectations, classroom participation, and the way in which we recommend external sources of support. International students may come from a culture in which writing assignments were primarily used as a means to report or describe rather than to develop and analyze information. Besides providing our own feedback on their papers and being aware of these differences in prior writing experiences, we can support these students by connecting students with the Writing Associates program or Student Academic Services (more on this below). When it seems appropriate we might recommend that they enroll in 100-level courses in Rhetoric and Composition, which are particularly attentive to the skills and prior preparation of international students.

Editing-a-Paper-NicMcPhee-624x422

Editing a Paper. Photo Nic McPhee, Flickr CC.

International students might not be accustomed to receiving any feedback on assignments other than a grade, and so can be unsure what is expected of them when they receive a paper filled with comments or red-penciled with (usually grammatical) corrections. Particularly on early papers, it’s a good idea to speak with these students individually, explaining the purpose of your comments and what they are expected to learn from them. (You might even think about going easy on the red pencil while these students become more acclimatized to the expectations of writing assignments at Oberlin: help them understand the larger framework of writing papers before pointing out every grammatical infelicity.) And, when possible, scaffold their writing skills by assigning multiple drafts. When we understand that, for many students from other cultural traditions, a good paper is not supposed to be perfectly straightforward and logical, but rather the reader is expected to uncover the meaning in a more circular and twisting route, we can work more effectively with them to produce the kind of writing that we expect.

International students may also come out of educational backgrounds that put considerable emphasis on memorization; indeed, you might have noticed their remarkable strengths in that regard. But it also may mean that they will struggle with open-ended assignments (“write on any topic of interest that we have covered in the first part of the semester”) or loosely defined topics. If you prefer to have students select their own topics, work individually with international students to help them define a topic, particularly in their first or second year of college. Similarly, if they come from an academic background in which students were expected to produce a single “correct” answer or interpretation, these students can encounter difficulties developing a thesis or addressing topics that accommodate multiple readings.

Infinity-and-me

Infinity and Me – Kate Hosford

Class participation can also pose challenges for international students educated in settings where active responses were discouraged. Some come from cultures where silence is a comfortable and even expected response and is seen as a sign of respect. They may be surprised to find that participation is often highly encouraged in our classrooms and that many courses grade class participation. Often, these students find that they don’t understand the criteria by which their interventions in the class will be graded.

Finally, and relating back to a recommendation that I gave above, many international students may think that they will be judged negatively if they seek out the support services and resources available to them on campus. They may be reluctant to go to peer instruction or tutoring sessions (the Writing Associates or the OWLs program in the sciences and math, for example), to form study groups with other students, or to seek the support of Student Academic Services. Our understanding and encouragement can be vital in that regard.

The Lessons of Universal Design

As I heard the workshop facilitators explain many of these points, what became clear to me (as it was to the presenters) is that by helping our international students in many of these areas, we will be helping all of our students. This, after all, is the basic principle of “universal design,” which calls on us to design instruction (e.g., delivery methods, physical spaces, information resources, technology, personal interactions, assessments) to maximize the learning of all students. The support we provide for any specific student population, international students in this example, can help many of our (domestic) students who might have been reluctant to ask for help. This is a topic the “Article of the Week” has taken up before, most recently in “Revealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design.” Our students are smart and creative, but not all are familiar with many of the unwritten rules that determine what goes on in the classroom. International students, in particular, have excelled in their home countries by mastering a completely different set of “handshakes,” but, as one put it recently in an article in the Oberlin Review, many “feel like outcasts in a new culture.” When faculty make expectations clear, guidelines obvious, sources of support not just available but bolstered by the observation that it is quite often the very best students who take advantage of them…then we are helping not just international students, but all our students.

Three examples can illustrate this point further:

(1) Participation. We often note in our syllabi that class participation will be graded but, quite often, provide no further indication as to the criteria that will determine the grade. Is it quantity? If so, how much participation is required? Is it quality? What determines good interventions? Are we putting “slower” responders (often those students who think before answering!) at a disadvantage by only calling on the first hands that shoot up? And, if we grade participation, do we give students some indication as to how they are doing in that regard as the course progresses? Clearer expectations would help everyone in the class, and certainly international students. As many international students will take longer to process language as well as content, when we ask questions it is important to give students time to answer rather than calling on the students who are quick out of the gate: suggest that they write their answers, break students into groups so that all students – including international students – can rehearse their ideas, and their voices, in a small group setting.

Alumno-Participando-Ivonne-MO

Alumno Participando by Ivonne M.O.; Flickr CC

(2) Getting help, revising, editing. International students in particular can be wary of using many of the resources that are available to them, including peer instructors, student support services, or counseling. (As a group of international students reported to the Board of Trustees’ forum in early October, often when they do go to those services, they find them less than helpful or culturally sensitive, a different and troubling issue). International students may assume that the best students don’t need help and that it is a form of weakness (or a signal that you are not smart) if you ask for help. They might assume that the best students write brilliant papers on their first try, so it is a sign of incompetence if you have to write many drafts. The opposite, of course, is true, and I often tell my students how many drafts I churn out before I’m ready to submit an article to a journal, or how I have come to rely on colleagues for advice, editing, or ideas when I’m stuck. Again, this is advice that international students will find useful – but so will all our students. We are role models. By making clear just how often we seek, and get, help, we’re sending an important message. By encouraging students (international and domestic) to find their own sources of support — friends,  instructors, peers, advisors — we help them connect with those who will help them do their best.

(3). Reading assignments. How much is too much? One of the most frequently heard concerns from international students is how hard it is to keep up with lengthy reading assignments. College junior Hengxuan Wu recently told the Review, “I feel like people just expect me to be really good at writing and reading when I take a lot of Politics classes, and they just assume that I can totally do 80 pages of reading in English in one night.” We are always pondering the quantity of reading that feels appropriate to assign to our students (see, for example, “Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables” and “Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills”). There is certainly no one answer as to how much reading we can reasonably assign (not to mention how we still that hectoring voice in the back of our heads that reminds us, “When I was an undergraduate, I read 400 pages a night and never complained!” Yeah, right.). But thinking about how all our students can get the most out of our classes can help us address this question and come up with answers that are appropriate. Quite likely, it’s not just the international students who aren’t getting all they can out of 80 pages of Marx or Derrida.

Particular concerns:

There are, of course, issues that impact international students differently than domestic students, and we should be aware of them whether or not they impact student performance in our classes.

(1) The Major: While many of our students will fret over the choice of a major, often seeing it as an essential definition of their identity more than a collection of courses, international students need to pay particular attention to the selection of a major because, if they want to stay in the United States after they complete their degree, visa regulations will determine that their employment be directly linked to their major.

I94-F1-Visa

Similarly, off-campus employment (only available after they have completed two full academic semesters) must be directly connected to their declared major. As advisors, it is important to be aware of these requirements, although international students will be well briefed on this by the Office of International Student Services.

(2) Rules and behaviors. International students may come from a culture where the expectation is that rules are less important than relationships; that who you know is more important than following established regulations which are always be applied inequitably. It’s important, particularly for advisors of international students, to help them understand that the rules we have are actually there for a purpose: that they can’t turn in final assignments without an incomplete after the final due date, that major requirements are major requirements, that class attendance rules actually mean you are expected to be in class and not just do well on the exams.

(3) The honor code. International students may come from academic cultures that have different standards for citation of sources, different expectations for when collaboration is permitted, and a different sense of the limits of what kind of collaboration is permissible. The very term we use to talk about expected academic conduct (“honor”) can cause confusion and distress among some international students. A student who uses the same standards to write a paper at Oberlin as she did in China, for example, can be horrified to find her behavior termed “dishonorable” when material wasn’t cited appropriately. The more we can be clear and explicit about citation practices, how certain kinds of paraphrasing can be the equivalent of copying, what materials should carry citations, etc., the more we will help not only our international students, but all our students.

Conclusion

We are fortunate to live in an increasingly globalized community. This has impacted the curriculum we offer, the opportunities we give our students to study abroad, and, increasingly, the demographics of our own campus. The increasing number of international students who apply to, and matriculate at, Oberlin and other liberal arts colleges are an indication of the value of the kind of education we provide. We have much to learn from them, and by being attentive to their particular concerns, we can help them, and all of our students, do that much better.


*Note: numbers of international students tends to vary depending on definitions. For most institutions, including Oberlin, an international student is considered to be one who has crossed a border to enter a host country, and, in the case of the United States, carries an F1 visa; they are often called “internationally mobile students.” “Foreign” students is a slightly broader category which also includes those who have permanent residency in the host country.  The category of international students doesn’t include U.S. citizens who may have lived abroad their entire lives or those who hold dual citizenship.

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