“Cul-brid” Learning

Inside Higher Ed recently posted an excellent article for teaching international students, which highlights the need to examine the challenges in classrooms with both domestic and international students in what I would call a “cul-brid” (culturally hybrid) learning environment. From this article as well as my own experience as an international student, here are a few ideas for effective teaching to a diverse class:

Maintain high expectations:

The article brought up the concern that language and cultural barrier make it especially difficult for international students to keep up. Should professors then lower the bar to be “fair”? That is indeed a hard dilemma to deal with. However, lowering the bar will water down the education. It may frustrate domestic students without helping international students in the long term.  It will make people feel bad if they find out you are lowering the standards for their sake.  The trick is to be encouraging and supportive while keeping high expectations.   It may not be a bad idea for a professor to work with an international student advisor to find ways to help international students, or to recommend remedial courses or tutoring for struggling students to catch up. There are many university resources available for students who are international, at risk, or both.  Take advantage of such services.

Assess student background:  

International students are not alike.   It is easy to perceive them as a homogenous bloc while seeing “domestic students” as another bloc, but both groups display vast differences within themselves.    Most Chinese students, for instance are comfortable with standardized tests but struggle with group projects.  From an exit interview for graduating students conducted by ACU’s international office, a student from Egypt said she struggled with standardized tests.  So it is important to acknowledge and address such differences.   Getting to know such differences is often the first step.   Most course evaluations are done at the end of the semester when it is already too late to make a change for that particular semester.  It may help to conduct some formal or informal needs analysis at the beginning of a class, or conduct a mid-semester survey to recalibrate teaching.

Show the norm:  

The article suggests that non-native speakers of English may not know some of the norms in an American classroom, such as “participating in classroom discussions, asking professors a question, engaging in group work.”  Make sure that the such norms and “hidden rules” are brought to light.  Reflecting and articulating such rules is a good teaching practice any way, since domestic students also may not understand them.   As an international student I realized that sometimes professors assume too much of student understanding of the social or class norms.  For instance, I handed in my first paper in America using MLA citation which is what I was taught in China as an English major, when my professor actually expected us to use APA, which had never been mentioned anywhere.   I was caught by surprise.

Mix local and international students:

Left to their own choice, students may go to their own cultural groups.   It is enriching, however, to break that up by assigning students to groups to make groups culturally diverse.  In smaller groups, domestic students and international students may find it easier to open up and exchange ideas.   The Inside Higher Ed article also recommends a great method to deal with domestic-international student confrontations due to backgrounds each bring into the groups.   For instance, have students step into the shoes of “others” for empathy.  I also found it inspiring from the article that one professor broke the Chinese and American ruts of thinking related to Tibet by introducing a third perspective:  asking students to read views by Tibetans.

Creating a hybrid learning space:

I have heard again and again from professors that international students who are silent in class can better express their views online.   Even if a course is entirely face-to-face, it may help to have some online space to 1) post documents that may be briefly mentioned in class; 2) provide an opportunity for international students to ask questions without holding back students who do not have the same questions; 3) provide a discussion forum for international students to express their views if they write better than they speak;  and 4) allow international students to access certain content if more time is needed due to language barrier.  Use a learning management system for such a space.

These are a few of my thoughts.  Do you have any observations or good practices for teaching in a multicultural classroom?  Please consider sharing them with us!

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