Creating Connections that Ease International Students’ Transitions

3 Oct

Even if learning abroad is the fulfillment of a long-awaited goal, international students in their first semester may experience adjustment stresses that go beyond the usual new student stuff. Crossing cultures can be stressful, as we know from our own experiences attending a first conference, entering a new academic department, or living in a new city for the first time. Just as we valued mentors who familiarized us with these new environments, so international students look to their instructors and advisors for help navigating our academic culture and unstated expectations.

As teachers and advisors, we can connect international students to their classmates, to academic resources, and to us in ways that ease the challenges of learning in a new academic culture and (perhaps) language.

  • Take an interest in your students’ well-being; find out how their experience abroad in Minnesota is going so far; inquire about their home countries with open questions; try out Beverley Daniel Tatum’s “I am from” exercise across a class of undergraduates as an early mid-semester re-introduction to classmates. (Read more about Tatum via link in Resources section below.)
  • Promote academic resources like the Libraries’ Peer Research Consultants and the Center for Writing’s Student Writing Support.
  • Acknowledge that your grading methods, expectations for participation, and assignments may be unfamiliar to some; explain more and invite questions about the scheme you’ve set out; ask students to tell you more about how feedback, marking and grading work in the schools they have attended.
  • Design discussion activities such as note-taking pairs during class.
  • Encourage all students to share their perspectives on the course material; to facilitate “speaking up” you might distribute 3×5 cards and ask all students to describe a reading passage or lecture concept that is still “muddy” or unclear to them, or to name specific moment in a lecture or passage in a reading where something that was unclear came to make sense because of the material.
  • Integrate non-U.S. examples into your teaching; one teacher invites one student each day to come up with a non-US photo, a print or broadcast news or feature story, or piece of music that links to the day’s topic.
  • Use class capture or allow students to record lectures.
  • Facilitate the formation of study groups in your course or major.

By pursuing these strategies that underscore learning as a social endeavor, you can track the universal benefits of academic success and a sense of connectedness for all your students.

Resources – New and Noted Above

  • To gain insight into how international students experience academic writing in their first languages and into how this can be drawn on to as part of developing writing practices in U.S. universities, read “Valuing Written Accents.”
  • Learn what international students at the University of Minnesota reported about the challenges of the first semester via “International Undergraduates’ Classroom Experiences and Implications for Teaching,” a slide presentation reporting on findings of a study conducted by staff at the Center for Teaching and Learning, International Student and Scholar Services, and the Minnesota English Language Program.
  • For a view into how think-pair-share and teamwork can function successfully as collaborative activities among bilingual students, see Margaret Bowering, Bridget M. Leggett, Michael Harvey, and Leng Hui’s study as reported in “Opening up Thinking: Reflections on Group Work in a Bilingual Postgraduate Program,” an International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education article from 2007. The study reports on the use of think-pair-share and teamwork as collaborative activities in a bilingual course taught by primarily US instructors in China with primarily local Chinese masters students enrolled in a bilingual teaching program. The piloted collaborative activities not only increased student accessibility to course discussions and meaning making, but also engaged students in directly resolving problems of interpretation and relevance.  The article reports on specific practices, processes and on teacher observations as well as student feedback.
  • Beverly Daniel Tatum’s I Am From interactive conversation/writing assignment is featured in “The ABC Approach to Creating Climates of Engagement on Diverse Campuses” (Liberal Education, Fall 2000) – here the from can be the places we’ve lived, books we’ve read, beliefs/values we’ve witnessed and internalized.  Note: for this particular link, you’ll need a UMinn ID+password.  The author name + article title will lead to links for readers beyond the University of Minnesota.  Once you’ve linked to the article, notice that you can listen to the text with options for British, Australian and American accents.
  • Review Sheila Trahar’s “Teaching and Learning: The International Higher Education Landscape Some Theories and Working Practices” (published by ESCalate, a UK Subject Centre for Education) for a comparison of Socratic and Confucian philosophies of learning and teaching that will aid educators in understanding ways of integrating discussion and questioning, silence and interaction for learners from a broad range of learning and teaching traditions.  As Trahar notes, “Silence, rather than an indicator of a lack of engagement in the process of learning, or of passive learning, regarded pejoratively by many Western Academics is [with an understanding of Confucian philosophies] an active process, socially positive and beneficial to higher levels of thinking and to deepening understanding.”  Part Two of Trahar’s report sets out ideas about learning and teaching to “facilitate successful intercultural learning in increasingly complex contexts.”
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