On Blending Cross-National Interactions & Self-Directed Student Learning

19 Jul

by Diana Yefanova, Post-doctoral Research Associate
Global Programs and Strategy Alliance


We know from research and practice that cross-national interactions in the classroom among students from across the globe offer ample opportunities for student learning when nurtured and facilitated. Thus we asked domestic and international students and instructors in three Twin Cities and Crookston classrooms about their learning and teaching experiences for the Study of the Educational Impact of International Students in Campus Internationalization at the University of Minnesota, Phase Two. The two-phase study was jointly conducted by the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance and the College of Education and Human Development. We interviewed student and faculty study participants and observed their classes as semester progressed. We also solicited instructors’ views around adjusting (or not) to increasingly internationalized classrooms and reviewed class syllabi and selected assignments.

Ultimately, we were curious to learn how University of Minnesota instructors integrated cross-national interactions to achieve course-specific or campus-specific student learning and development outcomes in an undergraduate classroom. We had a hunch that our instructor participants would engage student motivation at some point along the way. Thus the concept of self-regulated learning comes into play.

Setting the Study Context

Self-regulated learning involves self-determined processes and associated beliefs that sustain student learning in different contexts. Some researchers would argue that it fosters student creativity and motivation (Jackson, 2008). While instructor support for cross-national interactions is important, student motivation is just as critical while students learn to develop awareness of self and others around them as they work on common academic goals.

Phase One of the study (Yefanova, Woodruff, Kappler, & Johnstone, 2014) demonstrated that a significant share of University’s undergraduate students believed that interacting with international diversity in the classroom allowed them to achieve the following:


  • Reflect on their own cultures;
  • Develop leadership and intercultural communication skills;
  • Engage with course content through exposure to multiple cultural perspectives; and
  • Create strong social and professional networks.

The findings echo other studies indicating that cross-national interactions in the college classroom are important for cognitive skill development, a greater sense of belonging and support, and better awareness of their own and other cultures (Deardorff, 2006; Lee et al., 2012; Luo and Jamieson-Drake, 2013; Parsons, 2010).

We also know from Phase One of the study that University of Minnesota domestic students often expected to interact cross-culturally in the classroom via instructor-assigned groups or pairs. Therefore, we were curious to find out how instructors in varying classroom contexts were balancing support for cross-national interactions with expectations for students’ self-directed learning. We built on a fact that University students were operating on a global scale already: communicating across borders within digital worlds of social media, negotiating meanings, and defining common values with global peers. So how might teachers translate this willingness to interact and work across cultural  and linguistic difference to the brick-and-mortar classroom?

From the Findings

Each of the three case study classrooms involved experienced instructors who taught in a variety of disciplines in small and medium-size classes with varying percentages of enrolled international students. Below is a summary of instructional strategies across the cases as instructors aimed to enhance self-directed student learning and to provide support for cross-national interactions.  

1. Engaging student motivation to interact.

The participant instructors stated that they saw themselves as facilitators in the course, someone who “expands” students’ thinking and alerts them to the importance of cross-national interactions for understanding class content. To this end, the instructors shared their expectations for cross-national interactions with the students and scaffolded towards exploring different cultural perspectives on content at the start of the semester.

Specifically,  two out of three instructors presented the rationale for cross-national interactions as pragmatic and employability-related (i.e., as necessary preparation for future jobs in global environments). One instructor also highlighted the learning goals of students’ cultural (self) awareness and understanding of how ethical decisions and values are influenced by our culture.

2. Addressing student anxiety and tendency to stay in a “comfort zone”

Students were encouraged to develop confidence in cross-national interactions, and to move out of their regular social groups to work on common goals with their peers from countries other than their own. In one example, the instructor used course assignments to engage students in structured interactions, but did not assign the groups. Instead, she talked to the students about things they should consider when independently choosing their groups. The students were encouraged to start talking with someone they did not know and connect with someone from a different culture – with the goal of creating balanced groups conducive to cross-national interactions.

The aim was to allow for self-directed student learning as the classroom community developed and students reflected on their own cultural perspectives and values. Throughout the semester, students were expected to set learning goals to guide their groups, and to consistently take part in cross-national interactions.

Although some student respondents (both domestic and international students) across cases shared they had a preference for being assigned to a specific group the instructor determined, one domestic student explicitly suggested that continuously “forcing” cross-national interactions may be counter-productive, as students need to be prepared to interact on their own accord:

You cannot have other people force you talk to other people, you have to do it out of your own will…you step out of your comfort zone by yourself you are more curious about what you find.  (Sophomore, undecided major).

Another domestic U.S. student suggested that groups should rotate and seating arrangements change throughout a course so that all domestic students could meet all international students in the class. In this context, instructors would need to become aware of their students’ readiness for interactions and of any intercultural experiences students may have already gained prior to entering college.

3.  Developing reflexive processes

In self-directed learning, students must be able to engage in self-reflection and self-evaluation of their learning goals and progress. All three case study instructors provided opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences with cross-national interactions at some point during the course, but not necessarily in a systematic way.

In one classroom, students were asked to reflect on their experiences with a peer editing activity that paired domestic and international students mid-semester.  While students were asked to reflect on what they saw as benefits and challenges of the activity, the cross-national interaction component of the peer editing was not specifically addressed in these questions.Consistent with the reflective dimension of the  Interaction for Learning framework ((Arkoudis et al, 2010), one of the instructors in a discussion-based classroom focused on having students consistently reflect on own and others’ cultural perspectives and values on class content via pair, group and class discussions, as well as in a final group project. Yet another instructor  in a lecture-based class introduced the learning portfolio as a sole opportunity for written reflection on cross-national interactions at the end of the class.

Instructional Strategies: Recommendations Across Cases

Design and Align Course Components

1.  Explicitly connect specific course objectives or student learning and development outcomes with specific course activities or assignments geared towards enhancing the cross-national interactions.

2. Clearly define global, international or intercultural student learning and development outcomes that can be gained via cross-national interactions aligned with the content of the course (help students understand why it’s important to work across cultural and linguistic difference).

Balance Challenge and Support for Cross-National interactions

1.  Consistently engage all students in cross-national interactions by providing support and scaffolding to address student anxiety or lack of experience with intercultural encounters and introduce self-directed learning tasks (e.g. students choose pairs/groups and define own roles for the semester).

2.  Gradually engage international student expertise without putting them “on the spot” by serving as an ambassador for their country. One example might be to invite all students to bring articles on their home country context relevant to group project and share own cultural perspectives as “one of many”.

Address Situational and Context Factors

1.  Keep in mind that course pace, course load, campus size, and other situational factors should be taken into considerations when planning for cross-national interactions during and after class.

2.  Model ongoing non-native English speaker support (e.g., by demonstrating cross-cultural curiosity, humility, and intercultural competency, as well as addressing challenges students normally face with terminology in the classroom).

Follow Up Resources

Arkoudis et al. (2010). Finding Common Ground.  http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/research/experience/docs/FindingCommonGround_web.pdf

Dunne, C. (2013). Exploring motivations for intercultural contact among host country university students: An Irish case study. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 37, 567-578.

International Student and Scholar Services (2014). The undergraduate international student experience. Results from the International Student Barometer (ISB), Fall 2013. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Jackson, N.J. (2003). Connecting Personal Development Planning (PDP) to the theory of self-regulated learning. The Higher Education Academy, United Kingdom.

Kimmel, K. & Volet, K. (2012). University students’ perceptions of and attitudes towards culturally diverse group work: Does context matter? Journal of Studies in International Education, 16(2), 157-181.

Lee, A.; Poch, R.; Shaw, M.A.; Williams, R. (2012). Engaging Diversity in Undergraduate Classrooms: A Pedagogy for Developing Intercultural Competence.   Association for the Study of Higher Education Report Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Luo, J., & Jamieson-Drake, D. (2013). Examining the educational benefits of interacting with international students. Journal of International Students, 3(2), 85-101.

Meerwald, A. M. (2013). Bridging cultural binaries through pedagogical practices. Brookes eJournal of Learning and Teaching, 5(1).

Otten, M. (2003). Intercultural learning and diversity in higher education. Journal of Studies in International Education, 7(1), 12-26.

Parsons, R. (2010). The effects of an internationalized university experience on domestic students in the United States and Australia. Journal of Studies in International Education 14(4), 313-334.

Soria, K. M., & Troisi, J. (2013). Internationalization at home alternatives to study abroad: Implications for students’ development of global, international, and intercultural competencies. Journal of Studies in International Education, 1028315313496572.

Trice, A. G. (2004). Mixing it up: International graduate students’ social interactions with American students. Journal of College Student Development, 45(6), 671-687.

Zhao, C.M. & Douglas, (2012). Critical mass and the international student effect : a profile at a group of major US universities. Berkeley, CA: Center for Studies in Higher Education.

Yefanova, D., Woodruff, G., Kappler, B., & Johnstone, C. (2014). Study of the Educational Impact of International Students in Campus Internationalization at the University of Minnesota:  http://global.umn.edu/icc/impact_research.html


2 Responses to “On Blending Cross-National Interactions & Self-Directed Student Learning”

  1. mccl0276@umn.edu 20 July 2015 at 10:55 am #

    Great work, Diana! Very interesting to read the key take aways from this study!!!!

    • diana 29 July 2015 at 12:16 pm #

      Great to hear that, Kate!

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