Culturally & Linguistically Diverse Classrooms, Part 1: Teaching & Learning Benefits

8 May


by Bethany Peters, Minnesota English Language Program,
and Xi Yu, International Student and Scholar Services

Part 2: Understanding Language and Cultural Barriers
Part 3: Maximizing Classroom Interactions

Introduction: Context

As an institution that strives to embrace and learn from diversity in its many forms, the University of Minnesota has developed a strong commitment to internationalization and global learning. This is demonstrated by the many faculty, staff, and students who have contributed to and participated in opportunities for international research, service, and language study. The U of M has also become a collegiate home for many students, staff, and faculty who represent a vast range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

Looking more closely at the demographics of the U’s current student population demonstrates that diversity. For example, during Fall semester 2016, 6,236 international students were enrolled at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. These students represented over 130 countries, and accounted for 13% of the Twin Cities campus student population, with Figure 1 (below) showing the distribution of undergraduate, graduate and professional, and non-degree seeking students (International Student and Scholar Services 2016/17 Annual Statistical Report, in press).

Figure 1. International Student Population at
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (Fall 2016)

In addition to international students at the U of M, domestic students who are non-native speakers of English comprise an additional 9% of the undergraduate student population on the Twin Cities campus, representing another important source of student diversity.

Series Overview

In this first post, we provide a brief overview of recent University of Minnesota research on the benefits of having international and domestic multilingual students on campus, followed by a discussion of the positive impacts these students can have on the classroom environment. Future blog posts in this series -“Understanding Language and Cultural Barriers” on 15 May, and “Maximizing Peer and Faculty Interactions” on May 22 – will discuss the obstacles that multilingual students may encounter in the learning process, challenges that faculty often face in supporting them, and strategies for faculty to apply in their teaching practices.

Student Perceptions

In 2014, a study of the Educational Impact of International Students in Campus Internationalization was conducted by the Global Programs and Strategies (GPS) Alliance at the University of Minnesota with the purpose of identifying contributions that international students made to all students’ learning on our diverse campuses. A total of 121 domestic and international students (including undergraduate and graduate) and 47 faculty members on the Twin Cities, Morris, and Crookston campuses participated in 32 focus group interviews and 17 individual interviews (Yefanova, Baird, Montgomery, Woodruff, Kappler, & Johnstone, 2015).

Two main themes emerged:

  1. When cross-national interactions are well-designed and supported, students experience learning gains, and
  2. Students rely on faculty to facilitate structured opportunities to foster this learning .

When faculty provided this support, both international and domestic student participants of this study shared that they gained knowledge, attitudes and skills needed for effective intercultural communication; improved ability to reflect on their own culture; developed leadership and problem-solving skills; and engaged with course content utilizing multiple perspectives. Particularly, international students reported benefitting from interactions with their peers from countries other than their own and from interactions with American students.

Another source of student data we reviewed to explore student-perceived benefits is the survey of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU), a nation-wide survey administered to understand the undergraduate experience and to promote a culture of institutional self-improvement. To examine students’ self-improvement in their educational experiences, the survey asked students to rate their level of proficiency in “ability to appreciate cultural and global diversity” when they started at this campus versus now (by the time they took the survey).

Data results from this question in SERU 2015 showed that students (including international students, students of color, and non-students of color) reported increased (>10%) ability to appreciate cultural and global diversity.

Table 1 (below) shows the percentage of respondents who rated their ability levels as either Good, Very Good, or Excellent (Office of Institutional Research, 2015).

  When I started… Current level… Increased (+) Decreased (-)
International Students 64.6% 88.4% +13.8%
Domestic Students –Students of Color 83.7% 95% +11.3%
Domestic Students –
NON-Students of Color
73.7% 91% +17.3%
TOTAL 75% 91.5% +16.5%

Table 1. Student’s Ability to Appreciate Cultural and Global Diversity

Faculty Perceptions

To complement student perspectives on the benefits, research about faculty and staff perspectives can provide additional insights. In the spring of 2016, the Minnesota English Language Program administered a survey to learn what faculty and staff on the Twin Cities campus perceived as key benefits and challenges of working with non-native speakers of English, a term which was defined to include both international and domestic non-native speakers of English.

With over 1,500 survey respondents, a majority of faculty and staff affirmed various benefits, demonstrating high levels of agreement that having non-native English speakers in the classroom creates optimal conditions for all students to learn about diverse perspectives, build intercultural communication skills, and develop critical thinking skills.

In response to an open-ended question, some survey respondents described in greater detail the types of impacts that multilingual students contribute to the learning process. For example, faculty and staff respondents expressed how non-native English speakers can bring an international perspective on discipline specific knowledge, they may help their native English speaking peers to challenge their assumptions and stereotypes, they often serve as inspiration to native speakers to pursue opportunities to learn abroad or study other languages, and they can help to prepare their peers to communicate more effectively in preparation for work in a global society.  

Beyond these benefits to the learning process, several faculty and staff respondents also articulated how multilingual learners can help to shape instructional practices in a positive way. Some faculty commented that non-native English speakers can help instructors to learn about diverse cultural perspectives, and that these students often possess high levels of motivation and a strong work ethic, which can serve as a source of encouragement in teaching. Further, some respondents perceived that multilingual students help instructors to learn to be more adaptive and communicate more effectively in their teaching. For example, one faculty respondent commented,

“Non-native English speakers push instructors to reflect more carefully on their course materials … to write more careful exam questions, to avoid potentially confusing errors or telegraphic writing in power points and assignment descriptions. To include examples that are meaningful and useful to a wider range of students.” (Peters & Anderson, 2017)

A few other respondents expanded on this to explain that when instructors diversify their communication strategies to provide more support for an international, multilingual audience, then instruction is likely to be more clear and accessible for all students.

Alongside survey respondents’ overall acknowledgements regarding benefits of having non-native English speakers in the classroom, several also acknowledged that these benefits would likely be realized only with the inclusion of intentional teaching practices that provided structure to facilitate meaningful interactions between students.   For example:

“In my experience, the presence of non-native English speakers has the potential to aid in the goals outlined above, but their presence does not automatically create these benefits. The course must be structured in a way that creates opportunities for cross-cultural interaction to occur and the students must be willing to interact. The potential positive impacts, therefore, are highly dependent on the course and the specific students and instructor.” (Faculty quote, Peters & Anderson, in press)

This perspective is one that is supported by the findings from Yefanova et al. (2015), which demonstrated strong evidence to show how students are reliant upon instructors to design and facilitate supportive activities for intercultural interaction to occur. The faculty participants in Yefanova et al.’s study also confirmed that students were not likely to interact across culture and language barriers unless faculty continuously provided them with opportunities to do so.

Enriching Classroom Practices

To synthesize multiple sources of data from both student and faculty/staff perspectives as presented above, multilingual students’ presence on campus can enrich the learning opportunities for all students in many ways. Although it is important to consider the limitations to the benefits, it is equally important to assess the current potential within your teaching and learning context. If you teach in a diverse classroom that is a learning context for both international and U.S. students, or if you work with domestic students who represent both native and non-native speakers of English, you can ask the following questions as a way to assess the degree to which you as the instructor and your students can benefit from cultural and linguistic diversity in the classroom:

  1. What previous cultural or linguistic experiences have students in your class had? Creating an introductory questionnaire with some questions about students’ background can provide you with useful information about which students are international students, which students are non-native English speakers, and which U.S. students have learned other languages or studied abroad. This information can then be used throughout the semester to place students in groups, help diagnose student needs, and provide students with feedback that is more relevant to their background and experiences.
  2. How might your course content encourage learning from culturally diverse perspectives? Depending on the subject matter, instructors in some disciplines will find it easier to bring in topics that inspire students to think about cultural diversity. However, integrating cultural perspectives to the curriculum serves as an important way to connect to students from diverse backgrounds, and may help to increase their motivation for learning.
  3. What informal opportunities for intercultural interaction exist within your course structure? When structuring group assignments, it can be beneficial to intentionally assign students to diverse groupings including both international and domestic students so that students have greater potential for intercultural learning. It can also be helpful to be explicit about the opportunities students may have to network in the course and develop relationships outside of their normal comfort zones.
  4. What skills might students need to bridge linguistic and cultural gaps? Considerable research indicates that students are not going to magically build their intercultural skills by sharing a common space with their diverse peers. They will need support and encouragement for professors and TAs to learn to have greater awareness and patience for the challenges they may encounter in intercultural communication.

Stay Tuned!

Parts 2 and 3 of this Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Classrooms series will explore what research demonstrates about the challenges involved in supporting multilingual and international students, fostering greater interaction between diverse groups of students, and finding strategies that are effective in creating a more culturally and linguistically responsive approach to teaching and learning. Look for “Understanding Language and Cultural Barriers” on 15 May, and “Maximizing Peer and Faculty Interactions” on May 22.


  • International Student and Scholar Services (in press). International Student and Scholar Services 2016/17 Annual Statistical Report.
  • Peters, B. & Anderson, M. (in press). Supporting Non-Native Speakers at the University of Minnesota: A Survey of Faculty and Staff. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.
  • Office of Institutional Research (2015). Student Experience in the Research University (SERU). Retrieved from
  • Yefanova, D., Baird, L., Montgomery, M. L., Woodruff, G., Kappler, B., and Johnstone, C. (2015). Study of the Educational Impact of International Students in Campus Internationalization at the University of Minnesota. Global Programs and Strategy Alliance, University of Minnesota.

Links to Other Posts in this Series

  • In Part 2, the authors focus on “Understanding Language and Cultural Barriers,” and
  • The 22 May conclusion will focus with an emphasis on strategies aimed at “Maximizing Peer and Faculty Interactions.”

Meet the Authors

Xi Yu, Evaluation Specialist, International Student & Scholar Services, oversees evaluation and research on international students experience, satisfaction, engagement and integration among international and domestic students. My professional and writing interests focus on, well I should say, pretty much EVERYTHING about international students, not limited to student experience, but also global learning and intercultural competency for all students, and faculty and staff development in strategizing their practices in teaching and advising to effectively assist international students with academic success.

Bethany Peters, ESL Faculty and Staff Liaison, Minnesota English Language Program, teaches in the Minnesota English Language Program, and provides support to U of M faculty and staff who work with multilingual students. My professional interests include topics related to best practices for teaching second language learners, intercultural competence, faculty and staff development, and student engagement. I am currently doing my own doctoral research exploring the concept of cultural humility and how it is exhibited within domestic and U.S. student interactions in the classroom.


2 Responses to “Culturally & Linguistically Diverse Classrooms, Part 1: Teaching & Learning Benefits”


  1. Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Classrooms, Part 2: Understanding Language and Cultural Barriers | TILT - 17 May 2017

    […] The series opened with a post “Exploring Teaching and Learning Benefits” to introduce the research context and provide an overview of key findings; […]

  2. Culturally & Linguistically Diverse Classrooms, Part 3: Maximizing Classroom Interactions | TILT - 21 May 2017

    […] The series opened with a post “Exploring Teaching and Learning Benefits” to introduce the research context and provide an overview of key findings; […]

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