Tag Archives: course design

Culturally & Linguistically Diverse Classrooms, Part 3: Maximizing Classroom Interactions

21 May

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


For all students, interacting in positive and meaningful ways with classmates and instructors is a vital part of feeling connected and developing a sense of belonging on campus (International Student Barometer, 2015). When students are not able to build a supportive community around them, feelings of isolation may create or contribute to academic and mental health challenges. However, because of the various cultural and linguistic barriers that multilingual and international students encounter, engaging effectively with faculty and peers may prove to be considerably more difficult than for a U.S. student who is a native speaker of English. McLachlan & Justice (2009) demonstrated that when international students feel isolated due to culture or language differences, their levels of distress are considerably higher, and thus developing a network of friends and allies is one of the most critical needs of international and multilingual students.

In this blog post, we will discuss recent research conducted at the University of Minnesota to highlight specific challenges that multilingual students may have when interacting with peers and faculty. We will conclude by suggesting some strategies to consider to help maximize classroom interactions and create an enhanced learning environment for all students.

Classroom Interactions:
International Student Perceptions

Interactions with Peers

International students’ responses in the International Student Barometer (ISB) data has demonstrated that more discussion and participation is typically required in the U.S. compared to the education systems in their home countries. International students overwhelmingly reported their desires for and difficulties in having effective interactions with domestic students in both academic contexts and social contexts (International Student Barometer, 2015). Particularly, international students are challenged by group work in classes:

The student groups that often study together for the class are of the same ethnicity (group of American students, groups of international students by countries). Unless it’s a group project that the members are assigned, there will be American students and international students work in the same group. For me, I feel more comfortable studying with my friends in my native language. Maybe the American students feel the same so that they want to study with American students too. (ISB, 2013)

In my first and second semester, it was difficult to communicate with American students. They usually did the assignments/study for exams in groups, and I had no idea that they are doing it or was never invited to join. After that I learned to initiate myself and found a way to be part of their groups….” (ISB, 2013)

Other students surveyed in the Student Voices research also explained how they often felt isolated and excluded and unsure of how to connect with American students. Even when succeeding in their academics, some international students expressed that they did not feel like they “fit in” with U.S. students, which was a greatly distressing experience.

Interactions with Faculty/Instructors

As noted in our second post for this series, a majority of international students are satisfied with professor/instructor’s teaching expertise that helps them grow academically and personally:        

I think that faculty in U of M are very friendly and open to all the students, including international ones. It helps me to succeed academically. They are really knowledgeable and easy to approach. That’s really something that increases my intellectual curiosity. (ISB, 2013)

However, students also report that some faculty lack in-depth understanding and recognition of international students’ unique needs and challenges:

Professors didn’t understand that international students need more time to get used to the American way of teachin. (Student Voices, 2012).

Professors treat all the students the same, which is good; but sometimes we as foreign speakers miss something in class because we are lack of English proficiency. I wish my professors would give international students like me some additional assistance.

Learning experience is good. But we do need more help from instructors, especially the assistance from writing and communication course. (ISB, 2015).

Getting acquainted with a professor personally is the most difficult thing for an international student here. One on one communication gap with professor widens more due to obvious cultural differences and subsequent hesitation arising from it. (Student Voices, 2012)

SERU (2015) data also indicated that, particularly, international students are not satisfied with access to faculty outside of class. As shown in Figure 1, only 19% of survey respondents are either “somewhat satisfied” or “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their access to faculty outside of class. Furthermore, the Student Voices survey showed that international students feel more comfortable asking questions to their instructors after class rather than raising hands in class (Anderson, Isensee, Martin, Godfrey, O’Brien, 2012). Thus, if the access to faculty or TAs after class is not satisfying, international students may lack opportunities to fulfill their learning expectations.

Figure 1. Percentage of Satisfaction with Access to Faculty
outside of Class (SERU 2015)

In Student Voices Survey (Anderson et al., 2012) where data was collected from first year international students, respondents recommended the following things that faculty and staff could to to make them adjust more easily during their first year:

  1. Create structured opportunities for integration.
  2. Be aware of the cultural background differences within the classroom setting.
  3. Encourage international students to utilize campus resources.

Classroom Interactions:
Faculty Perceptions

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 domestic and international students who are also non-native speakers of English. In response to various multi-option and open-ended questions, over 1,500 survey respondents discussed many benefits of having these students on campus and in the classroom. Specifically, staff and faculty respondents explained how interactions between international or multilingual students and U.S. American students could lead to productive intercultural learning, communication skills improvement, and the development of meaningful relational networks. However, despite this general consensus about the potential benefits, survey respondents also expressed concerns that these benefits are not often realized, primarily because students are not naturally inclined to interact across cultural and linguistic barriers without a strong system of support provided by the instructor.  

The following two quotes from faculty and staff respondents demonstrate the struggle that exists on both sides of the student equation; while non-native English speakers may not engage in interactions due to culture or language challenges, native English speakers may not be likely to actively include and welcome their participation (Peters & Anderson, in press):

From experience, non-native speakers rarely engage in conversation with native speakers in and out of the class for cultural or lack language skills reasons.

Non-native speakers of English enhance the learning environment if others make room in the conversation for others to speak, are patient enough to listen, clarify what they may not understand (either due to language or having a very different perspective) and be willing to see the world from a different point of view.

Another closely related theme that emerged from the survey findings was that the challenges of interacting across linguistic and cultural barriers often tend to be compounded in group work situations.   Many faculty respondents commented that they perceived non-native English speakers as being reticent to engage with a team due to a variety of factors, including shyness, lack of confidence, differences in cultural roles, or low proficiency in English.  

Some faculty and staff respondents also demonstrated an awareness about the nuanced linguistic reasons why group work may be more challenging for multilingual students, specifically that it can be difficult to keep up with the pace of a group conversation when interacting in a second language, and it can be intimidating to ask to slow the pace of the discussion down when a student doesn’t understand. One faculty respondent explained the challenges that multilingual students face in group work as a complex linguistic process requiring multilingual students to understand and produce an articulate response while facing a significant time pressure:

All that rapid (time-pressured) communication, while an excellent preparation for many of our students’ future work environments, is tough on those working to find their words while still working on mastering the new content. (Peters & Anderson, in press)

Survey respondents also acknowledged the potential challenges multilingual students face when interacting with faculty. Many respondents perceived that multilingual students are fearful to approach faculty with their questions, and some mentioned that students may become frustrated if they feel faculty do not show an understanding of their diverse background and the unique learning needs they may have. Furthermore, other respondents commented that multilingual students seem reluctant to ask for help, which can often leave faculty unaware of the challenges they are facing and can compound the confusion that students experience. One respondent explained that students seemed unwilling to reach out for help even when being directly encouraged to ask questions:

Despite my attempts to be open and welcoming of conversation about challenges, students still appear reluctant to ask for my help or consideration on their assignments. (Peters & Anderson, in press)

Maximizing Peer Interactions

  • Facilitate activities for inclusive community building in the classroom, with the intention of offering low-stakes opportunities for students to engage and learn about their similarities and differences. For a concrete example, refer to the “I Am From” Activity Guide: A Tool to Foster Student Interaction in the Classroom a curricular tool developed by the Internationalizing the Curriculum & Campus team at Global Programs & Strategy Alliance (GPS), the U of M’s central international office.
  • Clearly articulate the value of students engaging in intercultural interactions in the classroom. Explain some of the key benefits that can result when students work to overcome cultural and language barriers: students can learn new perspectives from peers with different backgrounds, enhance their intercultural communication skills, and prepare to work in global settings.

Resources: Student Interactions

Enhancing Group Interactions

  • Assign groups intentionally so that international and domestic students are paired together. Provide tools to help groups create effective norms and communication processes; for example, encourage students to identify roles for each team member to ensure contribution and participation are equitable. Additionally, have group members engage in intentional relationship building so that they have a basis for understanding the differences they experience in their work together.
  • If possible, give groups structured in-class time to work on their projects. This ensures that groups are meeting in person and thus have opportunities to interact, and it also provides valuable time for students to consult with faculty or TAs directly if they have questions.
  • For more ideas of tools and resources to support students in the process of developing effective teamwork, see the Faculty Guide to Team Projects developed by Center for Educational Innovation (CEI).

Resources: Group Work

Enriching Student-Faculty Interactions

  • Directly tell students how to address you and explain the differences between TA and faculty roles so that any role differences are clarified.
  • If possible, learn students’ names and try to find opportunities to connect with them to help them feel more comfortable to approach you with questions when they arise.
  • Encourage question-asking by regularly inviting questions throughout the duration of a lecture, and by inviting students to use office hours when they have questions throughout the semester.   Provide alternate methods for students to ask questions, including on Moodle, on index cards in class, and with a partner during a lecture.
  • Promote student resources frequently and using various mediums: in the syllabus, on Moodle, at the beginning of class, and as assignments are due, remind them of the many campus resources available to them. Click here for a list of resources for multilingual students that you can share with students directly.
  • To learn more specific strategies for communicating across linguistic and cultural barriers, see Communication Strategies for Working with Multilingual Students, provided by the Minnesota English Language Program.

Resources: Faculty-Student Interactions

  1. Communication Strategies for Working with Multilingual Students from Minnesota English Language Program
  2. Culture and Interactions with Instructors from Writing for International Students


  • Anderson, M., Isensee, B., Martin, K., Godfrey, L.A., O’Brien, M.K. (2012). Student voices: A survey of international undergraduate students’ first-year challenges. Global Programs and Strategy Alliance, University of Minnesota. 
  • International Student Barometer – ISB (2015). 
  • McLachlan, D. A., & Justice, J. (2009). A grounded theory of international student well-being. Journal of Theory Construction & Testing, 13(1), 27.
  • 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.
  • 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 Posts in this Series

  • The series opened with a post “Exploring Teaching and Learning Benefits” to introduce the research context and provide an overview of key findings;
  • In part two, the authors have focused on “Understanding Language and Cultural Barriers,” and
  • This post, the series conclusion, features strategies aimed at “Maximizing Peer and Faculty Interactions.”
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