Helping International Students Succeed in the American Classroom

When American educators voice their concerns about working with international students, certain common issues tend to arise:

  • Wait Time:  Will the other students think I am waiting too long for an answer?
  • Negotiating Meaning:  Am I spending too much time helping this student?
  • Being Understood:  I don’t want to embarrass my international students, but what if I can’t understand them?  What if they can’t understand me?
  • Ensuring Participation:  How can I get them to participate in class?

In order to help international students succeed, it is best to start by trying to understand the American classroom experience from their point of view.

University Prep

The high level of participation expected in an American classroom may be very foreign to a majority of international students.  From a linguistic context, students may have fears about weaknesses in their fluency, vocabulary, and grammar.  Furthermore, the gap that exists between the depth of international students’ knowledge and their ability to communicate that knowledge in English can lead to a level of frustration that discourages participation.

From a psychological context, it is important to understand that many international students come from cultures where the group is more important than the individual.  Consequently, the shame of making a mistake and being talked about badly by others is a major concern for some students.  Furthermore, the notion that calling attention to oneself might inconvenience others can lead students to remain silent, even though they might have something valuable to contribute.

From a sociocultural context, many international students are thrown off by the dynamics of the American classroom. They might come from a culture where the teacher is expected to be the leader, and where it is not considered a virtue for students to express their opinions, especially if that opinion challenges the leader of the discussion.  They may be afraid that their instructors will think they are rude or not listening if they ask too many questions.   They also may have difficulty negotiating turn-taking, and may be unable to determine how and when to cut in, and fear talking over someone else.

Although these differences present challenges, there are many ways that American educators can help bridge the gap:

  • Establish a friendly rapport with international students–show an interest in them
  • Encourage international students to ask questions, and stress that it is never an inconvenience
  • In most content course, it is communication, not correctness, which is most important–avoid overcorrecting international students
  • Encourage international students to come to your office hours
  • Pay attention to body language, particularly eye contact, to determine when international students are ready to speak
  • Avoid offering critical comments to international students during class–when necessary, give critical feedback in writing
  • When appropriate, allow international students to work in pairs and small groups
  • Create opportunities where international students must speak, but give them a chance to prepare what they will say ahead of time
  • During lectures, write useful phrases and vocabulary on the board for reference
  • If your syllabus includes “class participation” as part of the grade, make a special effort to clearly define your expectations for your international students

Although these tips are especially helpful to international students, many would benefit American students as well.



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