How to get your stu­dents from over­seas up to speed

Set the stage for over­seas learn­ers to progress, say Kevin O’Gor­man and Robert MacIn­tosh

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Robert MacIn­tosh is head of the School of So­cial Sciences at He­riot-Watt Univer­sity, where Kevin O’Gor­man is pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and busi­ness his­tory and di­rec­tor of in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion. Both reg­u­larly write about aca­demic life on the He­riot-Watt blo

Don’t pa­tro­n­ise them

In­ter­na­tional stu­dents on trans­fer or exchange have not just ar­rived in front of you by ac­ci­dent – they have had to work very hard to get here. They might strug­gle to adapt to a new ped­a­gogy, es­pe­cially if they have been used to a more def­er­en­tial form of rote learn­ing. Get­ting over the lan­guage bar­rier is the first hur­dle; be­ing clear about their role – and yours – in the class­room is the sec­ond.

Pay enough at­ten­tion to their par­tic­u­lar learn­ing needs to give them the best chance of suc­ceed­ing be­cause this is in your in­ter­est as well as theirs.

Set ex­pec­ta­tions early

Make sure that there is a com­pre­hen­sive in­duc­tion that sets out what they need to know about how things work in your univer­sity. Take time to ex­plain your role and the role of oth­ers, such as tu­tors and lec­tur­ers.

Then, pro­vide a thor­ough, de­tailed de­scrip­tion of how as­sess­ments work: spell out the dif­fer­ences be­tween for­ma­tive and sum­ma­tive as­sess­ments, and make clear the break­down be­tween course­work and ex­ams. Mark­ing schemes are full of pit­falls and con­fu­sion, and they tend to vary from one univer­sity to the next, let alone from coun­try to coun­try. If 71 per cent is an ex­cel­lent mark and 78 per cent rep­re­sents a breath­tak­ing achieve­ment, make sure you tell stu­dents that 80s are rarely used and that gain­ing a mark in the 90s is about as likely as win­ning the EuroMil­lions jack­pot.

In­ter­na­tion­alise your teach­ing

Re­mem­ber that you now teach in a mul­ti­lin­gual, mul­ti­cul­tural class­room. It is up to you to adapt your teach­ing to suit your stu­dent community. Think about the rel­e­vance of some par­tic­u­larly West­ern con­cepts, such as cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity or Ju­daeo-Chris­tian no­tions of busi­ness ethics. Yes, you may have to teach them, but per­haps you should also be teach­ing some of the al­ter­na­tives, too.

Think also about the recog­nis­able brand-name firms that form the cul­tural fab­ric of your own ex­pe­ri­ence. Many of these firms, films, prod­ucts, brands and ref­er­ence points might be mean­ing­less to your in­ter­na­tional stu­dents. Not only are they younger than you are, they will also have their own equiv­a­lent ref­er­ence points. Rather than wor­ry­ing about this, ask them in class to pro­vide you with rel­e­vant ex­am­ples. From one year to the next, you’ll build up a reper­toire of ap­pro­pri­ate ex­am­ples.

Sign­post the sup­port struc­tures

Your univer­sity will have some stu­dent sup­port ser­vices – be sure to point these out early and often. Do not just as­sume that your new stu­dents will read the hand­book and emerge with a crys­tal-clear un­der­stand­ing of who to ask for help. You will prob­a­bly need to ex­plain both the sup­port and the aca­demic struc­tures.

Many stu­dents rely on their tu­ition fees and main­te­nance grants be­ing paid from their home coun­try or gov­ern­ment. After lin­guis­tic chal­lenges, fi­nan­cial con­cerns are the big­gest source of anx­i­ety and stress for them. Fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties, cou­pled with feel­ings of lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion, are a recipe for un­happy stu­dents and poor learn­ing out­comes. Do what you can to pre­vent such cir­cum­stances com­ing to a head.

In­cen­tivise the right kind of learn­ing

Your new in­ter­na­tional stu­dents may well have ex­celled in a very dif­fer­ent ed­u­ca­tional con­text from the one for which you are now re­spon­si­ble. It may well be that what you would dis­dain as mere rote learn­ing is pre­cisely what they have done all their learn­ing lives. Fur­ther, that rote learn­ing may have taken place in a con­text where it was so­cially un­ac­cept­able to ques­tion the of­fi­cial doc­trine of the lec­turer and/or where sig­nif­i­cantly more class­room time was the norm. Ad­just­ing to a dif­fer­ent ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is a chal­lenge. Hav­ing to find the courage to dis­agree with a lec­turer, be­ing al­lowed so much self-di­rected study time or be­ing re­quired to write crit­i­cally can be very dis­con­cert­ing.

Re­mem­ber to of­fer in­ter­na­tional stu­dents prac­ti­cal guid­ance on some of the tasks that you might take for granted, such as guid­ing them through the anatomy of a jour­nal ar­ti­cle to point out what needs to be read, and what can be skimmed.

Cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties to save face

Your new in­ter­na­tional stu­dent may have a lot rid­ing on their learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. They may well have been the bright­est stu­dent in their year group. It could be that their par­ents, grand­par­ents or both have sunk their life sav­ings into their de­gree course. Sent forth into the world with all that ex­pec­ta­tion, any­one might feel awk­ward telling the folks back home that they have failed. Mul­ti­ply that dis­com­fort by adding in a na­tional cul­ture that places great em­pha­sis on not los­ing face pub­licly, and you can see why some in­ter­na­tional stu­dents sim­ply go to pieces when con­fronted with a fail grade or worse.

Of course, you are there to up­hold aca­demic stan­dards. But the man­ner in which you con­vey the news about sub-par progress, the fre­quency with which this oc­curs and the pos­si­bil­i­ties for re­cov­er­ing the sit­u­a­tion will all have a huge bear­ing on how the stu­dent con­cerned han­dles the sit­u­a­tion.

A little em­pa­thy and some prac­ti­cal ad­vice can go a long way and might ac­tu­ally be the dif­fer­ence be­tween the stu­dent’s con­tin­u­ing or drop­ping out.

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