Teaching International Students : Strategies to enhance learning

Text-only Preview

Teaching International
Strategies to enhance learning

Sophie Arkoudis


Teaching International Students
Strategies to enhance learning

Teaching International Students: Strategies to Enhance Learning was developed for the University of
Melbourne by Dr Sophie Arkoudis of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education.
Permission is granted for copying, distribution and use by other institutions, with appropriate
Available in electronic form from http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/
Further enquiries regarding permission and availability:
Centre for the Study of Higher Education
The University of Melbourne
Telephone: 03 8344 4605


This document contains practical suggestions for teaching strategies that will assist the University’s
international students. Some of the suggestions may seem self-evident as they represent widely
accepted principles of effective teaching in higher education. Nonetheless they are worth reiterating.
The University of Melbourne endeavours to create environments which foster academic excellence
and which encourage all students to engage with their learning communities
(http://www.unimelb.edu.au/diversity/downloads/inclusive%20practice.pdf). The University has a
culturally diverse student population, including students from Indigenous, international and recent
immigrant backgrounds. This document focuses on the language and cultural issues that may be
considered in teaching international students. While acknowledging that the term ‘international
students’ is complex to define, for the present purposes of this document international students will
be those who have had the majority of their previous study in countries where English is not the main
medium of instruction in education.
Globally, more people than ever before are choosing to undertake an international education. The
large-scale movement of students between education systems means that academics need to
consider the learning and teaching implications of the increased numbers of international students in
university classes. Notably, international students now form a large part of the diverse student
community that exists at the University of Melbourne. Many of these students are originally from
countries where English may be spoken as a second or third language, or where English is only
learnt as a foreign language in school. It is important to not make assumptions about these students’
learning strategies because of their cultural background. Much discussion of international students
has focused on stereotypes: a presumed reluctance to talk in class, a preference for rote learning
and an apparent lack of critical thinking skills. Implied within this stereotyping is an ‘us’ and ‘them’
approach to the students and a deficit view of this group of learners, as people who perhaps ‘lack’
the desirable qualities for succeeding in higher education as we understand it. However, this is
simply not true. International students are some of the highest achieving students at the University.
In the Nine Principles Guiding Teaching and Learning in the University of Melbourne, the fourth
principle is ‘an international and culturally diverse community and learning environment’. Research
has highlighted that the educational expectations of international students are as diverse as those of
domestic students (Biggs, 2003; Ryan, 2005). These students can range, for example, in academic
ability, English language proficiency, motivation, educational experiences, as do many of the local
students. However, there are some conclusions we can draw about the particular challenges facing
international students that distinguish their experiences from those of domestic students. These
include the challenges of:
learning and living in a different culture;
learning in a foreign university context;
learning while developing English language proficiency; and
learning the academic disciplinary discourse.

A survey of international students’ experiences at the University of Melbourne (University Planning
Office, 2005) noted that the students were generally very positive about their experiences in their
courses. They highly valued the opportunities for personal growth and academic achievement.
However, the students said that they encountered problems to do with initiation into their course,
participating successfully in a Western academic environment, English language skills and engaging
comfortably with the rest of the University community. While for some of the students, these
concerns diminished over time, for others they remained ongoing concerns throughout their course.
Research has found that academics are aware of the learning needs of their students, but may be
unclear about how best to address those needs (Ryan, 2005). The purpose of this document is to
encourage the use of different strategies and approaches that have been informed by research in the
area of international students’ learning in western higher education contexts. The key areas that are
discussed in some detail include:

Internationalising the curriculum

Making lectures accessible

Encouraging participation in small group work

Adopting an educative approach to plagiarism

Supporting students in developing critical thinking skills

Explaining assessment expectations

In developing this document, interviews were conducted with academic staff from a variety of
faculties and teaching contexts within the University. The strategies presented are informed by the
experiences of those interviewed. Comments from international students have also been included.
Helpful suggestions were received from numerous academic staff during the development of this
document. Feedback was received from members of the Academic Programs Committee (APC),
Teaching and Learning Quality Assurance Committee (TaLQAC) and the International Students
Consultative Committee, and their contributions are gratefully acknowledged.
The practical advice in this document has been written for academic staff wishing to explore different
ideas in their teaching to address the needs of international students. This advice is offered with
international students in mind but can be useful for all students.


Internationalising the curriculum
One of the more apparent influences of globalisation in universities has been the focus on
internationalising the curriculum. How we interpret this idea depends on our discipline area, the
extent to which the content can be internationalised and the process of teaching and learning. We
also need to consider the attributes of all graduate students. Currently, the Graduate Attributes for
the University of Melbourne emphasises leadership in professions and communities, fluency
between cultures and active global citizens. It is desirable that graduates develop ways of effectively
communicating with people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, be aware of
international perspectives and interpret issues within a global context.
This section will discuss two ways in which the curriculum may be internationalised. From a content
perspective, topics and resources with a more international flavour may be selected. From a
teaching and learning perspective, consideration needs to be given to how the content will be taught
to enhance learning for students. Both of these aspects need to be considered in internationalising
the curriculum. Strategies for each of these are presented below.
Internationalising the Content
For some disciplines it seems that academics already consider the content as international, usual y
because the discipline is practised in the same way across different countries. An example of this is
cell biology:
Science has this arrogant belief that it’s an international entity. It certainly is a
western international entity. And science as it is practised in other places,
whether it is an Islamic country or China is still recognisably that western entity.
To be science it has to be. I don’t know how you can internationalise the
pursuit of truth.

Other academics internationalise the content by including material that offers different international
What I do with my undergraduate Management subject is I specifical y looked
for videotapes, examples and cases that were not just North American,
European or Australian. I cover a number of Asian countries, because most of
our international students are from Asia. In my postgraduate subjects I get
examples of companies that are multinational. My guest speakers are all from
organisations that are global. Also every year I look for books that have an
international or Asia-Pacific focus. That’s how I internationalise my curriculum.

Content can also be internationalised by connecting students to international research as suggested
in The Teaching-Research Nexus (http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/downloads/TR_Nexus.pdf) and
contextualising local issues within global concerns.


Internationalising Teaching and Learning
It is slightly more challenging to explore internationalising the curriculum in terms of teaching and
learning. This perspective is more concerned with how the content is taught and the consequences
for learning. From the interviews conducted with academics, three main issues emerged. Firstly,
academics were concerned with developing intercultural perspectives and encouraging effective
communication with students from diverse cultural backgrounds:
At the start of the semester I show the Australian Bureau of statistics snapshot
of the population. I do this just in case any of the local students think that it is
not relevant for them to hear about the experiences of the international
students. Even if they don’t work overseas, they have to communicate with
people from different backgrounds here in Australia.

Secondly, academics believe that they need be aware of students’ different experiences and
expectations and cater for these in their teaching:
I think internationalising the curriculum is about the different educational
experiences our students have and the way we actually go about teaching
them and responding to their expectations of learning. The activities that we
use, the expectations that we have and how we communicate those to them
may impact on how well they are able to participate in class.

Finally, academics were concerned with developing students’ skills to be able to work anywhere in
the world and the implications for this on learning:
We talk about issues of portability. The degree and the qualification have to be
portable, so that any of our graduates can work anywhere in the world. We get
the students to think about how the theories actually work and also the
limitations of those theories in different contexts.

Some of the suggestions offered in this document can be used to develop approaches that
internationalise teaching and learning. From University surveys we know that international students
choose to study at the University because of its reputation and quality of teaching. They enjoy being
in a learning environment where they are challenged and exposed to new ways of learning. There
are also benefits for domestic students, as they engage with culturally and linguistically diverse
students who offer multi-cultural perspectives on local and global issues. The chal enges and
benefits for academics are in optimising opportunities in planning and delivering curriculum to
enhance international students learning and create inclusive supportive learning environments for all

Making lectures accessible
Understanding lecture content can be difficult for

international students. Listening is an active rather than a

passive skill, especially for the second language learner.

They are processing the words, attempting to understand

the main ideas presented and drawing on what they
already know to make sense of the material presented in

the lecture, in their second language. This is especial y

true for first year undergraduate and postgraduate

international students, who are developing their English

language skills and learning in a western university
Focusing on core concepts
environment. There are strategies that can be used in the
Over the years I have really
design and delivery of the lecture that can assist in making
learned to think through what is
the conventional lecture more accessible for international
the essential and optional in
courses. Now in class I focus
Outline the main points of the lecture and make links to
on the essentials and direct
other topics covered in the subject or material to be
people to the optional. I think
covered in tutorials. Highlight key questions or issues
that a lot of the time in teaching
that will be addressed during the lecture. Concept
at university it is very easy not
maps are useful as they offer a visual representation of
to foreground to the students
the content and how it relates to other areas in the
what you think is very
important, because we tend to

mix it up with a whole lot of
Provide a lecture outline with the main points to be
other stuff. (Academic)
covered to assist students to follow the lecture and

guide their note taking. This can be put on the web for

students to download and supplement the PowerPoint

slides that are usually available to students.

Explain any relevant background information that may
assist students in understanding key concepts.
Recording lectures
I have had feedback from the
Define any new or unfamiliar words or concepts, and
international students that they
provide opportunities for clarification.
value i-lecture because they
can go back and review points
of the lecture they did not
understand. (Academic)

If slang, jargon and culturally specific humour are used
in the lecture, explain the meaning for students who

may not understand it. This is important with first year

students, although by third year this should be less of
an issue.

Summarise the important information at certain stages
Being on the lookout for
in the lecture.
Use international examples or case studies where
I try to reduce jargon in what I
do, but in certain areas have to
Record the lectures using i-lecture, so that
teach the jargon, as the
international students can listen to them again. This
students will be working in the
will assist students to clarify points that they may have
industry. I also try to reduce
not understood due to English being their second or
the use of idioms and
third language.
colloquialisms. I had students
who came to see me and I had
Conclude the lecture by summarising the main points
given them a document saying,
and highlighting ‘take home’ messages.
“This is the silver bul et to the
In my lectures I think critically about
the level of detail I teach. I think

whole situation”. And the
about what is more important. Is
students from China said to me
there a theoretical concept or an
overview that the students would

“what is this silver bullet?”
much rather have than being
bogged down with the seventy-
seven new words that we are

introducing in today’s lecture?

Explaining unfamiliar


The local as well as

international students find it

useful when I ask them whether

At the start it was very difficult for me to understand the
they understand specific terms.
lecturers. It was good when they took time to explain ideas
It is interesting to see them gain
and they encouraged us to ask questions if we are not
confidence in asking for
sure. (International student)
definitions. They do this
because I let them know that it
is okay to ask when they are
not sure. (Academic)