This unit details how foreign languages can be taught online. For international students taking part in a content-based course in English, it is also a foreign language, so you need to focus on making it as simple as possible for them to participate in such a course.
International students enrich higher education by bringing their languages, cultures, and perspectives to their peers and, in so doing, heighten social awareness, cultural literacies, and broad intellectual development for everyone (Wong 2018; Luo and Jamieson-Drake 2013). However, while international students contribute much to their classrooms and campuses, they also confront many challenges. Adjusting to higher educational settings is a challenge for students from any cultural or academic background, but international students often face additional difficulties. While they, like any student, must find ways to succeed academically and socially, they also must do so often in a foreign language and within legal systems and cultural landscapes that may be unfamiliar. The resulting cultural alienation and confusion, in addition to financial and cultural pressures to succeed, can cause their college experience to be riddled with uncertainty and anxiety. The classroom experience is also challenging, since international students often confront a culture of teaching and learning in higher education that is substantially different from that to which they are accustomed.
For educators to aid international students in negotiating their lives in higher education and thereby to enhance a multicultural and cosmopolitan campus culture for all, it is imperative for instructors and staff to better understand the challenges of international students and how to develop inclusive spaces of teaching and learning. In recent years, the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching has hosted a series of conversations with international students and faculty. The following guide represents many of the concerns raised in these discussions and suggestions for how educators may best support international students, and in so doing, enhance their campus. This guide also explores inclusive teaching practices that can be incorporated into classrooms across a wide array of disciplines and teaching contexts.
Class discussions can provoke anxiety in any student, but international students and English language learners may feel uncomfortable speaking in front of others due to language barriers, a lack of familiarity with social or cultural cues, differing educational backgrounds, and other factors. You may consider generating discussions that meet the following goals:
- Transparency. Due to cultural differences across educational systems, some international students may be accustomed to a teacher-centered classroom (i.e., the instructor directs most classroom activities, often through a lecture-based model). When they enter classrooms that emphasize modes of self-directed or collaborative learning, such as student-led discussions, they may need additional help understanding the rationale and structure for participation.
- Clarify expectations. If categories such as “discussion” or “participation” appear within your syllabus or grading policy, it is important to define your expectations at the beginning of the course. What does participation look like in your discipline or in your particular classroom? Communicate with your students about why you require active participation, especially by describing the benefits you think it brings to the learning process. It is also helpful to be very practical and transparent about what goals you have for discussion and what skills you are assessing through student participation.
- Incorporate multiple forms of participation. If verbal full class participation is not essential to your course goals, consider offering alternative participation strategies such as small group discussion, think-pair-share, individual meetings with the instructor, informal blogs, discussion board posts, after-class email exchanges, or other assignments that allow students to demonstrate their engagement with course content.
- Distribute questions. Providing potential discussion questions before class gives students time to reflect and formulate more complex responses.
Research shows that collaborative practices and learning communities benefit traditionally underrepresented students by encouraging engagement between learners of diverse backgrounds, leading to increased multicultural competence (Soria and Mitchell 2015). You may consider the following techniques as part of a strategy of realizing these practices:
- Diversify group work. Asking students to turn to a classmate or form a group can create opportunities for peer education and can be a helpful discussion strategy. However, students sometimes can self-segregate or gravitate towards other students like themselves, so consider organizing group discussions or projects intentionally to promote more diverse groups and dialogues throughout the course.
- Organize study groups. If students have an assigned group and meet frequently either in-class or for study sessions, they may form a classroom community and develop closer relationships with other students, aiding their learning. They can ask their peers for additional help rather than having to approach the instructor if they feel intimidated. Implement a check-in or other way to regularly assess the effectiveness of the student groups. This is particularly useful for international or ELL students who may need more assistance developing proficiencies in language or cultural competencies.
- Group projects. High stakes group work may be difficult for international students. If a grade is attached to group work or collaborative projects, a student may feel like a burden if they do not understand how to contribute. Consider using group work for low stakes brainstorming so that students can build a rapport with their classmates and even potentially practice language learning in an informal setting. Also, consider giving individual students, particularly international students, clear roles (e.g., facilitator, devil’s advocate, notetaker) and assignments as part of their group work.
Assessing Student “Engagement”
If a student looks disengaged or is not participating verbally, that does not necessarily indicate passivity or a lack of engagement or understanding. In many cultures, students are accustomed to high degrees of deference to faculty, and thus may be habituated to listening actively but quietly, avoiding eye contact, and not initiating dialogue. For faculty who are more accustomed to students who make eye contact or who challenge with questions or critique, this can appear to be disengagement. Rather than reading these cues as disengagement, instructors could determine student understanding through:
- Classroom assessment techniques. Incorporate activities such as minute-papers on what they have learned and/or their remaining questions or issues that are still unclear (i.e., “muddiest points”).
- Guided prompts. Instructors could use reading notes, digital social reading assignments, quizzes, discussion boards, blogs, and reflection papers that are tied to a prompt that requires application, critique, and/or synthesis. Rather than participating verbally, students would thus be given the opportunity to respond to course content through a variety of mediums.
- One-on-one meetings. Faculty can require individual check-ins with all students to ensure they are engaging and developing towards the learning objectives. However, because international students may be unaccustomed to this as a teaching practice, it may help to clarify their function and what may be required of the students.
International students or English language learners may need to translate language in their head as the instructor speaks, or they may need extra time to take notes in another language. In order to communicate effectively with all students, instructors can develop a clear teaching or presentation style that incorporates slower speech, accessible questions, and pauses for reflection. These techniques are elaborated below:
- Speaking style. Experts in any discipline may unconsciously speak quickly because they are familiar with their subject and they may extemporaneously pursue tangential subjects with cultural references that are unique to their home culture. International students can best understand these topics more easily if the instructor uses slower speech, clarifies culturally specific references, and pauses periodically for reflection and note-taking time. It is worth noting that changing your speaking style too much may be unnecessary and/or insulting, since it may appear patronizing. Consider clarifying and slowing your speech, and then check in with students a few weeks into the course to evaluate whether your presentation style is effective. This could be done through an anonymous Google Form or poll that is distributed to all students.
- Question format. It is useful to check in during instructional time in order to gauge understanding, but students often feel uncomfortable asking or responding to questions in front of their peers for a variety of reasons. They may respond more willingly to open-ended questions such as: “What part of the previous explanation is still unclear?” These types of questions invite students to acknowledge gaps in understanding (rather than asking a question such as, “Are we all ready to move on now?”). More specific questions that intentionally assess student understanding are far better than general ones designed to simply move class along. Pause for 10-15 seconds before transitioning to the next topic. This will provide students with the time necessary to process, reflect, and respond, especially if they have less language or cultural familiarity with the subject. Instructors could also create a “questions/feedback” discussion board or quiz on their course management system, in Google Docs or Forms (note: in China the Google platforms are not accessible), or encourage/require individual office hour check-ins.
- Explanations of major assignments. Provide both written and verbal instructions for all assignments. International students or English language learners may have to translate the instructions as the instructor speaks, so they may miss some material. Restate important ideas throughout the lesson and vary the phrasing/terminology as information is presented.
- Closed captioning. If PowerPoints, Google Slides, or other slideware are being used during a class period, consider providing closed captioning for this content. Some English language learners might be more familiar with written language than with spoken words. With captions, students also have the opportunity to go back through the slides later to read through what they may have missed, or to translate unfamiliar concepts/phrases when they have more time.
Special considerations for online curriculum design
Faculty can help to ensure that international students who are learning online (especially from other countries) can receive equitable treatment.
- Discussions. In hybrid classes especially, faculty may privilege in-person dialogue over those participating via video conferencing (such as Zoom). When international students are disproportionately participating online, this privileging may have the effect of excluding them (and their online peers) from conversation. Please endeavor to give time and opportunities for online students to contribute to the discussion fully, and not include them marginally (e.g., only at the end of the dialogue). Also, in online or hybrid courses, please be attentive to time zone issues as international students may be contributing to the discussion late at night or early in the morning, which could affect their participation. International students need rest to keep up with their assignments and maintain good physical and mental health. Therefore, you may choose to set alternative sections for international students. Another solution is to not make synchronous sessions mandatory, and instead create equitable opportunities for asynchronous class participation, for example through discussion forums, notetaking documents, and video.
- Asynchronous materials. It is good practice to offer course materials that students can access asynchronously so that they have more control over when (and how) they view the content. For example, consider providing transcripts of your lectures or links to reading materials that you discuss verbally. Also, consider transforming any presentational elements you currently perform in synchronous meetings into asynchronous materials that students may review independently. This can have the added benefit of focusing synchronous discussions on the forms of teaching for which they are best suited, namely interactive dialogue and collaborative learning.
- Accessible online platforms. Avoid selecting an online platform that may exclude international students. Google platforms, for instance, are not available in China, so others may be worth using if Chinese students are participating in the course. Check-in regularly with all students to ensure they have the resources needed to succeed.
- Scheduling. Consider offering office hours, exams, and synchronous class meeting times in time slots that are convenient to both you and your international students in different time zones.
REFERENCES + LICENSE: Soria, Krista and Tania Mitchell. “Learning Communities: Foundations for First-Year Students’ Development of Pluralistic Outcomes.” Learning Communities Research and Practice vol. 3, no. 2 (2015).
Wong, Alia. “Should America’s Universities Stop Taking So Many International Students?” The Atlantic, 28 June 2018.
The text “Teaching international Students” by Alex Oxner, Graduate Teaching Fellow and
Joe Bandy, CFT Assistant Director, Vanderbilt University, via https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/teaching-international-students/, is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0, rephrased and shortened by SEA-EU.