12 Top Tips for Tutors: facilitating international student engagement

1.     Many study abroad and exchange students will be joining groups of students who have worked together for a year or two. Build into your first session an icebreaker activity, ideally one that helps students find commonalities, not just differences. Some of my favourites are:

  • Numbers, symbols and pictures: give everyone a large sticky label and ask them to write their names in the middle.  Around their names they should use numbers, symbols and pictures to represent their lives (e.g. age, hobbies, family members, nationality, languages spoken etc.).  Once finished and label is firmly stuck to chest, everyone mixes and mingles, asking questions of each other to find out the meaning behind the numbers, symbols and pictures.
  •  ‘Never ever have I …’:  I think this might be a drinking game originally (!), but a former student teacher rather cleverly adapted it for classroom use.  Put students into small groups of about 6-8. Each student starts with all five fingers raised.  One student starts by saying something they’ve never ever done.  If the other students have done this, then they have to lower one figure. The winner is the last student with any remaining fingers raised.
  • 3 Truths, 1 Lie: Again, in small groups, get students to think of 3 truths about themselves and 1 lie. Tell them to keep this secret. When they’re ready, they should present all four statements about themselves as fact.  The other students need to listen and, through further questioning, figure out which one is the lie.

2.     Students may need help understanding your expectations around the module reading list. At the beginning of the module especially, explicit instructions/advice re: what textbooks/articles to read, in what order of priority and how particular ones link to and support assessment tasks will be helpful.

3.     Don’t assume that all chatter is off task; sometimes international students are asking each other for definitions of key terminology or for clarification of certain concepts. Do check with students (sensitively) and put key terminology on board for students to see the written form (or provide a list of key terms before the session). Consider building in time for checking understanding in pairs or small groups and organizing a question time at the end of the lecture. Think-pair-share activities are useful for international students to check their understanding with classmates.

4.     Provide written support for lectures, whether PowerPoint slides or handouts, preferably before the lecture (maybe even flip your classroom), so students can do some reading around the topic, look up key terminology, and hopefully come to class with the some background knowledge and feeling more prepared to contribute to classroom discussions.  Encourage students to access notes/reading before the lesson, give them some questions to focus their reading or encourage them to use a reading strategy like SQ3R.

5.     Try to avoid overly colloquial and jokey language in lectures/sessions, or, if used, be prepared to paraphrase or explain meaning. Cultural references may also need to be explained.

6.     Be conscious of the speed of delivery. Be prepared to slow down a bit and pause more.

7.     Try not to go off topic during the lecture. Stick to an organized structure with plenty of signposting, repetition of key points and frequent summaries.  Again, build in some thinking/reflection time or checking understanding with a partner.

8.     Consider allowing students to record lectures, so they can listen back in their own time, pause, re-listen and fill in gaps in their notes.

9.     Positively encourage (and sometimes physically move students into) mixed-nationality seating arrangements and group-work.  Students who lack confidence in their English may be reluctant to join mixed nationality groups even though they may want to. Sometimes they just want the tutor to decide who’s working with whom.

10.  Many students come from educational backgrounds with different grading systems and can be shocked and disappointed when they don’t receive A-grades. It’s useful to explain the grading system and explain that a mark in the 60s is considered a ‘good’ mark in the UK and one in the 80s is considered exceptional (depending on level, university context and subject area).  Build into your module time to analyse example assignments, tutor feedback and marking criteria and get students to apply the criteria to example assignments from former students.

11.  Set written assignments as early as possible. Aim to give formative feedback on a draft or a proposal (even if just a few paragraphs) and encourage peer reviewing.

12.  An essay title that is broad in scope and allows a lot room for interpretation and freedom in terms of approach can be perceived by some international students as unhelpful and as ‘trying to catch them out’.  Clear, explicit and sometimes prescriptive essay titles can be more helpful, especially early on, when students are trying to get to grips with both the language and the content.

I know many tutors are already doing the things in the list above and have many more and even better ideas for inclusive teaching. I’d love to hear and share them, so please add your suggestions and comments (just click on the title to open blog and to comment).