How to get international students out of their rooms and into the community

The potential of projects

It is sad but true that it is possible for international students to study at UK (and probably other) universities and never leave campus, never speak to local people in local settings and never enrich their cultural awareness and sociolinguistic competence.  

Universities are generally great at providing courses in, or extra support for, English for Academic Purposes and Study Skills and are increasingly seeking ways to embed these into students’ programmes in order to help them meet the academic demands of their modules. But, they are generally less great at developing students’ everyday communication skills in everyday settings with everyday people.  Maybe because they don’t see this as their job.

If, like me, you think this is equally important, then look no further.  I guarantee that the module I describe below is one of the most rewarding you will ever teach and one of the most useful for international students. 

It is an ethnographic research module designed for international students studying at a British university but equally valuable, I would argue, for any international student on any university campus. My evaluation of this module was based on data collected from students’ feedback on end-of-module evaluation forms and also their written reflections on the research process. As you will see below, the findings indicate a number of perceived benefits. 

This post serves a brief overview; the next few posts will give more detail about the structure and content, in case you want to adopt a similar research/project-based module yourselves. Or, do feel free to get in touch directly, if you think you might like support, advice or materials.

The module

A  20-credit, Level 4 (year one) module taught three hours a week over twelve weeks to Study Abroad students with IELTS 6.0/B2 equivalence.  The aims of the module are to develop via a small-scale ethnographic project in the local community: initial competence in ethnographic enquiry; and English language skills, cultural awareness and intercultural competence.

What is ethnography? 

It is an approach to social research typically involving participant observation in natural settings, formal and informal interviews and the collection of documents and artefacts in order to develop a deeper understanding of people’s behavioural practices and beliefs. According to Fetterman (1998: 2), ‘the ethnographer is interested in understanding and describing a social and cultural scene from the emic, or insider’s, perspective.’


The students’ projects 

Students initiate their own topics and are supported in the classroom in a step-by-step fashion with weekly tasks and plenty of formative feedback from peers and tutors on research questions, research design, interview questions, an oral presentation of their findings, data interpretation and a draft of the final report. The final report (2000 words + appendices) is the only summative piece of assessment.  Examples of past topics include:

  •       The elderly: ageing actively

  •       Volunteering: altruism or cv-enhancing?

  •       Always lost: asking for directions in the UK

  •      Terms of endearment: alright luv?

  •      Arcades: only for the lonely?

  •       Camaraderie within a boys’ basketball team


Findings: students’ voices

The joy of discovery

  •      ‘At week 8, I found that I collected a lot of data (maybe even more than I needed) due to the excitement of discovery and happiness of interacting with people.’

  •      ‘…I realize talking about a country’s culture in the ethnographic way is much more vivid and interesting because you are actually the one experiencing and interpreting what you see in that particular aspect of life in that particular time.’


  •  ‘In a nutshell, this research is meaningful for developing my abilities, regardless of the study skills or the language skill and social skills’.  

Developing English language skills, sociolinguistic and intercultural communicative competence

  • ‘… my fluency of speaking the language improved because I need to speak fluently to avoid wasting my interviewee’s time.’

  •  ‘I successfully talked to British people indeed and learned how to start a conversation better’. 

  •     ‘At the beginning of the research, I had difficulty in understanding different English of the basketball team members, not only because of different accents, but also the slang and vocabulary. But when the time goes by, gradual recognition towards their delivery pace and the expansion of my vocabulary base, help me understand much more.’


Building confidence

  • ‘Ethnography is useful in boosting confidence as it opens up my eyes and my mind. To step out of the comfort zone is uneasy, but I am proud of what I did. It actually builds my confidence and I realize that I am more capable than I thought.’


Contributing to employability skills

  •  ‘I have learned to communicate with others through this module, which is helpful to my employability skills’. 

  •  ‘It is of great value to my life and career in the future’.


Challenging preconceptions and changing perspectives

  •  ‘I have to say this project means a lot to me because …. it changes my perspective a lot and it allowed me to have a great opportunity to know something about other people. Talking to stranger is actually fun to me because they are not in my circle, which means their thoughts are very different from mine. Their feedbacks are very likely to give you new insight or inspiration and may change your perception of something.’


Ideal preparation for degree programmes

The findings indicate that students perceive the module to be positive and meaningful to them academically, socially and linguistically. They also suggest that the module does more than meet its aims; it has the potential to develop students’ confidence and employability skills, as well as facilitate different ways of viewing the world and new ways of learning (by doing).  

If you are responsible for curriculum development, then please do give consideration to a version of this module on Study Abroad, pre-sessional or in-sessional programmes.  It gives students an ideal theoretical and practical grounding in carrying out and reporting on a piece of primary research, which is ideal preparation for their degree programmes.

More to follow in my next post …


Fetterman, D.M. 1998. Ethnography: Step by Step. 2nd Ed. London: Sage Publications.

Getting the right research questions right

If you’re a full-time, one-year MA student in the UK, no doubt your thoughts will be occupied with the dissertation you need to complete over the coming summer months. You may have already narrowed down your topic and some of you may have even nailed your research questions. If so, great! If, however, your topic is a bit fuzzy at this stage and your research questions are proving harder to formulate than you anticipated, don’t panic. We’ve all been there! Formulating the right research questions requires time and skill


Forming good research questions takes time

Most of your time will be spent reading and thinking about your topic. You’ll be accessing the literature, trying to understand key theories, but you’ll also be finding and reading journal articles, looking for previous studies that interest you in terms of their methodology and their methods.  

After having done this background work, you’ll probably end up with a good feel as to what you want to do/don’t want to do, or, indeed, what you can/can’t do given your context, time, resources and other practicalities. You’ll then formulate, evaluate and refine your question or questions (usually between 1 to 3 questions depending on the level and scope of your study), possibly multiple times. Be warned, research questions do change over time; this too is normal.


Getting them just right takes skill

The skill part involves making sure your research questions are:

  • Doable, i.e. you have time, sufficient expertise, access and ethical clearance 
  • Sufficient in depth, e.g. not too broad and not too narrow (bear in mind your word count), but also researchable over time, i.e. not something you know already or can find out easily via one web search or one question to one person
  • Contributing, even if only in a small way, to the existing body of knowledge (e.g. maybe your study is similar to a previous one but you are situating yours in a different context or using a different data collection tool or method of analysis)
  • Free from preconceived ideas and bias
  • Answerable using your methodological approach and methods
  • Unambiguous, e.g. the language should be clear, vocabulary should be precise, and terms should be defined
  • Accurate in terms of English grammar and punctuation, i.e. formulated as questions

This last bullet point seems fairly obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times students have presented research questions to me that aren’t questions at all in terms of English grammar. If you’re struggling with question-forming, here are some sites to help you:

In case you’re wondering why so much effort needs to go into research questions, the answer to that is they really do help to focus your research. They point you in the right direction in terms of your reading and your methods, and more generally, they provide an overall purpose for your study. Remember, your job as a researcher is to answer these questions via the data you collect.

For more help with and examples of research questions, here are some useful sites:


Prepare to be flexible

My final piece of advice is talk them through with your peers and/or a research group and your tutor, get advice and don’t settle on the question/s until they meet the criteria above.  Even then, as previously mentioned, be prepared to refine them as you plough deeper into your research.  

The dissertation is a journey with many twists and turns and you’ll no doubt experience highs and lows. Try to embrace these, if you can, and view them as part and parcel of being a researcher, which is what you are now!