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The Changing World of International Students

Instructors who wish to reach their international students must be willing to make modifications to their teaching to ensure the academic success of all students.

Teaching & Learning Environments for International Students Have Changed

In U.S. higher education, there are three distinct environments in which international students participate as learners:

  1. Traditional face-to-face (F2F) classrooms located on college and university campuses. In this setting, international students tend to be a minority, and they may be from a number of countries of origin. The common expectation in these courses that the international students make all the necessary adjustments.
  2. Distance Education (DE), in which teacher and students don’t meet each other face-to-face. These courses tend to be offered through U.S. campuses and be accessible to students either through open enrollment available to any qualified student any place the technology reaches, or through limited enrollment in a single location outside the U.S.
  3. International locations in which U.S. colleges and university courses are offered through “branches.” These are usually, but not always, taught by U.S. instructors. In this particular setting, as in the limited enrollment DE courses, the entire class is made up of international students, and the instructor is the “other.”

Issues Specific to International Students

When international students participate in U.S.-managed courses of any of the types mentioned above, they bring with them a common set of issues that may affect their academic success. While the degree and complexity of the issues vary among individuals or groups, they are sufficiently common to merit attention.

Some issues may be easy to discern: foreign accent and other language-related matters, level of participation in class discussions and activities, standards for academic integrity, or levels of compliance with directions. Other issues may be less obvious, including attitudes toward authority figures (the instructor), relationships with classmates, comfort in asking questions, or familiarity with particular assessment tools. Often, due to cultural values, fear of failure, or inhibitions brought on by being in an unfamiliar environment, international students are hesitant to ask for assistance in making the adjustments necessary for academic success.

The Importance of Knowing the Students

An international student faces many adjustments in becoming a student at a U.S. institution, especially in the first year. These adjustments are serious in the traditional face-to-face context, and they may be even more critical in the DE context in which all communication is done remotely. Listed in the box are some practical ways for faculty to assess and address the needs of international students that also facilitate their integration into the course:


  • Facility with English conversation
  • Facility with English academic texts
  • Facility with academic writing in English
  • Familiarity with local / colloquial jargon
  • Administrative structure of the academic system in the native country
  • Instructional strategies: Teacher-centered or student-centered
  • Expectations from students
  • Assessment systems & approaches
  • Areas of responsibility: Teacher vs. student
  • Academic integrity
  • Attitudes toward authority figures
  • Communication style with figures of authority
  • Authoritative vs. permissive environments
  • Individual vs. group work
  • Classroom etiquette
  • Communication style
  • Relationship with native students
  • Traditional vs. non-traditional students
  • Innate vs. acquired
  • Structured vs. flexible
  • Significance placed on education
  • Talking vs. silence
  • The role/status of an educated person
  • Reasons for pursuing college/graduate education

Face-to-Face Courses

Plan on an individual office conference with each of the international students in the class. The conference may include the following:

  • Verification that the student understands the logistics of the course and is able to make sense of the course syllabus;
  • Explorations of the major differences in student roles between the native country and this course;
  • Informal assessment of any need for support such as tutoring or English language instruction, and referral to the appropriate campus resources;
  • Conversation about the assessment tools used in the course, the student’s familiarity with them, and a clear understanding of academic integrity.

Distance Education Courses

Many DE courses do not include face-to-face contact between teacher and students. If that’s the case, alternative approaches include:

  • Inclusion of students’ and instructor’s photos on the course’s Web site to enhance the sense of familiarity that comes from connecting names with faces;
  • A course requirement for a short (1-2 paragraphs) autobiographical sketch of each student, not just the presumed international students, in addition to the useful information derived, this activity also provides a writing sample for each student;
  • Individual online “conferences” with each international student to access and provide the same information as in the F2F environment. This can be done via regular e-mail correspondence or through limited-access discussion or chat tools.

International Location Courses

This may be the most challenging environment in that the students in this setting are on “home turf,” while the instructor is not. To address this role-reversal, the following can be useful:

  • Exploration of the typical academic setting in the host country, student/teacher roles, and all the other factors identified in the chart;
  • Re-calibration of the planned course to achieve integration between the U.S. and the local course models;
  • Individual teacher/student conferences similar to the ones in the F2F environment.

The benefit of this approach is that issues, challenges, and expectations can be addressed before they have a negative effect on the conduct of the course or the students’ success in it. The approach also tells the international students the instructor’s sincere desire for their success, and it provides the instructor with essential information for managing the course.

It is important to remember that all of the suggestions made here, and all the ones faculty will implement, work as well for native students as they do for international students. The latter, however, may be dealing with a larger set of issues that needs to be addressed intentionally and in an ongoing fashion.


  • Speak slowly and clearly
  • Provide written instructions
  • Team up Int’l student with native speaker
  • Provide list of key terminology
  • Provide guidance for good note-taking
  • Refer students to Writing or ESL center
  • Provide ongoing & frequent feedback
  • Conduct regular real or virtual “office hours”
  • Avoid slang and colloquialisms
  • Make good use of non-verbal communication
  • Re-state important items in diverse ways
  • Avoid putting students “on the spot”
  • Have students work in pairs (often)
  • Use mixed study groups in class & out of class
  • Respect silence (see “Issues to Consider”)
  • Have students prepare oral summaries of homework to be shared with an assigned partner
  • Create a “buddy” system pairing international students with native students
  • Provide examples of quality student work from past assignments, and have students discuss the merits of this sample work
  • Allow students to record class sessions
  • Use brainstorming exercises that build up to all-class participation
  • Allow extra time for taking tests
  • Provide very specific feedback on assignments
  • Ask specific questions to ascertain comprehension instead of “Do you understand?”
On-line Teaching & Learning
  • Use the various teaching/learning tools that technology provides
  • Provide a clear list of “actions” required of students
  • Build into the course self-scoring tutorials for key skills or information
  • Have specific deadlines, and stick to them
  • Place some focus on quality of writing
  • Create mixed-group discussions and other activities

References & Resources

Czarnawska, Iga. 2003. The Aliens: Being a Foreign Student. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press. A video and accompanying booklet developed and produced by international students at Dartmouth College. Provides excellent insight into the international students’ point of view.

Flaitz, Jeffra, ed. 2003. Understanding Your International Students: an Educational, Cultural, and Linguistic Guide. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Includes profiles of students by country, with descriptions of educational and cultural issues specific to various cultures.

Hall, Edward T. 1990. The Silent Language. New York, NY: Anchor Books. This book contains an easy-to-read discussion of the nonverbal elements of cross-cultural communications. We require participants in our Graduate Student Professional Development Program in College Teaching to read it and reflect on its applications to the teaching/learning environment.

New Directions in Higher Education. Spring 2002. Volume 117 is dedicated to issues of international students. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Smithee, Michael, Sidney L. Greenblatt, and Alisa Eland. 2004. U.S. Classroom Culture. New York, NY: NAFSA, Association of International Educators. A brief booklet including a nice comparison of different aspects of U.S. and non-U.S. educational systems.

Zhao, Chun-Mei, George D. Kuh, and Robert M. Carini. “A Comparison of International Student and American Student Engagement in Effective Educational Practices,” The Journal of Higher Education, 76.2, March/April 2005: 209-231.

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