Helping International Students Transition and Succeed – II

Part II: Specific Suggestions

In the first part of this post, I highlighted some general difficulties that international students face during their academic transition, focusing on the challenge of understanding/implementing new ideas, assumptions, and approaches about learning and teaching in a new academic system/culture. Originally written for writing instructors (but relevant for any professors), this follow up entry offers specific suggestions for helping int’l students with learning writing in particular and with their academic transition and success in general.

Here’s a 2-page .pdf version — feel free to share.

Encourage International Students to Learn about the Big Picture

  • International students may find it harder to understand the place/value of the course you’re teaching in the overall context of their undergraduate education (compared to their local counterparts); helping them understand the short- and long- term benefits of the academic skills they’re learning from you can improve their engagement.
  • When students are expected to be self-directed—-for instance, if an assignment is open-ended—-making that expectation clear can also help int’l students perform much better. Explaining why things are done the way they are can be even better.
  • Learning is an individual endeavor in most academic systems, but the notion about “ownership” of ideas can confuse int’l students from many backgrounds. Address this issue, knowing that it may result in students’ using sources without acknowledgment, lack of confidence about what students know and want to say, etc.
  • Int’l students may be more reluctant to express their thoughts/opinions than local students for a variety of reasons. Designing activities and assignments that welcome their prior knowledge can alleviate the anxiety.
  • Among many academic practices that may be new/strange to int’l students, one is that of asking questions and seeking support with professors—after class, via email, and by visiting their offices. Encourage them to seek support.
  • Many int’l students try to maintain the same kind of respectful distance with teachers here as they did back home; but when trying to switch to whatever they think is the “American way,” some may end up seeming rude or disrespectful. For instance, when a professor asks students to address her by first name, some int’l students may also start treating the professor like a friend!
  • Encouraging int’l students to build on their prior knowledge, skills, and perspectives can boost their confidence; but do not hesitate to challenge them (as well as help them) to situate their learning within academic, social, or cultural contexts here.
  • Many issues that aren’t academic–such as time management, stress management, making friends and re-establishing a social support system of some sort, knowing where to go when there are problems–can severely affect academic performance. Offer feasible support, directing students to appropriate places for more help.
  • On the course site, provide links to useful resources online (and discuss key issues in class). Here is a very useful booklet titled US Classroom Culture by NAFSA; this pageat provides some simple guidelines for how to participate in class discussion; and this one on the same site describes the “system” more generally.

Help them Learn New Academic Terms/Concepts and Practices

  • International students may not understand basic academic terminology and, more significantly, the implicit assumptions/expectations that come with the terms. In a recent WRT 101 course, I was surprised when 5 of my 15 int’l students (of 16 total) had been reading the assigned texts “after” class discussion because they had understood “readings for class” written explicitly on the schedule as meaning “reading for the course.” (As one student explained later, they didn’t want to talk or write about the text “before a professor gives the lecture”–which I wasn’t!)
  • Encourage them to be alert for new terms and new meanings. Speakers of other World Englishes may not understand “quiz” as “test,” “conference” as “meeting,” “faculty” as “teachers” (rather than “academic disciplines”), and “campus” as the physical space (rather than “college”). Consider how your course can be a place for learning academic terms and concepts.
  • Concepts like originality and academic honesty and discourse conventions like building on what peers have said during class discussion may be confusing to some int’l students. A student once told me that he found it odd when someone said “that’s my idea” when the idea sounded very basic and not unique at all; he also thought it paradoxical that students/scholars freely/fairly “used” others’ ideas for creating new knowledge nonetheless.
  • Encourage int’l students to ask when they don’t understand a term. (Tell them that it’s better to be embarrassed than to be confused). Here is a good glossary of academic terms used in US university. In an int’l student-heavy classes, a good homework/exercise would be to ask students to find terms that they didn’t know yet, letting them discuss what they learned in class. This can be helpful for all students.

Unpack the Assignment

  • Int’l students can greatly benefit from additional explanation of assignments and how to approach them, course policies and what they mean, schedule and how the class will be conducted esp. in terms of how students will be engaged in the writing process (the last of which can be the most unfamiliar to many of them).
  • Many int’l students’ struggle with writing begins with their reading: for a number of reasons (including the unfamiliarity of topics/discipline), their reading may be slow, ineffective, and frustrating. Teach them how to read strategically/efficiently as well as carefully. Slow and careful reading is ideal, but it may be a recipe for disaster for students who are struggling to manage time, stress, and confidence.
  • Int’l students also benefit when teachers help them see the connection between class discussion and writing assignments. Encourage them to develop and record their own thoughts/responses while reading and in class (as well as yours as the expert). Some students may have never learned to annotate texts and others may be yet to learn how to respond.
  • In many academic systems around the world, writing is largely used as a means of assessment, rather than a mode of learning/exploring new ideas and communicating one’s own thoughts. Help int’l students understand/practice the latter use of writing, and direct them to other places where they can learn study new skills like this.
  • Writing teachers’ expectations go beyond general study skills; for instance, “research” assignments demand students to ask specific questions, explore existing knowledge on the topic, and use the findings to make and support an “argument.”  Teachers may need to pause to explain the ideas and let students practice the skills.
  • Int’l students may know much less about the genres of writing and rhetorical strategies (description, narration, definition, etc), the idea of citation (not just the mechanics), and parts and strategies in a paper (what goes at the top, ways to introduce the topic, etc) than local students.
  • They may not understand the language used for providing feedback (esp. shorthand such as “awk”), signals used for drawing attention, and even non-directive comments and questions. Similarly, body language may cause problems during class discussion or in-person meetings. (Students from South Asia, for instance, may confuse others by shaking their heads sidewise while saying, “of course”!)

Challenge them to Meet the Same Standards, Using Realistic Approaches 

  • International students may need some accommodation on top of extra academic support; however, they should be held to the same rigorous standards as other students. Especially if any int’l student starts seeking leniency instead of help with fulfilling the learning objectives, teachers should be aware.
  • On the other hand, it is important not to put undue pressures in areas of learning that will take a lot more time and opportunity than can be provided within the limitation of a course/semester. It makes little sense to start helping an NNES int’l student who has a low English proficiency with grammatical correctness if the student hasn’t sufficiently understood the assignment, learned the rhetorical concepts involved, read/researched the topic, and tried to express his/her thoughts. Additionally, there are no educational benefits of assessing language items/skills that one hasn’t  taught, assigning undue credit/penalty for language errors, and assuming that nonnative speakers must “eliminate” errors in order to do well in your course. Int’l students who know that effective writing can happen even in relatively “bad English” tend to make progress much faster.
  • The solution to the above issues is to realistically determine how proficient NNES int’l students should ideally be by the time they complete a given course: there need to be well-defined language proficiency milestones within the academic level and curricular objectives of a given course.
  • In contrast to the all too common practice of focusing on the “language,” in writing courses, most int’l students need a lot more support with reading-to-writing skills, invention and organization strategies, developing an ear for tone, and writing with a voice. In other courses, undue focus on language and writing skills can easily become counterproductive, an issue instructors should be sensitive to.

Alert them about Variations, Complexities

  • New students tend to over-generalize everything (“What do ‘Americans’…?” “How do professors…”?). Such generalizations are often useful: for instance, students may benefit to learn that US academic writing generally favors the statement of issue/thesis before elaborating it. And yet, int’l students should be reminded that even within the same department/discipline, teachers, courses, assignments may be unique; for instance, some teachers in certain disciplines may encourage substantive backgrounds, accept the use of visuals without much elaboration, and so on.
  • Half the international student population majors in STEM fields, and these students struggle more with navigating the conventions of writing across different disciplines. Making discipline-specific writing conventions–how/whether to express opinion, analyze texts, review/critique scholarship, etc–explicit can help int’l students navigate disciplines/courses better. That includes writing courses as well.
  • Int’l students may need extra help with understanding the different genres of writing, types of assignments and exercises, place and nature of assessment,  discourse conventions, and rhetorical moves made in writing. For instance, a “literacy narrative” may be an awfully tough, new thing to write for some int’l students.
  • Int’l students may lack the knowledge of references, analogies, and metaphors that teachers use by drawing on the resources of local/popular culture and society. When this happens, an example becomes a barrier rather than a means to simplify complex idea. Int’l students should be encouraged to ask when any reference is confusing.
  • Int’l students bring a wide variety and complex set of experiences, knowledge, and perspectives into any classroom. Teachers should use these as resources that can benefit both their and their local counterparts’ learning. Looking at any subject matter from multiple perspectives can enhance critical thinking, enrich classroom conversations, and improve students’ writing.
  • Finally, it is important to remember that each individual student will have a different set of problems with adjusting and succeeding. Some may excel academically but may benefit from advice in other areas—such as how to build positive relationship with teachers, how to effectively participate in the class, and how to manage time and stress. And because the range of students’ needs go far beyond what we are capable of helping them with and the time and energy that we have, we should encourage students to seek support with the right people and right places on campus.  Here is a general list of relevant resources that can be linked to course sites for int’l students; and here [will add soon] is a Stony Brook University list of services relevant in the context of international students’ academic transition and success.

As the motivation to leave their home countries and their being selected in a US university indicate, international students are usually talented students with great commitment to their studies. However, the challenges of academic transition can be overwhelming even to the most talented and dedicated because everything around these young students has changed and they are exploring a very complex, new system.  For this reason, I have included even the must basic suggestions (many of them based on the notes that I took early on during my own academic transition). A lot of these notes are basic and common sense (as well as being applicable to all students in general). But since it is the basic/mundane issues that frequently “get” international students, teachers should pay attention to the basic as well as the more complex challenges that these students face.

Please share your ideas, experiences, and perspectives about how to help international students transition and succeed in the American academy.

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  1. Shyam: I really like this post. These are good, practical ideas. I plan to have my writing center tutors read this in the Fall. The first-person account makes it very accessible. ~joanna

    • Dr. Wolfe, I just noticed this comment (after a long time). I was traveling most of this summer. Thank you for your kind note.

  2. Sarah Yeonghong Go

    I can relate to every single word of your post, both as an international student and as an international education professional.
    Thanks for the insights.

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