English language proficiency does not eliminate all the special challenges that international students face. Cultural differences—particularly among students from non-Western countries—can create additional burdens. For example, international students may experience difficulty understanding spoken English or an instructor’s use of humor, slang, or cultural references; they may experience a type of “academic culture shock” in which the instructor’s expectations are unclear or significantly different from what the students are used to. All these factors can negatively affect academic performance and increase the likelihood that these students will cheat.

“A lot of faculty and administrators assume that if a student passes a language proficiency exam, then the student is prepared to be in the classroom, and that’s not the case. These exams do not test for how to use the language,” says Rory Senerchia, associate professor and chair of the ESL department at Johnson & Wales University Providence, who has conducted surveys of international students to better understand how faculty and institutions can better support these students.

American higher education institutions are currently experiencing a large influx of students from China and Saudi Arabia, two countries whose approaches to education are very different from that of the United States.

“These students have to really change their way of thinking. They don’t understand our level of critical thinking, so when these students come into the classroom, they are completely shocked at the way in which the classes are run,” Senerchia says.

In addition, nonnative speakers often struggle to keep up with the instructor’s rate of speaking, which can stifle participation in class discussions. “They’re translating in their heads into their native language. Then they’re retranslating it back to English, and they’re ready to give the answer. But too much time has gone by, and many faculty are looking at these students and saying, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing; they don’t belong here,’” Senerchia says.

This lack of comfort with the language also can impede students’ willingness to ask for clarifications on assignment instructions. And when instructors use culturally specific examples in class, it puts international students at a disadvantage because they don’t have all the background knowledge that their American classmates have.

In short, in addition to learning the course content, these students are also learning a new culture and how to communicate more effectively within it. And while much of the burden is on the student, faculty and institutions also play a critical role in supporting these students. Senerchia offers the following recommendations for faculty and their institutions:

  • Write clear instructions and provide examples. Instead of asking, “Do you understand?” ask the students to repeat the instructions. “A lot of students will just nod their heads because they’re too embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand,” Senerchia says.
  • Understand students’ cultures and previous learning experiences. The learning experiences of international students can be quite different from those of American students. For example, Saudi students come from a learning environment in which males and females do not attend class together. Understand that students from other cultures may not be used to the open dialogue and critical thinking that characterize American education.Many students from China come from single-child families that often place a lot of pressure on them to succeed. This pressure to succeed, coupled with a collectivist culture in which everybody helps one another, can lead some of these students to cheat. Views about academic integrity vary across cultures. “Most students from China understand plagiarism to a point, but it’s not dealt with in the way that it’s dealt with here. [In China], it’s not as big of a deal if students plagiarize,” Senerchia says.
  • Team up with an experienced teacher of international students. Have faculty members who are not familiar with teaching international students sit in on a class of a colleague who is comfortable working with international students. Whether in individual or departmental meetings, have the experienced faculty member share effective practices as well as techniques to avoid.
  • Create a lit guide. Senerchia helped compile a literature guide for every department. It started by asking chairs to provide vocabulary words that students need in order to understand what happens in class. These lit guides were originally in paper form but eventually became online files that include case studies, videos, and journals that provide essential background.
  • Work with library staff. Senerchia’s department has a strong relationship with library staff, who provide students with instruction on how to use library resources.
  • Provide class notes ahead of time. Post PowerPoint slides to the learning management system prior to class so that students can preview what the upcoming lecture will be about. “This allows international students to define any language that they are unfamiliar with,” Senerchia says.
  • Survey the students. After a particular unit, send out an anonymous survey with questions such as the following: What did you understand in this particular unit? What did you not understand? What was helpful? What was not helpful? Unlike end-of-course evaluations, this feedback can help the faculty member improve the learning experiences for current students.

“There are a lot of things that international students need to do on their own in order to prepare themselves to come into the university, but we really need … our faculty to understand that just because [students] pass an English language proficiency exam, it does not mean they are ready to sit in your classroom without some sort of accommodation,” Senerchia says.


Reprinted from Academic Leader, 30.12 (2014): 7, 8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.