A letter to my pre-UoRM self about teaching international students By Dr Dan Jones

Dear pre-UoRM Dan (circa 2015),

So, you’re looking forward to going to the University of Reading Malaysia (UoRM) soon, right? Slightly daunting I’m sure, but you’ll be telling yourself that the UK campus already has a large international cohort and that teaching in Malaysia won’t be that different to what you have already been doing, right? Well, not quite. Therefore, I thought I’d take a moment to write you this letter to give you a few snippets of advice…

It wasn’t until I started at UoRM that I came to realise what diverse teaching needs were; a classroom on the other side of the world, a different continent, with a highly international cohort, a diverse educational background, and almost all with English as a second language. Immersed in this setting I was suddenly rather outnumbered by the local knowledge and experience of the classroom. I learned quickly that to engage these students I had to reflect on my current teaching practices. To quote from the curriculum framework, I had to “adapt to students’ needs rather than expecting students to adapt to me.”; some of my rigid expectations did not fit with this context, some assumptions were unfair. Over two years I picked up many tips for teaching international students, however, for ease of digestion, I thought I’d focus on five key points. I think an awareness will help with your transition, and could even be used at UoR before you go!

  1. Assumptions and expectations of roles: the role of a student and a staff member at university needs to be set out and understood, by both parties, early in the course. I found that international students start university with a range of educational, and cultural, backgrounds. If students and staff are not on the same page when it comes to what is expected from them in their degree, confusion and uncertainty arises. Acknowledging this difference, and laying out expectations clearly, was the most important lesson I took from UoRM, enabling me to maximise the effectiveness of my teaching.
  2. Adapting to students’ requirements: new skills may need breaking down, defined, and the basics taught before building upon foundations. The student must play their part by working hard to learn a new skill, we do not want to end up spoon-feeding students. However, an educator can also facilitate such a transition, learn to acknowledge differences in backgrounds, and help students adapt to different environments.
  3. Instilling confidence: many challenges I first had were related to confidence in the classroom: the culture I was in implicitly discouraged students to answer, or ask, questions. Schools often utilised embarrassment or peer pressure in the classroom, leading to an underconfident and passive cohort. I introduced ways to make the environment more accepting and friendly: electronically answering questions, using post-it notes to discuss, encouragement, light-heartedness – small things that added up to make a difference; by second year the difference in confidence was discernible.
  4. Providing a new/different context: particularly in psychology, many examples and theories are Western-centric, something I did not acknowledge before. It was a case of contextualising, to make the content more accessible for students, which led to a greater inclusiveness, and subsequently better engagement.
  5. Using simpler language: a practical issue that one must be aware of. The language I used was occasionally too advanced for the audience, and could benefit from additional explanation or simpler language. I was aware not to ‘dumb-down’ lectures (this is higher education after all), however, it is likely to be beneficial for all (including those with English as a first language) for the teacher to acknowledge the type, and level, of language that they are using.

Of course, a stipulation to this is that these points have arisen from my own experiences, and I can hear you now, “…well Dan, this is all very well, but where is the evidence? You are just relying on anecdote, can we really generalise from this?”. Yes, you’re right in your thinking, but, the changes in students’ approach to my classes was striking; confidence grew, participation improved and students were engaged. Nevertheless, as the scientist is exclaiming in you, that same scientist is exclaiming in me. Consequently, I, in collaboration with colleagues in the UK, Japan and Malaysia, am currently investigating whether cultural factors could explain the use of critical thinking in higher education. Data has been collected and analysis is underway…

Although realised and formed at UoRM, they are as applicable to the UK. UoR has almost 4,000 international students across all programmes and although we want to give international students the British education experience, I think it’s important to acknowledge differences and be aware of cultural challenges. Feel free to share this letter with colleagues at UoR and UoRM; these may not be the ‘best’ techniques, but, at the very least, may increase the discussion around multicultural learning, which can only benefit staff and students alike.

Finally, do make the most of your Malaysian adventure, it’ll be great. You’ll learn lots and be regularly challenged, but come back more culturally aware and open-minded than ever! Oh, and don’t forget to send a postcard…

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