Power Tips for Professors

Helping International Graduate Students Succeed

Roughly half of the one million international students in the United States are in graduate education. While undergraduate level has “general education” curriculum to help students coming from other countries learn the writing, research, and communication skills demanded by higher education here, there is usually no such curriculum at the graduate level. Although international graduate students come with their own set of academic literacy skills, there is usually a lot of adjusting to do and a lot of complex transfer of knowledge and skills before they feel confident as writers and scholars.

In this post, we share some practical ideas for faculty mentors of international graduate students about how to ease the students’ academic transition and enhance their success. How can faculty mentors–especially those who may not have the time, skills, or resources–help students from different educational backgrounds effectively transition and start being successful in academic communication? What are some of the simplest and most effective tips for supporting these students especially when they are new? What “other” aspects of their transition (not just the challenges of reading, writing, research, and presentation of ideas but also those entangled with cultural differences and psychological stress, for instance) that faculty mentors can address? Students, international but also domestic in some ways, could also benefit from skimming through these tips.

Encouraging Students to Learn about the Big Picture

  • Explain why: International students may find it harder to understand the educational objectives or long-term value of assignments and activities; for instance, not knowing why a class is seemingly trying to “find faults” in a reading, as one student put it, can seem confusing and discouraging to a new student who was taught to respect authors, and that respecting authors means leaving their ideas unchallenged. In fact, explaining the value of courses and programs in the overall context of graduate education can improve international students’ engagement and motivation.
  • Explain how: International students greatly benefit when instructors are explicit about how to complete tasks/projects. When students are expected to be self-directed—for instance, if an assignment is open-ended—making this expectation clear can help international students perform better. For many of them, what is an established practice or process here may be new.
  • Encourage opinion: For a variety of reasons, be they personal, political, or cultural, new international students may be reluctant to join discussions. So, instructors should make it explicit that/if they value opinion, whether that’s in the form of a “scholarly position” or a more general/personal reaction to help students build confidence.
  • Build on experience: Opportunities that value varied prior experiences of students (in class and in assignments) can help international students gain the confidence to build on their “foreign” experiences more quickly. Shifting the terms of engagement whereby they will be knowledgeable, valued, etc, in relation to their domestic counterparts is one way to create such opportunities. For example, if an instructor teaching a section on sociolinguistics of a linguistics course asks “How do people greet one another in your hometown?” Chinese and Colombian students can feel as “knowledgeable” as the Argentine and American. Such moves can be replicated in almost any course for at least in informal conversations with students.
  • Foster inquiry: Students from different backgrounds may view differently the acts of asking questions and seeking support from professors (after class, via email, during office hours). So, teachers should tell class that they appreciate questions in and beyond class, encouraging international students to also share any confusions due to difference in education cultures and practices.
  • Use critical framing: While encouraging international students to build on their prior knowledge, skills, and perspectives can boost their confidence, we shouldn’t assume that they are universal experts about topics related to their background. So, we should challenge them to think critically and to situate/relate their learning in/to academic and other contexts .
  • Help with social adaptation: Many international students start by maintaining the same kind of distance with teachers here as they did in their home country; but when trying to switch to whatever they think is the “American way,” some may end up seeming a bit rude or disrespectful (or a bit too polite). For instance, when a professor asks students to address her by first name, some international students may also start treating the professor like an intimate friend. A little patience can go a long way as students learn, but you can also help by openly discussing these issues with them.
  • Be mindful: We should remember that international students are adjusting to a lot more outside our classes and the university. Many issues that aren’t academic–time and stress management, making friends and re-establishing a social support system of some sort, knowing where to go when there are problems, sorting through shifting economic and bureaucratic situations–can severely affect international students’ academic performance. Hence, offering support where possible, directing them to appropriate places for additional help, can help tremendously especially in the beginning.
  • Provide resources: Providing additional resources can help international students to catch on skills or knowledge that may be new to them. One way to do this is to add links to useful resources online on the course site (and discuss key issues, if feasible, in class). Here is a very useful booklet titled US Classroom Culture by NAFSA; this page at usnews.com provides some simple guidelines for how to participate in class discussion; and this one on the same site describes the “system” more generally.

Helping them Learn New Academic Terms/Concepts and Practices

  • Define terms, concepts: International students may not understand basic academic terminology and, more significantly, the implicit assumptions/expectations that come with the terms. For instance, some of them may not realize that they’re supposed to do the “readings” before coming to class, until they are told. Please consider linking glossaries like this and this (they’re under “Resources” tab above) from your course site.  
  • Provide context: Writing and communication skills are deeply context-dependent, so it is very helpful for international students if instructors make explicit any discipline-specific writing conventions, such as what counts as evidence or new knowledge, how/whether to express opinion or analyze texts, why review/critique scholarship, etc.
  • Mind “world” Englishes: Some students will not understand “quiz” (meaning “test”), “conference” as “meeting,” “faculty” as “teachers” (not “academic disciplines”), and “campus” as the physical space (not the “college”), and our classrooms may be the only place where they could learn about such differences. We can also prompt students to educate each other. The blog posts linked above include a few such terms.
  • Show how to borrow and build on others’ ideas: Learning is an individual endeavor in most places, but the notion of “ownership” of ideas can confuse international students from many backgrounds, leading to poor use of sources and anxiety about what ideas are worth expressing and how. So, instructors should design activities and assignments that extend from summarizing to taking intellectual positions to acknowledging others’ ideas. It is also helpful for students if we explain rationales (of developing intellectual positions, giving others credit).
  • Look beyond “honesty”: In our experience and as shown through research, International students don’t plagiarize due to dishonesty or even ignorance any more than domestic students. They resort to shortcuts when they’ve run out of time, are unable to read fast/well enough, can’t do the right research or overcome stress/homesickness, don’t value required courses, etc. It is necessary for instructors to help students deal with the underlying causes and inspire them to develop their own voices/ideas. Extensions, referrals, peer review, and offers of support are some useful strategies.

Teaching them academic terms and practices

  • Explain syllabus, schedule, assignments: The “hidden curriculum” is the most significant here. Not just the practice of instructor-created syllabus, schedule, and assignments but even what these terms mean can take a lot of time to understand because they are not a part of education systems in many places; it is worth defining/discussing them. In fact, discussing course policies, assignments, and schedules can benefit all students, international and domestic.
  • Teach study skills: What looks like a struggle with writing could just be a symptom of the lack of other literacy skills. If possible, instructors should students how to find sources, read them quickly and purposefully, annotate and cite them effectively, spot and emulate writing strategies, organize ideas, etc. 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. So, we should provide support for students who are trying to learn when to speed up and slow down their study and communication habits in order to succeed.
  • Discuss and demonstrate writing & research: In many academic systems around the world, writing is largely used as a means of assessment/exams, rather than a mode of learning/exploring new ideas and communicating one’s own thoughts. Many international students may not have done research the way students here might have (e.g., independent gathering of resources as evidence to support an argument/position). Consider doing a quick demo (using a sample for discussion/analysis), inviting a librarian (to teach research skills), or sending students to the library and the writing center (for more individualized support). Do note that it is not enough to just “send” students to use the support above; there needs to be a good alignment between what we want our students to learn and how students can benefit from the support.
  • Provide samples: International students may need to be familiarized with the genres of writing assigned here (report, reflection, analysis, etc.); some may even need to know what a “paper” looks like and how it’s organized (what introductions should contain, what sections to include, etc). Providing a sample or two and discussing strengths/weaknesses in relation to what the assignment demands can go a long way. Emulating strategies is a better start than failure and frustration; strategies for reading, writing, organizing, and formatting texts are shared conventions/practices anyway.
  • Avoid shorthand: International students 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. So, instructors should be explicit and encourage students to ask for clarity.
  • Be mindful about differences in body language: It’s hard not to assume that our body language is universal, but doing so can undermine teaching/learning and also teacher-student relationship. Students from South Asia, for instance, may shake their heads to say, “Of course”! Others may sit on the edge of their seat to show respect to you! We should encourage students to pay attention to and examine these differences. Mentioning the cultural difference in body language when feasible can help students start thinking/learning (rather than just hiding and being afraid of differences).  

Challenging them to Meet Standards, Using Realistic Approaches

  • Make accommodations: International students may need accommodation, besides additional academic support; however, they should be held to the same rigorous standards that domestic students are held to. Especially when a student starts seeking leniency in place of help with fulfilling learning objectives, teachers should be aware. We should make this clear at the outset, alongside offer of support.
  • Warn against generalization: New international students, like tourists encountering a new culture, may seek simple/generalized ideas and strategies to survive and succeed (“What do ‘Americans’…?” “How do professors…”?). While often useful (e.g., “US academic writing generally favors frontloading of the thesis statement”), doing so obscures the fact that, for instance, even within the same department/discipline, teachers, courses, expectations may be unique
  • Use examples & analogies cautiously: International students may lack the knowledge of references, analogies, and metaphors that you use for making complex issues more accessible! Instructors should be careful, and encourage students to ask, when our explanations are not clear. International 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. International students should be encouraged to ask when any reference is confusing.
  • Create two-way traffic: The design of assignments and activities can help or hinder the sharing of knowledge, experiences, skills, and perspectives between domestic and international students. Encouraging multiple perspectives can help to enhance critical thinking, enrich classroom conversations, and improve learning for all students. In fact, domestic students should also be treated as global citizens, respecting their perspectives and knowledge (and their needs and desires to learn about the world)  in the global/international context.
  • Let students be unique: Visa status tells us very little  about students’ identity, language proficiency, and academic background and caliber. While there may be general patterns or possibilities, intersectionalities and individual differences weaken easy heuristics. The range of student needs also extends beyond what we are able/trained to do or have the time for. But if we encourage students to seek support with us and with the right people/places on campus, provide them the time resources that we can with an awareness of possible struggles, and are seen as committed to all students’ success, students can become powerful agents for their own success. Because even the most talented and resilient students can lose their bearings during major transitions, even small acts and gestures of support can make a big difference—and each of us, in any department, has a role to play.

Dr. Shyam Sharma blogs about international student success (and how to help them to be successful), among other issues, here. If you’re interested in this issue, please consider subscribing to the blog there or this one (from the right). 

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