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Maximizing Academic Engagement with International Students

  • Leslie Bohon
  • Laura Kuti

Context: International students are assets to academic institutions; they play a most critical role in bringing diverse perspectives to campus life.  They can add depth to the exchange of ideas and encourage global engagement in our university community.  As the UR Office of International Education (2018) notes, our international students are “actively engaged in campus life, integrate with their domestic counterparts, and enrich classroom learning on a daily basis” (para. 1).

Indeed, this value is reflected in the University of Richmond’s strategic plan, which declares inclusivity and equity as key values in its strategic plan and promotes “thoughtful and respectful engagement with a broad diversity of perspectives and experiences essential to intellectual growth” (Strategic Plan, 2018, p. 1).

As faculty, we want to maximize the learning experience for all of our students, including international students.  International students benefit from instruction that involves pedagogical strategies to support their learning as well as cultural responsiveness and understanding by their professors. However, in research at Richmond focused on language and academic needs of our international students in Spring 2018, results showed consistent requests from faculty for support in working with international students.  Faculty have many questions about working international students, ranging from grading policies, engagement, to advising them, among other interests.  A faculty learning community would be an effective way to build a university-wide understanding of best practices when working with international students.

Purpose: The purpose of this Faculty Learning Community is to maximize faculty’s knowledge, skills, and competence regarding working with international students so that international diversity in our classroom benefits the whole learning community.

Questions to be explored:

What is the experience of faculty who teach international students? What are the practical benefits and/or concerns?

  • What can we learn about international students’ educational and cultural backgrounds, worldviews, and family expectations that will promote effective engagement among all class members?
  • What pedagogical techniques and strategies could we as faculty incorporate in our instruction that may maximize the academic experience for international students (and likely all students)?
  • Through our exploration in this FLC, can we recommend best practices to our UR colleagues?

To respond to these questions, the co-conveners propose six sessions throughout the school year. The topics would be subject to change if early sessions dictate a change of course.  Professional papers and articles will supplement the topics.  The proposed topics include:

Session 1. Our UR faculty experience international students.  As faculty, what is our experience with international students?  The goal of this session is to view the context of UR’s international student population and bring forward major themes to supplement to subsequent sessions.

Session 2: Hearing from international students. Guests: current international undergraduate and/or graduate students to help us understand their academic and cultural experiences in the classroom at UR.  What are international students’ academic experiences at UR?

How do their educational backgrounds influence their experience?  How do family and cultural expectations influence their academic experience at UR?  Our protocol for the students will reflect issues that faculty uncovered in the previous session, along with open questions to prompt discussion.  The students will be recruited from Leslie Bohon’s previous ESL classes. The goal of this session is to uncover the nuances of the international student experience in the classroom so that we learn more about the whole student and how our practices benefit or deter from the students’ academic experience.

Sara Rock, Assistant to the OIE Dean, has agreed to participate in this session and has extensive experience in China.

Session 3: Office of International Education services. What do we have in place at UR regarding services for international students?  Do these services address what we learned in sessions 1 and 2?  How can we as faculty support or supplement those efforts already in place?  Krittika Onsanit, Director of International Student and Scholar Services, and Diana Trinh, International Student Advisor, have agreed to be speakers if the proposal is accepted.

Session 4: ESL teaching techniques and strategies that promote student learning for all kinds of students. Drs. Bohon and Kuti will share pedagogical techniques that are effective for all students, but critical for multi-lingual students.

Session 5: Grading international student writing workshop.  One of the common questions we get is how to grade international student writing.  Should we penalize for grammar?  How do we encourage and guide international student writing?  In this session, we will collectively look at a sample paper, grade a portion of it, and discuss our grading results and philosophies of assessment.  Drs. Bohon and Kuti will share rubrics used in our own classes and rubrics from ESL colleagues from other institutions. 

Session 6: Academic language.  This session will focus on academic language in our disciplines, how to flag it for student use, and how to help students build language and content.

Faculty will bring a sample lesson from their own classes to identify critical academic language to boost student learning.  Research shows that highlighting academic language in class is beneficial for all students, regardless of native language.  Possible guest speaker: Dr. Jeff Zweirs of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Director of professional development.  Dr. Kuti is involved with his visit to Henrico County this year.

These sessions will benefit the FLC members, the students they teach, and ultimately the UR community.  Namely, the desired outcomes of the FLC are:

Members’ gained knowledge of working with international students

  • Members’ increased ability to engage students so that all benefit from diversity in the classroom
  • Identification from our FLC work of top priorities for effective professional development to offer the UR community
  • Sharing with the UR community of recommendations, materials, and “best practices” of working with international students