Helping International AIs Be Successful

Helping International AIs Be Successful

Students from other countries who enroll in our graduate programs face many teaching hurdles that domestic graduate students often do not. For starters, to be an associate instructor, international graduate students must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), the Indiana English Proficiency Exam (IEPE), and the oral Test of English Proficiency for International Associate Instructor Candidacy (TEPAIC). The English Language Improvement Program within the Department of Second Language Studies provides courses to help graduate students improve their academic English and classroom communication skills. 

In addition to developing English language competency, international associate instructors must also acclimate to cultural differences in the classroom, including:

  • academic preparedness of IUB undergraduates
  • roles of the instructor and students
  • customary interpersonal interactions
  • norms of classroom activities and assignments
  • conventions of attribution
  • processes for handling teaching challenges 

Mentors and supervisors can make these cultural differences apparent and provide strategies for successfully navigating the American university classroom.  The mentoring practices below are helpful for all new associate instructors, but they are particularly valuable for international graduate students who are not familiar with academic and cultural practices at IU Bloomington.

Teaching Practice

  • Arrange for graduate students to observe others teaching undergraduates.  An observation rubric can direct AIs to aspects of lesson planning, use of classroom space and materials, student engagement, and interpersonal communication.
  • Give new AIs opportunities to talk with current undergraduates about the typical classroom environment and the teaching strategies that help them learn.
  • Plan microteaching opportunities in which new AIs give short 10-15 minute interactive lessons to their peers or—better yet—to current undergraduates. AIs can practice with new techniques in this low-pressure and encouraging environment.

Classroom Performance

  • Encourage AIs to use compensating strategies such as:
    • Display the agenda.
    • Throughout class, write down important words, especially ones whose spelling is not obvious or that might have different English pronunciations.
    • Regularly make eye contact with students and ask for questions.
    • Repeat or paraphrase any questions from the students; this ensures that the instructor understood the question and that the other students heard it.
    • Ask students to rephrase questions that were not understood the first time.
    • Encourage new AIs to incorporate in-class opportunities for students to practice skills; the instructor will know, in the moment, whether the students understood the material and students will have focused opportunities to ask questions.
    • Visit new AIs in the classroom and provide written and verbal feedback on their teaching.

Teaching Community

  • Pair new AIs with experienced AIs. They can observe and give feedback on each other’s classes, activities, and assignments, and they can share strategies for addressing teaching challenges.
  • Encourage new AIs to draw upon a rich resource network; they should feel comfortable asking questions and seeking advice from their mentors, peers, and offices that support teaching and learning.


C. Ross and J. Dunphy. 2007. Strategies for Teaching Assistant and International Teaching Assistant Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (See Table of Contents)

• Ross and Dunphy (2007) provide strategies for helping international graduate students with teaching culture, pedagogical practice, and language development. The book also contains chapters on more general teaching assistant development.  

The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan has an online guidebook for international associate instructors (they call them graduate student instructors, or GSIs). These “Suggestions for New Graduate Student Instructors Who Have Been Educated Abroad” address peculiarities of American college students and classrooms and provide strategies for navigating these challenges.

The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt has video interviews with undergraduates and graduate students discussing the strategies of effective teaching assistants.

Who Is Doing This at IUB

The Annual Associate Instructor Workshop on Classroom Climate, sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and held during orientation week in August, is a required event for all new AIs. This workshop equips first-time AIs from all schools and departments with strategies for addressing diverse backgrounds and learning styles and for maintaining a welcoming and rewarding classroom atmosphere for all students at IU Bloomington.  Even for the departments that have developed their own programs related to cultural diversity and racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination, the Classroom Climate workshop is a rare opportunity for graduate instructors to interact with their peers from across disciplines.

For More Help or Information

Katie Kearns can help supervisors and mentors develop activities and resources to help international associate instructors adjust to the IU Bloomington classroom.