Integrating International Students into Your Class

Helping International (and ALL) Students Learn

IUB students come with diverse cultural backgrounds, academic preparation, and expectations about college. For example, 9% of IUB undergraduates are international students, and an additional 11% are US minority students. As instructors develop instructional strategies to help all their students learn, it can help to ask, “Where do students (international or otherwise) get off track in my class?” In focus groups and interviews IUB international and minority students have suggested ways we might better support their learning.

Students Cannot Understand What Is Said

Students for whom English is a second language learn best when information is presented in writing. It can be challenging for these students to understand lectures; for best results, you will want to be sure they can catch as many of the words spoken in class as possible. To improve communication and translation, make your class lectures and content available after the class session in written or video format.

Responding to International and All Students’ Writing

  1. As the complexity of a cognitive task increases, writing quality declines. 
    When being stretched cognitively, students in your class students may struggle to express their ideas in writing. As their conceptual understanding improves, their writing will most likely improve. Opportunities for revisions are especially important when they are developing understanding of a concept. (Bean, 2011).
  2. When responding to students’ writing, make a distinction between writing with an accent and writing that impedes understanding. 
    Depending on their first language, students may omit articles, or misuse prepositions or idiomatic expressions. Despite these minor errors, the meaning of the writing is understandable to most readers.  (Silva and Matsudo, 2012)
  3. While marking international students’ writing, consider calling attention to patterns of error rather than individual errors. 
    If the student has a problem with something like verb tense, it is not necessary to mark every instance of incorrect verb tense. More helpful is to point out 3 or 4 instances of incorrect tense, or closely mark one paragraph. You may want to pick one such error pattern per paper and ask the student to identify and correct similar problems in the remainder of the draft.
  4. Students tend to write the same way for every field. 
    Be sure to show students how knowledge is created in your field and which genre they are writing in. For example:
    • History—generating an argument that is backed by evidence
    • Literature—bringing other “texts” to bear on the interpretation of a particular text
    • Geology— asking a question, collecting and analyzing evidence, and drawing conclusions
    • Accounting—collecting, analyzing, and judging key financial documents in order to make recommendations

Develop practice exercises to help students learn the components of the disciplinary convention; informal sub-assignments prepare students in advance of longer, more formal pieces.  (Middendorf and Shopkow, manuscript)

Students Will Not Speak up in Class

In non-U.S. cultures, college students often listen passively to lectures, rather than participate actively.  These students find speaking up in class akin to driving into heavy traffic—they cannot find an opening to break into the discussion. There are many ways to ameliorate this problem. To address this problem:

  • Encourage students to answer in their native language first and then translate it for classmates so they don’t miss their chance to join in.
  • Distribute discussion questions in advance of class to allow everyone to be prepared.
  • Students will appreciate an opportunity and can more readily participate in on-line discussions (using the Discussions or Chat tools in Canvas, for example), which can take place even during class (using Twitter or other social media).
  • Place students in small groups. Structure discussion activities in class, with Wait Time (at least 20 seconds), Write-Pair-Share, or other Equal Participation Strategies to ensure equitable participation by all.

Students Have Not Developed Effective Study Skills

Differences exist between high school study expectations and the requisite skills for success in U.S. universities. To help students develop desired skills:

  • Give guidelines for assigned readings so students know where to focus their efforts (see this example for strategies to accomplish this).
  • Hold students accountable so they come to class prepared.

Students may be used to only having to recall information, working at the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.  To help them deal with more complex cognitive tasks, model for them the mental operations you want them to practice.

Students Think Office Hours Are Only for Students in Trouble

Invite students to attend office hours. Oftentimes, students may not realize that it is an open invitation.

To address students' challenges, it helps to get clear about exactly what students are struggling with. To figure this out, use brief, frequent, non-graded assessments. If you would like help diagnosing the problem, consider contacting a CITL Consultant.


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 77-78.

Carroll, J., & Ryan, J. (Eds.) (2005) Teaching international students: Improving learning for all. Routledge: New York. Pages: 168.

Larsson, M. (2013). Tips for teaching non-native English speaking students. Unpublished manuscript. Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA.

Middendorf, J., & Shopkow, L. (manuscript). Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Critical Thinking. Jossey-Bass.

Silva, T., & Matsuda, P. K. (Eds.). (2012). On second language writing. Routledge.