June 29th, 2018

Teaching International Students: Six Ways to Smooth the Transition


supporting international students

Dear professor, I am Chang [a pseudonym], an international student of your research class. I’d like to ask if I can use a recorder (only voice) in your class, because I’m afraid that I can’t understand class content at once.



This was an e-mail that I received before the first day of class, exemplifying the anxiety international students may experience as undergraduate/graduate students in a foreign country. My response to the student was to give it a try first and see if he could understand the course content or not. I also tried to comfort him by saying that all class materials would be posted on Blackboard. Guess what? The student did just fine in my class and never needed to record lectures.

The number of international students in U.S. institutions of higher education has been increasing exponentially. According to the Institute of International Education, enrollment of international students in American colleges and universities reached more than one million in 2016/2017. What can faculty do to alleviate the feelings of stress and anxiety experienced by many of our international students? In this article, I suggest six ways to help ease these feelings and provide them with the support they need to succeed.

  • Communicate classroom expectations and policies clearly. Go over the syllabus on the first day of class. Almost all instructors do this already. However, a course syllabus is a new concept for many international students. Explain that it functions as a contract of sorts between the course instructor and the students and spend time highlighting important information, such as the grading scale, assignments and due dates, attendance policy, late work policy, and calendar of assignments. A structured classroom environment in which expectations and routines are clearly articulated on day one can push students toward becoming proactive and independent. This is particularly important to help international students get accustomed to the new academic environment.
  • Encourage students to make use of office hours. Clearly communicate your office hours. Many international students avoid asking questions during class because they fear looking foolish in front of their classmates. Explaining how office hours can be used may encourage students to take advantage of this one-on-one time with their professors. To foster this practice and emphasize the value of one-on-one interactions with course instructors, you may require students to attend office hours as a part of an assignment early in the semester.
  • Discuss academic integrity. Since I regularly teach writing courses, plagiarism can be an issue. For this reason, I spend time early in the semester to go over what plagiarism is, its consequences, and ways to avoid it. Nonetheless, I still spot sentences or paragraphs that were plagiarized. In some cases, this could be unintentional and due to the lack of understanding of proper paraphrasing and citation. To help international students develop these imperative skills, refer them to resources on paraphrasing techniques and citation conventions, or direct them to your institution’s writing center.
  • Make course materials available. Making PowerPoint slides or other course materials available pre or post lectures can be extremely helpful for international students. For new arrivals, listening comprehension can be a challenge regardless of how high they had scored on a standardized test (e.g. TOEFL). They need time to get accustomed to the accent, speed, and colloquialism of the English language. Posting course materials on a course management system gives students the chance to go back to the content to process the information and do further research or seek assistance if needed.
  • Demystify assignment requirements. Many students perform poorly on an assignment or a test due to a misunderstanding of the requirements. Offering written instructions that spell out the requirements and expectations of an assignment can help improve students’ performance. Additionally, including a rubric or grading criterion and giving it to students ahead of time can be effective in guiding them while they work on the assignment. Practice exams and examples of quality work from former students are also effective tools to guide students and model what they are expected to produce or perform.
  • Incorporate opportunities for collaborative learning. Students can benefit a great deal through collaborative learning. This can be done in diverse ways. For instance, pairing or grouping students to work on tasks can be one form of collaborative learning. Students can work together to answer questions, discuss what they have learned, or perform a task. Furthermore, designating time for peer feedback is another way to enhance student learning. To optimize this process, create a feedback form or a checklist so that students can use to provide specific suggestions to one another instead of general comments. If class time does not permit having such activities, peer review can be assigned as an out-of-class task.

To sum up, pursuing higher education in a foreign country can be challenging. Being mindful of international students in your classroom and incorporating ways to help them adapt to the new educational system can reduce their stress and help them succeed. In fact, adopting these practices have the potential to help all students, whether they grew up in the next town over or the other side of the globe.

Eman Elturki teaches ESL and serves as the curriculum and assessment coordinator at the Intensive American Language Center of Washington State University.