Acknowledging Cultural Variation during Classroom Participation- Karly Neath

In 2012, 32% of graduate students and 11% of undergraduate students enrolled at the University of Waterloo were international students, representing a broad range of cultural and educational backgrounds. This cultural diversity has tremendous pedagogical potential, but it also poses challenges to our ever growing emphasis on classroom participation.  As we begin a new academic year with thousands of new students it is important to remind ourselves of these challenges and work to overcome them.

 Students’ actions in the classroom may be based on different cultural understandings of what constitutes appropriate student and instructor behaviour. When a student is quiet during a discussion, for example, they are not necessarily unprepared or bored; they may simply be behaving according to their own culture’s standards of classroom etiquette.

 Most North American (N.A) students have had experience with class discussions in high school. Thus, they are at least familiar with the discussion conventions (e.g., small group work, expectations for preparation and participation) that they will encounter in the university classroom. Here in N.A, discussion classes, labs, and projects are valued as important parts of the learning process along with lectures instructor (e.g., Brookfield, 1999).

 However, in many cultures, lectures are the sole mode of instruction. Thus, some international students may not see the benefit of discussions or group work, believing that they cannot learn anything substantive from their peers. Additionally, the students may not have learned the skills necessary for participating in group-work or discussions, and may only feel comfortable participating when they can answer questions the instructor has posed. The challenge here is that instructors may assume that these students are not interested or have not done the assigned reading.

 Another challenge is that the unwritten rules for discussion may be different. For example, in one culture, it might be acceptable to interrupt or talk more loudly to gain control during a discussion; in another, it may be considered polite to allow short silence; in another, students might expect to be called upon before offering their opinion. Consequently, international students may find the N.A conventions of discussion frustrating and may be viewed as too shy or rude.

 Perhaps instructors simply need to be more aware of cultural differences and sympathetic to the challenges that students face in adjusting to them. However, this does not require them to lower their standards or apply a different set of performance criteria for international students. Consider the following simple pedagogical practices:

 Make expectations explicitExplain why you think discussions are valuable, how they will be evaluated, and ground-rules.

  1. Model the kinds of work you want your students to doFor example, have students observe two faculty members engage in an animated debate.
  2. Represent the material you are teaching in multiple ways.
  3. Give students ample opportunities to practice applying the knowledge and skills you want them to acquireFor example, ask students to discuss a design, case study, or experiment in small groups (without being assigned a grade).
  4. Provide varied opportunities interactionFor example, encourage students to email you with ideas and questions. Also, monitor student groups to correct misconceptions and encourage everyone to be involved.

 While this may post may seem very “common sense” I believe it is important to constantly remind ourselves of the cultural diversity within our university and to help make the transition into our classrooms smooth by using these simple tips.

Published by

Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.