Reflections on Learning as an International Student – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As a former international student pursuing two graduate degrees in North America, I can relate to the many academic challenges experienced by international students on our campus. At the heart of these challenges is the process of navigating the various aspects of the new academic culture and learning the language of academic communication, both written and oral.

I still remember vividly my required year-long Doctoral seminar at York’s Faculty of Education where I was the only international graduate student and non-native English speaker. The quick pace of the student-driven and loosely structured discussions, the rules of turn-taking (they seemed clear to all but me) and the ability of my classmates to quickly come up with fairly sophisticated and critically-framed arguments often made me feel like an alien from another academic planet where the rules for engagement and success were completely different. Fortunately, I had supportive instructors who encouraged me to find my own academic voice and identity.

Like most international students, I gradually developed a new repertoire of academic behaviors, learned conventions of the North American academic writing and got accustomed to unfamiliar assessment practices. (I come from an educational culture where the course mark is often 100% based on the final oral exam).

Fast forward to the present. No longer a student or an ‘international’ (my brand new Canadian passport is arriving later this month!), I came across an exciting strand of teaching and learning literature – mostly by the British and Australian scholars – that focuses on the learning experience of international students and teaching practices that support their academic growth and development. Here are some of the  ideas from this literature that I found useful for thinking about teaching and learning through the lens of culture:

1. Approaches to knowledge, learning, academic writing and argumentation, and assessment of learning are highly culture-specific. International students bring with them diverse academic histories, beliefs about what it means to be a “good student”, expectations for teacher-student relationships, ideas on demonstrating competency in the subject matter and notions of assessment of learning.

2. Instructors who teach and supervise international students can’t possibly know all the aspects of the academic cultures that international students bring with them into the classroom. However, they can become aware of the aspects of their own academic culture – especially those tacit and taken-for-granted assumptions, values and beliefs – that might be unfamiliar to international students. This approach can help instructors to anticipate possible learning challenges and develop appropriate teaching strategies.

3. International students place high value on their educational experience in English-speaking universities and are heavily invested in their academic identities and goals. They are highly motivated, resourceful, open to change and often remarkably eloquent about cultural variations in academic cultures (and keen to share with instructors who are willing to listen to them!). These characteristics and aspirations of international students are unfortunately often overlooked by instructors who fail to see them as a learning resource and learning strength.

4. Good practice for international students is good practice for all. Many suggestions for teaching international students that I learned from the literature, such as making assessment criteria explicit, showing examples of good work and discussing it with students, teaching students how to think critically and become independent and self-regulated learners, are good teaching practices that benefit all learners, regardless of their cultural backgrounds.

There are lots of great resources that were recently published on this topic and I am willing to share them with anyone who is interested.  One of my personal favorites for those interested in practical teaching tips and techniques is “Teaching International Students: Improving Learning for All” (2006) edited by Carroll and Ryan. I also highly recommend Teaching International Students portal, an excellent, and continuously growing, hub of resources on this topic hosted by the Higher Education Academy in the UK. There are lots of other resources but these are a good start.

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Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As a Senior Instructional Developer, Svitlana Taraban Gordon oversees all aspects of the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program and works with graduate students who are interested in developing their instructional skills and expanding their teaching horizons. She is also developing new programming related to the internationalization and university teaching. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Svitlana worked with the international education office at York's Faculty of Education, taught several courses at York's teacher preparation program and coordinated Microsoft-funded project on youth and technology through her work with Toronto-based NGO TakingITGlobal. She received her PhD in Education (Language, Culture and Teaching) in 2006 from York University. In her free time, Svitlana enjoys traveling with her husband and young son.

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