Designing Intercultural Courses and Assignments

Instructors face complex challenges when working with international students in the classroom. On the one hand, they may understand that international students might experience the classroom differently than many domestic students, and that international students' experience varies within and across cultures. Instructors may also recognize that due to these differences, some students may need a unique kind of support. On the other hand, some instructors are wary of accommodating international students, since there is tension between the recognition that some international students require unique support and how to provide that support without setting different standards, thereby perhaps compromising fairness toward domestic students.

In considering the unique needs of the international student body, the challenge lies in creating central goals relevant to all the students in a course and also providing the learning support that each student needs. This balance can only be struck by making important but sometimes tricky decisions about what key goals all students should meet, and by providing support for learning so that all students–international or domestic–can meet those goals.

In particular, the following can help international students feel more engaged and comfortable in the classroom: attention to learning goals, attention to assignment design and classroom activities, and attention to feedback and grading strategies.  

Designing Learning Goals, Courses, and Assignments

For many instructors, particularly those who are enculturated to American educational norms, the expectations for students seem obvious, self-evident. But in fact these expectations are often not obvious for students, domestic as well as international, and thus it’s important to carefully consider how learning expectations might be confusing to students, and how instructors can more clearly give students clearer access to understanding goals for learning.

It’s important to build a course around these goals, using them to centrally inform major assignments, which in turn should be supported by lower stakes assignments and activities that help students practice critical skills and build their competence. There are, however, barriers to understanding learning goals that can arise with some students. In particular, consider the following:

  • Cultural Knowledge: The content matter of a curriculum can sometimes depend on cultural knowledge that students who come from other cultural backgrounds might not understand, such as references to popular culture, or an understanding of how common institutional or governmental structures work. Furthermore, cultural knowledge might be presented from cultural-historical perspectives not shared by students from other backgrounds: for instance, imagine a middle eastern woman reading a western historian’s perspective on the challenges of studying middle eastern women’s history. She not only has to understand the complex issues and politics that western scholars need to consider, but she has to understand how to position herself among scholars who are talking about a topic related to her lived experience, but from a perspective culturally removed from that experience.

    • How to address this in course and assignment design: Offer students a way into assignments that might require an American cultural perspective, say by allowing students to take a comparative approach from their home cultural perspective. Of course, be careful about putting a student in the uncomfortable position of being a “spokesperson for co-nationals and even for other generations” (Leki, 2006, p.144). The point is to allow students to stake out their ideas from a perspective that values their individual experiences. Give students models of appropriate disciplinary discourse, and spend time explaining how scholars and professionals in your field address key problems or questions. Then give students an opportunity to put these models into practice for themselves.

  • Structure and purpose of educational experience: The varying educational systems of different countries and regions often emphasize very different curricula, value different kinds of learning, and, frankly, provide unequal resources for schooling. Even within America, the shape of education varies widely according to economics and geography (and, respectively, race, class, and other social factors): the experiences of middle class suburban students often vary widely from those of rural or urban students. Similar variations exist across (and, of course, within) national borders.

    • How to address this in course and assignment design: Do an inventory of students’ knowledge and interests at the beginning of a course: what interests them about the field? what motivates them to take the course (even if it is just for required credit)? what do they feel is their proficiency in core skills and knowledge (e.g. mathematics or writing)? Use this inventory to adjust your curriculum planning, adapting to students’ needs and interests (of course, within the scope of the core learning goals) to build in opportunities to help students develop appropriate strategies for learning, and to share their perspectives with the other students in the class.

  • Assumptions about knowledge and learning: Students enter the classroom with very different understandings of what learning entails. Some of this is the kind of cognitive growth that William Perry described in the 1970s: moving from an acceptance of authoritative knowledge, to recognizing multiple viewpoints as valid, gradually to establishing a personal critical perspective. However, this can also be a cultural viewpoint, in the case of schooling where students are trained to value mastering received knowledge before turning a critical eye on that knowledge. American higher education tends to value “critical” or “analytical” perspectives that many students might not be familiar with.

    • How to address this in course and assignment design: Scaffold the process of inquiry and the habits of thinking you want students to adopt, that is, design sequences of shorter, lower stakes activities that help students practice particular critical thinking skills (see our page on Writing-to-Learn for some examples). Help them move from their more limited understanding of how knowledge is developed to new understandings appropriate to the work you want them to do, for example by helping students master summary before addressing multiple scholarly perspectives or offering their own critical arguments.

Thinking About Grading & Assessment

What does this mean for creating learning goals and designing writing assignments? Tony Silva, the Director of the ESL Writing Program at Purdue University, states that it is not realistic to hold everyone to the same standard (Writing Across Borders, 2006). He suggests instructors consider “what would be good enough?” rather than “what would be perfect?” when evaluating student work, particularly writing. Focus your grading and assessment on the learning goals that are most important for your students.

  • Manage expectations by prioritizing goals. Sometimes the gap is too great between what is expected of students and what goals they’re capable of meeting in the scope of a term (too little time to scaffold key assignments or work with individual students who are particularly challenged by certain goals) or within the context of a class where additional learning support for students just isn’t feasible based on class size or other logistical factors (say, distance education, or mismatched schedules). If this is the case, instructors may want to consider prioritizing the most important learning goals that they can adequately support. Set manageable goals for every student.

  • Don’t get caught up in ancillary goals. Instructors might primarily value evidence of disciplinary critical thinking, but become distracted by issues like grammar and mechanics in grading, because they associate intellectual competence with perfectly fluent writing. This is a mistake because language fluency is a very gradual skill learned by L2 writers; it shouldn’t overshadow students’ other intellectual accomplishments. Of course, competence in communication is an important and necessary goal, particularly in the context of professionalization. But even here it’s important that instructors adequately scaffold and contextualize learning. Give L2 students space to meet a manageable set of language goals, and help them understand or even practice language use within professional contexts. 

  • Don’t hesitate to give your students challenging academic projects that meet your learning goals. Adjusting your expectations does not mean “dumbing down” your learning goals. Not only can each and every student rise to the challenge, but it will be to their benefit to immerse themselves in rigorous academic discourse. Understand, though, that while the academic discourse can be challenging for both domestic and international students alike, international students may face unique challenges. It takes them time--often much more time than domestic English-speaking students--to read, take notes, and draft written work. The goal is not to give some students a "remedial" track that's easier than what you expect of other students, but that you develop manageable opportunities for all of your students to meet the same learning goals.

For more recommendations on grading and assessment as it specifically relates to written work, please see Responding to International Student Writing.


Leki, I. (2006). Negotiating socioacademic relations: English learners’ reception by and reaction to college faculty. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 5, 136-152.

Robertson, W., Oregon State University Writing Programs. (2005). Writing across borders. Corvallis, Oreg.: Oregon State University.