Supporting International Student Learning in the Classroom

Apart from framing core learning goals and using them to design assignment sequences and classroom activities, there is a lot instructors can do to support their international students’ (indeed all of their students’) learning throughout a semester.

One-on-one Meetings with Students

In a smaller enrollment class, instructors can often afford to spend individual time with students, and this face-to-face conferencing can be one of the most effective ways of guiding international students in their learning. One-on-one meetings can:

  • allow instructors to make sure students understand the expectations for assignments. Because students can sometimes be unfamiliar with academic genres, especially when they weren't exposed to them in previous schooling, or when they're moving from one academic discipline to another, it’s important to work closely with students to gauge how they perceive key assignments, so as to correct misconceptions and give them strategies and models for work.

  • give students an opportunity to explore and practice more difficult language issues. Some issues of language, like the subtleties of usage and style, are nearly impossible to address effectively in written feedback. Face to face meetings provide a space to explain these kinds of conventions, as well as other kinds of subtleties such as appropriate uses of language in unfamiliar rhetorical contexts, such as proper attitudes for hedging claims, addressing competing ideas, or the strength of different kinds of evidence.

  • help instructors and students set manageable learning goals together. By querying student background knowledge, their comfort level with course material, and learning preferences, instructors can help generate a handful of effective strategies to succeed in the course.

  • give students a chance to articulate their ideas in person. Sometimes students have difficulty expressing their ideas clearly in writing, but can articulate them cogently in speech. Conferencing can help students recognize what they are capable of and give instructors the opportunity to present those capabilities more effectively.

  • become a space where instructors can guide students in the writing process. During one-on-one meetings, students can work through key stages in a project: brainstorming, resource gathering, articulating ideas, or polishing a final draft. This allows the instructor an opportunity to clarify genre expectations, guide students throughout the writing process, and clear up any misconceptions they might have about course material.

Before considering meeting in one-on-one conferences, calculate how many office hours are necessary to match up with the deadlines of assignments for students to complete. Plan carefully and set an agenda that’s manageable and timely for students’ work in a class.

Incorporating International Students into Discussion

Some international students tend to be quiet in class for a number of reasons: culturally, they might be used to perceiving teachers as authority-figures whose ideas are to be valued more than others in the classroom; they might not be comfortable with their accented speech; they might have a hard time following along with a fast-paced conversation, worried they are missing something; or they might simply want to sit back and learn what the perspectives of other students are. In order to teach students how to engage in class discussion, which plays a such a central role in American higher education, instructors have to carefully negotiate cultural difference and individual student preferences. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Try not to position international students as cultural experts of their home countries. International students can have their own interpretations or opinions about certain cultural practices, and should not be given the responsibility of speaking for an entire national or ethnic group. Invite students to share their cultural perspectives, but be clear that they are offering their individual perspectives, not universal ones.

  • Understand that personalities of international students vary. Some international students can be shy and might not want to talk openly in front of people, not to be put on the spot. Provide different opportunities or formats for them to express their ideas (like an online forum, short in-class writing activities, or small group discussion), as it is less intimidating to them.

  • Allow time for students to process their thoughts. international students may need more time to gather their thoughts, to process information and to construct language expressions. Potentially, low-stakes writing activities (i.e., free write) can facilitate class discussion.

  • Explain what “participation” looks like in your course. Explicitly state the course expectations, especially if participation is taken into account for the course grade. Furthermore, explicitly teach students how to join class discussion. Especially early in the term, model appropriate listening and responding for students, and facilitate conversation in a transparent way that helps students understand how disciplinary habits of thinking inform discussion. Consider providing a rubric or a criteria that defines what is expected of students’ participation throughout the course.

  • Reiterate students’ ideas in your own words. By restating a student's points to the class in your own words, you can make sure that you have understand a student's ideas and show that you value his or her contribution. At the same time, students can clarify misunderstandings and witness active listening skills, a valuable lesson for domestic and international students alike.

Using Small Group Activities

Instructors should consider three crucial questions while designing a small group activity:

  • How are students going to be assigned groups?

  • How structured does the group need to be?

  • What is the role of the instructor in managing the groups, and the roles students will be asked to play in their work together?

The answers to each question have benefits and drawbacks, potentially impacting international student learners.

Assigning Students to a Group

Typically, students are assigned to a group in one of three ways: the instructor forms specific groups, groups are randomly assigned, or groups are self-assigned by the students. Depending on the group assignment, one approach may be more effective than another. When it comes to forming small groups, there are a couple points to keep in mind with regard to the international students in your classroom:

  • Potential Benefits: Potential benefits of having the groups be self-assigned is that students may feel more comfortable working with people they choose. Random group assignment might also be beneficial if it mixes up the class dynamic, allowing students to meet more of their peers. Instructor-formed groups can be a good balance of the two, as well as allowing the instructor to be more intentional regarding who is in each group based on what he or she knows about the group dynamics in the course. Ultimately, forming small groups can help students feel more comfortable contributing. Since international students may not be familiar with American classroom cultures and etiquette, and because they could be more conscious about their oral proficiency, they can be less likely to contribute to a larger group discussion.

  • Potential Drawbacks: If students are allowed to choose their own groups, this could disenfranchise other students, as each group may be composed of unwelcoming cliques. The students may not have the same cultural learning experience because he or she would be working with students they already know. On the other hand, one of the drawbacks of randomly assigning groups could be that some students may feel uncomfortable; they may not feel as though they have much to contribute. Additionally, domestic students may not be as socially inclusive. Instructor formed groups may also be more time-intensive on the part of the instructor, as they might need to monitor group work more attentively.

Structure of Group

Likewise, there are benefits and drawbacks to a more or less structured group activity. Structured group activities give each student a specific role, as well as a more pre-determined agenda to follow. Loosely structured activities allow students to choose their own roles. On one hand, loosely guided groups allow for more autonomy; the assignment may not require strict roles. On the other hand, research shows that the most successful groups for international students are carefully planned and tasks allocated appropriately (Leki, 2001). For example, one student might be responsible for keeping brainstorming notes, another for keeping group members on task, and another for proofreading the final product. Roles will depend on the assignment and the instructor’s expectations; but regardless, some structure or role guidance can aid with task allocation.

Role of the Instructor

The role of the instructor lies on a spectrum between little involvement and more involvement. Leki (2001) recommends that instructors be highly aware of group dynamics when the groups involve international students; this awareness allows instructors to intervene in “reconfiguring the positioning of the various group members (p.60)”. For example, one student may become the “Boss” (e.g., the leader who allocates tasks) and another the “Writer” (e.g., the one who collects and writes everyone’s answers). With the creation of these roles, international students might be left out, or feel voiceless. Having clear, meaningful roles for them to take gives them an opportunity to contribute where they might otherwise be sidelined. When instructors are tuned into these group dynamics, they can intervene appropriately. Some ideas for tuning into group dynamics include:

  • Think about the grading as a reflection of each student's' participation. What kinds of deliverables (like progress reports or student reflection) might provide evidence for participation?

  • Look at the students' participation in groups. What was the role of each student?

  • With regard to writing, how did each team member help the writing process along (something that might be aided with online composing platforms like wikis or cloud-oriented software like GoogleDocs)? What was the contribution of each person during the writing process?

Peer Response

Peer response activities provide a useful way for students to interact with each other and their writing; it may be included with or without the formation of small groups. Peer response activities have a number of benefits. It helps students make friends in the class, enhancing cross-cultural communication.  Additionally, it allows international students the opportunity to read more native writing samples to help them better grasp American ways of writing and academic structure.

There are also a couple points to consider before using a peer response activity. International students may struggle to give feedback to their peers, especially the first time they attempt an activity like this. Students may focus their comments on grammar concerns, especially when they are reading international students’ papers, instead of broader concepts and idea development. Therefore, instructors should first educate students on giving feedback based on a balance between idea development and grammar.

Preparing Students to Work with the Writing Center

The Writing Center at OSU ascribes to the model of peer-review by engaging students in interactive one-on-one or, in some cases, group tutorials. It provides students with an opportunity to gain another perspective on their ideas, allowing them to refine their writing while maintaining authorship. These sessions can be most effective when instructors are able to prepare their students for Writing Center sessions. Below, we highlight ways in which instructors can help students maximize their sessions at the Writing Center.

  • Stress that the Writing Center is not simply a remedial service for struggling writers: it’s a service for all writers wishing to receive constructive feedback. The Writing Center’s motto is that all writers need good readers. Working with good readers and getting feedback is important for writers who wish to develop their writing skills, regardless of whether they are novices or experts.  

  • Consider giving students an understanding of what a Writing Center tutorial looks like. This will help students know what to expect during a tutorial and how they can best take advantage of the service. Moreover, many students are unaware of this service, so giving them an overview of the nature of a tutorial will enable them to  identify how it will benefit them. If you are unfamiliar with how tutorials work, you can invite a Writing Center tutor to visit your class and give a five minute spiel as an introduction to the Center’s work. If you are interested, please contact the Director of the Writing Center, Dr. Genie Giaimo ( 

  • Emphasize that the Writing Center can help students at any stage in the writing process. Students often think that they have to bring a completed rough draft to Writing Center sessions; however, this is not the case. While tutors can aid students in putting the finishing touches on the final product, they can also help students who are at the the nascent stages of working through their ideas. To that end, tutors can help students brainstorm as well as organize and find clarity in their ideas.

  • Identify a specific set of manageable goals (2 or 3) for students to address throughout the session. This will help both the tutor and the student effectively structure their time in the session and ensure that the student is gradually working on developing the areas of concern that you’ve outlined. With the assistance of a tutor, a student can ensure that they understand your comments and work on developing their skills in relation to them.

  • Encourage students to bring all types of writing to the Writing Center. Writing tutors do not merely review essays; they also work with students to better their cover letters, lab reports, personal statements, PowerPoint slides and so on. Students should think of the Writing Center as a place to improve diverse types of writing.    

  • Send the student with as much material about an assignment they are working on as possible (prompts, rubrics, etc). Assignment information will help tutors structure the session and help ensure that the student is carrying out your expectations for the assignment.

  • Ensure that students understand that they are meant to take ownership of the sessions, and make the final decisions. The Writing Center does not provide a proofreading service; rather, tutors work with the clients in the revision process and ensure that the writer ultimately has ownership over his or her writing. In collaborating with tutors, clients can clarify their ideas and make sure they translate on the page.


Leki, I. (2001). “A Narrow Thinking System”: Nonnative-English-Speaking Students in Group Projects Across the Curriculum. TESOL Quarterly 35: 39-67.