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International Classroom Workshop: Institutional Recommendations and Teaching Tips

On Friday, Feb. 1, about 45 members of the faculty, GTFs, and administrators met for the International Classroom, a panel and workshop about the teaching implications of the near doubling of UO international student numbers in just five years.

“I thought the enthusiasm and reception were excellent—I’m convinced we need to hold these events regularly,” said Alison Evans, panelist and associate director of The American English Institute. “I look forward to more feedback about how AEI and the Teaching Effectiveness Program can better support our colleagues across campus as they work with international students.”

“The American English Institute has a great deal of expertise when it comes to international students, and yet relatively few faculty members in regular subject fields appreciate that fact, said Ian McNeely, the College of Arts and Sciences’ associate dean for undergraduate education. “TEP has done the campus a great service by bringing AEI experts into dialogue with their colleagues elsewhere in the university to begin addressing one of our key academic challenges.” 

Evans launched the panel, explaining UO’s international admissions requirements and how the Institute’s Academic English for International Students (AEIS) courses—which are required of international students who are conditionally admitted or who place into them during testing at orientation—fit into the curriculum. Though students must, in theory, complete AEIS courses in their first year, many opt instead to take other courses prematurely. Evans announced that these courses for the first time will appear on students’ degree audits in Fall 2013. This important change will enable advisors to ensure students take required English courses that will better prepare them to negotiate the rest of the curriculum.

Evans also shared the recommendations of the English Proficiency Working Group, a committee of faculty and administrators that has examined UO’s TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score requirement—a key factor in international student admissions. The committee has recommended incrementally raising UO’s TOEFL score from 61 to 72, closer to our peer institutions’. This score would have disqualified 29 percent of the entering fall 2012 international cohort. Moreover, the committee recommended that all international students (except those whose first language is English) take placement tests at orientation, which would pull more students into the AEIS sequence who’ve mastered the TOEFL thanks to diligent test preparation, but might still struggle with academic English.

The next panelist, Abe Shafermeyer, director of the International Student and Scholar Services unit in the Office of International Affairs, detailed the wide-ranging work of his office to orient, advise, and support international students. He mentioned points of pride for UO: this is the only university in the Pacific Northwest that offers work-study placements for its international students; this academic year, UO gave 1.3 million dollars in financial aid to international students—who are ineligible for federal financial aid from the U.S. government—including tuition remission if they complete 80-hours annually of cultural community service.

The OIA also runs a mandatory eight-day orientation for international students and hosts ongoing events to support students’ cultural adjustments to campus. But Schafermeyer expressed concern that the urgent, complex work of ensuring so many students’ legal status in the country—one of Shafermeyer’s areas of expertise—can crowd out other programming, making the office more of a “visa processing center” than a site of personalized advice and support.

He also anticipated trends in the nationalities of UO international students: 50 percent now are from China, which he expects to remain a strong constituency, but he also sees prospects for the University to attract more students from Brazil and Southeast Asia.

Language acquisition and the difficult road to mastery

Panelists Keli Yerian, director of UO’s Language Teaching Specialization Master’s program and Mark Unno, professor and head of Religious Studies, both discussed the incredible complexity of language acquisition, especially language mastery in academic contexts. “It’s easy to plateau at the university-level—to get beyond basic proficiency means immersion, not just in speaking, but in a world of written texts,” Yerian explained.

She said that mastery requires time and enthusiasm and, understandably, not all students learning English as a second language are intellectually curious about how languages work: they’d rather focus on chemistry or economics and have a purely instrumental view of English. Even for highly motivated language learners, “it’s essentially unavoidable to have an ‘accent’ in writing, unless they’re getting editing help,” Yerian said.

Yerian cited research that indicates educated native speakers are likely to know 15 to 20 thousand word families; incoming international students are likely to know just three to five thousand word families.

Unno offered a powerful account of his own experience as a nonnative speaker who did not begin his formal English language education until age eight. He quickly became capable in English grammar and vocabulary, but continued to find it challenging to digest the cultural aspects of English language learning. Of his experience writing book reports for an English and American literature high school class he recalled, “I just couldn’t read the cultural cues, and so I was failing to develop critical reading and writing skills.” He reported that he was fortunate to have a perceptive English teacher who recommended he switch to writing about Japanese novels in translation. Suddenly, Unno’s relationship to the study of literature changed—more attuned to context and nuance, he became more sensitive and incisive in his arguments, and thus, in his overall ability to wield academic prose in English.

Unno likened his own experience to that of international students he’s mentored throughout their undergraduate study at UO, some through graduate school and the tenure process at other American institutions: even gifted young scholars continue to need editing help and extra encouragement to seek support. “The cultural context and customs of academic writing are incredibly complex,” Unno said, and faculty should be aware of the potential for excellence and the profound personal stakes of success or failure for many international students. At the same time, he said, the institution “needs to acknowledge in time and funds” the work of faculty and staff members who mentor students through the long-term process of acquiring academic language fluency.

Exploring cultural diversity in the classroom

Ron Severson, senior instructor of business management, underscored what an asset international students are to the classroom: “In fact, I must have international students for my courses to work.” Severson said that international students bring high levels of cultural consciousness to the classroom, and these dual perspectives reflecting their membership in two national communities benefit the entire group.

Severson makes acts of cultural translation part of the explicit substance of his course, occasionally asking students to write ideas on the board in their native language so that native English speakers see their easy fluency and have the experience themselves of feeling slightly lost.

He also designates class time to talking about class activities like “brainstorming” and “discussion,” explaining exactly what he wants from these activities and giving students a chance to talk about their cultural associations with them. For example, some of his international students are uncomfortable with brainstorming because they are ashamed to make mistakes in public, and rarely offer provisional ideas they’re not prepared to back up with research or action.

Severson also discovered that while his American students tend to interpret classroom silence as ill-preparedness, some of his international students have positive associations with silence, thinking it suggests deep listening and an attempt to find harmonies in positions being expressed.

Unno, too, is committed to showing students exactly what he’s asking them to do rather than assuming they know how to do these things somehow naturally. He posts writing tips, citation rules, and a sample essay on his professional Web site, requires all students to read this material, then gives a multiple choice quiz to ensure everyone has a working understanding of his expectations—a practice which helps domestic students as much as it does international students.

After the panel, participants broke into small groups to discuss topics that are frequently raised in relation to international students: academic integrity (including the problem of unfairly associating international students with academic misconduct); academic writing and faculty feedback; critical reading and heavy reading loads; class participation; group work and establishing a sense of classroom community; and faculty presentation styles.

Faculty members from the American English Institute facilitated these conversations, which responded to prompts, many including affecting quotations from international students about their experiences at UO and relationships with their classmates and professors. (Read the discussion prompts here.)

Moving forward

At the session’s end, participants reconvened as a full group to ask questions and share ideas. One participant asked how international students fare academically as a group. Schafermeyer answered that UO is more likely to retain its international students than domestic ones. Indeed, on average they finish their degrees in 4.5 years with a 3.2 GPA. The group questioned whether faculty may feel compelled to hold international student language learners to a different standard, in part because they feel it would be impossible for them to do the extra teaching and tutoring to bring them up to the same skill level as domestic students.

“That’s understandable, but in many ways, making adjustments on a curricular level does a disservice to international students and American students alike. The demographic change should, instead, be seen as an opportunity to explore alternative methods of delivery of course content that would benefit all students—such as the use of universal design, peer work in heterogeneous groups, and more,” Evans said.

Unno told participants that “we all see diversity as good for the dominant language group, but diversity is two-way street”: we owe these students the best experience we can give them, he said. “Historically, when the academy has had broader contact with minority groups—with women, with people of color—it’s achieved positive structural change. That’s what needs to happen with international students, too.”

Participants returned to their departments and programs to continue the conversation. Associate Director of Composition Miriam Gershow said, “Mark Unno framed the entire discussion as one of the larger institution needing to catch up with the needs of a new population, which was an idea that resonated deeply with me. It spurred me on to think in larger, more institutional ways.” She added that Composition has contact with “nearly every new international student admitted as an undergraduate. I went back to the English Department with this in mind, and am at work on a comprehensive proposal to hopefully address these issues.”

Workshop Participants Expressed Support for… 

• raising UO’s TOEFL required score and placement-testing all international students, as per the English Proficiency Working Group’s recommendations.

• significantly increasing one-on-one writing support for international students through the Writing Lab, or a new writing center.

• building a robust, academic-focused peer mentoring program for international students.

• attaching AEI-taught supplemental courses to general education and gateway courses with high international student enrollment.

• doing more work with students before they start at UO: give them access to online videos of UO classes—lectures and discussions—and an indication of the norms of interaction, participation, and critical thinking that are expected here; develop a summer bridge program.

• continuing and extending faculty development programming like the International Classroom, and other more hands-on workshops.

Download AEI-authored teaching tips for working with international students here.

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