Inclusivity and international students

December 4, 2015 in PGcert

For the inclusivity topic, I’m thinking about what makes students feel included and excluded in my teaching.

I feel that inclusivity and equal participation (discussed in Topic 2) is a major focus of the presentation skills work I do, particularly the fact that everybody takes speaks equally during my workshops, which are based around peer feedback.

I naturally have empathy for people who find it hard to speak, as I am terrified of public speaking myself, and have researched the reasons why students might feel nervous during my Teaching and Professional Fellowship.

However, I need to make sure I understand any barriers that may relate to disability, language, cultural differences, race, gender, financial restrictions. I want to adapt my workshops to meet the needs of as many students as possible within the same session.

I am going to focus on international students for now, following a conversation I had about the challenges around international students and giving feedback in class (see James’s comment and my response).

International students and speaking

First of all, I do struggle a bit with the term ‘international students’. This is because the category could include a student from America with English as a first language, and a student from China with English as a second language, and therefore the category represents very different needs. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll focus on international students with English as a second language.

I’ve done some initial research around international students and participation, as part of previous projects.

One student talked about language barriers: “I am generally reserved and not self-confident, I am afraid of being judged. Here in London my fears have doubled because my language is not English.”

Another student talked about cultural differences: “There is this common code or belief and because everyone knows it, you don’t have to say it. If a student speaks out they are regarded as being too flashy, not humble.”

During 2014/15, I organised workshops with 244 students. 48% of the participants stated that English was not their first language. 71% of those students felt nervous about public speaking, compared to 50% of the students who had English as their first language.

One good thing is that the workshops already have a positive effect on international students. The number of students with English as a second language who were nervous dropped from 71% to 43%. It’s not as pronounced as the improvement of those who have English as a first language, where the number of students who felt nervous more than halved from 50% to 23%, but it’s still a significant improvement.

A Chinese student from BA Fashion Jewellery at LCF said her confidence had increased because the workshop “Gave the great feedback that I need to improve so it makes me better.”

Understanding the complex interactions

I’m now considering what my next step would be in order to understand any barriers more.

Using the idea of an audit from the NUS report Liberation, Equality and Diversity in the Curriculum, I did a small scale review of my course material and my research methods.

It made me re-evaluate some research I am planning. I wanted to do research with a group of international students to understand the factors that may influence speaking and participation in order to help make my teaching more inclusive. I now feel I should extend the research to a wider group of students, not just international students, as there are a more complex range of interactions at work.

International students may experience feelings of exclusion, for example. One of our class members in the PgCert workshop said that the level of English that students have to achieve “doesn’t prepare you for chatting to your peers”. This is a challenge that affects all students, whether home, EU or international.

There are other issues in addition to language. One student told me that she initially felt resentful towards some of the international students as they were well-off and arrived at university in taxis. In turn, this type of feeling could affect the experience of the international students. “The international students can feel like they’re not valued,” said a PgCert class member, ‘as their peers think they are there because they pay high fees.”

To extend this idea even further, there could also be tensions between students and staff. In Duna Sabri’s Becoming Students at UAL (2015), one Chinese student felt her tutor was prejudiced against the international students. But, she says, “It’s not that bad now, I’m quite getting used to him and the tutor is getting better… because we know about each other.”

I feel that if there is more communication, then empathy increases and prejudice reduces. The more we share openly and honestly, the more connections the students will see between each other.

Collaborate and hang out together

Siobhan asked in our PgCert discussion: “How are you getting the students to collaborate and hang out together? We have a responsibility to support this.”

The presentation skills workshop promote communication between students so I feel that they have a wider role to play in inclusivity. I’ve noticed if we do the workshops early on in the first year, it gives students the chance to talk to people they might not have spoken to and provide mutual support.

Equality and Diversity for Academics – Promoting good relations suggests we “encourage working across difference”:

“Students can be reluctant to work with people who are different from themselves, particularly across perceived language or cultural barriers. Use group work to encourage students out of their comfort zones.”

A very similar point is made in Equality and Diversity for Academics – Inclusive practice, where it suggests we ‘encourage interaction’, allocating teams for group work rather than allowing self-selection (something we discussed in Topic 2).

Using digital to facilitate greater understanding

There are some interesting videos of international students on Commonplace. We could show some of these videos as part of the workshops. For example, the experience and advice from student Angela is really lovely. Angela says: “It’s really important to share, to make speech… Communicate is the only way to improve yourself, to have a much better life instead of hiding.”

I could also collaborate with Commonplace to create some new videos. For example, I could ask the students in the video presentation skills workshops I run to film a short presentation on how they feel about speaking. We could then upload the videos on Commonplace and play them back in future workshops.

Collaboration between year groups

Writing about this topic has now made me think further about how students can provide support to each other and foster stronger connections.

In our discussions on sustainability, I talked about a workshop I devised for the collaboration unit for MA Documentary Film, where the graduating students mentored the new students by giving them support and feedback on their presentations.

I could apply the same idea to other workshops. Students from the year above, including international students, could give feedback and support to the new students. I can imagine advice and insights from more experienced international students, similar to those on Angela’s video, could be very helpful.

I want to end on an important question asked in Tell Us About It: Student Stories: “How can we manage/facilitate the student group to be a resource for each other?”

The teaching I do includes peer feedback, mutual support, communication, sharing of stories, increased familiarity and working together. If I can do more work to fully understand the needs of the different students, then I think the workshops can play a role in increasing inclusivity and understanding between different people.

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