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Teaching International Students: Tips for Instruction

Cornell has a proud history of welcoming and supporting international undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Our current student body includes students from 129 countries.

Students sitting in rows in a classroom.

Cornell international students and their faculty can face unique learning challenges. When you plan for the semester, we encourage you to focus on equity so all of your students have equal opportunities to participate, contribute, and learn.

We also encourage you to be mindful that what is and is not accessible to international students varies. Be flexible with students, help them identify tools that work for them, and make changes when necessary.

On this page: You'll find ways to foster equity for international students as part of Cornell's mission to educate the next generation of global citizens.

Tips for Creating a Linguistically and Culturally Inclusive Environment

Non-verbal cues can help amplify content.

Multilingual students learning English often use nonverbal cues for interpreting spoken English: facial expressions, lip-reading, and intonation. To enhance communication, instructors can write key words on a whiteboard, use slides that include crucial points, and use hand gestures and body language to amplify their message. Instructors may also facilitate communication between students during a discussion by writing student comments and questions on a whiteboard or projected document.

Provide opportunities for expression in multiple ways.

The reasons for silence among international and multilingual students during class discussions are complex, including the additional time it can take to process oral information and formulate a response, lack of familiarity with U.S. turn-taking practices, and hesitation to expose one's oral accent (Safford, 2008). To be inclusive, instructors can invite multiple ways for students to voice comments and questions, such as participation in a Canvas discussion board or poll, use of freewriting prompts as a warm-up to the discussion, and use of "tickets to enter" and "tickets to exit" to gather comments and questions.

Multilingual students benefit from collaborative learning.

Multilingual students often lean on one another for assistance in interpreting assignments and understanding lectures and oral instructions. This collaborative learning usually occurs in the students' shared first language during side conversations in class (Storch and Wigglesworth, 2003). To allow students to benefit from this collaborative learning, instructors may supplement in-person instruction with online small-group activities that use Zoom. Through Canvas, instructors can also allow students to access the roster so that students may email one another.

International and multilingual students benefit from inclusive pedagogies.

International students may face discrimination in their home countries and the United States concerning linguistic and cultural diversity and race, socioeconomic status, indigenous heritage, and nationality. Pedagogies developed to promote inclusivity also benefit international students (see tips from the Center for Teaching Innovation); also explore pedagogies developed specifically to include multilingual students (see Cox, 2020a). When you plan your course, be mindful of assumptions of knowledge of U.S. culture, history, or slang that may be embedded in your assignments and course materials.

Avoid bias in grading by instituting blind grading for essays and exams.

To avoid unconscious bias caused by a student's name, instructors could choose to create blind grading for essays and exams; students would use an anonymized key on their assignments in place of their names. This practice would also add another layer of protection for students from censorship or other surveillance.

Be aware of discrimination based on spoken and written accents.

Students who use English as an additional language may speak with a non-native accent and write with an accent. A written "accent" often includes missing articles and prepositions, issues related to plurals and subject/verb agreement, and differences in syntax. Multilingual students may fear discrimination, so avoid exposing their accent to peers through oral discussions, discussion boards, blogs, or unedited drafts. To create a more inclusive environment, include a statement in the syllabus that acknowledges the linguistic diversity present in the class and provides guidelines on oral and written interactions. (See the sample syllabus statement included in Cox, 2020b).

Be aware that learning an additional language is a lifelong process, and clear communication is the goal, not unaccented English.

Researchers estimate that only five percent of adult learners of an additional language will attain a native-like accent (Silva, Leki, & Carson, 1997). But most learners of other languages can, through long study and immersion, become fluent and use a language to meet their communication needs. Multilingual writers benefit from feedback on their writing that is appropriate to the stage of the writing process, that focuses on content and argument, and that assists in learning the discourse, style, and conventions of academic and professional writing.

However, feedback to early drafts and informal writing that focuses exclusively on error correction might create the impression that correctness is more important than development and expression. It can cause students to use short sentences and only attempt to share ideas that they can speak in error-free sentences. Writing assessment practices that penalize writers for their written accent may be viewed as discriminatory. For tips on equitable feedback and assessment, see Cox, 2020a and Robertson, 2005.

International and multilingual writers benefit from seeing examples.

In U.S. education, writing is ubiquitous, with several "school genres" not found in other educational settings. When international and multilingual students are faced with an unfamiliar genre, they often seek examples so that they can have a sense of the target. While this approach is often successful, it can also lead to the use of inappropriate examples found on the internet and overreliance on the model, leading to plagiarism (Leki, 1995).

We recommend providing students with good examples and showing them in class how to analyze them for structure, development, and style. Discussions of plagiarism early and often are also helpful for everyone. Further, we recommend that instructors using Canvas discussion boards do not select the option of blocking peer posts until a student has posted. The peer responses to a prompt act as models for this genre and help international students understand what is expected.

Be aware that certain statements/questions can single out students based on their name, international status, or appearance.

Do not assume a student's country of origin based on their name, appearance, or accent. Strive to create an inclusive learning environment by avoiding questions such as "Is that your real name?" or "Is English not your first language?"

Visit the Center for Teaching Innovation for additional resources and support for your teaching.

This page had input from across campus, led by a cross-campus team on engagement, diversity, and anti-discrimination:

  • Gustavo Flores-Macías, Associate Vice Provost for International Affairs and Associate Professor of Government, Committee Chair
  • Michelle Cox, Director of the English Language Support Office, Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines
  • Brandon Lanners, Executive Director, Office of Global Learning
  • Hongnan Ma, Director of International Programs, Office of Alumni Affairs
  • Nancy Martinsen, Kent G. Sheng '78 Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Asian and Asian American Center
  • Christian Schaffmaster, Director of Development, Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs
  • Janet Shortall, Associate Dean of Students, Student and Campus Life

References and Further Reading