Skip to main content

Teaching International Students: Tips for Instruction

Cornell has a long and proud history of welcoming and supporting international undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Our current student body includes students from 121 countries.

Students sitting in rows in a classroom.

Current conditions present Cornell international students and their faculty with important challenges when it comes to teaching and learning. International students may face challenges related to bias and discrimination due to the increased prevalence of xenophobic sentiments in the United States. International students who use English as an additional language and continue to develop sophisticated English skills may face communication challenges when masked or engaging in physically distanced instruction.

As instructors plan for the semester, planning should include a focus on equity so that all students "have equal opportunities to participate, contribute, and learn" (see Cornell's Center for Teaching Innovation). On this page, we guide instructors in ways to think about equity for international students as part of Cornell's larger goal for providing a quality education. We also encourage instructors to be mindful that what is and is not accessible to international students varies. Faculty should be willing to be flexible with students, help them identify tools that work for them, and make changes when necessary.

Tips for Supporting International Students in Masked or Physically Distanced In-Person Courses

Masks and physical distance can interfere with communication.

Multilingual students who are learning English often use non-verbal cues for interpreting spoken English: facial expressions, lip-reading, and intonation. Masks can interfere with all three, as they cover faces and compel speakers to speak more loudly, changing intonation patterns. The increased physical distance between instructors and students can also cause communication breakdowns as students strain to hear each word. 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.

Masks and physical distance may contribute to the silence of international multilingual students.

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 Western practices for turn-taking, cultural differences between the role of discussion in diverse educational systems, and hesitation to expose one's oral accent (Safford, 2008). Masks and physical distance may further impede international multilingual students from speaking up in class. To be inclusive, instructors may 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). Due to masks, it will be more difficult for students to engage in these quick whispered conversations. 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 may also choose to allow students to access the roster so that students may email one another.

Tips for Creating a Linguistically and Culturally Inclusive Environment

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 developed by the Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation). In addition, be mindful of assumptions of knowledge of U.S. culture, history, or slang that may be embedded in your assignments and course materials, as well as pedagogies developed specifically to be inclusive of multilingual students (see Cox, 2020a). 

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 caused by spoken and written accents.

Students who use English as an additional language may speak with a non-native accent and write with a non-native accent (marked by missing or misused articles and prepositions, issues related to pluralization and subject/verb agreement, differences in syntax, etc.). Fear of discrimination may cause multilingual students to 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 to 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 and may cause the writer to write in short sentences and only convey ideas that they can speak in error-free sentences. Writing assessment practices that penalize writers for written accent—features of English take many years of instruction and immersion to master, if ever—may be seen 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 that instructors provide students with good examples and show students 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.

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?"

This page had input from across campus, led by the International Affairs sub-implementation 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