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Teaching International Students: Tips for Online 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 over 115 countries. This fall, some international students will be attending Cornell courses in-person, some will be attending remotely from within the United States, and some will be attending remotely from international locations.


Regardless of their physical location, fall 2020 presents Cornell international students and their faculty with unprecedented sets of challenges when it comes to teaching and learning. International students may face challenges related to bias and discrimination due to increased prevalence of xenophobic sentiments in the United States. International students who use English as an additional language and who are continuing to develop sophisticated English skills may face additional communication challenges when engaging in socially distanced or remote instruction. International students attending Cornell courses from outside of the United States may experience issues related to access, surveillance, and censorship.

As instructors plan for fall 2020, their planning should include a focus on equity: “Whether students are in class or online, all students should 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 this fall and beyond. We also encourage instructors to be mindful that what is, and what is not, accessible to students in different countries varies and can be unpredictable. 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 Socially Distanced In-Person Courses

Masks and physical distance can interfere with communication. Multilingual students who are in the process of 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 key points, and use hand gestures and body language to amplify their message. Instructors may also facilitate communication between students during 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 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 often takes place in the students’ shared first language during side conversations in class (Storch and Wigglesworth, 2003). Due to social distancing, it will be more difficult for students to engage in these quick whispered conversations. To allow students to continue to benefit from this collaborative learning, instructors may supplement in-person instruction with online small group activities that make use of Zoom. Through Canvas, instructors may also choose to allow students to have access to the roster, so that students may email one another

Tips for Supporting International and Multilingual Students While Online

Remember that international students may be located in a different time zone. And depending on how far their time zone is from Ithaca’s, international students may have difficulty participating in synchronous activities. No student can be expected or required to participate regularly in a course-related activity or take an exam before 8 a.m. or after 10:30 p.m. in their time zone. Instructor must then plan ways for asynchronous students to have access to all course activities and materials, as well as have ways to engage in the classroom community. One approach is to survey students at the start of the semester to find out which time zone they reside in, and then form groups based on time zone and provide clear instruction on group activities. You might ask these groups to send you brief reports on group activities and questions that came up for the instructor.

Instructors should be aware that students may be located in countries where governments have access to and actively surveil online activity. Our Zoom data centers are located in countries deemed secure, but we recommend that faculty provide students with multiple avenues through which they can offer analyses of course content or ideas, such as essays uploaded in Canvas and one-on-one or small-group discussions that are not recorded.

Although we recommend that lectures be recorded if they need to be available asynchronously, faculty should avoid policies of “default recording,” whereby all lectures and sessions with student participation are automatically recorded. Although, as we note above, it is impossible to ensure that no recording is happening surreptitiously, defaulting to record classes in their entirety establishes an undesirable norm and a riskier environment for students and faculty.

Students located abroad may have uneven access to Google products, YouTube, and some U.S. media platforms. This may impede student access to Cornell email accounts (as they are Gmail accounts), Google docs, video recordings of class lectures uploaded to YouTube, and other course materials. Some students may get around the restriction by using a VPN (a virtual private network, which may cloak online activity from government surveillance). In fact, students accessing Cornell courses through Study Away programs might have access to the partner university’s VPN account. But students without this access may be tempted to purchase VPN accounts. Instructors should not encourage students to do this, as some governments discourage the use of VPNs (to the point of sending threatening letters to students who use them). Instead, instructors should communicate with students through Canvas and make all materials required for the course accessible through this platform. Course videos should be made available through Canvas rather than YouTube.

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 as well as in the United States in relation to linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as diversity related to 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 institute blind grading for essays and exams; students would use an anonymized key on their assignments in lieu 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 accent. Students who use English as an additional language may speak with a non-native accent as well as 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 the learning of 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 be able to attain a native-like accent (Silva, Leki, & Carson, 1997). But most learners of additional languages can, through long study and immersion, become fluent and be able to 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, feedback that focuses on content and argument, and feedback 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 express ideas that they can express 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 a number of "school genres" that are 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 as well as overreliance on the model, leading to plagiarism (Leki, 1995). We recommend that instructors provide students with good examples, as well as 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 making use of 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.

References and Further Reading