How can I be a better teacher to international students?
November 9, 2014 1:44 PM   Subscribe

I am an American university professor in a social science at a research 1 university. In the past decade or so, at my university (and all universities that I've worked at) there has been a huge influx of international students, especially from Asia. My current undergrad classes are between 50-75% "English language learners." There are a lot of challenges in teaching these students and I'm looking for some concrete advice.

With the majority of the class being categorized as "English language learners" (international students but also sometimes students that arrived in the U.S. in late high school), this is really impacting my teaching. I have gone to dozens of campus workshops on "designing better ways to assess ELLs" or "designing better lectures for ELLs" but none of them have been that helpful.
I myself was an exchange student in university and attended classes that were not in my native language and I know how hard it is. But in this case, since the majority are ELLs, it is more a case of me needing to accommodate to them versus them accommodating to the system, as I had to do as an exchange student.
If it matters, the vast majority of these students come from China.
I don't want to get into the politics of this situation (university wants $$$$, these students may cheat to get here...) because it isn't changing any time soon. I've experienced this at prestigious public and private universities. This is the reality on American college campuses right now.

Specific problems (which don't apply to all ELL students, but I see patterns):
PARTICIPATION AND SPEAKING IN CLASS OR GROUPS
- In my small courses I have a participation requirement and at minimum a student needs to share an opinion or ask a question at least a few times in a term. Some of the ELLs do not do this and it hurts their grade. I actually eliminated participation points for my next term's class.
- In almost all my courses there is groupwork and peer evaluations around the groupwork. The qualitative peer evaluation often say "ELL student X was a good team member, but she really needs to speak up more to fully participate." Then the students get dinged for these points. There are exceptions to this, but it happens a lot.

COMPREHENSION
- Sometimes some of the ELL students are just not getting the material or instructions in the syllabus. This is especially true if I give instructions verbally. "This video was just for context, don't reference it in your weekly paper" goes right over their heads. I try to give all instructions in text because of this.
- But even written feedback - for example, notes on a weekly assignment are totally ignored, even "please come see me at office hours to discuss this."

PLAGIARISM
- For better or worse, some of the ELL students engage in plagiarism - at a much higher rate than native English speakers. We have turnitin set up, but inevitably, every term, there are some major plagiarism issues. I discuss plagiarism issues at great length but I'm not sure that everyone is getting it.
- Some students, I think, are buying papers - not downloading from the Internet - but giving someone an assignment and they write it. I will ask the student about their paper and they have no idea what the content was. And the way it is written shows a sophistication that isn't evident in other writing from the student. But there is no way to prove this.

RESENTMENT
- I think that sometimes the native English speakers resent the ELLs. For example, an in-class activity that requires students to read something inevitably results in the native speakers finishing more quickly and having to sit around waiting for the ELLs. Or I get feedback from the native English speakers about their frustrations with some ELLs during group work. (This is not across the board of course, but happens often enough.)

INEQUALITY
- In-class discussions *sometimes* sort of end up being just amongst the native English speakers.

TAKING IT PERSONALLY
- I am a little sad that my go-to teaching techniques - being funny, using humorous video clips, giving examples - have had to go into storage. My go to examples are just so inaccessible for the majority that it isn't even worth going into. I'm a little bummed out about this because I think that it makes my lectures boring.

What I've done:
- Flipped my classes to make them more small group activity based.
- Record my lectures so that ELLs (or anyone) can watch them again.
- Provide the PowerPoints ahead of time.
- Disallowed tablets and laptops to decrease distractions.
- Purposefully organize groups in group work to distribute the poorer English speakers (random assignment isn't good enough to distribute them).
- Not used long papers that are high percentage of the grade as to reduce the number of students failing those.
- Using specific rubrics for every assignment.
- Turn on closed captions for any in-class videos and post the link for the videos for students to watch later.
- Pointed ELL students to resources like the campus writing center.
- Given very explicit instructions/feedback as to how ELL students can do better on particular assignments.
- Eliminated participation points.
- Try to be very conscious about learning and using ELL students' names.
- Reached out to colleagues who are now professors in the U.S. but were once ELL students to ask them for advice. (Most say "they need to shape up and accommodate to the American system!")
- As I mentioned, I've gone to dozens of workshops on this that don't really help.

I really want to be a better teacher for these students, generally and because they are now the majority, but I am lost. I KNOW that many other faculty are also dealing with this but it seems like this is a taboo subject. Halp!
posted by anonymous to Education (26 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
I took classes in a different language for grad school (and undergrad as well, but grad school is fresher in my mind) and one thing that one of my professors did that was very useful was to provide very detailed notes on his lectures. I mean, like more or less everything he said in class, he wrote down and distributed to us afterwards. Of course, I didn't look at them too closely until exam time came around, but when it did it was a very useful supplement to my class notes.

Re: recording lectures to watch again - you'd think that would be useful, but it actually can take a very long time to go through lectures again. I recorded my professor's lectures and made some attempt to listen to them when I started studying for the exam, but after one or two lectures, it became too tedious and I basically ran out of time. Not saying don't record the lectures and make them available, but there may be limitations to how much that is going to help.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 1:56 PM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sigh.

I teach ESL, preparing international students to go to college/university in the US.

But the fact is, they're often really unprepared (in a different way from local students). There was a study that says it takes SEVEN years to go from "I studied English in high school" to an actual command of academic English. How are they supposed to accomplish this in the short time you and I have them? These students are drowning in typical US classes, and even in ones where you're trying SO hard. (I commend all the efforts you're making!)

Here are a few more things you might try:

1) Require all students to go to office hours and/or the writing center x times per semester. Maybe give them slips that they have to turn in to you. Emphasize that these are habits of GOOD students, since many may think those resources are basically for failing students.

2) If you can't do that (some schools don't allow it), give (a teeny amount of) extra credit for attending office hours, going to the writing center, etc. Again, maybe make slips or something.

3) If you can, encourage ELLs to join clubs and go to workshops on campus. Make an explicit connection between these activities and their English skills/cultural skills.

4) Pause after thought groups when you're speaking.

5) Include elements of choice in assignments when possible. (This is general good pedagogy, and I bet you're already doing it.)

6) Try assigning participation roles in groups, using cards or something (reporter, manager, questioner, etc.). This usually takes some modeling.

7) Hand out "Ask a Question" cards to a random subset of students every day. Require them to use it before the end of class.

8) Exit tickets: Have students write a question or comment on an index card and give it to you before they leave (once a week or whatever). You can make it more directed ("What was the most useful thing you learned this week?" "What new vocabulary word is difficult to understand?") or leave it open. There are ideas for questions online.

... On top of all you're already doing, I'm not sure how much more you can do. It's possible that this isn't the kind of teaching you want to do or enjoy doing (it really isn't, for a lot of professors). Though I don't like the "sink-or-swim" mentality of a lot of professors, there is something to the notion that the students are here out of free choice*, and that they may need to step up. And it might not happen in your class; it will take longer. On the other hand, of course, I think the universities are often at fault, because they've greedily let in students who are nowhere near ready to do the work. So it's quite a mess.

Hang in there!

*wellll...or their parents' free choice.
posted by wintersweet at 1:58 PM on November 9, 2014 [10 favorites]


I tutor primarily Chinese international students at a university level. I don't have a lot of advice for other things but the one thing I have also dealt with a lot is plagiarism.

A lot of the students I tutor have professors and instructors that go into great detail on what plagiarism is, but they will still plagiarize. I'm not sure what part of it is misunderstanding or lack of care, but I found that if I demonstrate what exactly plagiarism looks like, and emphasize that it is a VERY, VERY bad thing to do, they usually get the hint. For example, I had a girl that pulled parts of her assignment from her friend and parts from the internet. She did not think it was plagiarism because she never got a full sentence from one source - essentially, she was putting together little parts of sentences from other places into new sentences. I had to show her that even that is plagiarism, and even if she did not copy and paraphrased, it would still be plagiarism. It took a few times, but she understood after a while.

You are also right that they might be paying people to do their assignments. I have been offered money to finish their assignments and although I refuse, I have heard there are places that specifically perform this job. If you are trying to reduce this behaviour, I would test them on their own papers. If they cannot recall their own writing, they probably did not write it.

Also, I have one more suggestion for writing assignments - if possible, allow them to do drafts. Like wintersweet said, a lot of them are painfully unprepared for English universities. If you allow them to do drafts, and you are willing to provide detailed notes or meetings to explain what they could have done better, then they are less likely to cheat/plagiarize. They will probably learn in the long run too.

Overall, I think you're doing a good job already! Don't feel pressured to change much more - if you're asking students to come see you in office hours and they're not showing up, I'm inclined to think they don't care rather than they don't understand. A lot of the students I tutor really want to learn, but there are a few of them who are just coasting by because it's what their parents want, and unfortunately, there's not much you can do for those ones.
posted by cyml at 2:17 PM on November 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


It sounds like you're doing a ton already, but one thing I didn't see mentioned was reaching out to your school's international student group, if one exists. I'm in a grad school in a program that has a high percentage of international students from (it sounds like) a similar population, and there's a group here that sets up events and workshops for international students to help them with some of these issues. I'm also wondering if there's a significant enough population of grad students at your school who were once in these student's shoes that there might be a few willing to volunteer as mentors or work as TAs (if that's an option) and provide some specific help to these students.
posted by MadamM at 2:20 PM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've heard of teachers who would assign a reflection after each paper was handed in, a combination of recall-based stuff like "What was your main point?" or "Which source did you use the most?" and thoughtful questions like "Which section of the paper was easiest to write, and why?" or "How did you choose the title of your paper? What would be a good alternate title?" If students completely fall down on this part, the grade on their paper is docked or they have to rewrite it or whatever.

I also know professors who've moved entirely to in-class papers, though this is very hard on the international students who are not plagiarizing/commissioning papers.

Finally, like cyml said, I have had the most success by directly describing professors' attitudes toward plagiarism, with words like "VERY BAD" and "dishonest" and so on. But even students who understand this may feel like they're being forced to choose between two terrible choices:

1) Write the paper themselves and be mercilessly graded down for every incorrect preposition choice, missing article, and incorrect verb tense, probably winding up with a C/D/F regardless of good ideas or how many days and hours they spent on it.

2) Risk the chance of getting a zero if they're caught plagiarizing vs. getting a C/B/A if they're not.

It's a lose-lose proposition from their point of view. Not many students are able to manage time, pride, knowledge of strategies, etc. to get to option 3:

3) Talk to the professor the day the paper is assigned to get more details and clarity. Find out the teacher's policy on points lost for grammar (though a lot of teachers refuse to say!). Work with the teacher/tutor to get an acceptable starting position on the paper. Work with them to find acceptable arguments and evidence. Get the paper in good shape in terms of reasoning and structure before getting help with grammar and vocabulary. Leave plenty of time for double-checking with the teacher on your progress. (Of course, that's assuming the student knows how to request help in a "polite" and timely way, and that the professor/tutors can offer the kind of help the student needs.)
posted by wintersweet at 2:34 PM on November 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


I like cymi's idea of drafts. I'd go as far as saying that writing a draft of the paper should be a requirement for the paper. Even if it's just one page of some notes and a rough plan. The ELLs all then come to office hours for five to ten minutes each and discuss their paper, what they've written so far etc. That way you can check that they are on track and that it's hopefully their own work. Maybe you could make the draft + the office visit discussion count towards participation?
posted by kinddieserzeit at 4:01 PM on November 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I am in TESOL classes right now, and have done some classroom observation and tutoring.

My university has a very intense academic English program for ELLs (our population is primarily Arabic and Mandarin speakers) and it sounds like yours desperately needs something similar -- not that you are responsible for creating or implementing that, obviously, and if you're having difficulties discussing this with other teachers, then I suppose it'd be even harder to bring this to the attention of ... I don't even know how these things work in universities, honestly.

These are some of the things you mentioned you do that all my TESOL classes promote:
- Flipped my classes to make them more small group activity based.
- Record my lectures so that ELLs (or anyone) can watch them again.
- Provide the PowerPoints ahead of time.
- Purposefully organize groups in group work to distribute the poorer English speakers (random assignment isn't good enough to distribute them).
- Using specific rubrics for every assignment.
- Given very explicit instructions/feedback as to how ELL students can do better on particular assignments.


In fact, I can find a reference for practically everything you're doing right now in any of my current class materials. The only thing that is even slightly under debate, as far as I know, is the disallowing of electronic devices -- sometimes this is the easiest way for ELLs to look up words, and there are many apps which also put English words in their proper contexts and give them an idea of whether or not a phrase is used in a certain way.

Our program also has its own writing center program, specifically for the ELL students, supervised by one of the professors and staffed by grad & undergrad volunteers. I've helped out there and I think the general writing center may not be prepared to deal with ELL students. Also, to address the devices issue again, I've noticed many of the Chinese students prefer to use their laptop to edit their papers, and their teachers use the comment function in Word to leave detailed feedback, which helps me as the tutor understand what exactly the teacher wants the student to fix.

Again, I realize this isn't practical advice that you alone can implement, and maybe there's no money and nobody willing to create the program, or whatever, but the fact is, you on your own will only be able to help them so much. What wintersweet said about the seven years thing, I've heard that too. And even in my university, with its extensive program and the Conversation Partners (again, volunteer English speakers meeting with 2 or more ELL students to just talk about whatever), it is a ton of work, with all the teachers coordinating everything. These students actually take about 3 years of classes which don't count as university credit, simply to prepare to enter the normal classes which will be taught in English by professors who may not care as much as you do about helping them, or to be fair, simply can't due to time constraints or not knowing how.

Other things:
- The lack of participation is likely a school culture barrier and that is one of the things our ELL program deliberately changes to prepare them for the other classes. A lot of our international students (and honestly, I often feel the same, and I was born and raised in the U.S.) feel that they want to hear from the teacher, not from the other students, and don't understand the point of group work like this.
- Maybe, at the beginning of the semester/quarter, don't split up the ELL students. First get them used to discussion groups, to talking to one another. It helps if you require some kind of physical output from their discussion. Later on, as they get used to the format, you can start mixing in the non-ELL students.
- In this scenario, the poorer English speakers get paired with the better English speakers, not non-ELL students. They're more likely to help each other out than the non-ELL student, who even if they're not impatient or actively hostile, may be uncomfortable or too worried about their own grade.
- The plagiarism confusion is likely also cultural. Our program explains it a lot and at great length, to the point where when students come to the tutoring/writing center sessions, they already ask me for help on putting things in their own words. Sometimes this leads to mild thesaurus problems, but non-ELL students do that too, so I consider that more a writing problem than an English one.
- Consider flipping a few classes, if this is possible: instead of lecturing in class and making them write on their own time, give them the powerpoint to look at on their own time and then make them write in class. This is beneficial even for non-ELL students, especially if they find writing difficult or tedious. Remember that an ELL student who is already not good at writing (and there are different expectations for academic papers in China, too) will struggle doubly writing in another language. English is my first language and I had more than a few basic composition classes in computer labs where the teacher had us do writing exercises and work on our papers in class. It allowed them to assess and give feedback really quickly, although I'm sure this is also a pain in the ass in terms of grading. This could also be the time when you have those conferences that they don't show up for.

Finally -- thank you for being concerned about this and trying to figure out these things. Thank you for using their names. Teaching ELL students is not something most teachers are trained for, aside from those workshops you mention, and it's overwhelming to face on your own.
posted by automatic cabinet at 4:04 PM on November 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


On the plaigarism, flunk them; give the lecture, send them to the writing center, but flunking them is the best deterrent. People get the point VERY quickly when there are immediate consequences. Be clear in the syllabus that the first case is an "F" on the assignment followed with communication via email and a one on one with you about how to remedy their misunderstanding on how to cite properly. In this conversation and in the syllabus be clear that the next incident is a failure of the course. Express clearly that if they are in doubt then they should seek guidance from the writing center or whatever you deem as proper resources.

If you want to be effective and a bit of a jerk, have your GA or proctor verify the ID of the person taking the exam and also provide the blue books. Find out if you have a "kill" switch for wireless in the room or do what another prof I know does, and have them check in their mobile devices. I recall a class where the ID thing was done and man, it was revelatory.

Trust me, the grapevine will inform incoming students that you are dead serious. It also telegraphs to the native English speaking students that the rules apply equally to all students and that there is no favortism being granted by a student's international standing. A lot of resources at the university, hopefully, are being provided to international students to work in the university environment and that includes the cultural expectations of the university regarding integrity and productivity.

I loathe cultural excuses for a lack of intellectual integrity. First cases are ignorance, while repeat offense is willful disregard for expectations and rules for a scholarly community. I congratulate you in trying to work under very difficult circumstances.
posted by jadepearl at 4:39 PM on November 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


I loved my ESL students, but there's no way I'd coddle them like you're proposing to do. I taught them in High School, and I had the latitude to alter my lessons, also I taught English, so....yeah, no way to screw that up. I good English teacher.

I'm rather horrified that we're all here giving you ideas for how to pass your students despite the fact that they're plagiarizing, not ready for the classes, cheating and not up to any remote standard of any university.

So basically your university is selling degrees. Plain and simple. It's disgusting.

If I were a university administrator, I'd insist that all International students do a 1 year immersion program in English, so that once a student gets to class, he or she is actually prepared to...you know...actually study and earn their grades.

What is your university's policy on plagiarism? In mine (and I went to many) one could expect to be expelled. Ditto cheating. Ditto buying papers. Is there no Honor Code?

Why are you lowering the standards for the students who are prepared, and who are expecting a college level course? What favors are you doing them? Do you plan to grade on different scales? Are you expecting more from native speakers of English?

Do as much as you can, without lowering your standards and let the grades fall where they may. Your job is to educate, not to allow your university to become a diploma mill.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:52 PM on November 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


I don't have any experience in this area at all, but maybe one of the reasons the OP is not just flunking the plagiarists is because if s/he starts failing an inordinately higher proportion of students than his/her colleagues, his/her own performance may be called in to question (especially if this subject is already taboo). (However - FWIW, and again, with no experience - I also happen to think that an "F" sends an excellent and unambiguous message.)
posted by snap, crackle and pop at 7:00 PM on November 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


This is an excellent description of cultural differences amongst international students.
www.uwo.ca/tsc/faculty_programs/pdf/PG_3_MentoringAcrossCultures.pdf

I actually recommend it to anyone working with international colleagues -- my first reading of this document opened my eyes to how I was working with a co-worker from a very different culture from me. It's a very useful lens for translating how North American expectations are so very different from other cultural expectations.

The writer's other publication is also good, but probably not as useful to you right now.
http://www.uwo.ca/tsc/faculty_programs/pdf/PG_1_Supervision.pdf

We had her out to do some training sessions for our faculty and graduate program assistants, and she was excellent.
posted by wenat at 7:13 PM on November 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


RB, there is a sense that people get expelled for academic integrity violations but in reality it is much more complicated than that. Trust me, the paperwork alone discourages much reporting of academic integrity violations. If you look closely at a university's actual policy and read between the lines you'll see that a lot of it is scare tactics.
posted by k8t at 7:15 PM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Here's my university's policy http://depts.washington.edu/grading/conduct/prevention.html
posted by k8t at 7:27 PM on November 9, 2014


Also, the workshop your students may need is not ELL but English Language and ***Culture***.

That is, the Confucian-style teaching that the Chinese students know from China (memorize all the things, be deferential to authority) is pretty much the opposite of North American teaching styles as you describe it (reward independent thought and high levels of class participation).

They won't want to go to such a workshop — does any student ever want to do extra workshops? — but perhaps an early part of your course would be to discuss North American educational expectations. You may also want to model what you mean to your students as they may not understand what you're looking for. It's easier to pass the IELTS or TOEFL than to figure out how to speak up in class.

The students you probably are seeing are amongst the highest performers in their cohorts, otherwise they would not be able to go overseas to study. However, you must remember that for their entire educational lives, they were rewarded for being able to memorize large amounts of content and respect authority figures.

It's ironic that many of the best Chinese students to come to North America are probably the ones least-suited to North American academic culture. (And vice versa — I'm pretty sure that our top independent-thinking students would not do well in Chinese universities.)
posted by wenat at 7:31 PM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


In case you want cultural background, the reason why Chinese students don't seem to "get" plagerism is because in the Chinese education system, especially pre-college, it is encouraged- the traditional idea is that as a student, you can't have original ideas so you should first copy from the "master". When I taught ESL in China, one o my high school students said that for exams, verbatim copying of the text got the highest score and points were taken off if it derailed from the textbook.

As far as speaking in class, also not encouraged in China, generally, especially in the sense of "open discussion" (except maybe by younger teachers, esp. those who studied abroad). I was a student myself in grad school in China, and many professors even resented student questions or comments in class- it can be seen as disrespectful to the professor. Traditionally, the education system is set up around lecturing with a teacher-student hierarchy.

I'm NOT saying that plagerism should be excused. If you can't/don't want to fail students, maybe you can just keep making them re-do assignments until they get it, not giving them a grade until they do (if theu plagerize). Chinese students might not fully "get" plagerism but they will pay attention if it affects their grade.

As for class participation, what I have seen in my classes in China is that when participation occurs, the teacher is often calling on students, and students generally don't volunteer if the question is open-ended. Try calling on students, asking them questions directly. It might seem like elementary school, but I think it will get across the point. Then maybe after they are used to getting called on and talking, you can tell them that you want them to take an initiative to participate more.
posted by bearette at 7:34 PM on November 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


The students you probably are seeing are amongst the highest performers in their cohorts, otherwise they would not be able to go overseas to study.

I guess that may have been (perceived to be) true in previous generations, but it's absolutely not the case now. Many Chinese students, for example, come to the US after failing to pass the entrance exams to get into their/their parents' desired universities. The US is their backup school. Others come after being expelled, or because their parents consider them a bad influence on their other kids or too much trouble to manage, etc. (A recruitment agent--the guys who get paid by US schools and Chinese students families--told us some surprising stories.) Obviously, there ARE lots of bright and/or hardworking international students--I'm just saying that you can't expect that automatically. Here's one example; many more online. That's without getting into the whole buy-your-way here thing. (Again, again, there are lots of good, smart, hard-working, and honest students coming here, and I love working with them!)
posted by wintersweet at 7:51 PM on November 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


Some students, I think, are buying papers - not downloading from the Internet - but giving someone an assignment and they write it. I will ask the student about their paper and they have no idea what the content was. And the way it is written shows a sophistication that isn't evident in other writing from the student. But there is no way to prove this.

I have found one way to deal with this issue: I first remind myself that there is such a different social expectation about student originality in the U.S. than in some other places that they don't feel they are cheating, often, even when it's totally obvious that the paper is way beyond their level of sophistication. My method is to ask the student, kindly, who wrote the paper. More than once, they have beamed and told me they bought it for me by paying a grad student. I then explain -- yes again -- that they must rewrite it because "I need to see what YOU write even if it isn't perfect." They get anxious, beause they've gone to the trouble of getting and turning in a *good* paper for me. I just repeat: I need to see what YOU write, even if it isn't perfect.
This has worked for me, but it's not magic -- it's part of a process of their adapting to a lot of my system's naturalized values about originality before mastery. I don't believe in failing them for plagiarism if they confess in a way that convinces me they're still confused -- after all they're 18, here alone, barely speak English and still trying not to drown in a sea of new things.
posted by third rail at 8:40 PM on November 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


Oh, and at that point, of course, I also explain plagiarism and give them the exact university rule. But it's hard to understand/legalistic without my explanation in the way I said above.
posted by third rail at 8:48 PM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I spent this semester teaching a course of second-year Australian and international students. Some of the international students I think have been frankly let down by their institution and ours, as their English simply isn't of a standard to be studying in the tertiary sector. However, as Rumsfeld would have put it, you teach to the class you have, not the class you want.

One thing I found extremely useful was, in tutorials, to design and set very, very structured and directed tasks from the readings---that also required an analytical approach, of course. 'Make a list', for instance, of instances of something in the reading material, then 'what do they have in common, what is different'? 'What does each mean'? I would split a class up into groups so small, ideally of three or four, that nobody could avoid talking. But if they wanted to discuss it half in English and half in any other language, I'd trust them to do that too---as long as they could discuss what they'd come up with later on with the rest of the class.

Another good one was to organise tutorials set around the assigment, so that the preparation would be to structure and begin the research---then describe it to other students in small groups.

With regards to plagiarism, I'm pretty merciless. It's pretty rare that I'll report someone up to my Faculty (though I've done it without hesitation), but I give a lot of very shit marks, too. I've always been so since I began to notice that it wasn't the students with the worst language barriers who were doing it, it was almost always students with merely indifferent English who simply didn't have research skills. Why should I be lenient to someone who's trying to get cheap marks when others, with so many greater difficulties, are doing it the hard way?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:42 PM on November 9, 2014


I want to chime in with an alternate (and by the looks of it, unpopular) perspective. I am a native English speaker attending grad school at a major US university that does happen to have a large number of international students.

My education already suffers in classes with large number of ELLs with the problems you describe. In-class discussion isn't as rich as it should be; we waste time on questions that are about translation issues rather than substance; and sometimes the professors (like you) eliminate some of their most valuable teaching tools, such as video clips and thorough examples.

And what you're doing - bending over backwards to accommodate ELLs who refuse to try and conform to the North American educational system - is hurting the other students' education even more. Furthermore, by distributing the ELLs throughout the class in group work, you're essentially asking native English speakers to help you teach the ELLs. This is unacceptable. I - and those other native English speakers - are there to learn. They should not have their education compromised by their classmates, especially not to this extent.

Finally, you say you have:

Reached out to colleagues who are now professors in the U.S. but were once ELL students to ask them for advice. (Most say "they need to shape up and accommodate to the American system!")

Have you considered following their advice? I mean, I would never, ever try to attend school in China or any other foreign country without (a) fluency or near-fluency in that country's language and (b) a willingness to work within the confines of that country's educational system - because it wouldn't be fair to my classmates.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:05 AM on November 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


A lot of great advice here, and I think that everything you've done to make the class more accessible to those students is great. I also think the "Ask a question" card is a useful idea. I have done it with a deck of cards - handed them out and students had to speak to give their card before the end of the class.

Regarding plagiarism... anyone who teaches in higher ed knows that plagiarism is sadly not only a "foreign" phenomenon. No matter how much you browbeat them about it, someone is always going to try it. In-class assignments are the best way around this. I teach a foreign language, so all of my students are disadvantaged during in-class essays. One way to make them feel better is to allow them to come in with an outline prepared that I verify (to make sure there are no full sentences already written), and they are allowed to use a dictionary that I bring to class. This gives them some confidence in terms of preparation, and vocabulary.

As some have mentioned, a structure task approach is another good way to avoid bought/plagiarized essays. Not only specific rubrics, but very small assignments that lead up to the paper. The more in-class writing you can do, the better off you are. They brainstorm an outline, then they work on it at home. They brainstorm their introduction in class, and then they fine-tune it at home. If throughout the first part of the semester, they have produced 4-5 paragraphs through this method, you can then compare their final paper with those preliminary exercises - it makes identifying plagiarism (which, let's face it, is a HUGE time suck) easy.
posted by microcarpetus at 5:11 AM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


In terms of the grad student asker's experience above -- I think grad school is a different issue in most cases. I guess it depends on the field, but in the R1/humanities the international grad students would not have come in via the same trajectory as the large number of international undergrads -- international grad students still have been selected by the professors in the program, who want to teach them and see them, at least initially, as potentially successful, interesting students. There might be Fullbright scholars or some other program admitting undergrads who are then allowed to take graduate classes for some reason. They are not really supposed to change the level of the graduate student class. Schroedeingergirl's case seems different, but in general having international grad students is valuable and does emulate the multivocal real world of academic conversation, in *most* cases, unless there are a lot of undergrad international students who have been allowed into graduate courses.
posted by third rail at 5:31 AM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


I should add, third rail, that my undergraduate studies suffered from this too - probably more, since I was younger then and somewhat less equipped to advocate for myself when I saw that high numbers of unprepared ELLs were causing my education to suffer.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:50 AM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I have taught college courses as a TA, and have experienced the same frustrations that you have, although with a somewhat smaller (but still significant) percentage of the total student body. Honestly, I think you are going too far to accomodate these students. While it is commendable to want to reach these students and make sure they receive the best education possible, I do not think it should come at the cost of native English speakers who ARE well prepared to take your courses. They are also paying a lot of money (or taking out lots of loans) to get a college degree, and I think it's a huge problem if the entire curriculum is dumbed down to accomodate individuals who really need more languange preparation before attempting a college degree. The biggest issues I see here are

a) getting rid of long research papers
b) getting rid of classroom participation
c) getting rid of jokes and other engaging materials in lecutre

These all seem like terrible ideas that are absolutely making your classes less valuable, educational, and useful for your American students. Student absolutely should be learning how to write long papers and to speak up in public and provide valuable comments. It's not okay to take this educational opportunity away from them just because more unprepared students are entering the program. (And, if you choose to assign group work, you ABSOLUTELY SHOULD take students' complaints seriously if they say group members are not contributing equally. It's not a fair solution to simply say, "Fine, I'm not grading on equal contributions anymore, I'll just let the ELL students sail throughon the efforts of American students.")

I do think you can incorporate some things into your teaching that are good for ALL students, and may be particularly beneficial to ELL students. For example, I have students turn in a thesis statement, an outline, and then a final paper. If I suspect plagiarism, I can go back and check to see if these are consistent -- if not, this gives me ammunition in a plagiarism charge. You can also have students do in-class "reflections" on their papers as some above have suggested. This is good for everyone, because all students benefit from planning ahead, learning how to outline their writing, and reflect on the writing process. But, it will also help you identify cheaters.

On some level, I agree with your collegues who say these students need to learn to adapt. Ultimately, they are choosing to get an education in a North American institution, and so they should learn to take what is valuable from that type of institution. (And they are, legally adults, whatever pressures family members may be placing on them.) If I made the decision to study abroad in Russia, France, China, Spain, etc. I would do so knowing I would need to adapt to a system different from what I'd grown up with, and I'd need to go in with strong language skills. While it's great to provide as much support for these students as you can, you also need to treat them like the adults they are. No one will step up to the plate if you don't set that expectation for them. Make your expectations super clear on the first day of class, and then follow through. They might not learn in your class, but over time I think this will have a much greater impact that simply passing these students through with no effort on their part.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:50 PM on November 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


The idea of somehow, magically, requiring students from countries where English is not the main language to be fully fluent before they enter the U.S. schooling system because otherwise they will inconvenience students whose L1 is English is both impractical and implausible, particularly when it comes to academic English as opposed to conversational fluency. The kind of English instruction they receive prior to entering universities in the U.S. often simply cannot prepare them for the vast differences in U.S. classroom discourse, to say nothing of the underlying cultural expectations, the variations in social conventions, the different English accents in the U.S. (never mind comparing English accents elsewhere -- some countries favor Received Pronunciation, some Standard American English, and I've heard at least in the past Australian and New Zealand accents have been snubbed).

I know most of the most outraged comments in this thread are related to this specific situation where they perceive that you're being pressured to basically sell degrees. But it does not have to be this way, and any university which has a deal to get lots of ELL students like this -- mine does too! -- needs a program like LEAP (Learning English for Academic Purposes) to "coddle" students into, you know, understanding what's expected of them as they try to navigate their entire life in a second or third language, in a culture where their knowledge gaps are often invisible right up until the moment they fall face first into them. While non-ELL students are free to decide that your ELLs are cheating, intellectually dishonest foreigners who are ruining their learning experience with their difficulty speaking English, the facts are: they are here, they clearly do need help, and you want to help them, for which I am very grateful and I hope you can get the help you need to help them.
posted by automatic cabinet at 5:18 PM on November 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


Full disclosure: I am neither a grad student, nor a professor. I have a B.A., but have not set foot inside a university in over a decade.

I'm a patent paralegal (native US citizen) with several years of experience in working in law firms with Chinese (non-attorney) patent professionals, i.e., registered patent agents and scientific advisors. All have had at least a Ph.D., and many obtained both their B.S. and Ph.D. at an American university.

In the legal profession, and most especially in patent prosecution, communication and efficiency are essential. In an attempt to master both, I have seen my current and former Chinese coworkers involved in the following situations over and over again-

1) Sent emails which were either poorly-worded or riddled with multiple typographical and punctuation errors to clients.
2) Filed applications, responses, etc. with typos and punctuation errors.
3) Missed deadlines, due to a miscommunication to a client in #1.
4) Filed non-compliant filings, returned to us by the USPTO, due to #2.
5) Committed borderline legal malpractice through any combination of either #1 or #2, and because they could not fully comprehend the applicable section of the MPEP or CFR.

All of the above resulted in professional setbacks, through either angry clients, angry partners, or even worse, both. I have no doubt that many, if not most of these mistakes could have been avoided, had they only made a stronger effort to improve their English reading/writing/speaking skills while still in an academic setting.

If I were you, I would use real-life examples of how having poor English reading and writing skills can negatively impact one's professional growth and reputation.
posted by invisible ink at 6:50 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


« Older What to do when you're completely disinterested...   |   Issues with uploading photos from Ipad to PC Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.