Tips for Communicating with Students for International Instructors

A photo of a globe with an atlas in the background.

The trials and tribulations of international instructors do not differ substantially from those of their American counterparts. Yet in one crucial area: that of student-teacher communication where numerous difficulties can arise.

The best possible practice is to communicate openly with students immediately concerning problems arising from language barriers. For example, instructors can request that students speak clearly and avoid excessive slang and direct students to never to ignore things said by the instructor that they do not comprehend. Encourage students not to be shy about pointing out when they are having trouble understanding the instructor.

No matter how hard an instructor tries, there will always be a small group of students who will attempt to blame the instructor’s language difficulties for their own problems in the class (“I didn’t understand you correctly. I thought you said NEXT week.”) The following points will help avoid this problem:

  • Provide students with ample written instruction. All course requirements, grading policies, exam dates, and a thorough reading list should be presented in writing at the first possible opportunity. Most of this content can be presented in the course syllabus at the beginning of the semester.
  • During the first few weeks, hand out written study questions to familiarize students with the mode of questioning that will be used during the semester.
  • Use formative assessment tools such as polling to determine the level of understanding among students.
  • Use audiovisual material. Slides, photographs, movies, or music are often extremely effective ways to illustrate hard-to-explain points.

Cultural Differences

Communication is not always a language problem—it has cultural dimensions, as well. One common solution lies in the realm of intensive observation. Body language differs from culture to culture. For example, many American students expect their instructors to look them straight in the eye when addressing them. Forms of physical communication such as facial expressions, touching, and physical distance also vary across cultures.

Try observing a few undergraduate classes before taking on the burden of serving as an instructor of record. Doing so will familiarize an international instructor with the interaction between student and instructor. When possible, being a grader or teaching assistant for at least one semester prior to becoming an instructor of record can help international instructors become familiar with cultural differences in the classroom.

The most fruitful way of overcoming the cultural barrier is for the instructor to show students that they care. At the earliest possible opportunity, an instructor should get to know students’ names, where they come from, and the subjects that interest them. A few minutes of conversation before each class can make a world of difference.

Being flexible with office hours is especially helpful to students who cannot make set times. Requiring a mandatory one-on-one meeting with each student can be beneficial, if the class is not large. It goes without saying that being willing to accommodate students should not compromise the instructor’s firm demands for punctual assignments, nor should it erode the instructor’s strict, but fair, grading standards. Cultural obstacles may be overcome by showing your enthusiasm and by being attentive to the actions and reactions of students.

Additional Resources

  • UNT International provides training for international teaching assistants and teaching fellows via the Intensive English Language Institute. Click here for more about this program.
  • For tips for communicating with international students, click here.