International students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities often face a multitude of challenges related to cultural differences and language barriers. These challenges can have an adverse impact on their academic performance during their adjustment process. In this episode, Don Donelsen joins us to discuss how the graduate business program at the University of Miami is working to ease this transition.
Don is a lecturer in the Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. He is a recipient of a Spring 2016 University of Miami Excellence in Teaching Award.
John: International students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities often face a multitude of challenges related to cultural differences and language barriers. These challenges can have an adverse impact on their academic performance during their adjustment process. In this episode, we discuss how one graduate program is working to ease this transition.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Fiona: My name is Fiona Coll. I teach in the Department of English and Creative Writing here at SUNY Oswego and this is my turn to sit in as a guest host.
John: We should note that this podcast was recorded in the third week of February 2020. Many of the plans that are discussed here have been altered as a result of the nationwide shutdown of institutions of higher education since the onset of the global pandemic.
Our guest today is Don Donelson. Don is a lecturer in the Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. He is a recipient of a Spring 2016 University of Miami Excellence in Teaching Award. Welcome, Don.
Don: Hi. Glad to be on.
Fiona: Today’s teas are… sweet cinnamon spice.
John: Are you drinking tea?
Don: I’m not drinking tea, but I do actually have a gift from a former student.
Don: I was told it was Chinese tea, but then other Chinese students said this is not Chinese.
Fiona: [LAUGHTER] Well, you can say we’re drinking tea and you’re looking at tea. I guess that counts.
Don: I am looking at Green tea.
John: And I am drinking a ginger tea. We’ve invited you here to discuss a program that you have proposed and are working on at your institution to help students from China adjust to cultural differences in how classes in the U.S. are taught. What prompted your interest in this issue?
Don: We’ve had a large influx of Chinese students at the University. That’s probably the main impetus on what prompted this. I asked our institutional people for some data, and just in the graduate business program, we had our Chinese population double just in the last year. So we’re up to about 400 and something in the graduate business program, and undergrads, we have about 1500. And we’re not a large school, that’s about 15% or so of the entire population. So I’ve seen noticeable increases in Chinese students in classrooms, especially in the STEM specialized master’s programs, which they’re very attracted to, for some visa reasons, and perhaps other reasons. And so I actually had a section, there were 16 students, 15 of whom were from China, not by design, just this is how many Chinese students we have and sometimes that’s how it worked out. And I started noticing some differences in how the Chinese students were interacting in that class when they were mostly surrounded by their peers from China than the Chinese students who in the past there was one or two Chinese students in a section of 19 or 20, but now there’s four or five. This semester, actually, I have more than half in every single section from China. And so I started noticing that in that one section, it was all Chinese students except for one from South America, the interactions were a bit different. And then discussions with colleagues, how to improve teaching… The courses that I teach are classes on critical thinking, and problem solving and communication. And so the class participation is an enormous component of the class, we teach critical thinking by forcing people to do critical thinking. And so the trope, I guess you might say, not just the Chinese students, but a lot of international students in general, is that their language barriers are most pronounced in a class like that, and they participate less in class discussion, and they have difficulties with communication. Most of them, in my experience, have been difficulties that only they perceive, difficulties that aren’t actually barriers. But all of those issues I found true with the Chinese students but amplified to a much greater degree, and that’s the general consensus among colleagues. And so, as the numbers started to grow, we actually created a course, a different numbered course from the core course that I teach in the graduate program, exclusively for non-native English speakers, because putting them on the same curve is really problematic to their grades when there’s a heavy written component. But at the same time, we have academic standards that matter, I can’t just give them a separate session, so we created a separate course. And so it’s different numbered, and it’s essentially the same course title except for non-native English speakers. And so as I had the accidental almost all Chinese student class last semester, I said, “Hey, I should probably take advantage of this opportunity to test run in the spring semester,” which is now, when I’m going to have by design a class of all Chinese students. So I started really trying to identify “Why would they participate when they did participate? Why didn’t they participate?” Trying to break down what it was that caused these issues that most faculty here observe with their reticence to participate and lack of comfort with speaking up.
Fiona: Can you talk a little more about the general differences between classroom interactions that you’ve observed in students from China as opposed to perhaps students who are mostly American?
Don: So it’s actually changing now, because of some of the stuff we’re doing. Where we were at to begin all this was they pretty much do not participate in class discussions. It’s very rare that they do. If you go full Socratic method and just start calling on people, some of them will participate when called on, but it’s clear that they’re uncomfortable with it, they don’t quite know what to do, and some will just refuse, even when called on. There will just be a minute or two of silence while they try to think of something or they kind of punt. And so with class participation in most of our courses in the graduate program is 20 to 30% of the grade, it’s a significant problem that inhibits their success.
Fiona: And I think you’re suggesting that there are multiple factors involved in this reticence. So, it’s not simply a language-based issue, but also a cultural issue that expectations around classroom culture differ so much that students really do feel unable to participate in a culture that feels so different from the one they’ve just come from.
Don: Exactly. So I started talking to students, one of the things I noted that was interesting was they’re very comfortable speaking after class, one-on-one, very frequent after class. And as I started having more Chinese students in my classes, it began to be a problem, actually, because I didn’t have enough time in between classes to field all of their questions. And so I thought that was interesting. And then in the few instances in which they had to give presentations, so an assigned presentation, like a stock pitch or something, they did remarkably well, mostly. And in fact, if I went and correlated my grades based on nationality, I strongly suspect it would be zero on the presentations, whereas on class participation it was a very strong correlation, so that got me curious. And I started asking them, “Why are you comfortable speaking to me outside of class?” which I’m very appreciative of. The Chinese students in particular here, some of them… I could put a cot in my office because of how frequently they would come to my office hours. And so it was clear to me that it wasn’t an unwillingness or a lack of care, which made me even more curious because some faculty misinterpret their classroom behavior as an unwillingness or lack of care. And so I started engaging and asking questions about participation, and the conversation just kind of grew, and I learned that the way that they do education in China, and there was some various experiences described, but pretty much all of them described an educational environment that they were brought up in, in which there is no mandatory participation as part of the grade. When participation is expected in class it is almost always in the form of a show of hands, and in no instance did any student describe a situation in which they had an open class environment where they would, without being prompted, speak up and make a point or something. In fact, the word that was consistently used by students, when I asked them what they think about speaking up in class, is “rude.” They think it’s rude. They look down, because looking up at someone is considered to be a sign of disrespect in many aspects of their culture. And so some faculty misinterpret it as they’re disengaged or they’re on their cell phone, but they’re actually fully engaged. They just think that that’s what the expectations are. So they think it’s rude to interrupt the class, they think it’s disrespectful to make eye contact. And so there’s a signaling problem, essentially, the normal ways that we would evaluate students to assess understanding, to assess engagement, don’t really work well without some explicit addressessing of these issues with the Chinese students. In addition, one major cause that we found was that their education is, perhaps not surprising to some people, but their education is designed around the idea that there are black and white answers to everything, there is very little gray area, their evaluation metrics appear to be almost exclusively objective, multiple choice, or true and false. Even in their English language classes it’s objective metrics… which of course, we all know the English language, for good or for bad, there are no objectively correct things, but they believe that there is a single correct way to make a statement in English, and so that causes a lot of hesitation in class because some students, they want to participate, but they spend time trying to figure out the right way for me to say this. Some other issues related to these issues with they’ve been taught that everything’s black and white… and even the English language is… they fear embarrassment if they mispronounce a word. They tend to be self conscious of their accent in ways that I don’t find as common with Latin American students or Indian students, who also are prone to having some self conscious issues with accents and like but not to the same degree as to Chinese students. I think it’s because they think there is one way to say it. And so there is a fear of embarrassment wherein it’s hard for them to grasp that they can’t be embarrassed because there’s really no bad answer when we’re having a Socratic discussion. And so fear of embarrassment was a contributor to these issues as well and a lack of specific directions. And so one thing that I found most startling, as I was going through these informal focus groups with Chinese students, is the number of them who could not articulate what class participation means in any way that aligns with what we know class participation to mean. Many of them thought that class participation simply meant showing up and that they would get their points from that. About half of them actually had no idea that their grade would be impacted by class participation, and the frequency and quality of that participation. I spoke with one second-year MBA student who I’d had in class last year for some insights from him, and he expressed that he was in that path, and he had no idea that class participation points mattered. And it pretty much put him in the bottom quarter of the class for his first semester, and then he eventually figured it out, and now he’s in the top quarter of the class, but that was just very upsetting to me. That was the point at which I said, “Okay, we are failing these students. It is not incumbent on them. We are not putting them in a position to succeed.” And that was the real fuel to the fire… to actually do some programming and create some initiatives to try and prepare these students for success better.
Fiona: There is so much about academic culture that feels straightforward and self explanatory until an experience just like this, when you realize how much of what we expect goes unexpressed, or unexplained, or is invisible in one way or another. So how did you begin tackling this enormous and multifaceted issue?
Don: I just made a checklist of all the things that we identified as causing these problems, and it was clear to me that we needed to be active. This was a significant enough problem with deep roots that it wasn’t as simple as just changing the way that we introduce our syllabus, and adding a five-minute spiel or something, it was much deeper than this. And so I proposed that we need to teach them how to be a student in an American classroom, especially in a program that requires Socratic discussion in most classes and is going to be 20 to 30% of their grade. So I proposed that we add a course to the orientation program that we have on how to be a student.
Fiona: And how detailed do you get in terms of approaching this from a metacognitive perspective? You explain to students the larger purpose of this kind of Socratic discussion, or do you simply dive in and have them start practicing? What approach are you imagining taking?
Don: My thoughts were kind of a two-half approach, wherein we first start off by teaching them what the expectations are. And so, exactly as you said, explaining to them things like “we value wrong answers.” John and I taught for many years at the Duke TIP program, and those students… very, very academically gifted… are younger, and so they can be very intimidated by Socratic discussion. And so I would always tell them that our jobs would actually be very boring if, every time we asked a question, the first student who answered gave a perfect and correct answer, and I don’t think that students would learn very much if that was the case. And so the idea is that we’re going to have discussions like that, kind of half teaching and half selling the importance and value to them in participating, accepting that there isn’t really wrong and right answers, we are moving a discussion forward. And when they successfully complete our program in a year or two, they’re going to be holders of a master’s degree in business and going to work in the business world, in which it will be expected that they put forward ideas that they don’t even think are necessarily going to work. Jeff Bezos at Amazon demands people put forward any idea they have, whether they think it’s going to work or not, and so we’re going to use case studies like that, a company they know, Amazon, a person they know, Jeff Bezos, and say, “This is who makes it to Vice President at Amazon, the person who’s willing to speak up in class and give a wrong answer.” So we’re going to educate and sell, really, participation and show them how to do it with some modeling. And so ideally, we will get some second-year grad students in their cohort who, through faculty recommendations, can be good role models and we’ll do some roleplay interacting with those students and demonstrate “Here’s what it looks like after extolling the virtues of it and demonstrating how we want to do it,” and then have them actually just do it, a mock class, and after that we would slowly morph from lecture into Socratic discussion.
John: And you’re planning to start this off with some type of bootcamp at the start of their year when they arrive, correct?
Don: So that’s actually complicated because we have lots of different programs. In business academia there’s been a seismic shift… really, like two years. It’s kind of startling, but there’s a major shift away from MBA degrees and a major shift towards specialized master’s programs. And so we went from having the MBA as our bread and butter, that was our main graduate degree program with I think we have like eight or nine specialized master’s programs now. And so there’s some logistics that have to be worked out because, you know, some of them have their own schedules, and there’s some departmental autonomy. Some of them are coming in July, some are coming in August. So they have a boot camp and then orientation, so those are separate. The idea is that as part of that boot camp, there will be a mandatory required course that is communicated to them, and it’s probably going to be two sessions. So I mentioned you haveb two halves, we’re thinking the best version of this would be overnight with a break in between those two halves with a case to go home with and prepare for this Socratic discussion.
Fiona: I’m wondering how you might incentivize an openness to failure or to wrong answers. Let’s say you’re not Jeff Bezos, don’t have someone’s employment in your hands. Have you experimented with, or thought about, or planned for ways to not just encourage students to take these sorts of risks in the classroom, but to actively acknowledge and perhaps even reward that sort of wrongful, rightful risk taking?
Don: Right, so, yes, and a couple of things I already tried out this semester with that all-Chinese section that I mentioned, I started off that class by saying “Nǐ hǎo, huānyíng lái dào wǒ bān,” which is a surely butchered way of saying “Hello, welcome to my class.” And then I asked them how many of them think I’m stupid because I butchered this phrase in Chinese, and, of course, none of them said that, and I said, “Well, that’s because you have context, and so the same thing is true for you all.” If there’s a student who’s born in Washington, DC, and has lived their entire life in the United States, and now they’re in a master’s program and they’re making grammar mistakes, I should rightfully judge them as having a lack of effort or some kind of problem. But for someone who is not a native English speaker, inductive reasoning does not allow the same kind of leap, and it would be illogical to assess someone on a personal level because they mispronounce a word or something. And so I said, “Just as you did not think lowly of me, or assess me to be incompetent or something because I butchered this Chinese greeting, you will receive the same benefits in your interactions with people.” And so they all laughed, there was a lot of laughter, and I think that kind of worked a decent amount, and then, and this might be unpalatable to some faculty members, but I have found with the Chinese students, they are extremely conscious of the opinions that their professors and peers have of them. And so it is very important to pat them on the back, especially early on. And so I started off with a low-stakes presentation, you know, one minute, because again, I found that when they’re provided with directions, and it’s required, and there’s a grade, they knock it out of the park, and then intentionally pointing out to good things that making them feel kind of safe, and that they’re not going to be embarrassed. Someone will mess something up, they’ll mispronounce a word or something and we’ll point out that it didn’t matter, and no one laughed at them, and that sort of thing. And so I found that doing that early on has helped in this section. And then in addition to that, the other main incentive that we’re playing with is changing class participation grades to more periodic updates, rather than what we typically do, which is just one of the last things that’s entered into our Excel spreadsheet probably after we’ve already gone on spring break, and because the updating of it in the feedback. And, John, I’m sure some of the other episodes I listened to that coincides with the importance of feedback on making better choices, and so not making it a surprise.
John: Letting students know that their lack of adjustment to American culture is actually harming their grades early on makes it much easier to adjust than when they find that out after the fact. So this will require some adjustments, not just from the students to adjust to American institutions, but also from faculty.
Don: Absolutely. If you’re a faculty member at an institution that wants to be a global institution, you have to think globally, and you can’t just expect every student to show up in your classroom Americanized. I think it’s kind of silly thinking really to just demand that the students Americanize themselves or westernize themselves and sink or swim because we’re not setting them up to have good outcomes, and that’s what we’re here to do.
John: We face some similar issues here. We’ve tried to focus on working on faculty to change the way they teach classes, but that only reaches the faculty who actually attend those workshops and students need to adjust to a wide range. And so I think there’s a lot of merit to this approach of working with students to help them get acclimated, especially perhaps in a business school where many of the students may want to go and work in firms where that type of participation and that type of activity is expected. So it’s also partly an introduction to American culture, as well as just American educational systems, which in a master’s program in business, would seem to be really appropriate.
Don: Absolutely. One of the drivers of the growth in specialized master’s programs for international students is STEM degrees get an automatic two-year work visa, which is very attractive. And so it’s pretty clear that, especially in those STEM credentialed degree programs, that their goal is to take advantage of that automatic to get employment, and it will impact them very quickly if they don’t acclimate to the classroom environment, which as you said, we do model business environments. And so I tell my students that we’re going to behave as though we’re in a consultancy meeting in class. You’re absolutely right. It’s beyond just a procedure for how to get grades, it is training for bigger things beyond the classroom.
Fiona: You mentioned that this program is focusing on masters level students, but the university also has a large number of undergraduate students. Do you think that this is a model that could be expanded to address that slightly different student population?
Don: I think so. Logistics would be an issue, of course, we’d probably have to recruit more help. But scaling aside, I don’t see much difference at all. I do teach a handful of undergrad sections every once in a while and the issues thinking back are identical.
Fiona: I have a slightly random question. Do students from China come to America with a pre-existing idea of what college is going to be like, what graduate study might be like? Is there any access they have to set up any horizon of expectations for them?
Don: This is not information that I got from our focus groups, but my observations, I strongly suspect that it’s something they don’t even think about. It’s kind of like you don’t know what you don’t know, and they’re startled to find that it’s not just what they have been doing for the last 12-15 years of education.
John: When they’ve been adjusting to a school system for over a decade, it’s pretty easy to base your expectations on what you’ve observed in the past.
Fiona: I, too, interact with international students in a slightly different context, in an English literature department.
Don: Oh, that’s got to be tough.
Fiona: And many of the issues, especially that black and white thinking you’re describing, are amplified in my discipline, but I always do ask them partially by way of getting them to think about their own expectations, you know, “What were you imagining this class might look like?” And often they do have some sort of pop cultural version of what school might be like that emerges in a fascinating way. They have particular reasons for wanting to come to America in the first place to study, so I was just curious as to whether or not you had any insight into that version of things for Masters of Business students?
Don: No, I think they just value an American degree in business. Some of them do come from American undergrad institutions, and those students generally have already acclimated, but most of them are coming straight from China. Many of them, the day before orientation was their first day ever in the United States. That’s really scary, and so they show up at the airport and realize that they’re not nearly as good at speaking English as they were led to believe. And so I think there’s a lot of just very understandable ignorance of what they don’t know. We’re using a lot of social media, and we’re encouraging a lot of social media use, our Chinese students to communicate with their peers back in China, both as we find it’s a very good recruitment tool, and also to help with that kind of expectation.
Fiona: One of the other things I hear from the students I interact with who have come from China is their shock at how quickly Americans speak English, how fast professors speak in the classroom, and that’s a tougher one to handle in a boot camp class, I suppose. And I find myself simply trying to reassure them that they will be surprised at how quickly they adjust and they just need to give it some time and some practice, but it’s a very real source of anxiety for them in those first weeks of the semester.
Don: Yes, absolutely. And I’m glad you mentioned that because that is such a common… I mentioned before that students frequently will come up to me after class to engage and the mode interaction is asking for clarification on something that was said an hour prior in the middle of class that they didn’t understand. And in some cases, that’s fine. I can clarify, and it works, but in some cases, it’s like, “Okay, well, everything after that for the last hour, you didn’t get either if you didn’t understand that, and that’s really disappointing as well.” And so I make it a point, whether it’s an all Chinese class or not, I tell them that I want them to stop me if I’m speaking too fast, or I say something they don’t understand, that I want them to stop me and let me know that, and that I don’t think it’s rude. And in fact, I would be very upset to later learn that I wasn’t communicating effectively enough for them to gain understanding, and so that has helped a lot. It usually takes more than once of saying that for it to set in, but by the second or third class this semester, I’ve had pretty much every class someone stopped me and said, “I didn’t understand that” or, “my translator is not registering that word. What is that?” But yes, that’s an enormous issue.
John: Is lecture capture used there at all?
Don: I don’t use it.
John: Many of us use it. And I know in my econometrics class, before I flipped the class, I used to do some interactive lectures, and one of the things that mostly Korean students and occasionally Japanese or Chinese students noted was that if there were parts they didn’t understand that well, they could go back and play it back at half speed to make it easier to understand things, and that’s a nice accessibility feature for anyone who’s not a native English speaker. Another option might be to let students record things too, and then they could go back and play it back at a reduced speed until their understanding was able to keep up with the actual rate at which we speak.
Don: Interesting that you mention that because one thing that came from the Chinese students themselves in these focus groups was a pretty surprising number of them who said that we should ban electronic devices completely, because they said that they’re… so much more than American culture… they’re wed to their electronic devices. And they pretty much admitted that you are going to have some engagement issues unless you just forbid the electronic devices.
Fiona: It’s interesting that they can recognize [LAUGHTER] a certain sort of problem and are asking for help, I suppose.
Don: Well, they asked for help after the semester was done, and they made me promise to not name them if I implemented a ban. So there was some strategy involved, so that’s critical thinking.
John: But there is also the capability of a recorder which would not be that much fun to interact with. So…
John: …there are devices that could work that would not be distracting.
Fiona: I’m really struck by the way in which you’re paying attention to a very specific cultural group here and you’re adjusting to very specific problems that that group has. You mentioned your checklist of things you know are happening and your desire to find the source of those things, but I can’t help but think that the adjustments you’re making are, in fact, adjustments that might benefit all sorts of students, all sorts of students for whom academic norms are a little bit hard to penetrate, or to understand, students who might have cognitive differences and struggle in discussion situations in particular. And so your particular intervention here seems to open out into a larger issue of what inclusive teaching might look like.
Don: Absolutely, and I’ve actually had that same thought. We’re singling out Chinese students, but boot camp, is there a problem with that? And is there some perception bias on our end that we don’t recognize these same issues with some other groups? But I think it’s very institutional, it’s not just culture by culture, it’s institution by institution. What we ended up finding is, because of our very, very heavy South American roots, our Latin American students are non-native English speakers who are native Spanish speakers, I think they feel more comfortable here than they might in many other institutions, and so you could have these same exact kinds of problems rearing their head, even maybe 100 miles north of here at another institution where there’s not a critical mass and those kinds of deep connections. We even offer some of our core courses in Spanish, and so I think they feel very comfortable. But it struck us that it wouldn’t take many changes in our circumstances for them to be in the same boat, perhaps, as we found the Chinese students. So you’re absolutely right.
Fiona: We do usually finish up by asking “What’s next?”
Don: What’s next is interesting, because the virus issues and so we are probably facing deferment of admissions to Spring 2020. And so what’s immediately next is adjusting on the fly as those things develop. But as far as the specific issue with helping students acclimate, where I would like to go next is just keep learning, keep having these discussions with students. So I had 20 something odd students participate in a pretty lengthy focus group session with me, that’s not enough, and so keep learning, start implementing some evaluation methods on ourselves. As John mentioned, sometimes it’s difficult to get faculty to cooperate with things but ideally, we would mandate standard language on class participation in all graduate syllabi, we would mandate periodic updating of their score on that. And we would even add in our reporting metrics, how the scores are changing in those classes that are doing that. Are they improving after we give them the first update, and so learning more about the students and the issues that they face so that we can better serve them I think is what’s next and really probably what always should be next.
Fiona: That’s great.
John: Sounds really good.
Fiona: Good luck with all of it.
Don: Thank you.
Fiona: Sounds like a very worthy intervention.
John: Thank you, Don. It’s always good talking to you.
Don: Thanks for having me, so much.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.