As director of the English Language Support Office at Cornell, Michelle Cox has a lot of expertise teaching international students and nonnative English speakers. Even so, when the university switched to online learning in the spring, Cox realized these students face additional complications in virtual classrooms. “The challenges are immense,” she said.
With borders closed and consulates shuttered, almost all of her new international students would be taking classes remotely from their home countries, so Cox opted to teach online for fall. I talked with her and others about their biggest challenges and best advice.
For starters, it’s important to remember that for many of these students, Zoom is the first time they’re in an American classroom. It takes time to learn how to be a college student, but typically, international students have resources to help them learn the ropes that might not be readily apparent to an instructor. Often, international students rely on each other for help, such as checking to make sure they correctly understood an assignment. They are also constantly observing their American classmates to model their behavior, Cox said.
It can be harder to form support networks online, and professors may inadvertently make the virtual-learning experience tougher for international students. For example, Cox said that her university’s online-learning platform has an option to prevent students from seeing others’ responses before they submit their own answer to a question. That can cut down on copying and cheating, but international students who are unfamiliar with American-style class discussion may then not know how to respond.
It can be especially difficult to know if a student is lost when courses are held asynchronously. International students may be hesitant to ask for help, said Levin Arnsperger, associate director for English language learning at Emory’s writing center. “They don’t want to rock the boat.” Faculty members need to emphasize the availability of office hours and be proactive in reaching out. In her classes, Cox has a weekly check in and took the time to meet with each student at the start of the semester.
When students come to the United States, they are thrust into an all-English world. Immersion has its challenges, but the unavoidable need to speak English can help students learn faster and pick up colloquial and social language. By contrast, students studying remotely are living their lives in their native tongue, using English only during class sessions and on assignments.
Cox recommends giving students a reference, even something as simple as a Wikipedia article or a video that could help reinforce important vocabulary and ideas and serve as an ongoing resource. “When you learn a new topic you also need to learn new language connected to the new topic,” she said.
The primary method of communication in online courses, writing, can also be an obstacle for international students, many of whom are more comfortable speaking English. “All your vulnerability is shown in your writing,” Cox said. Critiques and corrections can cause students to regress, retreating to more simplistic language. Professors should focus more on the substance of students’ responses than on grammar or word usage, Cox recommends, and fellow students should be encouraged to do the same in online discussions.
Finally, time differences do handicap international students. “I live on Atlanta time in Beijing,” one student told Arnsperger’s colleague Hong Li, a professor and the former director of the Emory College Language Center. It’s not just their academic lives but their whole lives that are upended by the need to time shift, Li points out, and their family can be affected.
Even if courses are offered asynchronously, the rest of the academic experience, including office hours and deadlines, frequently hews to an American schedule. Instructors need to be more aware of these time differences when setting deadlines or in communicating with students, Li said, and when possible, they should be more flexible.
In the current climate, all students can use extra understanding and support, Arnsperger said. “When you take time to support international students in the classroom, it’s usually good for all students.”
For more advice on working with international students who are overseas during the pandemic, Cox and her colleagues at Cornell have some great guidance here
When the pandemic struck last spring, as many as nine in 10 current international students did not — or were unable to — return home, according to estimates by the Institute of International Education. With so many students stuck behind in the U.S., there are a whole new set of academic, cultural, social, economic, and mental-health challenges. The American College Health Association calls international students one of the “vulnerable” populations in the wake of the pandemic. I’m working on an article about these “stranded” students, and I want to hear your stories. Colleges, what are you doing to provide these students with the support they need? Students, how are you coping with being so far from home during a global health crisis? Tell me more at firstname.lastname@example.org