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Center for Teaching and Learning

How do international students experience learning at UW? Implications for instructors

Event recap and resources

Wei Zuo 5-18-2015

Photo by Wei Zuo © 2015

Over the last decade the UW has seen an increase in the number of international students. Although we often hear that these students’ academic experiences differ from those in their home countries, rarely do we get to hear in-depth accounts from students about their own learning experiences.

On May 8, 2015, the CTL hosted a conversation on teaching international students, beginning with a dynamic presentation from English Ph.D. Candidate Wei Zuo. Zuo shared her dissertation research on Chinese students’ academic experiences at UW,
including interviews with the students, their professors, and TAs.

Participants included over 125 attendees, including undergraduate students, graduate students, librarians, academic staff, and faculty from all three UW campuses. We used Zuo’s findings as a springboard to discuss effective strategies to help our international students – and all UW students – learn. Our discussion focused on three questions:

  • What strategies might you use to help your international students feel welcome in your classrooms/offices/campus spaces?
  • As an instructor, how could you create equitable class participation, group work, and/or assessment practices?
  • What strategies might you use to help your students succeed academically?

Responses generated by participants

What strategies might you use to help your international students feel welcome in your classrooms / offices / campus spaces?

  • Learn students’ preferred names and pronunciations.
  • Listen carefully to students and be patient with them.
  • Encourage and value different perspectives and opinions.
  • Provide context and explanation for cultural references and idioms.

As an instructor, how could you create equitable class participation, group work, and/or assessment practices?

  • Consider different backgrounds and cultural topics – give students choices that may allow them to bring in their own cultural knowledge / experiences.
  • Clarify assessment policies and practices on syllabus.
  • Offer students different modes of participation: clickers, online discussion boards, written responses.
  • Give students time to think and/or write before discussing in small groups.
  • Randomize groups and seating in the class.

What strategies might you use to help your international students succeed academically?

Don’t just state, but explain course policies and practices:

  • Use written and oral explanations for all important policies and practices.
  • Intentionally outline expectations of course (for participation, exams, etc) at the start of the quarter, and review these in class throughout the quarter.
  • Explain what practices such as class participation look like (vs. just stating “it’s required”).
  • Offer expectations around cross-cultural communication in class: all students are expected to try to understand one another, even if it may be challenging.

To help them succeed in discussions:

  • Make the discussion expectations clear.
  • Provide students with the discussion questions in advance of the class.
  • Ask students to prepare something in writing to share.
  • Encourage students to find ways to participate that work for them.

To help them succeed in group work:

  • Set expectations for what the successful group work will look like.
  • Help students understand that all students bring different strengths and weaknesses to the team.
  • Don’t just set them loose; provide structure and be intentional about the task at hand.

To help them succeed with writing assignments:

  • Provide scaffolding.
  • Don’t focus on grammar–maybe it isn’t the most important aspect of your assignment.
  • Focus on the students’ ideas instead.

Help students understand plagiarism and teach them how to avoid it:

  • Provide more clarity around plagiarism–what it means and looks like–early in the quarter.
  • Be clear and unpack what plagiarism means in the US: what it means to “borrow” and cite, verses “make it your own words.”
  • Offer students in-class workshops to give them practice writing with sources.
  • Use formative assessment to measure students’ understanding of plagiarism. Consider developing new assignments or quizzes that give students practice using sources.
  • Modify the consequences for first-time offenses to be formative & feedback-based.

See the workshop slides and handout

“Helping multilingual students succeed in your course: Strategies and resources”

Presentation slides  Workshop handout

Questions or Comments? Please email co-facilitator Katie Malcolm,
For questions about Wei Zuo’s research and dissertation, please contact