Helping Foreign Students Speak Up

Andy Molinsky offers four tips for encouraging foreign students to participate in class.

September 20, 2016
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If academic institutions had water coolers and professors liked to make small talk, one of the hottest topics on the agenda would be how to get foreign students to participate in class. It’s a real conundrum, and most professors I know are at a loss about how to do it successfully.

Some faculty members take the hard-line “when in Rome act like the Romans” approach. If students have signed up to join an American institution, they have to play by American rules. Others adopt a softer manner, trying to more gently coax participation out of their students, while often feeling frustrated with their results.

I can’t say I have all the answers, but having worked with many international students throughout the years, and also having spent many years studying the challenges of stretching outside your comfort zones -- which this certainly is for the students in question -- I have some perspective on the matter that I’ll offer through four key tips.

Take time to really learn about the challenges. Think about the last time you had to do something outside your comfort zone. For some of us, it might be delivering bad news, having a difficult conversation or asking for a raise. For others, it might be public speaking, making a sale or pitching ourselves at a networking event. Take the most challenging situation you can think of in your life, imagine trying to do that, and you can start to see what it’s like for foreign students in your classes.

For example, here is how one Asian student described her experience in the classroom: “I know participating in class in the U.S. is required to get good grades, but somehow deep inside I felt like I was doing something very wrong. I was trembling, sweating. I just couldn’t look at the professor or my classmates in the eyes. I felt guilty.”

That student’s experience is quite typical in my experience. Some students struggle with knowledge of how to participate in the first place because, in their culture, it just isn’t part of the program. They can also struggle culturally with the idea of drawing so much attention to themselves in a group setting. In fact, many students deep down feel it’s inappropriate to raise their hand and speak up -- that participating in class is selfish because it takes time away from others.

Compound all that with, for many students, the embarrassment and shame factor of doing it in a language with which you’re not entirely comfortable, and you’ve got a vicious cocktail of psychological and emotional challenges. And that’s what’s going through the minds of nonnative English speakers sitting there, looking at you during class, but never opening their mouths.

Empathize with the challenges. It’s absolutely crucial on day one of your class to address these challenges head-on -- and try as best you can to connect with foreign students’ experiences. Show them you really get the challenges they face. I talk about my own life as a foreign student in Spain and how uncomfortable it was for me to participate in that context. I also talk about my days in college when, even as an American, I was terrified to open my mouth, and when I did, my heart would beat as if it might jump out of my chest. And I didn’t even have the extra cultural baggage some are dealing with. By empathizing with their experience, you can help build trust, which is vital in encouraging someone to attempt something they’ve culturally uncomfortable with.

Explain why classroom participation is so important to you and to them. It’s not immediately obvious to some foreign students. Many students I know feel that 90 percent of participation is fluff anyway, with people sharing their idiosyncratic experiences that don’t really advance knowledge in the room or answering obvious questions from the professor.

So if you do believe it’s important, own that and explain it to your students, showing that you understand the cultural differences as well. Also describe why you value it so highly, since that must be the case if you assign 20, 30 or 40 percent of your grade to class participation. What is so important about it? Why is it such a crucial part of your class? I actually find that many faculty members don’t have a good answer to that question, other than the fact that everyone else does it or they have always done it.

If you do require classroom participation, offer training and support. Give students a sense of what good participation is and offer training and feedback on how to achieve it. Participation is a skill that can be learned. But without actually giving your students feedback, coaching and training on how to do it, you’re inadvertently setting them up to fail.

The easiest and most obvious thing to do is to create a comfortable and psychologically safe climate, encouraging participation, responding to comments in a positive, supportive manner, and also creating a culture where other students do so as well. But that is a bare minimum of support, and it alone will likely do little to help the students we’re talking about participate. You need to go beyond creating a supportive climate and build relationships with your students. Engage them at the break, and before and after class. Meet with them during office hours. Learn their names and use them in class. Create a bond.

And when you create such a bond, it can pay multiple dividends. First, it makes you more familiar and the overall situation more comfortable. Second, it often enables you to know a bit more about your students' experiences and expertise. And that can provide a great venue for soliciting their opinions during class.

For example, if you know your student was an accountant before starting her M.B.A. program and the case study you’re working on has a key accounting element, you might say, “Lily, I know you were an accountant, and I’d love to hear what you think about this.” You might worry that puts her on the spot. While that’s possible, it also might provide that justification and nudge necessary to make her feel that it’s actually legitimate in this case to participate: not only is my professor asking me to volunteer, but it’s also relevant because I have pertinent experience.

Another tip I’ve found useful is to provide students opportunities to contribute to the course outside the actual classroom setting -- at least, at first. For example, you can offer to chat with a student before or after class, or ask them to send you comments about their perspectives from class by email -- the things they wish they could have said but didn’t. You don’t necessarily want to make this a permanent substitution for in-class participation (again, if you deem that important), but it’s a nice way to engage a student, deepen your relationship and build momentum.

Finally, it can also be useful when chatting with a student about the challenges they face to brainstorm about specific supports that could be helpful for them. Some students, for example, like to be called on to talk about something specific that you both have agreed upon beforehand. Others like to practice short phrases they can use when introducing their comment or remark, such as, “I wanted to mention something I was thinking …” or “I had a thought I wanted to share.” Sometimes the actual words become a roadblock, so providing students with phrases to use can be a useful tool. For yet other students, it can be helpful to sit in the front of class so they don’t see and get intimidated by other students.

For some of my students, it’s also often effective to not sit with other students from their own country so they can feel more independent. And if certain students really struggle, you can offer a slower path to participating, perhaps starting by working on simply making eye contact with you during class … and then perhaps the next class, trying to think in their mind what they might want to say without actually saying it … and then after that, perhaps sharing their ideas in a small group during a breakout session. Having distinct steps and goals and reflecting on progress along these goals can be a powerful way to build up to the ultimate behavior you’re aiming for.

Of course, as is the case with any challenging new behavior, people need to be motivated to step outside their comfort zone. And so that should be something you encourage your students to think about as well: Why is it important and worthwhile for you to practice this behavior in our class? Of course, it helps with your grade, but will it also help with your professional development? Are there any other reasons? Having conviction for why something outside your comfort zone is actually worthwhile is a vital part of taking that eventual leap.

In the end, by making class participation part of your foreign students’ grade and experience in class, you’re giving them a real challenge -- and one that can ultimately be very worthwhile. That said, you should also realize that if you don’t have the motivation or willingness to support your students in this endeavor, it may be time for you to reassess why you’re doing it in the first place.


Andy Molinsky is a professor at the Brandeis University International Business School and in the university’s department of psychology (


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