Foreign Students in U.S.

Essay on what a professor learned from intense discussions with three international students

Suppose it’s been discovered that a person’s thoughts can be mapped from a close examination of the physiology of the person’s brain and, à la Fantastic Voyage, that humans can be shrunk to the size where they can be injected into the brain of another to perform such an examination. If this happened to an instructor of a college course so the instructor was able to get at the inner thinking of his students, what discoveries would he make? In what ways would he be surprised by what he learned?

Of course, the above remains science fiction rather than science. What might really be done in lieu of the shrinkage capability and the taking of such a fantastic voyage so the instructor can understand how students think? An instructor needs some sense of his students’ minds for making the various practical decisions in teaching a course. How difficult should the content be? What examples would well illustrate the subject matter? How can student interest be sustained during the class session? On what basis are such questions answered?

In a recent Opinionator column at The New York Times site, Paul Bloom asks: Just how successful are we at seeing the world as others see it?

His answer, consistent with Daniel Kahneman’s depiction of how people come to believe things as described in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, is that we are overly confident about this capability. We think we are reasonably competent in our projections about the worldviews of others, when in fact we are not good at this at all. Bloom writes [my emphasis added]:

“These failures should motivate a certain humility when it comes to dealing with the lives of others. Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect -- people sometimes lie, or are confused, or deluded -- but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires and histories of people who are different from us. It also shows more respect than a clumsy attempt to get into their skins; I agree with the essayist Leslie Jamison, who describes empathy as ‘perched precariously between gift and invasion.’”

The unmistakable message for instructors is that they need to find ways for their students to speak up and then they need to pay attention to what the students have to say. One way I have found to do this is by having the students write weekly blog posts, which I comment on and to which they then respond in kind, in advance of a class session that brings in what the students say in their posts as part of the discussion. I first wrote about this in a column from five years ago. I have repeatedly tweaked the approach since and used it in a variety of different classes. The current description reflects a more mature approach and is based on the class I currently teach, The Economics of Organizations, which is offered each fall.

I would like to discuss a different way to get at what students have to say that I tried this past spring, but first I want to note that the blogging and commenting builds a kind of trust between the students and me. In the language of the course, trust is a reputational asset, which has potential for producing return after the course has concluded. Students occasionally make use of this asset by asking the instructor to supervise them in an independent study project or to get the instructor to serve as a reference for them when applying to graduate school. But this use is highly idiosyncratic to the student.

I have recently reread the Boyer Commission Report, and in it there is a recommendation that every first-year student be part of a faculty-led seminar aimed at such students. Were this recommendation to be fully adopted in spite of the tough budget times we find ourselves in, there might be some follow-up that is more systematic and is driven by the institution to leverage the reputational asset that would emerge from this teaching setting. My example, described below, is perhaps suggestive of what such a systematic approach might be like.

Near the tail end of my class last fall, an upper-level undergraduate class that attracts mainly juniors and seniors, I invited the students to join me in a weekly discussion group for the spring. I had tried something similar the year before, but it failed then. There weren’t enough takers. This time around three students indicated interest. That was sufficient for us to get going. Indeed we started during the intersession between the two semesters, and except for the week of spring break went through till finals week. There were a few stumbles on the way, as this was a voluntary activity and these students were very busy with other things. We persevered nonetheless. I will now sketch our process and what I learned about the students from the discussion.

Note that opting in to the discussion group implies something other than a random selection from the class. Twenty-three students completed the course. Each of the three students from the discussion group received an A in the class, with the course grade not contingent on participating in the discussion group. (About 43 percent of all students got an A.) Each was an international student (about one-third of the total). Two were from China, the other from Korea. They were all double majors, with one of these majors economics. They were very diligent about their studies and took their grades quite seriously, much more so than I ever did when I was a student. They also enjoyed the friendly banter we had in the discussion group and would smile quite readily. Humor was part of the glue that held the group together.

There is something admirable about taking college courses in other than one’s own native language and to do so many thousands of miles away from home. These are acts of courage. In many ways these students are models for what we’d like to see from all students who go to college. Yet there is also something amiss, not covered in taking this model student view. These students were terribly overprogrammed, in my judgment. The Korean student, for example, whose other major is Electrical and Computer Engineering -- an unlikely combination in my experience, but he told me that he had an interest in patents, which explained the engineering part -- was taking 23 credit hours this spring. He accomplished this Herculean feat by not sleeping much at all, claiming to average only about three hours per night.

The other students were taking only 18 or 19 credit hours, but one of them was working two jobs in addition, while the other had quite a variety of extracurricular activity in registered student organizations. Indeed, being tired on a recurrent basis was an ongoing theme in our discussion.

My reason for starting the discussion group was that I thought students in my class were insufficiently creative in going about their studies. I wanted to see whether I might influence them to take a more experimental and rewarding approach to their learning in their other courses. As we already had the blogging mechanism from the course, we agreed that each week one of the group would write a post on the topic for that week (I would prompt the post author on that) and the others would write comments, this ahead of the group meeting to make sure everyone was ready and up to speed for the discussion, which occurred Friday afternoons at 3 p.m. and would last from 90 minutes to two hours.

We covered a variety of topics. As the University of China at Illinois piece had appeared soon before we got started, it informed our early sessions. We then talked about flow, my own variant of which I’ve called mental puttering, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, inquiry cycles à la John Dewey, procrastination and deferred gratification, Atul Gawande’s "The Bell Curve" on how an experimental approach that goes beyond known research is needed to achieve superior performance, straying from the crowd, and a host of other topics. The conversations were engaging and fun, yet I was getting a lot of pushback on the underlying message, which I admit was a bit of proselytizing by me in favor of creativity.

About two months in I was frustrated by our lack of progress on my goals, so I did a simulation in our discussion of the deep sort of thinking that I believe is at the heart of creativity. We spent the first 40 minutes or so by doing a deconstruction of one sentence that the blog poster for that week had written. One question would follow another as we tried to find meaning from this investigation. For the first 35 minutes or so, they were into it. Then they tired and their eyes glazed over. Afterward they told me the experience was new to them. They had never thought about such a small idea in such a deep way, looking at it from all angles, trying to understand all the implications. They already knew how to get an A in their classes.

We did make a bit more progress on the point that college was supposed to achieve a dual purpose, with one of those an investigation into self to understand what makes one tick and what gives one pleasure and satisfaction. On this the students could see how the more creative approach would be appealing. But to them it seemed to come at too high a cost in terms of success at college, possibly jeopardizing their future careers.

The sessions that had the most learning for me came near the end of the semester, when I became aware of the students' high school experiences, the intense drilling they received in preparation for exams, and that pleasure reading, play and spontaneity in the learning were drummed out of them at that time. Their stories were both fascinating and horrifying. The cultures in which they were raised expects extraordinary discipline and very hard work to win the day while at the same time having the students entirely yield to the judgment of others as to what is intellectually appealing and worthy of engagement. Consequently, as committed as these students are, they are not masters of their own thinking.

Apart from the intense acculturation, let me mention two causes that feed the credential game these students are playing. One is that they pay tuition at international student rates, so college is quite expensive for them. They are not wealthy and need to get good return on that investment. Building a strong résumé is one overt way to generate such a return. The other is that they are playing a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma with their fellow students. If the others produced less impressive credentials, they might treat their own education more as self-nurture and less as signal for the labor market. Self-nurture loses, however, when everyone else is playing the credential game.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma produces an individually rational but socially destructive outcome. How can we change the game in a way to make the outcome better?

Lanny Arvan is emeritus associate professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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American universities should do more to help Chinese students adapt (essay)

You’re an undergraduate, there are 20 minutes left in class, and you’re starting to fall asleep. Maybe you stayed up late studying for a final or finishing a paper; maybe it’s right after lunch and you’re slipping into a food coma. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the bell doesn’t ring for 20 minutes and you’re starting to doze off. What do you do?

The answer is, it depends.

It depends on whether you’re in the U.S., where sleeping in class is the ultimate insult to the teacher, or whether you’re in China, where students have been known to carry little pillows for situations exactly like this.

See, what students in China do is put their heads down for five minutes, catch some Zs, and then remain more alert for the final 15 minutes of the lesson, taking in as much as they can.

What do American students do? Generally they let their heads bob up and down for 20 minutes, trying not to fall asleep, missing the entire remainder of the class, but not fully falling asleep, either.

So you tell me, which approach is better?

The answer is clear to me, but I’ve spent the last 10 summers teaching in China and running language programs there, and I have to say there is something downright sensible — and  almost endearing — in the Chinese way. Every spring when I’m training U.S. teachers to go to China, I give this example and ask them to be sensitive to the cultural differences they are going to experience in Chinese classrooms.

Likewise, I use this same example with newly arrived Chinese students at Ohio State University, where I have taught English for 20 years, and where I have had a front-row seat to the dramatically increasing numbers of Chinese students arriving on our campus. I couldn’t be happier that we have almost 2,500 undergraduates from China, and I’d love to see 2,500 more international students ... from China, India, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Turkey, etc.

International students bring with them unique perspectives on the world and can be a great resource for domestic undergraduates. I ask you, what better way to help internationalize the curriculum in Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business than with a few of the 1,200 Chinese undergraduates studying business sitting alongside domestic students in every class? Imagine a class on international business with no international students. Sure, these students are paying tuition to us, but in an alternate reality, I sometimes imagine a scenario where we pay students from abroad to come to Ohio State to internationalize our programs.

But for all the benefits, international students also bring along with them specific needs that we must address. Faculty members at Miami University, in Ohio, state this nicely in an opinion piece published earlier this month in the Miami Student titled, “Faculty members disagree with anonymous letter.

“The University needs to recognize and support the ongoing needs of international students and to do a much better job of welcoming those students and encouraging them to become full participants in the life of the campus and the community,” the letter from Miami faculty states. “Collectively, we are not yet where we should be.”

These words could probably be said about nearly every college and university around the U.S. that has followed the trend of admitting dramatically increasing percentages of Chinese undergraduates. Kudos to these faculty members at Miami for having the courage to say them, in their response to an unfair, unkind, and unsigned letter to the school newspaper that described the “displayed English literacy” of Miami’s international students as “abhorrent.”

It was unfair of the author of the anonymous letter to compare the international students at Miami to “dead weight” and it was unkind to imply their English skills were somehow repugnant (the word that came up most frequently in various dictionary definitions of abhorrent). But maybe the anonymous author was on to something when qualifying his or her assessment of students’ English literacy skills with the word “displayed.”

What I have found in working with Chinese students closely for the last 10 years is that it isn’t typically the case that they don’t know enough language -- they just sometimes struggle with knowing exactly which words to say, when to say them, and why they are saying them. They struggle to put their communication skills on display, and remedial ESL programs aren’t going to help them.

In Shawna Shapiro’s 2011 article, “Stuck in the Remedial Rut: Confronting Resistance to ESL Curriculum Reform,” she neatly articulates the future for competency-based, university-level courses for international students. ESL teachers around the country need to reframe the task at hand from remediating student deficiencies to helping students navigate their daily communication tasks so they can participate in their education.

Maybe students don’t contribute to group discussions because they’ve never been expected to do that before in a classroom setting and don’t find it important or valuable. Maybe they don’t network with peers or upper-class students because they simply don’t understand how or why it is necessary.

So then the question becomes, what can faculty do to help international students understand ways to use their language to participate actively in the educational process? I’d like to share several things we are doing here at Ohio State to increase the likelihood that our international students will succeed.

First, we have created a three-week Summer Intensive Language Program that we offer immediately before the autumn semester. This is well-timed because students can enter in the 30-day arrival window permitted by U.S. visa regulations, and it also helps them get settled, adjust to jetlag and familiarize themselves with the campus. But most importantly, we spend three weeks using culture-based communication activities to ease students out of the mindset of the Chinese educational system and into the mindset of the U.S. one.

Next, we have embedded a two-credit-hour intercultural communications course in the curriculum, initially for the international undergraduate business students and now for international undergraduate engineering students. I am also teaching a section of this in our social work program for newly arrived Chinese graduate students, who have to do field placements next semester and need to have the cultural training necessary to succeed.

The cultural training that we use for all these task-based courses is based on theories of student engagement, involvement, and participation. We also use David Livermore’s book Leading with Cultural Intelligence, which teaches how to bridge cultural gaps.

The first assignment in these classes is for the students to knock on the office door of all their instructors and introduce themselves. Simple, right? But it’s absolutely never done in China. Another assignment is to ride campus buses and ask people what their major is. These assignments might push students a little further outside their comfort zone, but these tasks also show them how easy it is to make connections with fellow Buckeyes.

These assignments lay the groundwork for student engagement with instructors and classmates, and are complemented by other tasks, which include practicing how to lead a team meeting and building a LinkedIn profile to start networking. These are all activities that domestic students would benefit from as well, but for the most part, domestic students admitted for undergraduate studies at OSU have already experienced collaborative coursework in high school and participated in extracurricular activities that promote engagement, involvement, and leadership -- so this is more likely to come naturally to them.

Most Chinese students don’t benefit from attending high schools that promote these values though: the overriding consideration for every student, teacher, and parent in the Chinese educational system is the GaoKao (高考), or National College Entrance Examination. Almost everything a student does from first grade through senior year is geared toward this test, and the score on this test alone determines where a student will have the chance to pursue higher education. No college essays, no extracurriculars, no letters of recommendation. Just a test.

Is it any wonder that when Chinese students arrive at colleges and universities in the U.S., all they are focused on is their final exams? Classroom participation, group discussion, and working on teams are practically nonexistent in almost all Chinese high schools, which is why we owe it to our international students, particularly students from China, to develop courses -- either pre-enrollment/bridge classes or courses that are built into the curriculum -- to help them adapt to the expectations of U.S. higher education.

Otherwise, we might see them pulling out their little pillows and taking short naps in class when they start to get tired… and we would only have ourselves to blame.

Bob Eckhart is executive director of the combined ESL programs in the department of teaching and learning at Ohio State University. He has also managed the Wuhan University Summer Intensive English Program since 2004.

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