International Higher Education is a complex setting which often entails a lot of conflicting elements: there is the culture clash that international students experience on arrival into their host country while they study, the clash between the academic expectations of their home cultures and their host institution, and a certain amount of conflict often exists between the language and content provision which different tutors deliver during the study period. Add to this an ever-changing demographic of the international student body, and the pre-university HE context can quickly become a challenging place to work.
These potential clash points lead to a setting which is constantly evolving, with groups of students that may be monolingual or multilingual, banded by discipline or streamed by language proficiency (or neither, in reality). Entry scores on IELTS tests or similar can also be misleading, and on-paper expectations about students are commonly exploded upon first contact with a group.
The need for Development in Higher Education
Given the challenges outlined above, and as the global, international HE industry grows year on year it is more important than ever that tutors, department heads and auxiliary staff receive continuous professional development in order to provide a cohesive, high-quality programme which addresses the range of needs that international students bring to university study with them. This article will explore four professional development strategies which international departments can adopt to tackle academic development in teaching staff, in order to deliver to a high standard, informed by key features of the learners, their first cultures and first languages.
Language and Content-based Training
Perhaps the most noticeable split in a typical international HE setting is that between language-focused and subject-specific context. English for Academic Purposes tutors typically outnumber their discipline-specific colleagues at international centres, with English and academic skills input being compulsory for all students, dominating their timetable for the time they spend preparing for their degree-level study.
In an ideal world, language and subject-related provision should go hand in hand, to develop students’ language, academic skills and subject knowledge in a complementary way. However, in reality there is rarely time available for subject tutors and language tutors to get together to discuss what is happening in their respective classrooms. This is an issue which needs to be addressed, as without this kind of communication, the right hand literally does not know what the left hand is doing, and whole groups of students can miss out on valuable points which could lead to greater impact on their degree-level study.
As a developmental exercise, have a subject tutor sit in on an EAP class containing some of their students. In return, have the EAP tutor attend a subject-specific class. Just one observation can highlight areas of need for the students in their academic skills, informs the tutors of each other’s expectations, teaching style and the level of content which students are required to work with. After observing, get together with your counterpart tutor and discuss what issues the students have in their respective lessons, and how you can work together to overcome these challenges, based on what you have seen of each others’ work.
Even in centres where language and content are kept entirely separate in terms of assessment, independent study and attendance, the two sides of academic life will meet eventually, so it can only be of benefit for tutors from different disciplines to get together and see more of the full picture.
Demographically Informed Training
Whether you are a tutor in a language or subject-related field, it is likely that you are teaching the same mix of students. It is also likely that the demographic of a typical group of students is different today as compared to twenty years ago, and is different from how it will be composed twenty years from now. Global economic trends and education policies directly affect which countries send students overseas to study, where they go, and whether they return after graduating. These factors are constantly changing, and this flux means that academic tutors should stay abreast of the profiles of the learners in their groups, making them ready to address the language and cultural needs of those students when they arrive.
There is an argument commonly heard in Higher Education staff rooms which states that the students’ cultural and academic views should not enter into academic study in that country, as when they get to university there will be no consideration of students’ backgrounds when they attend lectures and seminars (or not), and when they sit for their final assessments. However, in pre-university settings it is important for tutors to remember that students bring their world with them when they travel to live in another country. This world includes a host of academic expectations, instilled by a lifetime studying in a specific paradigm of education. This is as true for a Chinese teenager travelling to the US to study, as it is for a British graduate travelling for an international MA programme in Japan.
The clash between paradigms of education, and the academic expectations carried with international students, can be keenly felt by listening to a group of Chinese students on a presessional programme discussing their experiences in the first month of study. The difference between the Chinese and British, say, higher education systems is enormous, and without some serious expectation-setting and drawing of boundaries, it can take weeks, if not months, for students to understand what is required and expected from them in their time at the centre.
There is a balance to be drawn between the hard-line ‘do what we say or fail’ attitude, and bending over to meet the more holistic needs of specific cultural groups. As a development point, however, it is a good idea for tutors to find out more about the academic environments of the most-represented cultures in the centre. Finding someone who has more experience teaching certain nationalities of learner successfully (perhaps in the country of origin), or interviewing a more confident student about the nature of language and subject study in their country can reveal surprising and informative information, which can help tutors to adjust what they do to make things easier for them and their students. All this without, of course, resorting to spoon-feeding or pandering to inappropriate requests.
Peer Observation Cycles
Having already mentioned cross-discipline observation, it is also important to highlight the benefits of peer observations in a diverse setting such as that of international HE. With loaded timetables, pre-ordained syllabus points and outcomes to achieve every week, there is a danger of tutors withdrawing into their own group’s routines, strengths and weaknesses without considering the bigger, more objective goals of an EAP programme at that institution.
Peer observation cycles, led by the tutors themselves, can act as a standardisation exercise, with tutors watching lessons using materials that they may have recently taught themselves, or will soon teach. any two teachers will take different approaches to a piece of teaching material, so seeing how others work towards similar outcomes via very different paths can only prompt discussion into how and why those teaching choices are made. If a focused observation instrument is used during observation, reflective discussion of teaching methods is one of the most effective in-service development tools, and if teaching is related to assessment criteria or teaching objectives, can work as a ‘levelling’ exercise, bringing tutors to similar levels of understanding and performance according to the designed outcomes of the programme.
These professional development strategies are effective in breaking down some of the barriers which tend to exist between language and content tutors, help to dissolve some of the conflicts mentioned at the beginning of this article, both for students and tutors, and can help everyone work together towards the common outcomes that everyone is looking for - a successful transition into sessional study for the groups of international students arriving at the centre every year.
If you are interested in organising a training event at your institution, tailored to the needs of the tutors and/or student body, contact Tom on firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.languagepointtraining.com to find out more about the sustainable training activity that we lead in centres around the world.