International Students’ Class Participation: Looking Beneath the “Educational Culture” Surface?

by Lucas Lixinski

In an article I co-authored (with a number of contributors to this blog) in the latest issue of the Legal Education Review, we suggested that one of the biggest issues international students (particularly Postgraduate) face is relearning how to behave in a classroom. Many cultures, we argued, frame the student-instructor relationship as largely one-directional, with the student acting as an empty vessel in which the instructor pours knowledge.

That is certainly the way I was educated in my first law degree, so I know this argument holds true. In a classroom environment where class participation (CP) is not only praised by also expected (and part of the final grade for the semester), it can be quite a shift for a student to go from not speaking at all, to being an active part of the learning process for the entire group.

What if, however, there is something else going on, concurrently with educational culture? What if there are other issues that we, as educators, need to be mindful of, that speak not only to managing expectations in the classroom, but also to how we teach more fundamentally?

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain summarizes a lot of the key research around introversion. Most of this science looks at introversion as an individual phenomenon, that is, something that affects a person. But a number of these studies also suggest that there is something that happens culturally. These studies highlight that a number of cultures outside the English-speaking west (particularly in Asia) are, as a role, more introverted.

For my experience as a legal educator in an English-speaking country where extroversion is valued (to the point of being part of how students are assessed in my law school), it means that I have to think very carefully about how I expect students to engage with materials and contribute to classroom discussions.

Of course, these ideas apply across the cohort at large, as introversion does exist among my Australian students. But it may be that Asian students (the main cohort of international students in Australia) in my classroom are more introverted on average. And that these numbers in the population are more disproportionately represented among Asian students who go abroad for postgraduate study.

In addition to introversion being a cultural trait in several Asian countries, Cain also suggests it is a praised one. In other words, to the same extent I value a student in Australia who speaks in class and makes engaging contributions (typically a more extroverted student), in a number of Asian countries students who are more reflective tend to be more valued. And, since these students will more likely be more successful in their first degrees in their home countries, they are likely to be the ones who get the grades needed to be admitted for postgraduate study internationally.

In other words, it may be that, because of this combination of cultural, educational, and plain biological factors, our international students are likely to be more predominantly on the introverted end of the spectrum then we normally assume. If this logic holds up, then the question is: what can we, as educators, do so we are not setting up our introverted international students for failure?

Coupled with linguistic obstacles and educational culture now we have introversion to deal with. If class participation is to be an enriching part of the educational experience of all students, as opposed to a trap into which we let them fall, we may need to rethink our strategies for class participation. I am in no way advocating we drop the more Socratic approach, but it may be that diversifying our approaches is useful.

Technology allows us to do that, by, for instance, giving students the opportunity to post quick reactions to the readings ahead of the class in which they will be discussed. I often do that in many of my courses, and hope to amplify the practice now. I use these quick reactions not only as a check on student participation, but also tend to incorporate them in the discussions of the class (hence my requiring they be submitted before the class in which the relevant material is being discussed). The fact that students then had the opportunity to prepare something in advance, and reflect on the material, is usually enough for an introvert to be able to speak up in class, if anything just to present the idea they posted ahead of time.

That is just one alternative, of course. I would love to hear more about what others do in this area, and their thoughts on the role that introversion plays in how class activities are conducted.

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One thought on “International Students’ Class Participation: Looking Beneath the “Educational Culture” Surface?

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  1. I also allow students to participate online and find that some of the more introverted students prefer this means of demonstrating their knowledge. Another thing I do is to talk to students who haven’t spoken at all in the first few weeks to ask them what I can do to help encourage them to participate. Some students are grateful when I direct questions to them specifically, especially if they can prepare in advance. These small steps will hopefully encourage them to participate more freely in future. But all of this assumes “extroversion” as a positive (or at least oral engagement in class) – no doubt a cultural bias of my own.

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