My name is Dan Jones and I am a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Reading. I have spent the past two years working at the University of Reading Malaysia (UoRM) campus delivering our BSc Psychology programme to predominantly Malaysian students. While in Malaysia I applied and successfully received Fellow of the HEA; many of my T&L experiences in this international setting formed the basis my application.
(A version of this blog post was published on the University of Reading T&L Exchange Web Blog)
It wasn’t until I began my post at our branch campus in Malaysia that I came to realise exactly what diverse T&L needs were; a classroom on the other side of the world, of only international (non-EU) students, with an assorted educational background, and with almost all with English as a second language. Being immersed in this setting I was suddenly rather outnumbered by the local knowledge and experience of that classroom. I quickly learned that to engage these students I had to reflect on, and make some changes to, some of my established teaching practices. To lend on the first professional value of the UKPSF (V1), I was really learning to “Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities” first-hand. I began to view certain T&L practices from the perspective of an international student and to question my firmly held beliefs (just as we tell our students); some of my rigid and cemented expectations did not fit within this context, I was making assumptions that were unfair. Over the course of my two years in Malaysia, I learned a lot about inclusivity and diversity in T&L practice. This episode formed the foundation of my successful Fellow of the HEA application, aspects of which I would like to share here:
- Assumptions and expectations of roles: the role of a student and a staff member at university needs to be set out and understood, by both parties, early in the course. I found that international students come to university with a range of educational and cultural backgrounds, influencing their take on their role in their learning, if students and staff are not on the same page when it comes to what is expected of them in their degree, confusion and uncertainty arises. Acknowledging this difference, and laying out expectations clearly, was one of the most important lessons I took from my time teaching abroad, enabling me to maximise the effectiveness of my teaching.
- Adapting to students’ requirements: relating to point 1, new skills may need breaking down, defined, and the basics taught before building upon basic foundations. The student must play their part by working hard and committing to learning a new skill - we do not want to end up spoon-feeding our student body - but an educator can also facilitate and scaffold such a transition, learn to acknowledge differences in backgrounds and exposure, and help students adapt to different learning environments.
- Instilling confidence: many of the challenges I first had were around students’ confidence in the classroom: the culture that I was now teaching in implicitly discouraged students to answer, or ask, questions. Schools often utilised embarrassment or peer pressure in the classroom, leading to an underconfident and passive learning environment. I gradually introduced ways to make the environment that bit more accepting and friendly: electronically answering questions, using post-it notes to discuss ideas, encouragement, light-heartedness – little things that accumulated to make a real difference in the student cohort; by second year the difference in confidence was discernible.
- Providing a new/different context: particularly in psychology, many of the examples and theories are Western-centric, something I did not fully acknowledge before. On many occasions it was a case of contextualising the material, to make the content that little more accessible for students, which led to a greater inclusiveness, and subsequently better engagement.
- Using simpler language: more of a practical issue that one must be aware of. I found that the language I used was occasionally too advanced for my audience, they benefitted from additional explanation or simpler language. We must be careful not to ‘dumb-down’ lectures – this is higher education after all – but it may be beneficial for all involved (including those with English as a first language) for the teacher to acknowledge the type, and level, of language that one is using, ensuring it is appropriate for their audience.
Now, the caveat to these five points is that they have predominantly risen from my personal experiences of teaching international students in Malaysia, as such there is an element of subjectivity to them. Although anecdotal, the changes in students’ approach to my classes, and in my colleagues’ classes, was striking. Nevertheless, to get some objective data I, in collaboration with colleagues in the UK, Japan and Malaysia, am currently investigating whether cultural factors are contributing to such disparities observed in approaches to critical thinking at higher education. Only one aspect of this discussion, but nonetheless, an attempt at some objectivity; data collection is complete, and analysis is underway…
I was tremendously thankful for this learning experience and have ensured that these valuable lessons have remained a part of my classes in the UK. My current institution has almost 4,000 international students across undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and although we want to give international students the British education experience, I think it’s important to acknowledge differences and be aware of the potential challenges that can accompany them. I am undertaking a project to learn more about the international experience of students within my School, with the aim to use what I have learnt to raise awareness of diversity in T&L practice and to promote a culture of inclusiveness. I have experienced first-hand the benefits that a diverse culture can bring, I am now aiming to share these lessons with others.
For further information on the HEA's work in internationalising higher education please click here.