Photo by Mike Catabay for the Learning Innovation Hub

Teaching With Cultural Diversity

Last week’s story on international students provided insights on this group of students, their experiences and an overview of resources available for teachers and international students. In this post, we draw attention to the impact of diversity on learning and teaching and provide some suggestions on how to incorporate more awareness and understanding into your practice.

Cultural diversity in classrooms is a good thing 

There is plenty of evidence to show how diversity amongst students (classes including both domestic and international students) is beneficial to the learning environment (Kimmel & Volet, 2010Leask, 2009; Volet & Ang, 2012).

Diverse classrooms help to broaden:

  • Cultural awareness: students expand perceptions about their own and other cultures (habits, ways of thinking, beliefs, values, language)
  • Attitudes: respect, world-mindedness, suspension of judgement and open-mindedness are essential attitudes that bring about curiosity, tolerance of ambiguity, resilience, and life-long learning
  • Cognitive skills: interaction with people from different cultural backgrounds can shift thinking, reasoning and arguing
  • (Intercultural) Communication skills: students learn to express their ideas and thoughts in a language and manner that diverse audiences can understand and respond to
  • Workplace readiness: students will encounter various languages, ethnicities, orientations, behaviours, world-views and beliefs in every workplace in our globalised world and need to develop skills and positive attitudes towards team work, communication and conflict strategies.

However, evidence has also shown that domestic and international students aren’t mixing as well as could be, in or out of the classroom, and in relation to group work potentially miss out on these benefits. Many international students claim opportunities to interact with domestic students is limited (Australia Education International, 2010).

In light of the benefits listed above, how can we utilise cultural diversity in the classroom and increase interactions between domestic and international students? The learning environment plays an important role in stimulating positive interactions. If you observe disconnection in your class, consider these suggestions (Arkoudis, 2006):

  1.  Plan for interaction
  • Assign groups, rather than letting students self-allocate
  • A recent paper from FBE lecturers (Marrone, Taylor & Hammerle, in press) observed the use of polling tools like Socrative facilitated collaborative activities and discussion. Plan interactive activities in lectures (get to know Echo360 Active Learning Platform’s tools), in tutorials and in iLearn.
  • Design assignments to include peer feedback

2. Create environments for interaction

  • Allow space for mistakes, wrong answers, mispronunciations, say “remember, I’m not looking for one right answer”. Soften hierarchies and power distance and engage students via eye contact
  • Learn names and pronunciation, create or ask for name tags
  • Let students know the best way to contact you and to ask questions (either in class or digitally). Don’t assume everyone is comfortable raising their hand in class
  • Spend sufficient time on introductions and establishing rapport in the first class
  • Explain cultural jargon and be wary of using too many idioms, speak clearly
  1. Support interaction
  • Invite students to suggest topics/examples/case studies from their home country
  • Use non-verbal techniques such as ‘thumbs up’ to indicate ‘agreement/disagreement’ or ‘yes/no’
  • In class discussion, pick students at random to answer questions – perhaps start with easier questions to warm up
  • When delivering instructions, give students the time to translate
  • Clarify expectations (both verbally and in written form) of class participation from the start and provide examples
  • Participation marks that are purely based on how verbally active students are in class have been criticised and found to be disadvantaging students from cultures where speaking in class is seen as rude or who naturally do not want to draw attention to themselves. Using interactive written activities (ALP, Socrative, padlet, discussion forums or polls on iLearn) lets you track student participation and gives them the opportunity to voice opinions, engage and contribute
  • Speak clearly –  here’s an example of how badly articulated English could sound to international students
  • Encourage students to ask questions or write down responses with tools such as Padlet or the Exit Ticket tool in Socrative.
  • Provide students with Groupwork resources

4. Engage with subject knowledge

  • Move past pronunciation mistakes –  redirect the focus to the topic or subject at hand
  • Use international examples/case studies/scenarios – relate to their home country experiences
  • Visualise as much content as possible, use slides, videos and graphs
  • Apply real-world cases to theoretical content and let students find their own examples
  • A quick quiz can give you a good insight into how well students understand the content and what you should revise

 5. Develop a reflective approach

  • Acknowledge possible assumptions – your international student may be using their mobile to translate, when you think they are disengaged
  • Ask students to reflect on different views and understandings expressed in class
  • Get students to reflect in various modes – some might work more effectively with journal writing, some in group conversations, others with drawing or an online tool.
  • At the beginning of a unit ask students about their expectations and at the end of the session assess if these were met.

6. Foster communities of learners

  • Integrate student mentoring, PAL leaders, in-class learning buddies
  • Create learning communities through group and project-based work
  • Use online forums/discussion/collaborative activities to create online learning communities.

Further Reading

You may like to explore these other resources:

Diversity in the Classroom (UTS)

Creating a Cultural Inclusive Classroom Environment (Griffith)

Responding to Student Diversity (Carnegie Mellon)

Diversity in the Classroom (Yale)

By Lilia Mantai with thanks to John Truong (LIH), Dr Pamela Humphreys (MUIC), Dr Beate Mueller (MUIC) and Lilia Draganov (FBE/DVCA) for their input and comments.

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