2. Cultural diversity and learning and teaching
In this section we share examples of cultural diversity we have experienced that can directly impact on the academic performance, behaviour in lectures and social interactions of international students. These examples support or complement the wealth of published material on this matter (see for example Ramburuth, 2001, who investigated the perceptions and practice regarding cross-cultural learning behaviour with implications for teaching, learning and diversity management in Economics; and Carroll, 2005).
In some cultural traditions, scholars are treated with great respect as societal role models. Students from such cultural traditions may address us with ceremony emphasising or exaggerating our academic title, and combining it with our first name. No matter how many times we invite the student to call us by our first name alone, they may never feel at ease to do so. Also, some students may seek our advice on personal issues of a serious nature, beyond the scope of normal pastoral care. In these situations it is best all round to refer the students to specialised support services within the institution.
Knowledge is, for many, considered as having an intrinsic value for humanity, with no ownership or attribution to its creators. The fundamental value of learning and of researching to become a better human being is in contrast with applied research and learning for a career and material gains:*
‘My main objective was to learn economics rather than getting a degree, however, currently I just wish I could finish my degree as soon as possible because I am not learning what I wanted. I have become a degree seeker instead of knowledge seeker.’
Referencing can be meaningless if we believe we should integrate learnt knowledge as our own. This is fundamental to understanding why so many students are considered to be colluding and plagiarising even after being explicitly told that this is unacceptable, and that they can face exclusion.
The purpose of referencing escapes many international students, and is not an immediately easy task as it implies being very attentive to detail. Exemplifying how to reference properly using our own work somehow humanises the experience. Asking the students to practise referencing under our guidance and giving students immediate feedback can be very helpful.
There are also implications for answering exam questions and writing essays. Many students will consider that basic questions that check factual knowledge cannot be just that. They take such questions as opportunities to show how much they know around the subject without ever stating the obvious because that is obvious and the lecturer or teacher already knows that. As a result, such students produce long answers that do not address what is asked, and that often have to be marked as wrong. Similarly writing essays can be a problem.* Some students will produce work that is three times as long; that does not address the immediate concerns of the essay but is instead speculative; where no distinction is provided between facts and opinions; that is poorly referenced, or not referenced at all. This tends to be an issue when students first start their degrees but can have a big impact on their motivation:*
‘Essay writing during the first year was a little difficult.’
Respect in some cultures also manifests itself by not looking straight at others, so that there is no eye contact. We could interpret the student as lacking in confidence, being extremely shy, not being interested or even being rude. This is relevant when students give presentations as they may receive lower marks.
Students who do not look at us directly when talking or listening, respond constructively when we explain sensitively how such behaviour can be interpreted. Students need to consider negotiating with themselves and changing a behaviour that may be core to their culture.
In some countries, arriving late, chatting with peers or answering the mobile phone in lectures or tutorials is not an issue. We have given lectures in some countries where students take notes whilst answering their mobile phones, or leave the lecture halfway through and come back later without any form of justification. When international students chat during lectures or tutorials, particularly in a language other than English, it can be distracting, irritating and interpreted as a lack of respect. However, students may be trying to support each other’s learning as expressed in the following quote from an Economics lecturer:
‘In the past I have occasionally had overseas students talking in class – but this was usually one of them translating for the others.’
Interrupting or talking at the same time as other people can be considered normal and even desirable in some cultures, as it indicates people are paying attention and are interested. Yet, in the UK it may be interpreted as disruptive, aggressive or rude. We need to address these issues early on, by explaining to students clearly that such behaviour is distracting and considered disrespectful.
Some students will want to give us presents, as an expression of respect. It could be food and drinks, but it could also be expensive goods (or money and vouchers) and even forbidden imports such as stuffed crocodiles. Simply telling such students that we cannot accept presents does not solve the problem, as in a number of cultures it is polite to accept a present only after having refused to accept it a number of times. So students will insist that we accept, as it is part of a cultural ritual for them to insist and for us to refuse! Such students can seem to be intrusive and as trying to ingratiate themselves with us in some way.
One approach to deter students from giving us presents is to tell them that we cannot personally accept presents as such gifts become university property and have to be formally recorded (check your university policy on gifts).
Shaking hands energetically, patting each other on the back, gesticulating, talking loudly and standing very close to others may be the norm in some cultures but considered as overtly aggressive in the UK. Unless students are told about these interpretations explicitly, they will not necessarily notice that they are behaving differently to others.
Making quick decisions, taking initiative or volunteering information before developing a strong sense of belonging to a group is not expected in some cultures. However, in the UK reluctance to do the above could be interpreted as passive or non-assertive behaviour. This can lead to some students feeling they are not given the time to think and having to accept other people’s decisions, particularly in group work. Making these differences explicit to all may ease relationships between students.
Some students will be surprised that there may be fewer senior female academics in the UK than in their country of origin; others will consistently not acknowledge the presence and professional competence of female academics and will only accept male academics.
Some students feel uncomfortable in one-to-one or small group meetings where they are the only person of that gender. Leaving the door open of the office or room where the meeting is taking place, and offering the student a seat by the door can reassure them.
Some international students will think that English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh are the same; and many non-European international students may even assume that all European students (including UK students) are the same. Likewise some UK students may believe that all Africans, for example, are the same. This form of stereotyping can create irritation for students and staff alike.