The Economics Network

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4. Supporting International Students of Economics at the University of Bristol

4.1 Background

The University of Bristol has approximately 12,500 full-time undergraduate students, and 5,250 postgraduates. There are 4,000 international students from about 100 countries. The Department of Economics is part of the School of Economics, Finance and Management of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law. The Department has a long tradition of attracting international students, typically to its undergraduate and research postgraduate programmes. Over the past few years its taught postgraduate programmes have become extremely popular. These courses are attracting unprecedented high numbers of international students to such an extent that some student cohorts are almost entirely made up of international students.

4.2 Taught postgraduate programmes

Rather than enrolling on the straight postgraduate taught Economics programme, which is generally chosen by students who wish to go on to do a PhD, most international students enrol on joint Economics Masters programmes, such as Economics, Accounting and Finance, or Economics, Finance and Management. Most international students who do these joint postgraduate programmes aim to return to their country of origin to follow careers outside academia.

While the international postgraduate students have the required academic and English language levels at entry, in practice many struggle initially with academic language. Moreover, most lack the experience of some standard UK academic practices that a UK undergraduate will gain over the course of an undergraduate degree. For example, by the time most UK students enrol onto a Masters programme, they will have had comprehensive training and experience of referencing, how to avoid plagiarising, writing academic text, reading effectively, using university libraries and accessing academic resources electronically. For many international students, however, these are all new and without appropriate systems in place, they would not enjoy the learning experiences and achievements of their UK counterparts with a comparable academic record and potential. The Department of Economics has therefore incorporated a number of practices to support and encourage international students on these taught postgraduate courses.

4.3 Introductory week

During introductory week, the Department contributes to a programme of lectures to ensure that the international students are aware of the requirements, entitlements and expectations in the University’s regulations and code of practice for taught programmes. All students will have had access to these regulations before arrival, but the Department is well aware that many students do not read or fully understand them beforehand. Lecturers emphasise areas that many international students traditionally struggle with, in particular referencing and plagiarism.

The contribution of the subject-specific Librarian is crucial and the Department has an outstanding provision for international students, as the School’s subject-specific Librarian is also the University’s International Librarian. The Librarian informs the students in an accessible, friendly manner of the services available, addresses common difficulties that students encounter and supports them in seeking help.

Students learn about government statistics available for free on public websites from many countries that have English versions (for example, Russia and countries previously in the Eastern bloc); how to access and use social bookmarking, as this is an easy and useful way of organising links to websites of interest; and that some of the bigger journal article databases offer, apart from full journals in English, outlines/headings in different languages including Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish and French.

All the staff involved are careful to consider the needs of recently arrived international students, who are only just getting used to the diversity of ways of speaking English and English accents. Friendliness, clarity, pace of delivery and accessibility are particularly taken into account, and all materials and contacts are available in print and on the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Staff members also offer to answer any remaining questions at the end of their talks, for those students who may feel more comfortable in asking questions one-to-one. A number of students, particularly international students, appreciate this, as they are clearly uncomfortable in asking questions in a big group.

Students are also informed about the ‘International Advice and Support’ service at the University that further helps and guides them on any queries or worries and welfare issues.

4.4 Structure of the taught postgraduate programmes

Programmes are delivered in three terms. In the first term, it is considered that international students in particular gain more from a structured approach, and from more contact hours. There are thus four compulsory units delivered in 16 one-hour lectures, and eight one-hour tutorials, typically delivered every fortnight. The second term is less contact-intensive and students can choose four optional units, which are taught in 10 one-hour lectures and five one-hour tutorials each. The third term focuses on writing a research-based dissertation of a maximum of 15,000 words. Each student is assigned a project and a supervisor who they meet regularly for supervisory sessions; the combined standard time for these meetings is four hours.

4.5 Teaching practices

The lecturing staff are aware of the specific learning needs of such internationally diverse student cohorts, and of the potential for students to learn internationalised perspectives from each other. To support international students, in terms of the curriculum, case studies are almost always taken from around the world so that they are meaningful to as many international student groups as possible, and so that all students gain an internationalised outlook. The lecturing styles also aim to facilitate students following in real time including the pace, explaining culturally specific references and making written resources available.

One of the most significant changes to support international students in the taught postgraduate programmes is that the Department has a policy that all the students receive copies of the lecture hand-outs at the beginning of the lecture. The lecturers are responsible for organising the lecture materials earlier than they would have done traditionally, and to get these materials copied at the reprographics service. The international students, in particular, are very appreciative of this initiative as they can follow the lectures without being worried about missing out on relevant information, and the lecturers see how international students benefit. There is an emphasis on bringing interaction into lectures, and students are encouraged to ask questions. It is accepted, however, that for many international students it is difficult to ask questions in large lecture theatres particularly as some of the units in distinct programmes are taught together. Taking this into account, lecturers aim to be available to answer questions directly after the lecture and typically small groups of students gather around lecturers at the end.

The tutorials are entirely given by the academic staff who teach the units. With over 500 Masters students in four or five different programmes, it is not logistically feasible to have very small tutorial groups, but an effort has been made to keep the tutorials to a maximum of 15 students per group. Some courses are almost entirely made up of international students, so the tutors know that many of these students are initially reluctant to speak up in their second or third language in class, particularly in large groups. It is easier to get international students speaking and presenting in smaller groups.

4.6 Research methods and study skills week

In June, the Department organises a very successful dedicated research methods and study skills week to prepare all students in taught Masters programmes how to research, access and interpret sources of interest and to write their dissertations. Lectures during this week include on technical software packages, such as STATA; how to write well; information literacy; and a comprehensive review of issues to do with reading effectively, plagiarism and referencing.

The University of Bristol has very clear standards available to all students on the level expected from academic written work and there is guidance on how to find proof-reading support. For example, the aim of the academic writing skills classes is to raise students’ awareness of common mistakes, anonymous examples from previous Masters dissertations are used to explain how lost marks could have easily been avoided. Examples include American English and UK English spellings; use of apostrophes; a comprehensive list of common misspellings (e.g. principal and principle); how to display quotations; good and bad quotes; and academic referencing.

The International Librarian gives a number of sessions. Apart from reviewing and demonstrating key databases of interest, there is a focus on websites where students can get specialised data, particularly free websites that they may continue to use well after completing their degree.

4.7 Dissertation

Regarding the dissertation, supervisors decide what areas they want to supervise and projects of interest to them. Students are given a number of titles, with datasets and recommended reading, and they are allowed to choose their project. Supervisors meet students regularly to provide guidance and support regarding the writing process and the reading material, and to make further suggestions.

All international students in the Masters programmes will have obtained a good first degree, but many have little experience of writing long academic documents. Having to produce a document typically between 13,000 and 15,000 words can be quite intimidating for students who have never written any long documents. Considerable time is spent with writing issues, including the structure of the dissertation and plagiarism so that by the time the students submit their thesis it is not likely that they have plagiarised.

4.8 The International Librarian

Recognising the importance of addressing the needs of international students, in 2011 the University of Bristol created a new position: that of International Librarian. In light of extensive involvement in supporting the learning and the development of resources for international students over the years, the subject Librarian for the School of Economics, Finance and Management was given this position, which is now combined with the previous role. The International Librarian speaks a number of languages, and was an international student and can thus empathise with some of the difficulties that international students experience.

The large numbers of international students can be a challenge as their needs are very diverse. The Library’s response is to have a range of information and resources so that as many of the students can benefit. The International Librarian maintains and updates the library services that already work very well for international students, and researches the implementation of alternatives or new services suggested by students and staff, and by colleagues from other institutions.

Considerable effort is placed on having clear, comprehensive Web pages with all the information accessible to guide international students even before their arrival. The Library has a dedicated page for international students that can be accessed from its main menu via a quick link. This page welcomes international students and provides information on Library teaching sessions, and on the library’s international collection recently re-branded as “International Students: Studying in the UK”. The collection has books about academic practices including writing, essays and avoiding plagiarism, and about the English language and aspects of life and culture in the UK. The international students’ Library webpage has links to study skills websites of interest hosted by the University of Bristol and other institutions. Notably, there are links to the library glossary with the most common Library words; to the ‘Internet for Economics’ of the Virtual Training Suite, a free online tutorial to help students of Economics develop internet academic research skills, which includes extensive tutorials, resources and links to key websites for Economics; and to ‘Prepare for Success’ a web resource with learning activities to support international students to prepare for study in the UK.

The Library website has a number of video tutorials from ‘Introduction to Library Services’, to ‘Understanding references on your reading list’ and ‘Accessing electronic Library resources away from the campus’. These come with transcripts, which students can download. With regards to subject-specific resources and support, the library has a webpage that shows in six steps how to research a topic in Economics, Finance or Management that can be very useful to international students. Moreover, the International Librarian contributes to the welcome induction events by giving talks informing the students of the services available and to the research methods and study skills week, as mentioned previously. Hand-outs are made available in advance, on the VLE.

The International Librarian informs students about follow-up teaching sessions, which are also advertised on the VLE. For Masters students, in particular, there are specific sessions on key databases for their subjects, including Business SourceComplete, Web of Knowledge and Google Scholar. These sessions have a component of live demonstrations on the screen, followed by a hands-on component, where the students practise accessing the databases for Economics searches. Most students doing Masters degrees in the Department are digitally literate, and are very quick to learn new digital skills. This hands-on component is very important for students, as they try to apply their learning under the International Librarians’ guidance. Any difficulties encountered are dealt with on a one-to-one basis.

4.9 Plagiarism

In the UK, many children learn about the need to distinguish what others write from what they write at primary school, whilst in other parts of the world this is not the case. Students’ course books and the Library pages contain all key information about plagiarism, and there are practical sessions where students are taught about plagiarism and how to avoid it. Often international students copy whole paragraphs of text, word by word without acknowledging their sources even when they have been trained and warned of the risks of plagiarism. The issues surrounding plagiarism cause a lot of anxiety and need to be reinforced through various means.

As well as offering structured sessions, the International Librarian explored other approaches including informal sessions where students could ask questions; the format was thus driven by the students’ needs. These sessions were not as successful as had been intended since students attended but did not ask questions. The International Librarian had to volunteer areas that could be covered during the sessions, and use materials pre-prepared in anticipation, effectively building a structure into these sessions. The International Librarian aims to produce further guidance for international students with regards to plagiarism, which is an important issue for these students.

The International Librarian realised that the help screens on some of the databases of interest to Economics could be confusing to some international students. To address this, the Librarian writes guides to databases in clear English and with added screen shots so that students have clear visual guidance in addition to the text. These guides are also available on the VLE.

4.10 Pre-Masters in English for Academic Purposes

The surge of international students wishing to study at postgraduate taught level at the University has led it to offer a full-time, one-year programme Pre-Masters in English for Academic Purposes.  This programme prepares international students for studying at postgraduate level, including those wishing to pursue Economics.

The programme is delivered by the Centre for English Language and Foundation Studies. It is organised in such a way so as to enable international students to clearly understand the requirements and expectations of studying at Masters level. Students have the opportunity to improve their knowledge and use of academic English grammar and vocabulary, and to learn academic skills including Economics essay writing, note-taking, effective reading, contributing to discussions and giving presentations.

Taught in small groups, the course offers modules on Essential Academic Writing, Essential Text Response, Research and Report Writing, and Exploring British Academic Culture. Students also engage in a final Library-based research project and presentation in Economics where they put in practice what they have learnt.

The Centre for English Language and Foundation Studies also offers an International Foundation Programme of English with Economics and Finance, aimed at international students who may want to study Economics at undergraduate level.