Formerly an international student in the UK, I never imagined myself being a teacher one day. Here, I reflect on the rewards and challenges of my enriching journey from international student to lecturer and how I made the transition through sharing personal insights and experiences gained over the past decade.
How I learned and, therefore, teach
As an international student, I found it helpful to adopt a positive attitude by actively listening. I actively listen to current students to understand their needs and provide effective support.
Cultural differences (Newsome and Cooper, 2016), language barriers (Magnusdottir and Thornicroft, 2022), lack of confidence (Gill, 2007), stress and homesickness (Alromaih, Alsehali and Almotairi, 2022) are among the challenges faced by international students in the UK. Those factors may have contributed to my perception that some feedback was personal and judgmental rather than constructive and it can be uncomfortable and sometimes disrespectful to receive criticism or negative feedback. Occasionally, I misinterpreted the feedback provider’s intentions. My stress level and homesickness increased when living away for the first time, so I became more sensitive to criticism as a result.
Students’ roles and responsibilities should be more carefully considered in both policy and practice according to an analysis of 134 UK universities’ strategies (Winstone, 2022). As an international student, I may have often perceived feedback as intimidating and sometimes offended by certain words, but I am not sure if home students would feel the same way. Some feedback I received was, “Improve your academic English writing”, “this is poor English writing”, and “your writing is not clear”. Accordingly, my experiences matched those in the literature and those shared by my peers.
In my case, I took the written feedback as a challenge to myself rather than a negative one and I was able to learn from it. Would all international students be able to do the same? I used the ‘writing cycle’ approach to plan, draft, edit, and read. Most of my current students find this useful and I instruct them to do the same:
“Writing academic English has been a great learning experience for me. I follow the same approach as my supervisor, and this has proved to be very helpful to me. Now I spend less time writing but more time finding good evidence or transforming the original text into something I can use” Lian, BSc Nursing.
I found it helpful to understand that interpreting feedback can be a normal part of academic work. However, if it is too long and vague to interpret clearly, you need to speak up about this. We need to receive a clear explanation of how long it take to edit and send back another complete draft of my written work (I quite often had to determine this myself). I have adopted a robust reviewing process that includes understanding the feedback first, breaking it down into smaller units (sometimes a number of complex statements can be included in it) and then responding to each comment individually. Feedback comments like “vague”, “not helpful”, “does not make sense”, and “rephrase” did not help guide my next steps so I had to look beyond these statements for what was required. It is crucial to be able to answer the question, “What are they asking me to do?”
My inquisitive nature was also developed while studying abroad by being curious and seeking answers to the many questions I had in mind. Other skills I adopted and found useful included being approachable by colleagues and co-workers. Being approachable doesn’t mean saying yes to everything with a smile, but rather being perceived as a source of support.
To create a more effective learning environment that supports international students’ learning, it is necessary to understand their needs. I developed a flexible depository of skills and techniques to meet the needs of my current international students as a result of experiencing different learning environments and teaching styles (please see the checklist at the end of the article for more information). Resourcefulness is also key. Being an international student has helped me build the resources I need to engage my current international students and overcome challenges I regularly face in teaching over the past decade. My current students gained academic confidence by acquiring evidence and assessing the quality of secondary sources to determine the best evidence-based in healthcare. As one of my Masters students explained regarding how the dissertation supervision kept her motivated:
“Dr Alzyood is an example of dedication and commitment in his work to ensure excellence in his students’ learning experiences. During our dissertation supervision meetings, Dr Alzyood took the time to grasp my goals and potential, while keeping me in control of my learning development and knowledge creation. He is my inspiration as a teacher” Mariana, MSc Public Health.
The organisation plays a crucial role in supporting international student experiences. The support available a decade ago was useful but the amount of support available now must be much greater because:
- there are more international students enrolling at UK universities and there is an increased need for support tailored to meet the unique needs of these students (Office for Students, 2022);
- with the increase in international students, awareness of their challenges and needs has increased;
- technological advances have made it easier to provide support to international students;
- higher education institutions are doing more to attract and retain international students.
Oxford Brookes University offers tailored support to international students (Oxford Brookes University, 2023a) and international students are always encouraged to form relationships with other students and staff to ease their transition to a new country and culture. The Centre for Academic Development offers resources, workshops, and tutorials on study skills, Academic English, mathematics, and statistics (Oxford Brookes University, 2023b).
A checklist of skills and techniques to effectively support international students
Among the many skills and techniques I developed in my transition from an international student to Lecturer are the 20 essentials below.
- To speak in a clear voice and at a moderate pace, and repeat when needed.
- To illustrate meanings with visual aids and examples from real life.
- To encourage students to ask questions and seek clarification when needed.
- To allow students to practise writing, listening and speaking at an advanced level.
- To maintain patience and avoid being angry when students make mistakes.
- To provide immediate feedback and instructional corrections – delay means worry.
- To offer instruction to accommodate different learning styles and levels.
- To create a positive and supportive learning environment in classrooms.
- To incorporate technologies in teaching to aid students’ interactive teaching.
- To continue monitoring and regularly assessing student progress.
- To help students adjust to new learning systems and cultures.
- To be aware of potential language and cultural barriers which impact communication.
- To avoid making assumptions and respect students’ cultures.
- To pause and reflect on teaching and look for ways to improve experiences.
- To inspire students to write for publication as a motivation for academic English writing.
- To give students time to edit their work and teach them the revision process.
- To direct students to the right support and resources to improve their writing skills.
- To encourage peer feedback as students learn from their peers.
- To use technologies that aid students’ writing, including grammar checkers.
- To offer additional support and assistance for students with special needs.
Alromaih, A. A., Alsehali, J. J. and Almotairi, H. N. (2022) ‘An analysis of anxiety and homesickness experienced by postgraduate and undergraduate Saudi students studying in the UK’, International Journal of Recent Innovations in Medicine and Clinical Research, 4(1), pp. 24-41.
Gill, S. (2007) ‘Overseas students’ intercultural adaptation as intercultural learning: a transformative framework’, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 37(2), pp. 167-183. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057920601165512
Magnusdottir, E. and Thornicroft, G. (2022) ‘Mental health of Chinese international students: narrative review of experiences in the UK’, NIHR Open Research, 2, p. 52. https://doi.org/10.3310/nihropenres.13268.1
Newsome, L. K. and Cooper, P. (2016) ‘International students’ cultural and social experiences in a British university:“Such a hard life [it] is here”’, Journal of International Students, 6(1), pp. 195-215. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v6i1.488
Office for Students (2022) ‘Learning more about international students’. Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/learning-more-about-international-students (Accessed: 19 January 2023).
Oxford Brookes University (2023a) ‘International Students’. Available at: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/study/international-students/ (Accessed: 19 January 2023).
Oxford Brookes University (2023b) ‘Centre for Academic Development’. Available at: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/study/international-students/ (Accessed: 19 January 2023).Winstone, N. E. (2022) ‘Characterising feedback cultures in higher education: an analysis of strategy documents from 134 UK universities’, Higher Education, 84(5), pp. 1107-1125. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-022-00818-8