The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

12. Being open to promoting interaction for integration

A key issue surrounding international students is integration with UK students. Even though many international and UK students would like to interact more, they often misinterpret each others intentions. For example a study found that Australian students often think that international students prefer not to mix with them, and vice versa (Volet and Ang, 1998).

In Economics in particular, poor integration is a missed opportunity for very interesting discussions as international students represent a variety of economic regimes from all over the world. Students from diverse academic traditions also have complementary skills that can be used as a resource for learning. An example is that some international students have higher levels of mathematical ability but struggle with economic intuition and interpretation of results compared with UK students. Interaction that specifically acknowledges these complementary skills can be valuable as international students can check the mathematics of UK students and UK students can check the intuition and explanations of the international students (Long and Barnett, 2008).

Below we discuss how to achieve integration through interaction. We analyse the space provided by the lecture theatre to interact; we give step-by step guidance on how to promote and monitor interaction in the lecture or tutorial; we discuss issues relevant to games and case studies; we discuss group work outside the lecture or tutorial; and we share views on e-interaction.

There may be students who do not like to engage in activities. As long as we provide alternatives for these students to learn (e.g. watching the behaviour of others; trying to look into emerging patterns on their own) we are not excluding them from learning.

12.1. The lecture space

In our experience, the lecture space is fundamental to initiating interaction between all students under our guidance. Sharda (1995) highlights the importance of the cultural awareness and sensitivity of staff in supporting the workings of culturally diverse groups, and that group work in class provides opportunities for staff to monitor groups’ social dynamics.

The size and seating arrangements in lecture theatres often make them appear unwelcoming spaces, and students tend to sit next to their friends. So a common justification against embedding interaction in lectures is that it can only be done in small groups, and in rooms where students can walk around.

Some lecturers and teachers may be reluctant to encourage students to interact, as they are concerned that it does not result in real learning. Marburger (2005) investigated the impact of replacing the traditional lecture format with co-operative learning (where students work on exercises in small groups) in principles of microeconomics classes. He observed that students’ application of theory and level of economic reasoning was higher in students who participated in co-operative learning as compared with students who attended traditional lectures. Whilst there is no mention of the cultural background of the students involved in his study, these findings support our observations of improved learning and integration of international and UK students through interacting in lectures regardless of audience numbers and room type. Sloman (2002) also describes running workshops very successfully in lecture theatres.

12.2. Interaction in the lecture and tutorial, step-by step

Activities for interaction include those proposed by Sloman and Mitchell (2002) such as anticipating outcomes to scenarios presented; comparing notes; sharing doubts; filling in gaps in handouts; answering questions; sharing thoughts relating to a quote; anticipating trends in curves; and predicting behaviours.

In our experience, groups of three make good groups as everyone has a chance to contribute fairly, in a short time. Bigger groups may defeat the purpose.

When planning these activities for the lecture, we allocate 1 minute per student per group, plus 1 minute to write down keywords, plus 1 minute per group to share in plenary. In a variation of this format, we give 1 minute for students to reflect on the question on their own and to write down keywords, and then another 2 minutes for students to share in small groups. Instead of asking groups to share in plenary, we can show the students the answers to the activities proposed and give them another 3 minutes to compare in their groups with what they had achieved.

We specifically ask students to form groups of three with others they have not worked with before. We say and write something along the lines of ‘Please find two people sitting within your reach that you have not worked with before.’ In the following schematics we suggest ways to form groups of three. Students sitting in adjacent rows across a corridor can easily stand up and change places. This gives enough variety to group membership.

Figure 1 Schematic of sitting arrangements in an amphitheatre type room where the rectangles represent rows, and same-fill adjacent circles represent students working in the same group.

Top Tip

If students are reluctant to interact they may need some encouragement or clarification. Having written instructions and aims, and reaffirming the benefits of interaction, is usually sufficient for students to engage. We should give the choice to students who prefer to work on their own to do so.

International and UK students generally enjoy working this way and are constructive about overcoming difficulties in communication to complete the activities successfully.

Frequently, students start by introducing themselves and where they come from, which is a great step for integration.

Our observations over the years lead us to conclude that there are a number of valuable outcomes of proposing such activities, for motivating integration of international students:

  1. Students work together who might not otherwise interact.
  2. Engaging in such activities on a regular basis prepares students to listen to different ways of expression including different accents, and different culturally informed views.
  3. Students tend to leave the lectures in mixed, rather than in the initial same-cultural background, groups.
  4. This is a constructive foundation for more demanding group work outside the lecture.

Top Tip

As students come to expect working in mixed groups in lectures they no longer sit next to their friends and clusters of same-cultural background students (e.g. UK only; Greek only; Chinese only) tend to disperse. Apart from integration in the lecture, interaction may also nurture informal peer support networks.

Interaction in the lecture motivates international students and further energises all the class. We find that it no longer takes most of the semester or academic year for international students to develop enough trust in us and in the rest of the group to be willing to contribute.

12.3. Games and case studies

Using games and case studies in lectures or seminars can help make Economics lectures and tutorials more meaningful and help to motivate students (see for example Sloman and Mitchell, 2002; and Volpe, 2002). When asked about aspects of their Economics degree that could be improved* students refer to more interactive elements, such as games, experiments and role-play.

There are three issues we feel important to address when considering such approaches in an international environment.

  1. We need to be realistic in our planning of how long the activities take, so that the conclusions at the end are not rushed, which can lead to international students being unable to follow.
  2. International students may need longer to understand why games and case studies are relevant for their learning.
  3. Following instructions with jargon that international students cannot recognise can be de-motivating. Even if we reassure the students that they will understand once they engage with the activity, it is still very frustrating to try to do something they have not understood.

Top Tip

Enriching the instructions of games and case studies with multisensory resources can help international students better understand and recall information.

For example, a game with very simple instructions such as ‘Setting up a pit market’, used to introduce the supply and demand model, can be initially very confusing for international students. So how can multisensory resources be of help? Do all international students know what a pit market is? Why not show a photograph? When the roles of buyers and sellers are allocated, can we enrich the verbal instructions with visual or auditory cues? Small changes can make it easier to memorise the roles so we could allocate the buyers (and highlight the b for buyers) with the black cards (and highlight the b in black) to make it easier to remember. Also can we complement this with showing and keeping visible the colour of the cards? Can we use a simple cartoon to explain the instructions?

12.4. Group work outside the lecture or tutorial

Group work can be invaluable for students to acquire and develop values and skills. Equally, it can be very frustrating and discourage students from interacting. If this is the case when all group members have attended the same or comparable educational system, having a mixed international and UK membership can bring far more complexity to group work. Different (and divergent) unspoken culturally-influenced values, expectations and prior skills become more salient when trying to comply with deadlines. Our observations indicate that students who experience culturally mixed groups regard anticipated difficulties as manageable supporting the findings of Volet and Ang (1998) and those of De Vita (2005: 77). We too find it important to share these affirmative outcomes of culturally diverse group work with all students to remove unhelpful preconceptions. Carroll (2005) also addresses some interesting issues related to group work.

Before suggesting international students work in groups, it is important to consider the following issues carefully.

1. Suggesting group work at the beginning of the course is not wise as some international students will still be struggling with language, learning how systems work, and trying to access information including the library, internet and intranet, and VLEs. They may therefore be unable fully and equally to participate in group work.

2. International and UK students interact better in groups if they have already had plenty of opportunities to work together during lectures and tutorials as suggested before. Still we have to be aware that unless we do the group allocation, UK and international students might not mix.

Top Tip

In group allocation we need to be sensitive as international conflicts can make some students reluctant to work with others. We must make it clear to all students that if there is a reason why they would like a different group allocation, they can contact us in confidence.

3. Whilst in some countries, students have more exposure of assessed group work than in the UK, in other countries group work may be considered as not real learning. So whilst some international students will have very professional, proactive and constructive approaches to group work others will be uninterested and disengaged.

4. To assess the process undergone we can ask all students to submit reflective journals. Self-regulation and keeping records of emails exchanged, when meetings took place, what was discussed and decided and who attended can be very useful for us to balance who did what and when. Our experience is that many international students do not understand the relevance of reflective journals. Can we provide them with examples and can we make it explicit that these are part of the assessment?

5. We need to clarify what we expect to get from group work; what the roles are within the group; how we expect the group to self-regulate and that all contribute fairly; the typical barriers to group work and how they might be overcome; and what students can gain and what the challenges might be.

For example, in many cases, working in groups with international and UK membership can be slow, with the potential for misunderstandings. Some international students feel that they are not given the opportunities to express themselves, are being misunderstood intentionally, and are being rushed to make decisions. Some UK students may feel that the progress is insufficient and they are effectively wasting time, not learning as much, and that they will be marked down. Some other international students with more experience of group work may feel that UK students do not make enough effort.

Top Tip

Make explicit to all students the values and skills they can gain from group work and the added value of an international membership. Also be clear about the difficulties that groups with a culturally-diverse membership can pose and how the difficulties may be manifested in practice.

Shanahan and Meyer (2003) observed that awarding bonus points for completion of a non-traditional curricular task related to learning issues resulted in increased student responses, and supported students’ perceptions of the legitimacy of the task as integral, rather than external, to the course. An equivalent approach can be incorporated regarding knowledge and understanding of different cultures as an item that contributes to the final assessment of group work. We first need to ensure how specific we expect students to be in return about what they have learnt from each culture presented in the group.

12.5. International students giving presentations

Some international students may not have encountered this type of academic situation, and some may be too uncomfortable with their way of expression in English, as expressed by an Economics student:*

  • ‘(…) in terms of presentations it was quite problematic for me to speak in front of people.’

Asking international students to give presentations can result in unnecessary tension. Adjustments may help the student feel more comfortable with the situation. For example, would the student prefer giving the presentation in a smaller room, to a smaller audience? Or maybe to read from a script while sitting down?

An issue to consider is whether allowances should be made for oral fluency of international students when giving presentations. McMahon (2007) argues that since students will be assumed to have a very good command of English on finishing their degree in the UK, they should be judged in the same way as UK students. However, international students may sometimes feel it unfair to be penalised due to their use of language. We would suggest that if such a criterion is to be adopted, international students should be given plenty of support on their presentation skills, and staff assessing the presentation should give specific feedback on what and how exactly the use of language can be improved, so that international students can work towards specific goals.

All students preparing to give presentations have to be aware of the diversity of audience needs including those of (other) international students. We can specify what we do in our practice to support the learning of international students, including making available materials beforehand; writing down questions; making references available; and responding to questions and comments in an affirmative manner. We can formalise criteria relating to clarity of the presentation to international audiences in the evaluation sheet.

Top Tip

Avoid asking international students to read aloud in lectures or tutorials as this can cause embarrassment for those who are self-conscious about their pronunciation, particularly at the beginning of their course.

12.6. E-interactions

Virtual learning environments (VLEs) and Web 2.0 social networking platforms tools can allow us to communicate with students in a way that is a very effective use of our time. In addition, outside the academic context, and irrespective of language and cultural differences, many students are increasingly using social networking sites to share interests. If we use these means to enrich our teaching we may facilitate students’ engaging with the subject.

Web 2.0 networking can be used to great effect to promote learning of academic content and interaction of international and UK students in and outside the class. A colleague (Abdullah, 2008) observes that attention, interest and participation levels among all students increases visibly as an immediate result of the introduction of such platforms in class. Students are also more enthusiastic and interactive when tasks relying on Web 2.0 tools are suggested at the end of the session. Communicating academic content using spaces students use to socialise seems to make the students perceive the subject and the lecturer or teacher as familiar and motivating.

However, we would like to caution that some colleagues feel that they effectively spend more time moderating students’ contributions. Good training on the advantages and disadvantages and time management skills required when using Web platforms is recommended before we consider proposing their use as learning tools.