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13. Being sensitive with questions, answers and comments

13.1. Offering questions and inviting comments

One of the most recurrent comments about international students is that they do not contribute in lectures or tutorials. The classic ‘Are there any questions?’ followed by an uncomfortable silence, is often used to justify moving on quickly. But, do we find it easy to interrupt the Dean or Vice Chancellor with a question or comment without feeling that it may seem obvious or irrelevant to the rest of the audience? International students have the added tension of simultaneously internally debating how to articulate the question or comment in ‘good English’. In our view, questions should be used as offering opportunities to learn. However, they can sometimes be felt as threats.

Top Tip

If we want international students to contribute to a discussion we have to anticipate that initially they may struggle to find the right words or expressions, and may need more time than UK students. In addition, international students are more likely to contribute with questions and opinions when they feel safe that they will not be ridiculed for their English.

An approach we have adopted in our practice that motivates international students to answer questions is as follows:

1. We avoid asking questions directly of individual students, whether international or UK.

2. We are also particularly aware of the difficulties in presenting international students with a text that they have not had an opportunity to prepare, and asking them to respond to questions. If we want to consider written material not made available beforehand, we must give enough time for international students to read it. A good approach is that we read the material twice over in silence, and that usually corresponds to the time many international students take to read once.

3. We always write the question down with clearly legible handwriting (or have it already written in slide shows, OHTs, etc.) and keep it visible so that international students can refer back to it without having to ask us to repeat. This has two practical advantages as we avoid the following:

a) when we repeat the question, we are likely to rephrase it and generate added questions or slight variations from the original one, which can confuse international students;

b) international students may not realise at first that we are asking a question (particularly if we do not use emphasis), and may worry that we think they are not paying attention.

3. We give students 3 minutes to discuss in groups of three what the answer/answers might be.

4. We reassure the students that:

  1. We can all learn from doubts, so doubts are learning resources.
  2. All interpretations are initially valid, and initially we are more interested in diversity rather than focus on the quality of the contributions.
  3. We are more interested in giving students opportunities for them to test their own understanding than in assessing their individual knowledge at that point in time. This way we get to know and can then clarify, for example, plausible or intuitive but wrong views, that several students may have.
  4. The more difficulties and misconceptions raised and elucidated before the exams, the better for all!
  5. Abstract, complex concepts need time to mature and become clear.
  6. Inevitably, some students will be focusing more at some times than others, and together in groups they may have got all or most of the message.

5. We suggest that one of the students writes down the answers produced by the group on a separate A4 piece of paper, clarifying that we are interested in the combined contribution and not on who contributed with what.

6. Once the groups have been talking for 3 minutes we remind them that they should start writing notes on what they want to share, and we give them an extra minute to do so. In our experience this refocuses the students on the task and supports them in being succinct.

7. To get the attention of very animated students we clap three or four times.

8. Because of time constraints, we do not ask all the groups to share their contributions in the lecture. We randomly select two or three groups to read out their findings with one of the group members reading the group notes.

9. We ask all groups to share their contributions on a VLE or by email.

10. We remind them that whilst the posting will be done by one of the group members, it is important that the comments are anonymous, i.e. we do not identify which group member contributed with what.

11. Being realistic: even if only two groups share their contributions in the lecture, we need to allocate 4 minutes for group work and 3 minutes for sharing.

In our experience if a group interpreted the question differently from what we had originally expected, they typically apologise for interpreting the ‘wrong way’. We reassure them that their contribution is still welcome. This is a good opportunity to clarify how to interpret types of question and is valuable preparation for exams and essays. We should take note in the session plan of the different interpretations of a question as this can inform us when writing exam questions, and reflect on how to make the question clearer. If several groups interpret our question in ways we had not expected, it is a strong indication that the question needs to be rephrased.

Top Tip

International students are more likely to contribute and to take risks if there is a shared responsibility for the contributions and they are not the sole focus of attention. Even students with strong accents do not generally have problems in contributing when they are talking with their neighbours.

This approach has enabled us to probe and learn misconceptions students have regarding the topics taught; to reflect on the areas of our lecturing we need to clarify further; and to help international students feel that they can contribute to everyone’s learning regardless of their perceived communication difficulties.

In seminars and tutorials, where more time can be allocated for each question and student cohorts are smaller, we can invite all groups to share the answers obtained.

Top Tip

In tutorials, groups can show their responses using a visualiser or putting up their contributions on the wall so that all students can go round the room and read them. We need to allocate 10 minutes for this, but we can be sure that all feel focused and energised.

Advantages of this approach include that:

  1. we save time, as we avoid groups repeating or rephrasing the same items;
  2. we avoid the potential distractions that result from listening to all the contents of all posters
  3. to tick or add an item to a poster implies that at least one member of each group is paying enough attention;
  4. all groups feel they have contributed, even if to inform us that all items have been covered by previous groups.

13.2. Responding to questions/comments

When it comes to responding to questions or comments from international students we have adopted the following approach.

If we understood the question being asked, we start by repeating the question or comment (or rephrasing it, particularly if it needs to be simplified) to check that our understanding represents the student’s meanings. We write down the question/comment or its keywords on the board. Very importantly, this gives the opportunity for all students to read the contribution, and be prepared to engage with the answer.

We thank the student for their contribution. We may say ‘thank you’, ‘that is a relevant point’ or ‘that’s an interesting question’. What we are signalling to all the students is that we welcome their willingness to contribute, and that the whole group can benefit. Even if it is a request to repeat what we have just said, we thank the student as we can anticipate that several international students may also have missed that particular point.

Top Tip

Aim to keep answers short and simple, and avoid going into lengthy answers or too much detail as international students may be unable to follow. Writing keywords and drawing visual elements such as a diagram or flow chart on the board can be of help.

When we finish, we can check that our response has addressed the question and open the possibility for the students to contact us if issues remain. For example, we may say ‘Does this answer your question?’, ‘I hope this answers your question’, ‘Any issues remaining please come and see me afterwards’, ‘We can discuss this further at the tutorial/seminar’. We can invite the students to post queries on the VLE or by email, e.g. ‘Please email me to remind me of this conversation’.

What if we perceive a question or a comment as provocative? This is where we need to be very aware of the cultural differences that we have mentioned in section 2. Cultural differences influence the responses we expect from International students, and our interpretations of unexpected responses. Students may sound inappropriately aggressive, apologetic or disengaged/uninterested and be genuinely unaware of being perceived that way.

When there are misunderstandings or misperceptions that are uncomfortable or potentially threatening for those involved, it is best to try to safeguard everyone’s values and worth. For example, if we feel that an international student is undermining what we are saying, we can anticipate that there might be a misunderstanding and we can ask the student to specify what the misunderstanding is. If the student is not co-operative, we can diffuse the situation by suggesting that the discussion is continued at a later date, e.g. on the VLE. Unless there is a way of communicating sensitively to the student how that behaviour may be interpreted, the student will not know, and may never develop the appropriate behaviour. In our experience, we have never had to take more severe action such as asking the student to leave the room or having to call the security, and hope that we will never be faced with such uncomfortable situations!

13.3. Supporting international students in sharing doubts and comments

International students may be particularly concerned that their sentences are confusing and about forgetting what they want to say. In our experience, giving opportunities for them to work in small groups in the lecture or tutorial results in more questions from them.

Top Tip

International students should write down their contributions (questions, comments) and can read from the script. Students tend to be more focused and clear using this method than when trying to contribute from memory alone. This also makes it possible for us to see the script if we cannot understand the student’s accent.

Once the question or comment is clear to us, we can summarise it for the benefit of all present and, if relevant, can write it down on the board.

The focus is always on enabling communication and not making the students feel inadequate for their accent or their different sentence constructions