The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

3. Supporting International Students of Economics at the University of Aberdeen

3.1 Background

The University of Aberdeen has a student population of around 16,000 from over 120 countries. Economics is taught at the Economics section of the University of Aberdeen Business School. Over the past 15 years there has been a noticeable change in the profile of student cohorts in that the majority of students used to be local, while now they are largely international. At the University of Aberdeen, like most Scottish universities, students enter a general four-year MA rather than an Economics degree programme. The first year is broad and the second year narrows students’ choices. It is at the end of the second year that students can commit to an Economics degree. Local students may be as young as 16 years old when they enter university and many have not studied Economics before. The system thus gives students the chance to choose to study the discipline from a position of experience at introductory and intermediate levels. In terms of lecturing, this means the first year cohort can be as large as 400 students, with numbers dropping to around 150 students in the second year.

3.2 Working in mixed groups to gain from complementary skills

There is agreement amongst staff interviewed that the participation of international students has driven up academic standards. Previously, many local students faced difficulties, particularly in relation to numerical skills, the general perception of students being that developing these skills was 'impossible'. International students typically have more extensive formal training in mathematics than their UK peers, often display outstanding numeracy skills and tend to have a very strong work ethic. Staff report that the high degree of effort international students invest in their university studies has raised the expectations of the Economics student population overall.

For all students to gain from the complementary skills of the local and international student cohorts, namely numerical and language skills, the Economics section ensures international and UK students work in mixed groups in tutorial situations and in group projects. Having a common goal enables international students to communicate at a deeper level and encourages them to make the effort to be understood by their UK peers, and vice versa. Student collaboration tends to increase as students progress to the third and fourth years, typically working more intensely in smaller groups, and on more focused and complex projects that require finer complementarities of skills amongst group members. Moreover, the skills gained from working in mixed groups are emphasised to students, as well as how these skills are transferable to their future professional lives.

The University of Aberdeen Business School and the Library have a number of allocated spaces for students to work in groups.

3.3 Being mindful of the use of language

At the University of Aberdeen Business School, Economics staff are particularly aware of using language that is accessible to international students. For example, expressions such as ‘fortnightly tutorials with students on odd weeks or even weeks’, are understood immediately by UK students but can cause confusion to international students. Does 'fortnightly' refer to fourteen or fifteen days, and does 'odd weeks' mean having tutorials now and then?

English words are also sometimes used differently in an academic context.

Staff are mindful initially to use a word consistently, and only subsequently introduce other words used in textbooks and journals, emphasising similarities and differences in meanings so that students learn when to use each word. For example, in Macroeconomics textbooks a policy may be referred to as 'effective' and further on as 'efficient'. Students may start to associate the word effective in the context of ‘an effective way to increase National Income is to increase Government expenditure’ with the achievement of a good result. So when given the situation of decreasing National Income by decreasing Government expenditure international students may be confused by the use of the word effective, as they associate this situation as not being favourable.

Latin words and expressions used in academic English can also be problematic. For example, ‘ex ante’ and ‘ad hoc’ are meaningless to many international students. Being mindful of explaining such expressions supports the learning of international students, and many UK students also benefit.

3.4 Using international examples: familiarity or unfamiliarity

International examples from around the world are used as international students engage well with examples from their countries and geographic area. The choice of international examples is considered carefully. Typical examples include the Mumbai Tiffin Box Association, Hong Kong gas and Singapore hawker stalls. Other examples are chosen which all students are likely to be familiar with or, on the contrary, that all students are likely to be unfamiliar with. In both cases, the great majority of students start from a very similar knowledge base. When discussing exchange rates, a typical Eurocentric choice is to use the Euro as the currency that many European students are very familiar with, and many non-European students are not familiar with at all. As an alternative to the Euro, the US Dollar can be used as many countries in the world trade in US Dollars. Choosing the Norwegian Krona has the advantage that very few students are likely to be familiar with it. Unfamiliar examples have the advantage that there are no pre-conceived ideas of value or how strong the currency might be, and can help students think about the fundamental principles and achieve deeper learning.

3.5 Supporting postgraduate international students in taught programmes improve their employability prospects

The MSc in International Business, Energy and Petroleum has been running for several years and the majority of the postgraduate students it attracts are from sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria and Ghana, Eastern Europe and EU students, many of which are from Germany. The proportion of UK students is typically less than 30%. Although the programme is very intensive on Economics and Finance, the academic background of the students is diverse. Besides students with an Economics background, who have a strong academic grounding in Mathematics, candidates who have excelled in other disciplines, who may have never had a Mathematics component in their undergraduate degrees, may also be offered places. Because of the students’ diverse starting points, both in terms of language and academic subject, the first semester aims at getting the students to an equivalent knowledge base.

From the first year the course ran, it become clear that a number of international students had anticipated that entry to the MSc implied entry to a job. The first step was to make it absolutely clear in all published information that the course leads to an academic qualification only and that it does not include a job. The programme’s organisers were keen that international students gained as much as possible from their time at the University of Aberdeen, so researched ways through which they could contribute to the professional aspirations of these students. This provided the programme with the opportunity to evolve in a non-traditional manner, compared to what is normally expected from an MSc in this field. The programme is now creating strong connections with local companies that can provide training to postgraduate students. While the students are still fully supervised by an academic supervisor, they also gain an industrial referee. The training is highly relevant to the topics of their academic dissertations and greatly enhances students' employability prospects both in the UK, and in their countries of origin where such training is greatly valued. Students gain a deeper understanding and practical experience of the working environment in UK companies, which frequently have international connections. Increasing the number of dissertations where there is an explicit contact with companies has enriched the overall postgraduate students’ experience at Aberdeen, while local companies also benefit from the presence of highly trained professionals from other cultures.

Collaboration with the Department of Engineering at the University of Aberdeen has greatly facilitated this process, since this type of collaboration is a well-established practice in Engineering. Also inspired by the practices of Engineering is that students receive guidance on presentation skills including what is required to prepare a presentation, to deliver it, and to respond to questions and comments from the audience. At the end of the MSc programme all the students present their work both as an oral presentation and as a poster during a dedicated event, which is attended by both business partners and academics. Experiencing the challenges of presenting to a diverse audience is crucial to the development of communication skills, which are fundamental for employability. For many international students, this is the first opportunity to learn and practise these skills, which they really value.

Listening to international students’ career expectations has created the need for the Economics section at the University of Aberdeen Business School to explore and adapt the expertise already available in another department. The result is a non-traditional MSc programme that is proving to be stronger in its scope as it provides the opportunity for students to develop close links with UK business and improve their employability skills.

3.6 Induction events in China: supporting international students in 2+2 programmes

The Economics section has 2+2 collaborative agreements with two Chinese universities. Undergraduate students from these universities study the first two years of their Degree in China and the final two years at the University of Aberdeen Business School in areas of Economics and Finance. Chinese students are very motivated and achieve outstanding results, on average, with many staying on for postgraduate studies.

As part of the programme, academic staff from Aberdeen travel to China to conduct induction events. They give talks highlighting the differences between studying in Aberdeen and studying in China, including assessment methods, writing styles, referencing and plagiarism. The collaboration of academic staff is crucial to provide specific information that goes beyond the expertise of administrative staff who run such events, and to interview candidates to ensure their academic level is suitable.

3.7 The role of the Advisors of Studies

International students have access to comprehensive information about the University of Aberdeen Business School that explains what they can expect, so that they can make informed choices before they arrive and whilst they are in Aberdeen. However, the School is well aware that international students may not fully understand the information provided.

The Advisors of Studies are academic members of staff who support international students within academic departments. They have experience and particular knowledge of the general support needs of international students. The Advisors of Studies meet the students soon after they arrive and advise them on key aspects of the academic organisation and the overall university experience. This includes an overview of the degree; the courses students can take; the facilities and services available; the Student Union; the structure of the university and how it operates; and very importantly, university regulations and what is expected from the students. Information concerning plagiarism is also emphasised, since this is a new concept for many students and at odds with the practice in some cultures.

The support services available, including Finance, Medical, English language and Counselling, are discussed, and international students are advised on what to do if there were to be changes in their personal circumstances that might affect their academic progress.

The extensive training provided by the Library is also discussed with students.

3.8 Training of postgraduate tutors

First year tutorials are given by postgraduate researchers who receive dedicated teacher training using interactive approaches, and based on the needs of international students. Tutors participate in the training provided by the Economics Network for Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs). They also receive in-house training, which includes attending the first lecture of the course to meet the new students, and to develop a real sense of being part of the teaching team. Further, tutors meet lecturers regularly to discuss any issues or approaches to be used. Many tutors are international themselves, and the opportunity to be trained comprehensively supports them to develop and practise teaching styles, and further allows them to understand UK academic practices at a deeper level.

3.9 Assessment

Staff at the University of Aberdeen have learnt from experience how different cultures have different expectations towards assessment. For example, in the past a whole group of international students from a Scandinavian country failed their first year exams as they had no prior experience of time-limited exams. Other international students have failed the most basic multiple-choice questions due to not understanding what is required. Regarding essays, some international students produce long pieces of work that touch on many different issues rather than an in-depth account of a specific aspect. Many international students do not understand the specific terminology in questions, and what makes the difference between a first and a 2.1.

With regards to the choices of courses available, it is sometimes the case that international students self-select courses for which the assessment is less language intensive. For example, many Asian students choose courses with Mathematics and Statistics and avoid courses whose assessment involves essay writing. To balance this situation, and taking into account that international students who are awarded a degree from a British university are expected to have a high level of academic language, exams are organised so that students utilise and develop both their numerical and language skills. Being specific, clear and providing prompt feedback is important to all students, but to international students in particular, as they are more likely to be uncertain about what is expected of them. Economics lecturers show students how they are expected to answer exam questions, including how to structure the answers by analysing past exam papers. International students are shown resources available from the Economics Network, which can be very helpful for studying and exam preparation.

3.10 Supporting international students develop oral, written and feedback skills

Students choosing to study Economics in year 2 are given the opportunity to give a formal oral presentation, for which they receive feedback from their peers and from the lecturer. The students in the audience are asked to give constructive feedback on the presentation content; what could have been done better; what could be added or removed; and how it could develop further if it was to be written down as an essay.

In years 3 and 4 of International Economics, this process is taken further. The students have to prepare and give a presentation for which they receive feedback from both peers and the lecturer, and they then have to write the presentation in an essay format taking on board the comments received. The assessment is in two stages, each of which is half-weighted. The visibility element of the presentation, where students have to share their expertise, is very different from the nature of essays. Essays tend to be more private and the feedback is normally read in isolation and even when shared with others, it does not tend to have the same impact. International students in particular do not always fully understand the meaning of some written comments as they can be ambiguous, but they may not ask for clarification. In oral presentations there are more opportunities to clarify what is meant, and other students may enquire about alternatives.

It is also important for students to manage their expectations as they do not always have a realistic view of their abilities. The opportunity for peer reference and to discover where they are relative to the group is both revealing and a useful mechanism for motivating improvement. It is more of a discussion of possibilities that if managed properly can result in a very high standard of work.

International students may never have had to write an essay in the past, and may struggle with structure and language to present an argument. However, many British students who traditionally had essay writing skills at entry level are no longer trained as intensively at secondary school. With the training provided at the Economics section of the University of Aberdeen Business School and the opportunities to practise and learn from feedback, the standard of students' work tends to increase very quickly and then stay high. Students who wish to perform well can also gain from the reference standards of their peers. Presenting their work, giving and responding to constructive feedback, and presenting arguments in writing are very important skills for students’ future careers. The process is very work-intensive but students, particularly international students, greatly benefit from the skills gained.