How colleges help foreign grad students with teaching

During her first semester as a graduate teaching assistant at Ohio University, Noora Mahboubeh was terrified. The Iranian doctoral student in chemical and biomolecular engineering often struggled to understand her students’ questions, and they weren’t always sympathetic to her difficulties with English.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

She started to gain confidence after enrolling in an English-language improvement programme, one of many services the university provides to international graduate students who want to communicate better as instructors.

"I learned to not pretend that I can understand something," Mahboubeh says. "I’m not as afraid of making mistakes anymore. When I can’t understand something, I just ask."

For colleges, the challenges faced by foreign graduate teaching assistants like Mahboubeh are nothing new. Some state legislatures as far back as the 1980s passed laws that require such students to demonstrate a given level of English proficiency before they can teach in the classroom. Many colleges set their own thresholds.

But the language problem is a particularly stubborn one, with institutions today still looking for the best ways to fix it. The National Science Foundation recently awarded US$1 million to Stony Brook University to study communication between international teaching assistants and American undergraduates.

One reason the problem is so persistent is simply volume. American undergraduates are increasingly being taught by international graduate students. In 2014, the latest year for which federal data are available, nearly 30% of doctoral recipients in the United States were temporary visa holders, almost double what the proportion was three decades ago.

Even so, some colleges still don’t provide resources to help those teaching assistants to communicate more effectively in the classroom, says Krishna Bista, editor of the Journal of International Students.

Bista, who is from Nepal, can sympathise. As a doctoral student at Arkansas State University – he earned his PhD in 2013 – he was lucky to have a mentor who helped him with classroom communication skills. The faculty member sat in on Bista’s classes and videotaped lectures, which they reviewed together.

With colleges unable to always offer such personalised assistance, here are several creative ways that institutions have sought to improve the communication skills of international graduate teaching assistants.

Build your own tests

Many colleges rely on oral tests to measure teaching assistants’ language skills, often using standardised tests, like the Educational Testing Service’s Speak test. Some have created their own tests.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, international graduate students take the English Proficiency Interview, in which they speak before a panel of raters trained in the use of English as a second language. Because the process relies on face-to-face interaction, says Sue Ann Ingels, who coordinates the sessions, the interviewers can see how effective the graduate student is in responding to questions relevant to teaching.

"Everything we do is embedded in a teaching context," she says. "The language skills they need as a teacher in the classroom are going to be much more sophisticated than the ones they need to be successful as a student."

Students who do not pass the interview test are directed to campus resources, including a trio of courses designed for international teaching assistants.

Make an app

At Cornell University, international graduate students typically need about 200 hours of advanced practice before they are proficient enough to become teaching assistants, says Kimberly Kenyon, director of Cornell’s International Teaching Assistants Program.

This poses a problem, she notes, because doctoral students, especially those settling into a new culture, are extremely busy at first with their research and classes. So Cornell has embraced technology, with an online language lab, through which students can do audio and video homework and can practice pronunciation on their smartphones on their own time.

"They’re not going to have time to talk to somebody for 200 hours," Kenyon says. "But everyone has a phone within days of arriving. We’re capitalising on that."

Focus on cultural skills

A key part of helping international students to communicate more effectively in the classroom is giving them broader cultural skills, says Karen Head, director of the Communication Center at Georgia Tech.

International teaching assistants "tend to focus so much on the basic language issues, and, in some ways, that’s often really the last thing they need to be focusing on", Head says. "I’ve seen grammatically perfect papers that didn’t say anything."

The newly arrived graduate students often struggle to navigate American culture, and that can hurt their classroom communication. A Chinese student, she says, may spend too much time summarising information rather than making an argument because "Chinese rhetorical tradition, as far as academic work goes, says you haven’t earned the right yet to take on people".

Staff members in her office and others who work with international students must gently explain American academic culture, Head says. "Those same apprehensions they have with their research can translate into the classroom."

Her centre works on helping international graduate students better explain their research to lay audiences. Like many colleges, Georgia Tech encourages those students to learn how to boil down their dissertations by connecting with competitions like Three Minute Thesis.

Improve listening

Bias may play a role in undergraduate attitudes toward international teaching assistants. A 1992 study by Donald Rubin, a speech-communication professor at the University of Georgia, found that undergraduates rated a four-minute lecture accompanied by a photograph of a white woman as more comprehensible than the same lecture – recorded by the same American doctoral student, raised in Ohio – with a photo of a Chinese woman.

The results, wrote Rubin, who is now a professor emeritus, "provide dramatic evidence that North American undergraduates are reacting to factors extraneous to just language proficiency".

Communication is, of course, a two-way street, notes Dawn Bikowski, director of the English Language Improvement Program at Ohio University. The responsibility should be shared by speaker and listener and is, in part, an issue of campus culture, she says.

Bikowski and others at Ohio try to instil a willingness in undergraduates to understand "different Englishes". They recruit undergraduates to help rate the oral proficiency tests and then ask them to reflect on how their own listening skills have shifted. They visit classes to encourage patience and empathy for international teaching assistants.

"We don’t want to give the message that only the international teaching assistant needs to change," Bikowski says. "As listeners, we bear responsibility to have a willingness to work harder, within reason, to understand an individual who speaks in a way we’re not accustomed to, instead of assuming you can’t learn anything from that person."

Get dramatic

Ohio University’s programme is also joining with the theatre department in workshops. The theatre students get experience with different accents, and the international students learn techniques like breath control and intonation patterns.

An American theatre student and Mahboubeh, the teaching assistant from Iran, tried to mimic each other’s accents. When they couldn’t meet, they made videos and played them side by side. "It was a really fun experience," Mahboubeh says.

The collaboration is about building confidence as much as language skills. "The international student can do many things to sound more natural and relaxed, and theatre students are very good at that," Bikowski says. "And they’re outgoing. So they can help with students who might be shy, and build a personal relationship."

Vimal Patel covers graduate education. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.