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What do international students want? How can we best support them?

By Cindy Xinquan Jiang posted 01-29-2021 04:01 PM


In this blog, Dr. Ming Cheng who received the 2020 TLS Innovative Research in International Education Award shares her story about researching international student experience and the need for a culture of kindness in internationalizing teaching, learning, and beyond.

Why research international student experience?

It is my great honour to have won the NAFSA TLS KC 2020 Innovative Research in International Education Award.

My interest in international student’s perspective on curriculum internationalization is when I was working as an academic developer in a UK university. I was often approached by Chinese students asking for help.

Most of their concerns were linked to feelings of isolation: they also commented on a lack of opportunities to practise English on campus. “The MA programme is not value for money” was one comment that struck me.

I felt for them and I still do. These students paid high tuition fees and expensive living costs, but their experiences clearly contrasted with their rosy expectations: a unique opportunity to see the world, make new friends, improve their English, experience a different culture, and great career prospects.

When I asked them why they didn’t share their concerns with their course tutors, some students turned quiet. Others said: “They don’t care” or even “Some tutors don’t like Chinese students”.

My own experience as an international student has taught me that studying abroad isn’t easy, and that more support is needed. The international students who came to me for help inspired my research questions: What can I do for them? Do other Chinese international students have similar issues? And how could we promote truly international experiences on campus? I led a project funded by the Higher Education Academy inspired by these students.

 My research on curriculum internationalisation

The research aimed to find out more about the experiences of international students. First the team interviewed students and academics, programme directors and university managers in Scottish and Australian universities. We then went on to design a questionnaire for over three hundred Chinese postgraduate students about their experiences of international study. The research team found that despite an increased awareness of the idea of curriculum internationalisation, practice was patchy. Courses often failed to recognise the expectations of their students that they would need to apply their learning to specifically Chinese contexts, having a major impact on their employability when they returned ‘home’. Teaching approaches failed to address the challenges international students faced, for example in terms of group work. Students reported that they felt treated differently and had been discriminated against. They often found that instead of opportunities to develop their English, they were working in national groups, with little or no intervention by staff to overcome by the barriers they faced.  Opportunities to improve the intercultural awareness of all students, and overcome barriers between national groups, were often missed.

It is not a new story that many universities provide little training to faculty staff to help them think about the interests and challenges faced by international students. This together with the lack of international course elements and limited opportunities to improve international students’ job prospects means many international students question the value of studying MA programmes in a western university.

Developing a culture of kindness on campus

My ongoing research into internationalisation suggests that a ‘kindness approach’ could be the solution in order to increase positive interactions on campus and develop a truly international and inclusive learning environment for all students. This could avoid western universities losing out as they face an increasingly competitive international student market. 

Kindness here refers to “selfless acts performed by a person wishing to either help or positively affect the emotional state (mood) of another person” (Passmore & Oades 2015, 90). Acts of kindness are valued by international students as they can create positive impact on their learning and wellbeing. Chinese students often regard kindness as a quality pertinent to maintaining interpersonal relationships. Kindness is demonstrated by teachers knowing student names, treating students as equals, being interested in their work, and caring about their wellbeing.

Promoting kind acts in teaching, learning and service support on campus will be a shared project by all staff and students, as it involves endeavours and willingness from all. Encouraging staff’s responsiveness to student needs and increasing the support that enhances students’ language and social skills for positive interactions could make a good start to develop a culture of kindness.

The lack of interaction between domestic students and international students from Asian backgrounds is a persistent issue in western university. Staff and students will need solid support and training from the university to appreciate different cultures and develop their intercultural awareness and competence.

Developing a culture of kindness will not be a straightforward process, and it will take time. However, increased acts of kindness will increase the opportunities for the institutions to demonstrate their humane and caring understanding of the challenges facing international students. That kindness will unlock the tremendous potential that lies within the students and improve their learning and social experiences.


Find out more about Ming Cheng’s research into internationalisation:


Follow Ming on Twitter: @MingCheng8