Research Note: How do International Teaching Assistants Learn the Norms Surrounding Teaching Communication in Canada?, Spring 2011

Accessible Version

By Nadine LeGros, Language & Communication Instructor, TSC

ABSTRACT: Studying in a foreign university has its challenges: over and above the fact that international students are uprooted from all things familiar in their previous lives, they are transplanted into an academic world of foreign terrain. Everything is different: the relationships and communication between instructors and students; how much material is taught—how it is taught; and what constitutes demonstration of knowledge (Cadman, 2000; Eland, 2001; Hofstede, 2001; Roach, Cornett-Devito, & DeVito, 2005). Whether international students manage to adjust their stride to this new terrain determines how successful they will be in their studies. Teaching in a foreign university takes these difficulties and compounds them exponentially, and how international teaching assistants (ITAs) adjust to the new terrain affects overall learning outcomes of undergraduates (Crabtree & Sapp, 2004; Jenkins, 2000; Tyler, 1995; McCroskey, 2003). This article summarizes the findings of a quantitative and qualitative study I conducted from May, 2008 to May, 2009 which measured the outcomes of “Communication in the Canadian Classroom”—a non-credit course designed to familiarize ITAs with the norms and expectations of Canadian students and Canadian academia.

INTRODUCTION: The ability to explain complex concepts effectively is considered to be one of the top five competencies of instructional communication (Smith & Simpson, 1995). Conversely, indicators of incompetence include making content confusing and not being able to provide examples to illustrate principles (Raths & Lyman, 2003). What complicates perceptions of competence for ITAs is that culture influences communication and how individuals understand and respond to messages (Gudykunst & Kim, 2003). Differences in how concepts are explained coupled with the fact that the language of instruction is the ITA’s second language sometimes result in perceptions of incompetence. The goal of this study was to illustrate how intercultural training can help ITAs transcend these challenges and develop teaching communication competence.

The intercultural dimension that most influences how ITAs explain concepts is the low context/high context spectrum. Communication in North American academia is low context (Hall, 1976; Hofstede, 2001). This means that communication is very direct, its logic is very linear and step-by-step, and the speaker is expected to make the point succinctly and explicitly. Low context communication in a classroom manifests itself in the expectation that it is the instructor’s responsibility to ensure that students understand. Furthermore, ITAs report they have a limited range of strategies to deliver ideas (Luo, Grady & Bellows, 2001). Janet M. Bennett, a leading intercultural communication scholar, estimates that only approximately 5% of the world engages in low context communication (personal communication, July, 2006), which means that it is safe to assume that almost all international students in North America will tend to operate with higher context communication patterns than North Americans.

High context communication is indirect, its logic tends to be more circular, and it makes use of repetition and implication to make a point. The speaker might lead the listener near the point, but the listener is expected to deduce the point and connect the dots. In high context communication, it is primarily the student’s responsibility to understand the instructor, and assumptions are made about how much knowledge is shared. What exacerbates this assumption is that ITAs already overestimate student knowledge due to differences in academic systems (Eland, 2001).

One mechanism that has been used at Western to help ITAs understand how to teach in the low context communication environment of the Canadian classroom is a non-credit 40-hour course offered through the Teaching Support Centre called “Communication in the Canadian Classroom” (CCC). In the course, students engage in multiple microteaching components, which involves teaching their classmates about a topic from their disciplines for 10 minutes and then fielding questions from the audience. The participants receive feedback on their teaching from their peers and their instructor. As a result of these interactions it was hoped that ITAs would improve in their use of effective teaching behaviours and that they would become more aware of the norms and expectations of Canadian students and Canadian academia.

METHODOLOGY: The participants in the study consisted of 13 Masters students and 14 PhD students (10F, 17M). The countries of origins of the participants were: Iran (9); China (3); Colombia (3); Egypt (3); the Ukraine (2); Pakistan (1); Romania (1); India (1); Iraq (1); Taiwan (1); Ghana (1); and Saudi Arabia (1). The participants had been in Canada between one month and seven years. Data for this study consisted of videotaped students’ microteachings from the beginning of the course and from the end of the course. The microteach sessions were coded using the Teacher Behavior Inventory (TBI; Murray, 1983).

The TBI is a checklist of teaching behaviors used to assess instructors’ teaching effectiveness. This checklist captures low-inference teaching behaviors, defined as “specific classroom behaviors of the instructor which can be recorded by direct observation” (p. 138). An abridged 18-item version of the original TBI was utilized consisting of five subscales: clarity; enthusiasm; interaction; organization; and speech (hereafter referred to as the Sum of the TBI Items) as well as a single item assessing the Overall Ratings of general effectiveness of the instructor. The TBI items are on a Likert scale from 1 (almost never) to 5 (almost always). The Overall Rating is a response to the statement, “I am generally effective as an instructor” with ranges from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: Based on the observations by two trained observers, the ITAs’ mean score for the Sum of TBI Items increased from 61.19 (SD=10.461) at the beginning of the course to 70.91 (out of 90 based on the 18 items) (SD=8.549) at the end of the course, representing an increase of 11%. The ITAs’ mean score for Overall Effectiveness increased from 2.96 (SD=1.091) to 4.20 (out of 5) (SD=0.587), which represents an increase of 24.8% between T1 and T2. In addition to the item measuring overall effectiveness, the items with the greatest improvement were:

* “I give positive feedback when responding to student questions or comments,” increased from 2.81 (out of 5) (SD=1.102) to 3.69 (SD=0.972, an increase of .87.

* “I use concrete, everyday examples to explain or clarify concepts and principles,” increased from 3.46 (out of 5) (SD=0.940) to 4.30 (SD=0.697), an increase of .83.

While the quantitative aspect of the study captured the observable behaviours of the ITAs, the qualitative component captured the ITAs’ voices and reflections on their previous assumptions. As a result of having taken CCC, the ITAs became much more aware of what the expectations of the ITA role were. The following quote illustrates an ITA’s awareness of his role and the need to guide students to answers:

"before I took [CCC], … when students asked me about something, I usually answered … ‘look up your lab manual.’ I didn’t say the words, ‘you should have known that before’ because they are not appropriate and they do not help, but I meant that implicitly. .. In my own country? I would say, ‘you should have known that before.’ … in the end … say they asked me, ‘why this salt is less soluble in water than the other salt?’ I didn’t answer, ‘well it’s soluble less because of blah blah blah.’ I answered something like, ‘well just think about like ionic structure of the salt, um … this might help you, and they tried thinking about that, and then I gave another hint …" - Master’s student in Chemistry from the Ukraine

Another ITA spoke about taking more initiative with students:

"… I usually understand by their gesture [and] go and speak with him and make him comfortable so that he asks the questions [which] is different …[before taking CCC] I would just ignore him….because he was not asking questions." - PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering from India

In summary, this study explored how a course on intercultural communication affected the teaching behaviors and teacher communication of ITAs. Taking CCC resulted in an increase in the overall effectiveness of ITAs and in their ability to explain concepts in a way that Canadian observers deemed to be effective. Since the ability to explain complex concepts is a critical competency in instructional communication (Smith and Simpson, 1995), and undergraduate perceptions of incompetence are based on differences in how concepts are explained (Hoekje & Williams, 1992), the results of this study suggest that taking CCC will positively affect undergraduate perceptions of ITAs. In addition, the ITAs’ adjustment to the expectations of the Canadian classroom will affect the overall learning outcomes of their students (Crabtree & Sapp, 2004; Jenkins, 2000; Tyler, 1995; McCroskey, 2003).

Since taking CCC, one of the participants was nominated for and won a Teaching Assistant award in his department. Another participant won an award for the best research presentation in his department, which carried with it a $400 prize. So, returning to the question posed at the beginning of this article: How do international teaching assistants learn the norms surrounding teaching communication in Canada? Their professors and their supervisors suggest they take “Communication in the Canadian Classroom” (see note) … and they make room in their schedules for them to do so. Doing so benefits the ITAs, their undergraduates, and everybody who works with them.


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NOTE: Based on results of this study, CCC has now been divided into two programs – CCC, which is 12 hours long, and Teaching in the Canadian Classroom, which is 20 hours long