Teaching Inclusively: Helping Students Overcome Academic Culture Shock - Fall 2014

Accessible Version

by Aisha Haque, Language and Communication Instructor, Teaching Support Centre

Imagine being invited to play a new game where you believe you are familiar with the rules and what the expectations of the other players are. Now imagine that the rules of the game have changed, but no one has let you know. When you try to apply the ‘old’ rules, you find yourself being penalized. Leask (2004) uses this metaphor of “same game, new rules” to describe the challenges that many international students face when they first arrive on campus and begin their studies.

While many of us are familiar with the fact that travelers face various social and cultural adjustments in their host countries (indeed, think of the last time that you travelled and encountered cultural differences in whether or not it is appropriate to tip at a restaurant or haggle over the price of your produce at the market), we might not be as familiar with the specific pedagogical adaptations that might impact the learning experiences of international students in the Canadian classroom. Carroll refers to this process of cross-cultural academic adjustment as a type of “academic culture shock” (2007, p. 72).

Although we must be careful not to stereotype the international students in our classes, a knowledge of cultural differences is important in establishing a safe classroom environment that fosters the success of all students. More specifically, it is helpful to know what challenges international students may face in their academic adjustment to the Canadian classroom.

What Does Academic Culture Shock Involve?

Academic culture shock involves potential difficulty with some of the following aspects of the teaching and learning experience in Canada:

1. Participating in class
International students experience three to four times more difficulties participating in class discussions than their peers (Mullins et al. 1995). In fact, a recent study conducted in the UK which compares the pre-departure and post-arrival anxieties of international students reveals that the greatest challenge faced by international students was “feeling embarrassed if unable to answer questions in class” (Gu et al., 2009). Only 7% expressed this as a concern prior to arriving in the UK, but this number jumped to a staggering 44% after their arrival. The percentage of students who were worried about “speaking up in class discussions” similarly jumped from 18% (before arrival) to 36% (after arrival) (Gu et al., 2009).

2. Understanding lectures
In addition to classroom participation, several scholars identify the difficulties associated with lecture content and delivery as a source of anxiety for many international students (Mullins et al., 1995 & Ryan, 2005). These difficulties are exacerbated when lectures present large amounts of information and assume that all students share the same level of background knowledge or language proficiency (Ryan, 2005).

3. Understanding course and instructor expectations
When asked for feedback on teaching evaluations, international students often ask for clarity on course objectives and expectations (McLean and Ransom, 2005). Gu, Schweisfurth and Day further identify that international students experience unexpected difficulties in establishing relationships with instructors and understanding their expectations (2009).

Strategies to Create Inclusive Classrooms

Given these challenges, how can we create inclusive learning experiences for our international students? In other words, how can we better design our lessons with cultural differences in mind? Below are some strategies you can use to help alleviate the academic culture shock of your students. It is important to note that these strategies are considered good practice because they will benefit all learners in your class, both international and local.

Classroom Participation

Our last issue of Reflections contains an article with five strategies you can use in your classroom to help reduce the anxieties students feel when participating in discussions: www.uwo.ca/tsc/resources/publications/newsletter/current_issue/five_strategies_to_increase_student_participation.html

Additionally, Stephen Brookfield offers a list of “Discussion Moves” that provides students with concrete ways to participate in classroom discussions. These strategies, which are available on his website, include techniques for students on how to summarize and build on the contributions of their peers: www.stephenbrookfield.com/Dr._Stephen_D._Brookfield/Workshop_Materials_files/Class_Participation_Grading_Rubric.pdf

Lecture Design and Delivery

Reinforce the key concepts presented in your lectures by incorporating some of the tips below into your repertoire:

  • Provide a framework for your lectures by letting students know what topics will be covered that day and how the lecture relates to information presented in previous lectures (Ryan, 2005).
  • Paraphrase, summarize and repeat difficult or key concepts so that students have multiple opportunities to grasp main ideas (McLean & Ransom, 2005).
  • Avoid slang and explain/contextualize pop culture references.
  • Pre-teach discipline-specific vocabulary or jargon (by posting lists and terms on OWL).
  • Post lecture notes either before or after class (Ryan, 2005).
  • Use verbal signposts such as “this is an essential point” to underscore important information (Ryan, 2005).

Clarifying Expectations

Make processes and outcomes explicit for students. This involves the following:

  • Providing students with ground rulesfor discussion, participation and group work so that they not only understand why it is important, but how to be successful;
  • Modelling how to ask good questions, think critically, write good essays or reports, or read analytically by demonstrating these skills in class or by providing examples for students (McLean and Ransom, 2005); and
  • Explaining the assessment criteria to students so that they know how they will be evaluated. You can do this by providing examples of completed assignments from previous years (with the permission of students) or by using rubrics that outline the criteria for success.


Thinking back to our earlier metaphor of “same game, new rules” (Leask, 2007), using a combination of these strategies in our course design and delivery will ensure that all of our students know the “rules” of Canadian academia. We must keep in mind that a truly inclusive approach to teaching involves recognizing, valuing, and accommodating cultural differences – including some of the above tips and techniques in your teaching toolkit will help you to better design your lessons for today’s multicultural classrooms.


Brookfield, S. (n.d.). Class participation grading rubric. In Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield. Retrieved September 10, 2014 from http://www.stephenbrookfield.com/Dr._Stephen_D._Brookfield/Workshop_Materials_files/Class_Participation_Grading_Rubric.pdf

Carroll, J., & Appleton, J. (2007). Support and guidance for learning from an international perspective. In E. Jones & S. Brown (Eds.), Internationalising higher education (pp. 72-85). New York, NY: Routledge.

Gu, Q., Schweisfurth, M., & Day, C. (2009). Learning and growing in a ‘foreign’ context: intercultural experiences of international students. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. 40(1), 7-23. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03057920903115983

Leask, B. (2007). Plagiarism, cultural diversity and metaphor – implications for academic staff development. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. 31(2), 183-199. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/02602930500262486

McLean, P & Ransom, L. (2005). Building intercultural competencies: implications for academic skills development. In J. Carroll & J. Ryan (Eds.), Teaching international students: Improving learning for all (pp. 45-62). New York, NY: Routledge.

Mullins, G., Quintrell, N. & Hancock, L. (1995). The experiences of international and local students: three Australian universities. Higher Education Research and Development. 14(2), 202-231.

Ryan, J. (2005). Improving teaching and learning practices for international students: Implications for curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. In J. Carroll & J. Ryan (Eds.), Teaching international students: Improving learning for all (pp. 92-100). New York, NY: Routledge.