Ideas for building an inclusive academic environment
- Provide structured times for students to ask questions other than during lecture times
- Build the social relationship among students to facilitate confidence in the academic environment
- Provide a structure to enable students to build cooperative inclusive working relationships amongst peers and build teamwork
- Encourage contributions to discussions
- Encourage mentoring between senior students and new students/domestic and international students
- Understand different ways in which deference to authority is shown
- Understand that admitting to a lack of knowledge in any area may be personally and culturally very difficult
- Understand that questioning a staff member’s opinion may be unthinkable in some cultures
- Understand what silence means
- Appreciate the strengths of difference
- Appreciate the importance of managing conflict
- Recognise the impact of culture on interactions
- Create an environment where students feel comfortable learning physical examination skills
- Ensure that prejudice is addressed proactively
- Ensure that students are not excluded or ridiculed by other students
- Ensure that there is an understanding of the diverse needs of the group so that students do not feel resentment about allowances being made for international students
Provide structured times for students to ask questions other than during lecture times
Students indicated that they may not always be comfortable to ask questions in a large group. They were very happy to ask questions, but in a more informal setting where they could feel more comfortable, safe and confident. Some students indicated that language can be a major challenge. Some have difficulty in expressing opinions and ideas in case they are wrong. This leads students to feel limited in what they have to contribute to discussions. Language problems improve when students feel more comfortable in the group and also if they have a number of ways to test out their ideas and times are made available for questions.
It is helpful to provide structured times during the week for students to ask questions, or it could be made clear to students that questions could be asked after the lecture or tutorial, or by email or on Blackboard. It is helpful for new international students if academic staff are as explicit as possible about this process, rather than students wondering if they are intruding on the academic's time.
Build the social relationship among students to facilitate confidence in the academic environment
Students have reported that they would welcome the opportunity to know their peers better before the commencement of the academic program. To facilitate this, academic staff could facilitate interactions between students at the beginning of a tutorial for a few minutes that encourage students to talk in pairs about a particular topic (for example, their motivation for applying to this academic program). Once students are comfortable talking in pairs, during the next session it may be possible to ask the students to talk in a small group.
Alternatively, students could participate in a morning tea or luncheon in which all are asked to share and contribute foods. Giving students time to get to know each other in a relaxed, informal setting unrelated to their studies is the most important aspect of assisting students to build their social relationships and confidence.
Provide a structure to enable students to build cooperative inclusive working relationships amongst peers and build teamwork
To build a learning environment in which all students feel confident to contribute, it is important to provide a clear structure to facilitate this process. Lack of structure can lead to students withdrawing and feeling uncertain about how to interact. Generally when international students feel uncertain, they will interact mainly with other international students. Structure provides safety in building interactions.
Examples of structuring team building may be setting up times in which academic staff model ways to interact in an animated, interactive and respectful discussion. To ensure everyone contributes, it may be helpful to structure ways to take turns, and model positive ways to give feedback. All of these activities will build a positive environment where students are clear about the processes of interacting and working together in the early stages of learning and over time, the structure will support more spontaneous interactions. If students understand processes, trust in the group will develop and a supportive environment will develop in which positive learning is possible.
To ensure everyone feels included it would be helpful if slang were avoided (or if it is used, it is explained to international students) and verbal jokes were avoided or explained that it is a joke and why it is a joke).
Encourage contributions to discussions
Students indicated that they have difficulty understanding fellow students and staff when they speak quickly. This can inhibit contributions to discussion, because they may not have always understood the whole discussion. To build understanding, it is helpful to ensure that comments are understandable to everyone.
Getting the confidence to speak for the first time is difficult. The academic’s encouragement is really important. Giving time and space for students to contribute is also helpful. Once students contribute for the first time in a discussion, it becomes easier, but this does not mean that students won't continue to need encouragement to continue to contribute to discussions.
Encourage mentoring between senior students and new students/ domestic and international students
International students have indicated that learning through the experiences of senior students is a valuable way for them to gain confidence and to settle in more quickly. This process could be facilitated if staff were able to invite senior students to participate in orientation sessions. The purpose of including senior students would be to allow these students an opportunity to talk about their experiences and to explain the strategies they developed to overcome their challenges. Alternatively, senior students or practitioners could be invited to act as a panel for new international students in a small forum during orientation to present their experiences and to answer questions.
Understand different ways in which deference to authority is shown
Different cultures will show respect for authority in different ways. In order to build greater understanding, assumptions about what behaviour means may need to be reviewed and checked out within different cultural contexts. In different cultures, deference to authority may be shown by silence, or lack of eye contact, or by not interrupting or by constantly agreeing with the person with greater authority. Within an Australian context, all of these behaviours may mean something other than respect. For example if someone constantly agrees, it may be regarded as an attempt to seek favour by flattering a member of staff.
It is helpful to be as clear as possible about how students address you and for students to understand any expectations there are about respecting authority in Australia. Students often find the informal friendliness of Australia confusing. This leads them to be unsure or feel as if they are being disrespectful in their interactions. Clear expectations are one way to address these cultural differences.
Understand that admitting to a lack of knowledge in any area may be personally and culturally very difficult
People from different cultures may experience a loss of face or loss of a sense of authority when having to admit to not having knowledge. It would be helpful in the early stages of the semester, to ensure that students understand that it is safe to not have knowledge and to ask questions when they do not have knowledge. It would also be helpful to ensure that situations of public criticism or perceived public criticism about not having knowledge are avoided.
In Australia, we are used to giving and receiving direct feedback. Students from different cultures may be more familiar with indirect feedback, so when faced with being given direct feedback, they may find this very confusing and experience a sense of anxiety, losing confidence. All of this will have an impact on their performance in lectures, tutorials and examinations.
It is helpful to be as explicit as possible about how you might give feedback and what this will mean in the early stages of teaching the course.
Understand that questioning a staff member's opinion may be unthinkable in some cultures
The students who participated in the focus group reported that one of their greatest challenges is learning to be comfortable in asking questions of and challenging a staff member’s opinion. For many of these students a good student is one who does not question authority and who listens attentively to what staff have to say. At some point these students will then report back in written or oral form what they have heard. They consider the best students are those who can report back what they have heard most accurately.
For students who have come from learning backgrounds where the student's role is described above, the idea of questioning an authority figure is almost unthinkable. It will require considerable encouragement and reassurance for students to question and challenge and for them to understand that this is a normal part of the academic environment. It will also be useful to provide encouraging feedback when students begin to question and challenge.
Understand what silence means
Silence has different meanings in different cultures. For the students who participated in the recent focus group, they report that to remain silent is a sign of respect. In uncomfortable or difficult situations, students with this cultural background will often choose to stay silent and accept what is being said to them. The tone of the speaker will be a determinant in whether students are willing/able to respond. In situations where international students are remaining silent rather than participating in discussions, it is important for staff to monitor closely what is happening within the group and to encourage their participation supportively and sensitively.
Appreciate the strengths of difference
There are many different ways of organising, thinking and approaching situations. It is helpful to encourage a climate of valuing and appreciating different ways of approaching situations or different ways cultures organise and approach life events, illness and life generally. Allowing students to have the opportunity to describe and explore their expectations, their own ways of understanding and approaching situations can enrich the experience for all. Allowing space to value differences can enhance the cultural basis of clinical work as well as building an understanding and consciousness of delivering culturally appropriate care to patients of different ethnic groups.
Appreciate the importance of managing conflict
To maximise learning, it is important that there is a sense of trust in the class group. This ensures that students contribute positively, are able to show their lack of knowledge without shame and learn from each other. What erodes this trust is conflict that is allowed to escalate into negative patterns of interaction. It is important to be watchful for any signs of conflict and to address it proactively and build any signs of conflict into increased understanding.
It may be helpful at the commencement of each academic semester to lay the ground rules of interaction that spell out respect - no putting people down in discussion, no criticism of the person, listening to different views, understanding that different cultures have different ways of doing things, valuing learning from each other. Once the ground rules are laid down, it is then possible to address any breaches to the rules and ensure greater understanding and trust is developed.
Recognise the impact of culture on interactions
Students from the focus group reported that social situations where alcohol is served may be uncomfortable for them and generate fear of unfamiliar behaviours. For some of these students observing people who are drinking alcohol is a new experience. As such they have few skills to draw on from the past that will help them to deal with this unfamiliar situation. In this situation and others where students may find it difficult to manage social interactions because of their cultural backgrounds it is useful to provide information and explanation in advance of what is expected of them on the occasion, what others are likely to be doing and to how they may choose to respond to situations. Being as specific as possible will be of most help for the students as will answering their questions openly and honestly.
Create an environment where students feel comfortable learning physical examination skills
Muslim students may be wary of carrying out procedures or doing physical examinations with members of the opposite sex. In teaching physical examination skills, it would be helpful for academic staff to consider whether it is important for students to learn these skills with someone of the opposite sex. If it is, ensure that it is talked through with students so that they understand the importance of doing this (such as in thyroid examinations on female students who are wearing a hijab). It needs to be explicit that they will be examined on these skills and this contributes to their basic skills as a health practitioner.
Ensure that prejudice is addressed proactively
As with conflict, it is important to be proactive when prejudicial opinions are expressed. To facilitate this, it may be helpful to include in the ground rules a discussion about how respect can be shown, and about the dangers of generalisations about different cultures or groups within society. When comments are made it is useful for us to acknowledge that all of us do have prejudices and gently challenge the prejudice.
Ensure that students are not excluded or ridiculed by other students
This may be quite subtle and associated with culture, different ways of doing things, generalised comments about people from different cultures. Particularly at times when there is unrest about Muslims, it is possible for students to feel very exposed within the community and within the classroom or in hospital rotations. Again, laying some ground rules for interaction within the class may be helpful in ensuring that this issue can be addressed proactively.
Ensure that there is an understanding of the diverse needs of the group so that students do not feel resentment about allowances being made for international students
For students who may not have experienced studying, living or travelling in another culture it may be hard to understand the difficulties and challenges that international students face. For these students, additional support and encouragement that is offered to international students may seem unfair. One strategy that may be helpful so that students better understand each other's challenges is to use the opportunities where they are talking informally and socially to introduce some questions for international students to talk about the challenges they face and how they feel about studying away from home. This activity would be best undertaken after students have become familiar with each other so that international students would more likely feel able to talk openly and freely.