The Society for Research into Higher Education

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How do we teach international students in the UK?

by Sylvie Lomer and Jenna Mittelmeier

This has been the guiding question for our current SRHE-funded research project. We are looking at how pedagogies and practices have been developed or shaped within the context of changing student demographics across the UK higher education sector. We have conducted 40 out of the 50 planned interviews and have really appreciated academics’ time and enthusiasm during a completely unprecedented semester. Our data collection and analysis continue but we wanted to communicate early findings and the types of language used by participants to communicate their pedagogy.

Many of our participants taught predominantly, or talked mainly about, postgraduate teaching, where students’ professional or life experience was frequently highlighted as important. The limitation with our participant sampling so far is an overrepresentation of applied disciplines (education, business, health-related, etc) and an underrepresentation of ‘pure’ disciplines (physics, maths, philosophy, etc) (Biglan, 1973). It’s quite possible that this represents a teaching approach that’s dominant in certain disciplines and not others.

Teaching approaches

Most participants represented their teaching in strikingly similar ways. Through careful reflection on the key information that needs to be ‘delivered or conveyed’, lecturers sought to maximise the amount of class time spent on ‘real learning’, which was understood to happen primarily in social or group settings. There appears to be consensus across the disciplines, institutions, and geographic locations of participants that an active and social approach to learning is optimal.

We anticipated variation across disciplines and contexts in the pedagogical approaches adopted by lecturers working with international students, but most participants have described largely similar approaches to managing their physical classrooms in pre-COVID times. These are commonly characterised by:

  • Chunking talking time and lectures into ‘gobbets’ of 15-20 minutes
  • Following up with small group activities (eg discussions or concrete tasks)
  • Concluding with plenary or whole group feedback

Sometimes this pattern was repeated during longer teaching sessions. Pedagogies were also mediated in different ways: through technology; with the help of teaching assistants; or in collaboration with a range of campus services. Yet, the core of how most participants represented their teaching has shown striking similarity, with reflection on the importance of social or group settings.

Participants reported challenges in implementing their approaches, particularly given that massification and growing class sizes have largely coincided with international student recruitment. Infrastructure, such as lecture theatres with fixed seating, was also commonly criticized as a limitation to pedagogy. Adaptations to online or hybrid classrooms during Covid-19 included ‘flipped’ approaches where readings or recordings were available initially online, with ‘live’ sessions designed to be solely interactive.

Representations of international students

We explored how the presence of international students influences the micro and macro practices of lecturer; in that respect, how we define ‘international students’ has been a prominent angle of questioning. Most participants defaulted to using the term as adopted in the press and public policy – non-EU degree level students. However, they also highlighted other groups of students who may also be subsumed by the international label – EU students, short-term students on exchanges or top-up programmes, and students classified as British by residency but who have been primarily educated overseas. These nuances matter, because, as participants highlight, the key point is not what students’ nationality is, but what their previous educational experiences are.

Challenges around ‘cultures of deference’ to the authority of teachers and texts were highlighted, as well as individual confidence and skills to participate orally in discussions. While some participants referred to common stereotypes of, for example, ‘silent’ Chinese students, others were quick to challenge deficit-based assumptions. The latter tended to describe the perceived benefits of having international students across cohorts and unpack the diversity of experiences that underlie such stereotyping. Diversity, in this regard, was often described as a ‘learning resource’ (Harrison, 2018), whereby international students were assumed to support classroom learning environments by sharing knowledge and experiences from their country or culture.

An alternative consideration noted by a smaller number of participants is that students should not be seen as embodiments of some abstracted form of national culture (Lomer, 2017), but rather through recognising that people are different and know different things. Some participants criticised the  binary distinction – created by fee and visa restrictions – between ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ students, given that factors which affect learning are more likely to be a culmination of previous educational experience, language, and confidence – of which none fall neatly between political borders. In that regard, participants highlighted the importance of ‘good teaching’ and a desire to develop an inclusive ‘ethos’ which works for all students.

We asked participants what they feel makes a good teacher, and were surprised to see relatively similar responses between participants, regardless of their career stage or teaching contexts. Their responses emphasised empathy, reflexivity, humility, curiosity, disciplinary passion, and the capacity to value difference. However, there was less reflection about how key learning outcomes might be underpinned by Eurocentric assumptions about education or students’ behaviours, or how things like critical thinking or academic integrity may be culturally shaped.

Reflections on professional identity

A final consideration for this project is how lecturers’ professional identities are shaped by their work with international students. Participants reflected on the loneliness of being ‘the pedagogy person’ or ‘the internationalisation person’ in departments or schools. In such contexts, some told stories about past and current colleagues or other academics in their networks who voiced explicitly racist views about international students. Most suggested these were now outliers and that the dominant discourse has changed towards a more positive view of international students.

Language used by academics when communicating the implementation of active and social learning approaches with international students positions the academic as in control and the (international) student as subaltern. For example, many participants spoke in terms of ‘being strict’, ‘setting expectations’, ‘forcing them to speak’. This was often explained with reference to meeting key learning outcomes or developing professional skills, but sits in contrast with the more emancipatory discourses often associated with student-centred approaches to teaching.

Earlier career academics have only ever taught in a highly internationalised sector, while those with a longer professional experience reflected on the change they had seen during their career. For most, internationalisation was reflected as a fact of contemporary academic life; some commented that they hadn’t thought about the particularities of teaching international students before their interview with us. For some, this was a characteristic of the discipline, particularly those in areas like business and international development; they positioned their subjects as inherently international, with assumptions that internationalised teaching followed ‘naturally’.

Get involved

The responses so far have been encouraging and suggest that, across UK institutions, academics are dedicated to: developing pedagogies that value diversity on multiple axes; working with international students; and valuing the knowledge and perspectives that an international student group can co-create.

We are still collecting data and would love to hear from anyone who teaches international students in any UK HEI, but particularly if you:

  • Teach in a STEM or Arts subject
  • Teach in Wales or Northern Ireland
  • Disagree with or don’t recognise the account above or have a different viewpoint.

All responses are strictly confidential, although participants will be invited to participate in a webinar at the end of the project.

We are working on building up a repository of case studies about teaching innovations with international students, hosted here, and welcome submissions from all (even if you do not wish to participate in an interview). Contact or for more information.

SRHE member Sylvie Lomer is Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedogogy and policy enactment.

SRHE member Jenna Mittelmeier is Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focus broadly on the internationalisation of higher education,  taking a critical perspective on issues of power, privilege, and ethics in international higher education.

Our thanks to Parise Carmichael-Murphy for reviewing the blog before it was submitted.


Biglan, Anthony (1973) ‘The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas’, Journal of Applied Psychology 57(3): 195

Harrison, N (2015) ‘Practice, problems and power in ‘internationalisation at home’: Critical reflections on recent research evidence’, Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 412-430

Ian Kinchin

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Pedagogic paupers: where’s the distinctiveness?

By Ian Kinchin

When you scan a range of university web sites, they all seem to claim their institution offers a distinctive student experience. In many respects, this may be true. However, when it comes to pedagogy, I wonder if there has been a trend towards homogenisation rather than distinctiveness?

Pressures of work and the emphasis on research outputs appears to drive many academics to “play it safe” when it comes to classroom practice. The irony is that these same academics would claim to be serious researchers – people to reflect, innovate, question and experiment. And yet these ‘researcher traits’ don’t seem to be carried over into teaching. The ‘it’ll do’ sentiment of the unenthusiastic amateur seems all too common, though (I would hasten to add) not universal.

I would not for one moment claim that the pressures on university academics are not real, the squeeze on resources and the restrictions posed by accrediting bodies (for example) all appear to drive academics towards a conservative approach to teaching. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the underpinning philosophy for many.

However, my own undergraduate friends and relatives often provide me with stories and anecdotes that suggest that, if not broken, much university teaching still requires something of an upgrade. Continue reading