With increasing global mobility, international teaching assistants (ITA) are now a major part of the workforce in higher education institutes in the U.S. In 2020 National Science Foundation reported that 29% of science and engineering faculty were ‘foreign born’ and this same demographic received 6 out of 10 doctoral degrees in engineering, math and computer sciences. While we know, and the literature suggests, international students bring critical social-cultural perspectives and strengths that contribute to diversity in all programs, they still face a lot of challenges in their work as TAs and it is our responsibility to provide the support to help them overcome cultural, linguistic and instructional difficulties (Zhou, 2009).
Ultimately, our ability to communicate with each other across different cultural norms, practices and languages, is crucial and can also influence the quality of learning and social interaction between TAs and students. Compared to domestic TAs, ITAs have to expend much more effort to tackle cultural, linguistic and instructional challenges in order to successfully communicate with students and even peers.
In this post, we provide suggestions from the literature and our own experiences with ITAs to help lower these barriers to communication, and to create support systems and greater understanding.
Cultural and social challenges
Cultural differences in pedagogies and social norms between students and teachers create challenges for ITAs and their students. In many cultures, teachers are respected as authority figures and have more influence over what and how students should learn. However, at American universities, students are expected to be more independent, and have more freedom and autonomy over their learning. Also, the relationship between teachers and students is more informal in the U.S. and students are often expected to discuss or argue as colleagues with those responsible for guiding their education. While making eye contact, smiling, and leaning forward may help signal involvement and listening in the United States, some ITAs, for example ITAs from Southeast Asian cultures, often do not incorporate nonverbal actions that might help them connect with students (Byrd & Constantinides,1992).
ITAs (and some of their international students) may come from an educational system where students
are expected to be silent during class and not question their professors, and they may not be prepared for American students who expect to participate actively and ask questions in the classroom (Sarkisian, 2006). As a result, these differences will affect the interactions between ITAs and students in different teaching and learning contexts.
Ellen Sarkisian (2006) offers a guide for international faculty and TAs in her book: Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities.
Below are some suggestions about how faculty and staff can help ITAs navigate through those cultural differences:
- Take time to recognize and listen to the educational experiences of ITAs so we can know where the challenges may be and can address the challenges rather than guess what they are! Different graduate students will face different challenges!
- Provide workshops on those identified topics for ITAs before they begin their TA work.
- Invite experienced instructors with strong multicultural competence to the interactive workshop for perspective and empathy.
- Provide multiple ‘check-ins’ for ITAs to discuss successes and challenges with peers and colleagues in a “give-and-take” situation.
- Share resources that provide effective strategies (i.e. Communication Strategies for International Graduate Students)
ITAs’ English language skills are another factor that might cause communication breakdowns between ITAs and students. Difficulties mentioned in the literature on this topic include that some students cannot understand and learn from ITAs (Alberts, 2008; Bailey, 1983; Plakans, 1997; Williams, 2011), that ITAs do not have extensive English vocabulary to provide clear explanations (Albert, 2008), or that non-standard pronunciation patterns can cause miscommunication and fail to provide the necessary context to assist students’ learning (Anderson-Hsieh, 1990; Molholt, 1988; Morley, 1991; Byrd & Constantinides,1992). English language skills are most challenging for ITAs who just arrived in the U.S. and have not yet been extensively exposed to the English language. These outcomes are not surprising when we invite talented and creative students to come and enrich the culture of ideas in our institutions, and then place them in the classroom to teach without enough support in either language or the practice of teaching in a different culture.
Below are some great resources to help alleviate ITAs linguistic barriers:
- In many universities, their Center for Teaching and Learning (or equivalent) has accumulated rich resources for improving ITAs’ English language proficiency (Miami University Center for Teaching Excellence, Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation, UCLA Writing Programs).
- Some blogs, guidebooks, and other online learning resources provide valuable tips of using both verbal and non-verbal skillsets to enhance their communication skills (University of Notre Dame Blog, A Guidebook for International Teaching Assistants).
- A variety of online resources that can help ITAs to develop their academic and non-academic language skills (6 Online Resources to Help Your International Students, English Language Resources, Resources for Multilingual Students)
ITAs are often faced with a variety of instructional difficulties that derive from social and cultural challenges. Since most of them received their previous education in another country, they are not familiar with the academic level of their students.
- ITAs often feel anxious and frustrated with the U.S. grading and testing system. Most American universities follow a similar grading system by assigning letter or numeric grades to evaluate students’ performance. This system generally provides clearer expectations and the associated structure allows opportunities for students to access support – some ITAs may not have experienced this. Therefore, to help students to improve their work, ITAs will have to take on the challenge of providing feedback, comments, and criticisms that are well-structured and accurately organized. They also have to be prepared for cases when students disagree or complain about their grades.
- Even if ITAs are consciously aware of the need to apply more student-centered and active learning strategies in different teaching contexts, they often need more support and time to develop these skills because they are often fundamentally different approaches than what they experienced.
To address these instructional challenges, some universities provide TA training sessions, usually consisting of workshops, for TAs before they start their work. For example, at Cornell Engineering, we provide TA in-person trainings in both fall and spring semester for all new incoming TAs. We cover a range of topics tailored specifically toward engineering TAs, such as Universal Design for Learning, Active Learning, Fair and Effective Grading, and Group Dynamics and Processes. However, most of the content are geared toward TAs in general and do not offer specific guidance on how to tackle ITAs’ instructional challenges.
Benedetti, Plumb, and Beck (2022) propose an innovative model of peer-teaching and self-reflection in TA training which can be effective for training ITAs. For example, asking one of the ITAs to teach their peer-ITAs a type of student-centered pedagogy and self-reflect on their teaching practice afterwards. Peer teaching sessions offer ITAs a safe space to practice designing and delivering teaching sessions to their peers and receive constructive feedback from their peers. The peer audience also get the chance to experience teaching from a students’ perspective. Time is limited for graduate students, however a best-case scenario would be to provide more than one peer feedback teaching session in a semester.
This practice is similar to ‘microteaching’ that can be used as the culminating experience following interactive training workshops such as those listed above. Our Cornell Engineering Graduate TAs suggest that this type of practice and feedback is valuable:
“It was beneficial to watch other individuals present to get a better idea of how other people structure their lessons and see how they incorporate UDL and active learning”
They also benefit from watching a video of their ‘micro-teaching’ and an opportunity to reflect on what can be improved:
“The video replay of myself is very rewarding – I am getting critical of how I am perceived by students. I also learned a lot from what people suggest for other students and try to improve on those aspects as well”
The experiences of being observed and observing others can be a starting point for reflection, through which they will, over time and with practice, become more successful teachers and professionals.
Some additional tips that will help ITAs to cope with their instructional challenges:
- Conducting follow-up activities. In addition to the initial training workshops, follow-up activities from these workshops, such as mentoring, in-class observation, and self-reflection, can be conducted to craft ITAs’ teaching skills.
- ITAs can be paired with senior faculty member/TAs, who can mentor ITAs throughout their teaching journey.
- Peer observations can provide an opportunity for ITAs to learn from each other’s teaching practice.
- Reflecting on their own teaching practice is another key component for ITAs to refine and develop their teaching skills.
- Creating a clear outline for one’s daily instructional activities. Having a well-structure outline will give students a better idea of today’s instructional goals, provide a context for students to better understand the topic, and give ITAs opportunities to check students’ understanding at different points in any instructional activities.
- Grading papers and tests with informed knowledge. ITAs should spend enough time understanding the grading policy at their own universities by attending TA orientations/relevant workshops, and reading grading policies carefully. ITAs should also know the procedure to properly handle grading disputes.
In general, more efforts are needed to gain a better understanding about ITAs experience in American universities/colleges and to provide adequate resources to overcome their challenges. ITAs’ improved understanding of U.S. academic cultures and communications will not only help them improve the learning of their students. Educating faculty, staff, and American students about the cultural differences and the barriers their international peers face, can also encourage American students to embrace a more global mindset and to work with others across culturally diverse backgrounds (Council, 2009).
Anderson-Hsieh, J. (1990). Teaching suprasegmentals to international teaching assistants using field-specific materials. English for Specific Purposes, 9(3), 195-214.
Ashavskaya, E. (2015). International Teaching Assistants’ Experiences in the US Classrooms: Implications for Practice. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 15(2), 56-69.
Di Benedetti, M., Plumb, S., & Beck, S. B. (2023). Effective use of peer teaching and self-reflection for the pedagogical training of graduate teaching assistants in engineering. European Journal of Engineering Education, 48(1), 59-74.
Byrd, P., & Constantinides, J. C. (1992). The language of teaching mathematics: Implications for training ITAs. Tesol Quarterly, 26(1), 163-167.
Huang, T., Chen, S., Lin, J., & Cun, A. (2023). Marginalized, silenced, and struggling: Understanding the plights of chinese graduate teaching assistants. International Journal of Chinese Education, 12(1), 2212585X231156996.
Molholt, G. (1988). Computer‐assisted instruction in pronunciation for Chinese speakers of American English. TESOL quarterly, 22(1), 91-111.
Morley, J. (1991). The pronunciation component in teaching English to speakers of other languages. TESOL quarterly, 25(3), 481-520.
Sarkisian, E. K. J. (2006). Chemical Education Today-Book & Media Reviews-Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities. Journal of Chemical Education, 83(12), 1763-1763.
Williams, G. M. (2011). Examining Classroom Negotiation Strategies of International Teaching Assistants. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 5(1), n1.