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Teaching in the U.S. Classroom

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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While students in the U.S. are taught as early as elementary school that "there is no such thing as a stupid question," many international TAs and international faculty are stunned by the boldness and occasional na?vet? of their students' questions.


The posting below looks at factors impacting the teaching by international students in the U.S. classroom . It is an extensive excerpt from the newsletter, Speaking of Teaching, produced by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), Stanford University , Spring 2002, Vol. 12, No.2. Speaking of Teaching is compiled and edited by CTL Associate Director Mariatte Denman at [mdenman@] Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Maintaining Senior Faculty Productivity

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Teaching in the U.S. Classroom


This issue of Speaking of Teaching is devoted to the international members of Stanford's academic teaching community, particularly to international graduate students and TAs. In this issue we highlight some of the resources for international TAs (ITAs) available through the English for Foreign Students Program (EFS), as well as the voices of many ITAs and international faculty discussing their experiences in the U.S. classroom. The Center for Teaching and Learning collaborated with EFS on a survey distributed to members of Stanford's international teaching community and the responses recount challenges, surprises, and differences encountered here, as well as considerable admiration for many of the qualities of academic life in the U.S. that those who were raised in the U.S. education system may take for granted.

For instance, across the range of nationalities and experiences represented on the Stanford campus, international faculty and TAs are generally surprised by the level of teacher-student interaction expected by U.S. students, as well as by the relative informality of this interaction and classroom decorum in general. Calling professors and TAs by their first names, questioning professors' views in class, and expecting that their own views will be respected are only a few of the ways that U.S. students challenge the more traditional expectations of their international teachers.

While students in the U.S. are taught as early as elementary school that "there is no such thing as a stupid question," many ITAs and international faculty are stunned by the boldness and occasional na?vet? of their students' questions. One ITA said that in the U.S., "students can feel free to ask their questions, and will be encouraged no matter what kind of questions they've asked. In my country, there are barely any questions raised by students in class. Sometimes teachers will ask some questions. But in most cases, there is no interaction between teachers and students." Another ITA enjoys this quality of U.S. classroom culture; he wrote that in his country, "teaching is more like lecturing than discussing. Less interactive and fewer questions from students. Here students are encouraged to participate actively, to ask questions, to criticize orthodox ideas, and these are pretty good aspects."

Similarly, adjusting to the function of office hours as a time when U.S. students can ask questions and receive helpful advice on their assignments is often a challenge. The U.S. model differs from more traditional uses of the office hour as a tutorial in which the instructor takes more of an authoritative role, lecturing and guiding the conversation, rather than letting the student's needs set the pace for the interaction.

Even so, something that ITAs repeatedly emphasized in their survey responses is the fact that they perceive teachers in the U.S. making a genuine effort to help their students understand difficult concepts. As one ITA wrote, "In my country...they just teach, and don't care whether students understand." In contrast, "teachers here are trying very hard to help the students learn something." And another: "In my country, teachers try to throw a bunch of theories at you regardless of whether you understand or not." Significantly, several ITAs commented that the most rewarding experiences they'd had in the U.S. classroom were when "students appreciate [their] help" and when they see that their students are "learning and improving." They note that the relationship between teachers and students is "more equal and more friendly" and that the "learning environment" is "more active and open minded" and in one case, simply "more free."

In their obvious appreciation for qualities of U.S. classroom culture that are often overlooked by students in the U.S., international TAs have a great deal to offer their colleagues. There is always something new to be learned about teaching, and the open perspective offered by ITAs can serve as a catalyst and reminder to U.S. instructors that progressive pedagogy is not something to take for granted, but to be cultivated, appreciated, and continually renewed throughout one's teaching career.

International Teachers Speak Out

The Center for Teaching and Learning asked international instructors in several different kinds of positions-teaching assistants, lecturers, and assistant professors-to respond to a set of questions about their experience teaching in the U.S., and they provided us with the following responses:

1. What were some of the initial surprises you faced when you first taught in the U.S. classroom? What were some of the most important cultural differences and challenges?

The most challenging thing for me (and for other nonnative English speakers) is probably that I had to conquer the "fear" of teaching in English. It was not until later, after I taught several language courses, that I realized that language is not the most important issue. American students express their feelings and thoughts about the class more directly than students from Asian countries.

My surprise came when [I realized that] I did not know how important it was to set expectations from the start as to the difficulty and requirements [of the course]. Later I was shocked that it is not expected that 10-20% of a class can fail. People expect high grades, even when their performance is not all that impressive. After my first experience I learned to set expectations very clearly at the beginning, including performance and grades. Even if it means trying to frighten them a bit-it is better being left with a smaller group that wants to stay and knows what they're getting into. I did not sacrifice the difficulty of the material but rather made sure that people know what they're in for.

Everything was new to me because I never TA'd before. However, I did find some things that kind of surprised me. Students in my sections were ranging from first year through fourth year although Chemistry 33 is an introductory organic course; I didn't have to blame students if they didn't pay any attention to my lecture; and I could feel free to say "I don't know" to the students.

The most important cultural differences and challenges I faced were: (a) that I had to encourage students every time when they asked me a question. It was a big problem for me because I never did that before and I knew few ways to encourage students; (b) some students were eating during the sections. Eating in class is basically not allowed in China. However, I didn't feel uncomfortable with that; (c) sometimes some students laughed when I was writing on the board which made me a little bit nervous.

2. What are the best parts of teaching in the U.S. classroom?

Generally speaking, U.S. students participate in the class activities more actively. This helps to create a kind of dynamic atmosphere in the classroom, which facilitates teaching.

There are some extremely bright and curious students at Stanford that make the classroom experience wonderful. Even though I teach a very rigorous and formal course, I try hard to get student interaction by posing questions and challenging students for their ideas. Sometimes it is difficult, but it is always worth the effort. This sometimes leads to me getting to know the brighter students better, and sometimes this can develop into an advising relationship that I enjoy.

Students feel free to communicate with me. So I can easily see what they don't understand. Also, students write evaluations of TAs and this can help TAs know what they are doing well and what they need to improve.

3. What do you feel you have contributed to Stanford as an international teacher?

I have helped students develop the awareness of cultural differences.

I think I am a bit more "aggressive" in class in the sense of asking questions, and challenging students in real time. I think I allow myself to be more opinionated, even though I try hard to make it clear when this happens.

The only special contribution I have made is that I, a TA from China, showed great concern to my students and did my best to help them understand what they wanted to.

4. How could the university support you better in your cultural transition as a teacher?

I think the courses, workshops and other resources (like teaching consultations) provided by ESL and CTL really help a lot! It would be even better if we can have workshops especially for international teachers and TAs for exchanging experiences in teaching.

The class "Teaching and Speaking in English" helped me a lot. I learned how to perform as a TA in the U.S. If there were some more classes which taught foreign students about American culture, that would be great!


Tips for International TAs in the U.S. Classroom

Connie Rylance and Beverley McChesney of Stanford's English for Foreign Students program have developed many handouts filled with "tips" for international TAs. Here is their advice for holding office hours and navigating some of the characteristics of U.S. Classroom Culture.

Office Hours

Attending office hours is another aspect of learning the material for U.S. students, one which is often as important to them as attending class or reading the textbook.

It is important to remember that TAs and professors serve different needs in office hours.

Students visit TAs for:

o Homework explanation

o Exam preparation

o Advice on project assignments

o Makeup quizzes or exams

o Procedural questions

Students visit professors for:

o Information on courses

o Completion of requirements

o Advice on project assignments

o Waivers and exemptions

o Professorial mentoring

Teaching in office hours often involves the following skills:

* Guiding students' learning, by encouraging them to be self-directed; this is accomplished through observation and commentary.

* Encouraging and reinforcing their efforts, which is accomplished by praise and support.

* Correcting and reminding them of the right procedures, which involves referring to lectures, textbooks, and other readings.

* Giving study advice, but always being sure to control the extent of information you give about the exam.

* Responding primarily to the students' needs, questions, or concerns, rather than initiating topics of conversation.

U.S. Classroom Culture

* The TA is a bridge between the professor and the students. The TA is expected to meet the students' needs by interacting with them rather than by merely transmitting information.

* TAs are expected to act informally because formality creates distance while informality leads to interaction and approachability.

* Teachers in the U.S. are expected to accommodate students and to help make learning difficult concepts easier. There are expressions for this effort made by teachers to help their students: "meet them half way" and "bend over backwards." Both of these idioms express the willingness on the part of teachers to respond to students' questions and concerns.

* The concept of instructor fairness is central to the U.S. classroom. This extends to giving advice before an exam. No student should have "insider information" or more information than any other student. Students should all be told the same things.

* TAs should be very careful to avoid making extreme statements or absolute claims; try instead to be open to multiple perspectives.

* TAs should also avoid representing their own advice or views as the professor's.

* Discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, or sexual orientation has no place in the U.S. classroom. A fundamental sense of respect for all students, regardless of their backgrounds or socioeconomic status is essential.

For information on how to avoid gender-biased language see the online American Psychological Association Guidelines on Sexist Language:

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This difference in views on the role of a teacher in the classroom has far-reaching consequences in many aspects of education. The notion of supervision and direction primarily implies emphasis on control and evaluation rather than on learning as a process. That is why in the eyes of a Russian teacher American teachers seem to overuse assessment and evaluation. The role of a teacher as evaluator partly explains the special interest of American pedagogical sciences in the development of testing and evaluation techniques-another area where the two countries show significant divergence.

Without a conscious effort to understand the obvious divergences between one's home and foreign educational systems, one may easily and mistakenly perceive these differences as idiosyncrasies or quirks of the other society. Seen in the light of careful comparison however, it becomes clear that the educational system of a country is a direct reflection of its culture and is deeply rooted in the nation's mentality. With careful analysis of the cultural and historical roots of one's own educational traditions, dissimilarities may soon become much more comprehensible to those born and raised in another country, and their transition into teaching in the U.S. classroom will be much more successful.