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I am a Masters graduate student studying finance at a large public university located in a major city. Recently, I accepted a job as a teaching assistant. A significant number of students are from non-western cultures, with East Asia being especially heavily represented(China, S.Korea, etc). In leading discussion,I have found communication to be a problem and I strongly sense it has cultural roots.

Encouraging participation through questions does not seem to help and the students seem to be painfully shy. I attempt discussion that builds upon the text, but the students seem to have trouble expressing themselves and finding their voice. I use mainly open ended questions with some close ended questions for clarification. At the very first session, I explained my expectations:

  1. Respect is crucial. While attacks on ideas are encouraged, personal attacks are inappropriate.
  2. Creativity of thought is encouraged
  3. That I am open to feedback about the students opinions.
  4. Acknowledge wish to speak by raising hand

I feel its important for students to have their own ideas and to actively engage in these smaller discussion sections as it applies the concepts taught in lecture. In addition, I want feedback regarding what I can do better and students' opinions are valuable.

Some relevant background

  1. English proficiency: Understandable but mediocre with accent
  2. Most present in the USA less than 1 year
  3. No family present in the US.

Coming from a western culture (USA), aside from leveraging the professor, what else can I do to improve the efficacy of these discussion groups?

  • How are their English? – scaaahu Dec 16 '14 at 5:45
  • @scaaahu I am able to understand them, but mediocre at best. Most have been here <= 1 year. – Anthony Dec 16 '14 at 5:47
  • Is the discussion counted as part of their grade/marks? – scaaahu Dec 16 '14 at 6:42
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    Is their written English stronger than their spoken English? – Jessica B Dec 16 '14 at 7:29
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I have found communication to be a problem and I strongly sense it has cultural roots.

I think this is the first point to start with: Try to find out if your sense is right here and try to identify what kind of cultural difference may be the cause. In fact I am not sure if cultural differences are really the only (or most important) problem, but you may well be correct. However, there are very different cultures also in east Asia and also in the same country.

One thing that I have heard of is that in some Asian cultures it is impolite to ask questions to a professor (because it somehow shows that she did not explain things well). It may well be considered impolite to try answer questions for which the answer has not been well prepared in advance. (If this would be the case, you could, in principle, think about preparing questions in advance and hand them out a week early.)

If discussing of unprepared ideas is really important for the class, I am not sure what you could do. You may consider collecting different styles for the class such as

  • participants present prepared thoughts on homework questions in written form as a hand-out or orally (or both),
  • prepare handouts for some topics and distribute them in class, then let the participants work on them alone (or in groups), let them prepare statements and collect the statements,
  • have open discussion (prepared or non-prepared).

In any case, communicate the different modes clearly to the students, i.e. explain what they have to do, what you expect them to deliver and what (besides the actual content) they should learn in class. In this way you may get the message across, that "discussing" (and comparable skills) is really something that you expect the students to learn.

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    Its not just that asking question means the professor didnt explain well, it is the fact you are acknowledging you do not understand something, which makes your peers and professor think you are not smart. – user-2147482637 Dec 16 '14 at 8:01
  • I am not sure if cultural differences are really the only (or most important) problem. Agree. I was surprised to hear that students from China (from mainland?) have this problem. My impression was that many of them are very aggressive. +1 for catching many possible cases. – scaaahu Dec 16 '14 at 8:04
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You don't really explain how you try to get these discussions started. Do you ask open-ended questions (such as, "Does anyone have any questions?") or pointed questions (such as, "Who can explain why X did not work in this case?").

You also don't explain your protocol for letting students answer questions. Do they just chime in? Raise their hands first? Do you call on them individually?

Also, what mechanisms do you use to prevent a few extroverted and knowledgeable students from dominating the conversation?

Lastly, how do you encourage classwide participation? What expectations have you set?

The problems you discuss (students who are introverted, intimidated, embarrassed, or hesitant to talk), are not unique to any one culture, although certain cultural backgrounds or language barriers can exacerbate those problems.

Here are a few tricks that might help:

  • Call on certain students individually. Try to get all your more taciturn students speaking more often, and your more vocal students giving others a chance to talk. (If a few students have already answered a couple questions, tell them that they are "done for awhile," and they need to give their classmates a chance to answer some questions now.)
  • Let the students work in pairs for five minutes or so, and then call on those teams to share their thoughts. This may help students feel more confident as they realize they are not the only ones in the room who may be a little unsure about something. Also, even if a quieter student says very little in class, under this arrangement, they are still articulating their thoughts to a peer. (In your specific case, you might considered pairing up an international student with a native English speaker.)
  • Use polling tools (a.k.a. "clickers"), if they are available at your institute. These will get everyone into a mindset of participating. You can also use your poll results to steer the conversation in a certain direction (for example, "Someone who answered (b) – please tell us why you thought that was the best answer.")
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