Key Insights: Best Practices for Teaching International Students

During the past few years, UC Berkeley Extension has experienced significant growth in international student enrollment. While many Extension international students enroll in programs that are specifically designed for them, there are significantly more international students in all Extension courses.

We encourage you to create an inclusive and diverse environment in your class; however, we realize that you may be teaching international students for the very first time and could experience pedagogical challenges in the classroom. Teaching techniques that successfully support international students also support good pedagogy for all students. We spoke to four Extension instructors—Arun Sharma, Caitlin Kindervatter-Clark, Kateland Harte and Martin Medeiros—who have been teaching international students for several years to find out their best practices and advice and resources they can share with you.

Opportunities and Challenges of Combining American and International Students in the Classroom

Mixing American and international students is a great opportunity for cultural exchange. The advantage for Americans is that it can broaden their cultural understanding. For international students, the more mixed a classroom is, the more opportunities they have to connect and learn about American culture.

Culturally diverse groups have so much to teach and learn from one another, especially in class discussion and group work—both in terms of knowledge and in processes and ways of thinking.

The language difference and gaps can be challenging for some students. But if a student has a foundational understanding of the English language, they can usually become successful with the proper support.

Tips for Setting Academic Integrity and Other Expectations

Don’t just write your expectations in a syllabus. Explain your syllabus and the UC Berkeley honor code.

Consider carving out time in class to explain and impress upon students the importance of academic integrity and what plagiarism means in the American context.

  • Explain to students that when they are going into a new environment, they need to learn how things are done in that environment and need to adapt to that culture (just like when others go to their country, they would expect them to adapt to their culture). 
  • Give students a set of examples of proper citation for each new project.
  • Explain that the consequences of plagiarism can be quite severe in American colleges and universities.
  • Give examples of public figures who have plagiarized and what the public response is.
  • Use Canvas to post an introductory video to the class.

Require papers to be submitted electronically and run them through plagiarism-checking software.

  • Show students the software so that they can see how it works and how easy it is to find plagiarism.

When you encounter a first-time incident with an international student regarding academic integrity:

  • Operate from the assumption that it may be a cultural misunderstanding.
  • Take additional time to explain the policy and expectations.
  • Consider giving students an opportunity to redo the assignment.

Further resources:

If more than one student isn’t understanding your academic or behavioral expectations, contact your Program Director for further support.

Tips for Assessing International Student Writing

Create grading rubrics:

  • To assess grammar, usage, spelling/punctuation, originality, writing skills and rhetoric
  • To address the learning objectives for each assignment. For example, for an argumentative essay assignment, rubrics could be: evaluating the thesis statement, rhetoric of the body of paper, evidence and documentation of research, overall paper including writing/revision and presentation of the paper.

International students may require you to specifically define your rubrics. For example, further explain “what is a thesis statement.”

Take additional time to explain, review and assess each stage of the writing process to help students better understand each stage’s function within the context of the whole work. This includes outline construction, drafting, creating an annotated bibliography and peer review.

Facilitate peer reviews where a student will review another student’s paper or suggest for students to have their writing proofread by someone else.

Additional resources from the University of Denver Writing Program:

Tips for Teaching a Mixed-Level Class

Keep the level of the class consistently higher to challenge students and only adapt it slightly to the class needs, such as slightly higher or lower.

For students who are behind or have low expectations of themselves:

  • Encourage them to be open to the topic.
  • Advise them that they may need to work harder and tell them to not get discouraged.
  • Assign group work and pair more proficient students with less-proficient students to allow for peer-to-peer teaching.
  • Offer office hours for additional one-on-one help (in-person, by phone or online) or periodically set aside time for individual conferences during class while other students work on an in-class assignment.
  • For readings, help break down the content into outline format to ensure that they understand the key points.
  • Consider using a grading rubric that measures how well each student is improving and have their final grade reflect the growth they’ve demonstrated in the class.
  • For students who are struggling with basic concepts, reach out to your Program Director for further support.

For advanced students:

  • Find out what interests them and recommend other topics or readings to study or to delve deeper.
  • Encourage students to focus on a project that interests them.
  • Make sure that there will be one or more new things that they will learn in class; for example, they will learn a new way of doing something.

Additional resources:

Tips for Encouraging and Facilitating Classroom Discussion and Participation

Acknowledge and convey to students how impressed you are that they are taking a class that is not in their own language.

Do a mixture of small-group discussions (3-4 students), whole-class discussions and classroom presentations.

Make time for in-class reflective journaling on the topics or texts in question. When students have time to reflect upon a question in writing before speaking to it in class, it helps them make a verbal connection and feel more comfortable.

For classroom presentations:

  • Explain to them that public speaking is an important skill that they need to have.
  • Assure them that the classroom is a safe and low-risk environment.
  • Give basic public-speaking tips on eye contact, tone of voice, etc.
  • Ask them questions before the presentation to warm them up, put them at ease and get the momentum going.

Tips on How Best to Organize Group Work or Projects

Consider having teams work on aspirational projects that represent long-term interests or goals. For example, have STEM students host a classroom contest for the best mock National Institutes of Health (NIH) research proposal.

Here are some various ways you can assign groups:

  • Pair more proficient students with less-proficient students to allow for peer-to-peer teaching.
  • Make sure each team comprises members who do not speak the same language (if possible).
  • Pair an even mixture of female and male students (if possible).

Have students use Google docs to work through ideas together outside of the classroom so that they can see one another’s edits in real time. (Available through bConnected. You will need to log in with your CalNet credentials to access these tools.)

Take time to observe each group closely to make sure everyone has a role and is actively participating.

For grading, use the group for motivation but make students individually accountable toward contributing to the group.

Other Tips for Teaching International Students

Sit in on a class that includes international students for peer review. You can request a peer review by emailing UC Berkeley Extension’s Center for Instructional Excellence at

Stay up-to-date on world affairs and current events and try to understand the things that might impact your students. Be an informed international citizen.

Don’t be afraid to allow your students to teach you:

  • Ask questions about their background, listen to what they have to say and take advantage of it by working it into an assignment.
  • Give up the notion that you have all of the answers and open the class as a collaborative inquiry. Put to the students genuine big questions for ethical debate. For example, come to each class with a new topic from current events or recent public debates and a set of questions to ask and answer together.
  • Guide students to use their knowledge and analytic skills to think critically together and to interrogate their own assumptions.
  • Try a writing exercise for an untranslatable word or phrase: Ask your students to write a short extended definition of a word or phrase in their native language that cannot be translated or easily explained in English.

Teach with humor and enthusiasm to keep things lively.

Rely on experience before changing things.

Additional Resources

Beyond Culture by Edward Hall: theory about high-context and low-context cultures and how culture affects writing and communication style.

Canvas (Learning Management System) and Turnitin (Plagiarism Detection Software):

  • Review the resources section in the Classroom Teaching module of the Extension Instructor Hub.
  • Extension instructors who use the Canvas LMS can also request to enable Turnitin plagiarism-detection software.
  • If you are interested in setting up Canvas and Turnitin for your course, please contact your Program Coordinator who can assist you.

Creating Conditions for (International) Student Success, UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning

Google Tools:

  • Google drive, docs, sheets, slides, etc.
  • Very useful for student group work.
  • Available through bConnected. You will need to log in with your CalNet credentials to access these tools.

New York Times:

Maintaining Your Academic Integrity: Research and Proper Citation (Student Handout) (automatic download; enable your browser to accept pop-ups).

PBS Learning Media (California)

The Purdue Writing Lab: guidelines to various formatting and citation styles and conventions for writing in different disciplines.

Teaching International Students, Inside Higher Ed. (Elizabeth Redden, December 2014)

Syllabus Template (automatic download; enable your browser to accept pop-ups)

Teaching a Mixed-Level Disparate Class, UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching Tolerance: lesson plans regarding ethics and social movements

University of Denver Writing Program:

Zinn Education Project: guidelines on how to present current events in culturally sensitive ways

If you would like to observe an international class or are hitting a specific pedagogical challenge in your course, please reach out to UC Berkeley Extension’s Center for Instructional Excellence at for further advising and support.

Please review the detailed article and interview to learn more about Extension international students and how Extension instructors have incorporated these these teaching strategies in the classroom.