Students in an international class experience less inclusion and psychological confidence than students in a class with a nationality, according to research by KU Leuven and the University of Amsterdam. Research also shows that the way teachers act in an international classroom has a major effect on this. When the teacher acts in a multicultural way, that is, with an eye to cultural differences, the problems of students in an international class are minor or nonexistent. When the teacher acts “colorblind” and pretends that everyone is culturally equal, this is actually not the case.
This research was conducted by Jozefien De Leersnyder, research professor at KU Leuven, Seval Gündemir, assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam, and Orhan Ağirdağ, associate professor at both KU Leuven and UVA. The aim of this research was to investigate the context in which an international class is good or bad for students. The researchers point out that they don’t look at students’ character traits, but rather at the dynamics in an international classroom.
Everyone should feel welcome in an educational institution
This is important to know, as international classes have become more common in recent years. Previous research has shown that studying abroad can be highly beneficial for student development. This exchange also produces a lot for educational institutions. Yet international students don’t always end up in a hot bath; Lack of social or language skills, discrimination or prejudice, and financial hardship are common. Research in this sense is often done from the perspective of the international student and not thinking about the international educational institution.
As this research contributes to understanding the circumstances within a study program rather than the personal characteristics of international students, the findings can help make international study programs more accessible to international students, according to the researchers. Cultural differences do not automatically lead to psychological problems; largely depends on the context, they write. Educational institutions are able to determine that context.
Researchers therefore encourage educational institutions to create a climate where everyone can feel welcome, a climate where students can learn from each other’s cultural differences instead of ignoring them. The creation of this climate must take place in all institutions, from teachers to official communication and the curriculum. However, the most important thing is to have a welcoming attitude towards students, the researchers write. Policy makers and managers can ensure that teachers are trained in this.
Cultural misunderstandings lead to bigger problems
To find out how such an atmosphere can be created, the researchers invited first-year students studying psychology at one of the largest universities in the Netherlands. This training can be done in both Dutch and English, with no impact on the curriculum. A total of 360 students, two thirds of the total number of first year students of this program, participated in the survey by answering a questionnaire. Through this questionnaire, the researchers gathered information on cultural misunderstandings, the degree of inclusion, psychological security and the approach to diversity.
Cultural misunderstandings between students and teachers or between students themselves can lead to students feeling out of place in a university or country. Understanding the problems that this entails is fundamental, according to the researchers, in order to subsequently be able to offer the right conditions to these students.
Researchers expected psychological security and inclusion to be potential problems resulting from cultural misunderstandings. These two factors contribute to the academic achievement and well-being of international students. Without these factors, students will be less able to be themselves and feel less connected to the educational institution, which does not benefit intrinsic motivation, the researchers write. It also ensures that students are less likely to ask for help when they need it.
Multicultural view is better than color blindness
The questionnaire showed that, as the researchers expected, first-year psychology students in the international class had more cultural misunderstandings than their fellow students in the Dutch class. This confirmed that the context of an international classroom has a negative effect on both psychological safety and the sense of inclusion in students. However, this effect was reduced when teachers adopted a multicultural approach; with a teacher’s highly multicultural approach, the amount of cultural misunderstanding was even equivalent to the Dutch class. This also resulted in a minor negative effect on the sense of inclusion and psychological security in international classrooms. When teachers used the “color blind” approach, the negative effects remained intact.
According to the color blind approach theory, pretending that there are no cultural differences means that the potential discrimination is obscured by individualism. The theory of the multicultural approach, on the other hand, requires that cultural differences be recognized and valued, so that international students can draw strength from their differences. Although both theories try to solve the same problems, the multicultural approach theory emerges at the top here, the researchers said.