Teach the Earth > Early Career > International Faculty > Challenges in Teaching > Advice from Heike Alberts

Advice for International Instructors

from Heike Alberts, University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh

Heike Alberts is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh. In 2007, she presented the following information (published here with her permission) at a session for international faculty at the Association of American Geographers conference. She has also published a paper on this topic: Alberts, Heike (2008): "The Challenges and Opportunities of Foreign-Born Instructors in the Classroom," Journal of Geography in Higher Education 32(2), 189-203.
Bereket Haileab discussing geology with students on a field trip to the Black Hills.

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Differences in Academic Preparation


  • American schools have no standard curriculum, so students enter colleges and universities with very different levels of basic knowledge and academic skills.
  • In many countries higher education is reserved for the best students; in the US, more than half of the high school graduates attend college.
  • American universities have different policies for admitting students than most countries. Usually students do not have to pass entrance examinations beyond the SAT or ACT. Even in institutions with rigorous standards for admission, some students who lack a strong academic background may be admitted.
  • Unlike in many other countries, US students take two years of general education classes before choosing a major. Therefore many students in general education courses do not have much interest in the subject matter.


  • Accept that many students are academically less prepared than you would expect. Adjust your level of teaching accordingly and make sure that you explain terms that they may not know.
  • Use questionnaires or other assessment techniques to find out what the students know coming into your class so that you know which level to target.
  • Have students write a short essay about what they are hoping to get out of the course to give you a better idea what their goals are.
  • Don't get upset if students are not motivated or do not show an interest in the subject matter. Explain to them how what you teach matters even if it is not in their major.
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Language Issues


  • Unless they grew up in a multicultural community, most students have little experience with people speaking with an accent, and they were probably never taught by somebody who was not raised in the United States before.
  • The single biggest complaint American students have about international instructors is that they have difficulties understanding their English.


  • Be upfront with the students. Acknowledge that your English is not perfect, that you don't know all the words, and that you may mispronounce some words.
  • Encourage students to raise their hands if they don't understand you. Many students are shy about interrupting the professor, so make it clear that you want them to let you know when they don't understand.
  • Learn to rely and react to non-verbal behaviors such as puzzled expressions, lack of note-taking, or other signs of frustration or confusion.
  • Make sure that you speak slowly. The faster you speak the harder it is for the students to understand you.
  • Prepare extensive notes that the students can read on the lecture hall screen so they can see the words even if they don't recognize your pronunciation. Write out definitions.
  • Tell students that learning is a two-way street—you teach them the subject matter, they teach you the language.
  • Make fun of your own mistakes.
  • Assign 'language police'—students who are responsible for correcting you or helping you out with words you don't know. They will be less shy about correcting you when they have been assigned to do the job, and often enjoy teaching you something.
  • Write your name on the board and tell students how to call you. If your name is particularly difficult, consider telling them a simplified version.
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Interacting with Students


  • Many international instructors are surprised at how informal students are with their professors. In most cases, this is not an indication of lack of respect.
  • Americans interact in different ways than you may be used to—both verbally and non-verbally. For example, there may be differences in eye contact, distance between people, and touching.
  • Students expect professors to be approachable and like to know who they are as a person.
  • American students expect to be recognized as individuals.
  • American students tend to be more sensitive to criticism than you might be used to.


  • Be polite and patient with your students.
  • Seek informal conversations with students before or after class or during office hours.
  • Observe others to learn the proper rules concerning eye contact, distance between people, language conventions, etc.
  • Treat students as individuals. Try to learn their names and remember details about them.
  • Provide the students with some background about yourself.
  • When you evaluate a student's work, first say something positive. Be gentle in your criticisms. Don't be harsh or sarcastic.
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Teaching Styles


  • American students expect well-structured lectures that present the information in an understandable, entertaining manner.
  • In the US, students expect to receive information from their professors that it adjusted to their level.
  • US classrooms tend to be rather structured with a large number of assignments and exams. Students are therefore often unaccustomed to structuring their own time and making their own deadlines.
  • The teaching style in the US is less detached than in many other countries. Students appreciate and expect humor, a friendly attitude of the instructor, and entertaining presentations.
  • American students like knowledgeable instructors who are willing to admit that they do not know everything.


  • Structure your lectures according to the principle of "say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you said" – in other words, provide an overview of the lecture, periodic summaries, and a conclusion.
  • Plan several tests and assignments for each course. Provide concrete instructions and deadlines. Remind students of the rules and deadlines in class. Consider sending a reminder email to the class a week before an assignment is due or posting an announcement on the course's WebCT or Blackboard website.
  • Make sure that you aim your lectures at the students' level and provide bite-sized information. Teaching less material may result in better learning!
  • Admit when you don't know something and find out as soon as you can. ("I don't know, but I'll find out") or turn the question back on the class to see if any of the students know the answer. This empowers students and demonstrates that you are interested in what they know.
  • Be personable in your lectures.
  • Project your voice, especially in large lecture halls, and occasionally ask students in the back of the room if they can hear you.
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Classroom Behavior


  • The students' behavior in the classroom may be less formal than you expect. Many students wear casual dress, and behave in ways that many international instructors might interpret as lack of respect.
  • Students may call their professors by their first name and interact with them rather informally. This does not necessarily mean a lack of respect; on the contrary—when they behave casually that may mean that they feel comfortable with the professor.
  • Students may ask questions in a way that may appear to challenge the teachers.


  • Accept that student behavior is different from what you are used to. You can gently train them to behave according to your standards, but if you try to impose your ways on them you risk alienating your students.
  • If there are certain guidelines you insist upon, establish the ground rules in the syllabus and on the first day of class. It is easier to establish good classroom behavior at the beginning of the semester rather than to repair problems later.
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Avoiding Confrontation


While most students appreciate hearing a different perspective and are open towards critical statements about the United States, some students get easily offended about anything that they consider "anti-American".

Some students feel very strongly that international instructors should not be criticizing the United States.

Some students accuse international instructors of not having adjusted well to the United States and not understanding American culture (including student life).


  • Tell students that you will teach them about your home country, but that you also want to learn more about the US to stimulate positive interaction.
  • Do not shy away from political issues or confrontational topics just because some students give you a hard time. Remember that many others will often silently agree with you but do not speak up. It is important that students learn to listen to different points of view and form their own opinions.
  • Where possible, include your criticisms of the US within a broader discussion of the negative roles played by a variety of countries. Students are more receptive to criticism about the US when they do not feel that you single out their home country.
  • Criticize your home country before you criticize the United States.
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Assignments and Grading


  • American students want to be told exactly what is expected of them.
  • While criticisms are given in a very direct way in some cultures, in the US imperfect answers are not rejected, but students are gently led into the right direction
  • American students expect comments to be supportive.
  • Students expect that assignments and tests will be graded and returned promptly.
  • Some American students feel entitled to receive high grades if they worked hard (or even if they didn't).


  • In your syllabus, be as detailed as possible about class policies and assignments. If necessary, provide separate sheets explaining assignments and grading procedures in detail
  • The syllabus is your contract with the students. For example, if students are told from the beginning that exams will not be graded on a normal curve and no extra credit assignments will be given, they are more likely to accept these policies.
  • Accept that standards or approaches may be quite different from your home country. Ask other instructors for examples of tests, assignments, and syllabi to get an idea of what the expectations are at your institution
  • Don't let the students push you around. Students are likely to try to talk you into lowering standards. Talk to other professors before you make any adjustments.
  • If you feel you need to make adjustments, don't give up your standards completely. You have to adjust to the prevailing standard to some degree so that you do not alienate students, but try to train them gently to accept your ideas.
  • Impose the '24-hour rule': Tell students that you will not accept any complaints about grades in the 24 hours after you return a test or assignment. This allows students to cool down and forces them to think more carefully about why they think they should earn more points.
  • When you grade student papers, write short comments on the margins and provide an overall evaluation. Always say something positive about the paper before you provide criticisms.
  • Consider working together with students to develop grading criteria for papers or other projects.
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Taking Advantage of Your "Foreignness"


  • Many students appreciate that international instructors can provide them with a different perspective and have first-hand experience with living abroad.
  • Many students enjoy learning about other places and people, especially from an "authentic" source.


  • Make your 'foreignness' a resource for your teaching. Most students love to hear about first-hand experiences, and appreciate getting an insight into what your life was like when you lived in your home country.
  • Don't talk too much about your country. Students get tired of hearing too much about a country that they are not connected to. Make sure that you provide a critical perspective on your home country.
  • Offer students the opportunity to come to your office hours simply to chat about your home country. There are always students who want to know more but do not dare to ask a question in class.
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Compiled from:

Alberts, Heike (2008): "The Challenges and Opportunities of Foreign-Born Instructors in the Classroom," Journal of Geography in Higher Education 32(2), 189-203.

Center for Teaching Excellence. International Teaching Assistants: Communication Strategies. ILLINI Instructor Series, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Kuhn, Elisabeth. 1996. "Cross-Cultural Stumbling Blocks for International Teachers," College Teaching 44(3). 96-99.

Sarkisian, Ellen. 2000. Teaching American Students. A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

"Teaching American Students (for International TAs)" Vanderbilt University

University of California. Bridging the gap: approaching your students and helping them approach you, in: Teaching Resources Guide.