“More engagement means more good memories”: international students’ seminar participation.

Image credit: Manfred Steger, Pixabay, CCO

In this extra post, Cathy Benson shares valuable insights on international students’ perceptions and feelings on classroom interactions within two contexts: pre-sessional English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses and their Masters programmes. This PTAS funded collaborative project also suggests strategies that can help improve student participation and engagement. Cathy is an EAP lecturer at English Learning Education in the Centre for Open Learning, The University of Edinburgh. Cathy is indebted to her colleagues and co-researchers, who all contributed an enormous amount: Cathy Holden and Camilla Green (ELE), and Joan Cutting,  Seongsook Choi and Alice Shan (MHSES).

The phenomenon of international students’ reticence in seminars has been well documented, along with the explanations students themselves have offered for this (e.g. Green, 2016; Morita, 2004; Phan Le Ha and Binghui Li, 2014; Tatar, 2005; Yates and Nguyen, 2012). In the pre-sessional English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses offered by English Language Education (ELE) for future Masters students, there is a strong focus on encouraging student interaction, and students usually seem happy to interact with each other in group discussion, often in a lively manner. However, there seems to be a tendency for them to become more reluctant to interact once they are on their Masters programmes. This intrigued us, and we decided to compare students’ classroom participation on pre-sessional courses with their participation during Masters workshops. Our volunteers were all Chinese, reflecting the population of the EAP courses, and included students from two CAHSS programmes.

We observed and recorded our participants in both their pre-sessional classes and their Masters workshops. We then interviewed them, asking them to share their general feelings about classroom participation, before showing them selected clips from the recordings and eliciting their comments on their own and others’ participation. In doing so, we hoped to raise awareness, among both EAP tutors and subject tutors, of factors that might either inhibit or encourage participation by international students.

As we expected, our volunteers did participate more in their EAP classes: their contributions were more frequent, and tended to be longer. They offered various reasons:

  • the greater level of difficulty of the Masters content,
  • “the pressure is much more”,
  • the difference in focus, moving from a language focus to “focussing on the knowledge itself”,
  • the “more relaxing”, “more friendly” classroom environment in the EAP course,
  • tutor expectations of participation, with EAP teachers being “more willing to expect you to speak, they want you to speak more … in MSc, teacher don’t know who are you”,
  • other MSc students being, “more well prepared and … has their own ideas so I tend not to talk so much”,
  • feeling less inhibited: “I know that not all of [my peers] will be in my degree courses so I feel freer to talk since … we will not meet each other again”.

Interestingly, some participants conceptualised participation more broadly, considering non-verbal ways of participating to be equally valid, a viewpoint also mentioned by some previous researchers. One maintained it was a matter of individual choice:

 “…some people would rather sit quietly and absorb the knowledge; other people with different personality might enjoy asking questions in front of the whole class.”

This led us to question current western expectations that participation should equate to verbal contributions. If we are serious about decolonising the curriculum, should those students who feel more comfortable remaining silent not be able to do so without being judged negatively?

Our volunteers suggested various strategies and techniques which they felt might enhance participation in Masters workshops. Some were practices they had observed during their EAP courses, which they thought could be applied on Masters programmes; others were their own ideas.

They included:

  • setting less pre-class preparation work, to decrease pressure, for example by using “jigsaw reading” (where each student in a group reads a different text or section of a text before the class, then reports and comments on the content to group-mates, prior to discussion of the set topic)
  • allowing students to rehearse their contributions in small groups before inviting them to speak in plenary mode, to increase confidence
  • questioning in non-threatening ways, nominating specific students to respond to questions, and providing encouraging feedback
  • asking students to relate the topic of the workshop to their own context, where possible
  • asking students to close laptops, as these can present a barrier to communication.

Participants also had recommendations for fellow Chinese students, such as thorough preparation of workshops, and actively seeking friendships with non-Chinese students in order to increase confidence in speaking.

This was an exciting project to be involved in, particularly as I had wanted to investigate this issue for many years, so our team are very grateful for the PTAS funding we were awarded. I believe we all learned a great deal, not only about what happens in our classrooms (whether in EAP courses or on Masters programmes) but particularly about students’ perceptions and feelings about classroom interaction, which were not always what we might have predicted. It would be really interesting to replicate this project in other schools. We would be very happy to talk to interested colleagues in other parts of the university.


Green, C. (2016) ‘Time to talk about talking? : A qualitative study of the factors affecting nonnative English speaking students’ levels of participation in seminar discussion groups and cross-cultural group work on taught Masters programmes in a UK university and the impact upon the experiences of native English speaking students’. Unpublished MSc (TESOL) dissertation, University of Edinburgh.

Morita, N. (2004). ‘Negotiating participation and identity in second language communities’, TESOL Quarterly 38:4 (573-603).

Phan Le Ha and Binghui Li (2014) ‘Silence as right, choice, resistance and strategy among Chinese ‘Me Generation’ students: implications for pedagogy’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 35:2 (233-248).

Tatar, S. (2005) ‘Why keep silent? The classroom participation experiences of non-native-English speaking students’ Language and Intercultural Communication, 5:3 (284-293).

Yates, L. and Nguyen, T.Q.T. (2012) ‘Beyond a discourse of deficit: the meaning of silence in the international classroom. The International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives, 11:1 (22-34).

photograph of the authorCathy Benson

Cathy Benson is an EAP lecturer at ELE in the Centre for Open Learning, and Coordinator of Academic Language and Literacies for Research Students.

This study was conducted in collaboration with colleagues from ELE (Cathy Holden and Camilla Green) and MHSES (Joan Cutting, Seongsook Choi) and a doctoral student from MHSES (Alice Shan), who all contributed an enormous amount and to whom I am extremely grateful.

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