The Great American Speakout
By Eileen K. McCluskey
Special to the Gazette
The Great American Speak-Out
"For most international graduate students, one of the most difficult things is class participation," notes Rosalind Michahelles, acting director of the Office of International Education at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), where 10 to 12 percent of the student population hold foreign passports.
"Most international students come from systems where the lecture is the main form of teaching," Michahelles explains, "so that speaking up in class feels unnatural to them." Yet in this school, as well as others, classroom participation is viewed as key. In fact, the "constructivist model," a cornerstone of GSE educational practice, is based on the notion that class discussion per se builds knowledge.
Colette Daiute, former associate professor of education, and Zeynep Beykont, EdD '94, conducted interviews several years ago with 18 of Beykont's fellow international students from 12 countries. The interviewees were asked about their experiences with participation in their American classrooms compared to that of the classrooms in their home countries. (The number of students who participated in the study represented 50 percent of the GSE's international student body.)
Daiute and Beykont found that "descriptions of interaction patterns in higher education courses . . . were remarkably similar. Participants characterized their classes back home as being mostly one-way presentations of information from the professor to the students." As one student put it: "The professor is the expert and students are novices." Students, in short, were not encouraged to participate.
GSE international students have strong and unified opinions about what makes for a comfortable participatory environment, and what doesn't. Not surprisingly, "the most common descriptions of seminars where the [students] felt comfortable participating were those in which the professor maintained a supportive, relaxed, and nonthreatening tone, as well as conveyed equal status to the students," Daiute and Beykont concluded.
Conversely, most international students were hesitant to participate "when the professor was disrespectful of student ideas," and when "other students, typically Americans, voiced their opinions too often and at the expense of other students."
At the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the participation problem can be cast in terms of international students' reactions to the nature of the faculty-student relationship. Garth McCavana, assistant dean for student affairs at the GSAS, says that "although Harvard faculty don't have the reputation of being the chummiest bunch around, the level of informality in dealing with faculty can, according to some international students, take a great deal of getting used to."
Learning To Be Disagreeable
Maureen Walker, assistant director of Academic and Course Services at the Business School, says that "the learning model at Harvard Business School relies on active participation and the free exchange of ideas, which requires command of both spoken and written English. In most cases, class participation can account for up to 50 percent of a student's final evaluation.
"The case method can be very challenging for students whose previous education has consisted primarily of lecture-style classes," continues Walker, "and for those whose cultural norms include deference to peers and faculty. For example, in some Asian cultures, it is considered inappropriate and often disrespectful to engage in public debate. Not only do we require students to actively debate and challenge each other and the professor, but we expect them to do so with some frequency. Language proficiency and acculturation are crucial to a student's productivity in the classroom."
Janice McCormick, director of M.B.A. Academic and Course Services at the Business School, explains one way in which the School addresses the participation challenge: "Before they enter HBS, some international students attend Harvard's English for the M.B.A. Program -- an intensive study of the English language that helps students hone skills such as listening, speaking, and writing, focusing on English business language." The new international students also engage in practice classes to get them into the groove of the fast pace, participatory nature, and business lingo of the classrooms.
Learning to Listen
But in addition to helping the international students adjust to the fast pace and demanding participation requirements of the Business School, notes Walker, "we also believe that it is equally important for those who speak English as a first language to learn from the international students and to embrace the opportunities to make this an environment in which everyone's learning is enhanced. We help non-native English speakers learn how to improve oral participation, for instance, but we think it is equally important to help native English speakers learn to listen."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College