Interaction in the international classroom

International students are a very heterogeneous group of students with different cultural and educational backgrounds. One of the common challenges that teachers in higher education encounter is the lack of student participation. Students often won’t work in diverse groups and in plenary discussions it is often the same few students who talk while most students do not seem to be involved.

This lack of interaction can partly be due to language issues, not all students feel confident enough to speak out in a group in a second (or third!) language. Another reason can be the lack of experience in taking part in group work or group discussions. Some international students come from a background where traditional stand-and-deliver lectures were attended and where listening and note-taking were the dominant ways of learning.

Use the active learning task think-pair-share to encourage student interaction

One method you can use as a teacher to encourage student interaction is to make use of active learning tasks. By performing active learning tasks in pairs or in small groups students can safely practice with language while at the same time they activate their prior knowledge. A very useful active learning task in the international classroom is think-pair-share.

When introducing a topic you can first ask your students what they already know about the topic by writing down keywords for themselves (think). This enables all students to think about their response and to make a personal contribution. The second step is to let students discuss their answers with their neighbour (pair). Now they can practice putting their keywords into sentences and compare their level of understanding. The last step is to have a plenary discussion (share). Students will feel more confident to speak out in the plenary discussion as they have organised their thoughts and practiced their use of language. The answers can be written down on a whiteboard and you can fill in any potential gaps in knowledge yourself.

Another advantage of using this method is that it creates a visual overview of the prior knowledge of the group. You will have a better idea what aspects of the topic need more explanation and what aspects students already know. You have also drawn your students into the topic and they will be more prepared to actively participate.

A next step

A next step can be to let students make groups based on their specific interest in this topic or to mix students based on their level of prior knowledge (for example practical knowledge, theoretical knowledge, own experience or a personal interest). By mixing students according to their knowledge or interest in the topic the groups become more diverse. Students can experience how this diversity increases their overall level of knowledge and how they can learn from each other. These two activities enable not only interaction between students but they also enable you to use the diversity that the international classroom has to offer.


Onderwijsadvies & Training offers the course ‘Teaching in the international classroom’ for teachers who are interested in the intercultural, language-related and didactic implications of teaching in the international classroom. The course will provide you with practical tools for teaching in an international context. 

Written by: Nathalie Veenendaal (former employee Onderwijsadvies & Training)
Published: April 2018