I work with international graduate students to help them understand the norms of communication in Canadian academia. International students need to be familiar with Canadian expectations about communication in order to be successful when they teach, communicate with their supervisors, participate in class, and apply for jobs, as cultural differences in communication exist in all these realms. One of the recurrent comments that I hear from my students is, “I wish my professor/supervisor could take this class.” I don’t think they really want them to take the class …. I think what they really want is for their professors and supervisors to understand more about what’s behind the differences in communication patterns.
The following is a reprint from the Teaching Support Centre’s newsletter Reflections from Spring 2006. In addition, I’ll take this opportunity to mention the e-manual Communication Strategies for International Graduate Students: Surviving and Thriving in Canadian Academia. The e-manual can be accessed free of charge by everybody at Western with a Western user name. It is also available for sale to other institutions: a single purchase gives everybody on campus the ability to register for access to the manual. For information, go to: www.uwo.ca/tsc/csigs.html.
Have you ever asked a student, “Do you understand?” only to have the student answer in the affirmative when you just knew that he or she did not understand? Many factors will result in this answer, most of which involve the issue of saving face. This situation is exacerbated with international students because of cross-cultural patterns of communication. Only, did you know that this white lie was actually about trying to save you face?
In Canada, responsibility for understanding is placed on the speaker’s shoulders. This is why we explain things step by step: we want to be very clear, and we don’t want to forget to include any points. We don’t mind it when people tell us that they don’t understand; in fact, we expect our students to do so. If they do not, we might feel stymied while we are trying to teach.
In many other countries, especially those in Asia and the Middle East, it is the listener’s responsibility to understand what the speaker is saying. Speakers will imply a great deal, and it the listener’s responsibility to infer exactly what the speaker is saying. In countries where this is a communication pattern, students will not tell an instructor that they do not understand: to do so would be rude in the extreme and would constitute a loss of face for the instructor.
So, how can we overcome this difference in how we communicate in order to ensure good teaching and good learning? I have three suggestions:
1) At the end of a class, ask the students to take one minute to write down what the muddiest point for them is on index cards. They can submit these anonymously or they can include their names.
2) Ask students open-ended concept questions, and generally try to avoid questions that require a yes/no answer. For example, if you were discussing the issue of academic honesty, concept questions would involve asking for examples of plagiarism.
3) Explain this difference in communication patterns, and reassure your students that you want and need to know when they don’t understand. Do, however, understand that mere knowledge of this pattern won’t be enough for the students to overcome the situation immediately. You will need to teach them that it’s okay to tell you when they don’t understand.