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Gepubliceerd op: 5 november 2013
Functie: Lecturer and Coordinator, Personal Development Program
Organisatie: Rotterdam Business School

The challenges of intercultural education, For both lecturer and student

Intercultural education has a lot of benefits, but to make it succesful, differences between students in experiences and language need to be acknowledged.

For the last 8 years, I have worked as a lecturer and a student coach for the Rotterdam Business School (RBS), one of eleven institutes within the Hogeschool Rotterdam. I have taught in the preparation courses for Bachelors and Masters business study and in the Graduate Department, which includes 3 full-time business Masters and an MBA. All of these programs are taught in English, and the student population is very diverse; while the majority of pre-course students are Chinese, the students in the masters' programs come from countries all around the world as well as from The Netherlands, and some are first generation Dutch, born in the Netherlands to immigrant parents. As globalization continues to transform our world, the experience of living, working and studying in culturally diverse environments is becoming more and more the norm, and we see that reflected in the diversity of our student population.

Early in my career as a lecturer in the Netherlands, I recognized the opportunity for rich learning experiences in an intercultural classroom, both for myself and my students. As an American who had recently arrived in the Netherlands, I had a heightened sensitivity to culture and differences. I saw the potential for the educational environment to be enhanced by different cultural perspectives, and was eager to facilitate the students' exchange of views and experiences in relation to the course material (soft skills training and personal development). After a short time, though, it became clear that there were also significant challenges in working inter-culturally. Students from different countries have different educational experiences, and consequently have varying expectations of both their teachers and their classmates. Some students expect to be lectured in a traditional manner, with a teacher centered approach and a focus on theory, while others seek more dialogue and discussion. These different experiences and expectations necessarily influence the way in which the student behaves in the classroom; the position of the international student spans a wide spectrum, ranging from silent listener to active challenger. Differing views about the interaction between lecturers and student and among peers has indeed been found to add a level of complexity to the learning environment in multi-cultural classrooms.

Additionally, it is commonly known among lecturers that despite a minimum level of English required for entry into our study program, the students' English competency varies widely, further impacting their engagement and participation in all aspects of their study. Robinson, et al (2000), also found that the two significant challenges faced by the international student are language problems and a mismatch between teaching and learning styles.


One of the biggest hurdles, which encompasses all of the issues identified above, is when students need to work together in teams. According to Brett, et al (2006) there are four factors which create barriers for successful multicultural teams:

  • Direct vs. indirect communication.
  • Trouble with accents and fluency.
  • Attitudes toward hierarchy and authority.
  • Conflicting norms for decision making.

During their individual coaching meetings, Asian student often confide that they find the 'Western' students arrogant (based on their open and assertive expression of ideas, opinions, and disagreement). The 'Western' students find the Asian students to be unwilling to participate and sometimes even lazy, evidenced by the fact that they are not as verbally expressive, and that they often remain quiet in both classes and team meetings.


What can be done to tackle the challenges, in order to fully benefit from the richness of the intercultural learning experience? There is much research that has been done in the last 20+ years related to the very topics that have been identified and discussed here. And through this research, there have also been recommendations made about improving both the students and the lecturers' experience in working inter-culturally. Biggs (2003) stated that persistent teaching challenges in the intercultural classroom lie not in the student but in the teaching. Since we cannot easily change which students sit in front of us in the classroom, thinking about how to change our approach seems like the logical way to address this challenge.

My view is that we need to start, first and foremost, with awareness, both of ourselves and of our students. Marchensi and Adams (1992), quoted in Sulkowski and Deakin (2009), indicate that many university professors tend to teach without considering whether their teaching methods are suitable for a culturally diverse classroom. With high workloads and often little time for planning and reflection, it is easy to maintain a standard approach for reasons of comfort or convenience, without analysis of the efficacy of the approach. I began also using standard methods to engage my class, but found that, for example, asking an open question to a class of Asian students often yielded silent stares. We need to take time to reflect, with each other, on what is working in the classroom and what is not. The more we understand about our students, the better we can find ways to best work with them. Maan, (2005 p. 52) states, "It would be beneficial for lecturers to reflect on their own academic assumptions and traditions, and entering into dialogue with each other and with their students in regard to approaches to learning".

Secondly, we need to be able to communicate with students about expectations. In a small study of a group of pre-Masters students at the RBS, it was found that when student ideas of what lecturers expect are compared with lecturer expectations, they are not always the same (de Rijke and Plucker, 2011). The students thought that lecturers would view transfer of knowledge as the primary expectation. What the lecturers' actually identified as their expectations of students were active participation in class, teamwork competence, communication capacity and independent studying. Felder and Brent (2005), in Sulkowski and Deakin, (2009), also indicate the need to make a clear statement to students about expectations, desired outcomes, and how learning assessments will be done. Explicitly exploring students' prior educational experiences as a starting point for introducing the current expectations can be a way to help students begin to recognize the differences (if there are differences) in approach. Because these expectations may be different than what students have experienced in their home countries, there is value in taking more time for this than one would in a mono-cultural class. Finally, students should be supported in understanding each other. As mentioned earlier, teamwork is often experienced as one of the biggest hurdles in multi-cultural classes. While personality type and learning styles also lead to interpersonal conflict in teamwork, I have observed that cultural misunderstanding can have the most destructive impact.

Although research literature has identified many ways to address poorly functioning intercultural teams, I have experienced that facilitating mutual understanding through guided classroom discussion is a useful starting point. Students generally begin by sharing norms in their own cultures: this is often the first time they realize the vast differences between their own and other cultures. Over time, with a new awareness of the range of what is 'normal', students come across differences both in communication styles and values, which can also be explored within the context of culture. This attention to the process of teamwork requires time, and in taking this time the assumption is that there is as much value in learning from the team process as there is in the achieved result.


  • Biggs, J. (2003), Teaching international students, in Biggs, J. (Ed.), Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 2nd Edition, Open University Press, Maidenhead, pp 120-130.
  • Burnapp, D. (2006), Intercultural Eduacation, Trajectories of Adjustment of International Students, Vol 17, No 1, pp. 81-93.
  • Ciao, H. and Boyd, D. (2010), Learning from cross-cultural problems in international projects: A Chinese case. Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, Vol 17, No 6, pp. 549-562.
  • de Rijke, P. and Plucker, J. (2011), Getting what we wish for: The realities of business education for a global economy, Business Horizons, Vol 54, No 4, pp 375-382.
  • Durkin, K. (2008), The adaptation of East Asian Masters students to Western Norms of Critical Thinking and Argumentation in the U.K., Intercultural Education, Vol 19, No 1, pp 15-27.
  • Marchesani, L. and Adams, M. (1992), Dynamics of diversity in the teaching and learning process- a faculty development model for analysis, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Vol 52, pp 9-20.
  • Nield, K. (2004), Questioning the myth of the Chinese learner, International Journal of Hospitality Management, Vol 16, No 3, pp 189-196.
  • Smith, B and MacGregor, J. (2009), Learning communities and the quest for quality, Quality Assurance in Education, Vol 17, No 2, pp. 118-139.
  • Sulkowski, N. and Deakin, M. (2009), Does understanding culture help enhance students' learning experience?, International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, Vol 21, No 2, pp 154-166.
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