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Assumptions about Culture

Students in a library in Victoria, Australia

It is common for international students to have certain cultural assumptions and expectations about education that differ from many of our domestic students’ perspectives. We should all strive to be aware of these cultural differences so they do not become barriers to our students’ learning. The fact that there is a great diversity of approaches to education across the globe makes it all the more important for us as faculty to be clear about our expectations for students. Perhaps unsurprisingly,  Glass et al. (2015) found that faculty are “the most influential persons shaping an international student’s academic trajectory” (p. 353). At DePaul, an institution that prioritizes teaching and whose mission underscores the inherent dignity of all people, it is our responsibility to do our part in helping all of our students achieve the learning goals we’ve set for our courses.

Breaking Down Assumptions

Traveling across geographic regions and human cultures can provoke a response that is known as “culture shock.” Recall that international students in your classes are finding themselves in a new place with new customs, traditions, symbols and lexicons. According to the Teaching International Students Project, being suddenly immersed in a new academic culture may reveal differences in approach to such things as the “relationships between teacher and students, forms of assessment, and even what counts as ‘knowledge.’” 

Teaching practices that are often commonplace in the U.S.— such as group work and collaborative projects, reflection and metacognition, critical reasoning, and discussion—may be new to international students. Students who have not had these kinds of prior educational experiences should not be viewed as “deficient.” Indeed, international students bring with them a host of experiences and perspectives that can lead to greater learning for everyone. 

Examples of Cultural Variations

The following examples of cultural variation are taken from Recognizing and Addressing Cultural Variations in the Classroom, a report published by the Eberly Center for Teaching and Learning at Carnegie Mellon University.

Cultural Variations report by Carnegie Mellon University
For a more detailed discussion of how cultural assumptions may vary in a global classroom, read the Cultural Variations report produced by the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon University.

  • Relationship between professor and student: The role of professor differs across cultures and locales. In many places, the professor is often seen more as a conferer of knowledge than as a coach who provides individualized instruction or feedback. Questioning or challenging professors and other students may be perceived as disrespectful.
  • Teaching methods: Teacher-centered didactic modes of instruction, such as the extensive and exclusive use of lecturing, with its focus on content acquisition and coverage, is a commonplace feature of education globally. Discussion, project- and service-based learning, and other modes of instruction may be new to students, and they may not immediately understand their value or purpose.
  • Group work: Collaboration is an important part of many academic cultures, but what constitutes collaboration or how that collaboration is structured varies greatly. Students may expect that group work will be “systematic and sustained...with a greater value placed on interdependence and collaboration than on individual performance.” As a result, students may engage in the kinds of activities that are seen as plagiarism or cheating in the United States, where individual achievement and comprehensive source attribution are prized.


Glass, C. R., Kociolek, E., Wongtrirat, R., Lynch, R. J., & Cong, S. (September 01, 2015). Uneven Experiences: The Impact of Student-Faculty Interactions on International Students' Sense of Belonging. Journal of International Students, 5, 4, 353-367. Retrieved from http://depaul.worldcat.org/oclc/19535897373278 

International Student Lifecycle [Scholarly project]. (n.d.). In International Student Lifecycle, Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/international-student-lifecycle-0# 

Recognizing and Addressing Cultural Variations in the Classroom [Pamphlet]. (n.d.). Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved from http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/resources/PublicationsArchives/InternalReports/culturalvariations.pdf

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