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Diversity in students contributes to the cultural richness of a university and makes it a cosmopolitan community. However, educating a group of heterogeneous students requires teachers to have a clear understanding of the various dimensions of diversity in classrooms and adopt appropriate teaching approaches and materials to cope with the pedagogical challenges of a Heterogeneous Student Body.

July 2003, Vol. 6, No. 7 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Strategies for Achieving ‘Cultural Synergy’ in a Culturally Diverse Student Body
Ms Sheila Trahar
Lecturer, Graduate School of Education
University of Bristol

Given the respective definitions of heterogeneity and homogeneity as ‘diverse in character’ and ‘of the same kind’, it becomes difficult to think of any group of people as homogeneous. Who could ever claim that a group of students would be ‘of the same kind’? We might point to similarities like discipline, age, gender or culture, but it is rare that student groups will fit into only one of these categories; they are all ‘diverse in character’. In this article I want to focus on how working with groups of students from different cultural backgrounds has challenged me to be more diverse in my teaching approaches.

Watkins & Biggs (2001) suggest that good teaching practice is not just a matter of enacting a particular approach, but also focusing on student learning. They recognise that there are some universal principles of good teaching that involve supporting students to engage with learning at an appropriate cognitive level. These are not new concepts to those of us who reflect continuously on our teaching and learning practices. What is less often the subject of critical debate is that how students are encouraged to engage with learning is also dependent on a culturally appropriate approach to teaching influenced inevitably by socialisation practices and educational values.

My approach to teaching and learning has been influenced by Knowles’ (1990) guiding principles of adult learning and has developed out of my experience of being an adult learner and educator working mainly with ‘non-traditional’ students. These students are usually studying part-time, combining their study with work and family commitments. Knowles’ (1990) principles suggest that adult learning is most effective if students:

  • Are involved in planning how the learning takes place,

  • Feel comfortable in the learning environment,

  • Believe that their experience is valued, and

  • Are helped to relate the learning of the ‘classroom’ to their world outside.

Such principles are not only sound and applicable to any group of students, they are also clearly student-centred and congruent with my belief in the ability of human beings to reach their full potential. They are however located within a western view of the world, emerging from an individualist culture where individual fulfilment is paramount. They may have less relevance to students who come from collectivist cultures where more emphasis is placed on group rather than individual good and where success may involve significant others (e.g. the family, peers and society as a whole). The challenge of working in an international multicultural environment is to acknowledge that my approach to teaching and learning has developed through my own individual enculturation and personal beliefs, which may differ from those of the students. What is important therefore is to develop teaching practices that are culturally suitable, sensitive and clearly driven by a student-centred theory of teaching and learning.

Cortazzi & Jin (1997) talk of ‘cultural synergy’ and building bridges of ‘mutual intercultural learning’. They suggest that cultural understanding and harmony will emerge through the mutual effort of teachers and students to understand each other’s academic cultures, cultures of communication and cultures of learning. In the learning environment, I seek to work towards ‘cultural synergy’ in a number of ways. I recognise that my own preference for a highly discursive experiential approach to learning may be unfamiliar to many students. It may be threatening for those students who feel less confident about their spoken English and who may hold culturally-based perceptions of silence and reticence (Jones, 1999). Such an approach therefore needs careful introduction. Embedding an explicit statement about teaching and learning methods in the course outline is one way of doing this. Using part of the first session to set a group contract or guidelines for working together is a useful method of encouraging concerns, including those about language. For example at the beginning of the academic year in October 2002, one student in my group asked others to excuse his ‘poor English’; I responded that students also needed to excuse my English as I might unknowingly use expressions that were unfamiliar to them and it was important to me that they felt able to ask me what I meant. Providing suggested readings as preparation for each session can help students to feel that they can engage in discussion more easily with others because they have some knowledge to draw on (Jin & Cortazzi, 1998).

To encourage early harmonious working relationships outside the teaching session, at the beginning of the Autumn term in 2002, I asked the students to work in small groups each to prepare a short presentation on a different aspect of a particular theory. I ensured that the groups were culturally mixed, as students from similar cultures tend to work together and then regret lost opportunities for learning from each other’s cultural diversity. Students have said that this activity really helped them to begin to get to know each other at a very early stage of the course and alleviated feelings of homesickness for some of them. I recognised that although I wanted to invite questioning and feedback in my groups, some students would feel uncomfortable, fearing that I would either receive their questioning and comments as criticisms or that I would lose ‘face’. Supporting them to work together to raise questions and allowing them to give feedback anonymously or to me in a tutorial could help them to develop their confidence to engage in this kind of open dialogue. The differences in feedback could then be used to highlight distinctiveness in learning approaches.

De Vita (2002) draws attention to the varied ways in which the logic of students’ own culture and language influence the structure and style of their written work. It is therefore essential that international students be helped to develop their essay writing skills by teaching them the local conventions for presenting and structuring material. The Graduate School of Education does this through a series of Learning Skills seminars, by providing a Language Support person, and by tutors’ willingness to comment on draft assignments. I help students prepare for their written assignments by providing opportunities for critical consideration of concepts in the ‘classroom’. As the students are encouraged to discuss the relevance of concepts in their own context, it enables them to recognise that this same critical approach is being asked of them in their written work.

The principles of openness, a willingness to recognise the cultural and educational influences on the teaching and learning approach, and a desire for dialogue within the learning community can be applied to any subject discipline. Implementation of such principles can give greater confidence in ‘coping’ with a heterogeneous student body, whatever the ‘diversity in character.’


Cortazzi, M. & Jin, L. (1997). ‘Communication for Learning across Cultures’. In David McNamara & Robert Harris (Eds.). Overseas Students in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

De Vita, G. (2002). ‘Inclusive Approaches to Effective Communication and Active Participation in the Multicultural Classroom’. Active Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No.2, pp. 168–179.

Jin, L. & Cortazzi, M. (1998). ‘Dimensions of Dialogue: Large Classes in China.’ International Journal of Educational Research. Vol. 29, pp.739–761.

Jones, J.F. (1999). ‘From Silence to Talk: Cross-cultural Ideas on Students’ Participation in Academic Group Discussion.’ English for Specific Purposes. Vol.18, No.3, pp. 243–259.

Knowles, M. (1990). The Adult Learner: a Neglected Species. (4th ed.). Houston. TX: Gulf Publishing Company.

Watkins, D. & Biggs, J. (Eds.). (2001). Teaching the Chinese Learner: Psychological and Pedagogical Perspectives. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, The University of Hong Kong.

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Empowering a Diverse Student Population
Strategies for Achieving ‘Cultural Synergy’ in a Culturally Diverse Student Body
Coping with a Heterogeneous Student Body
Self-help Material for USP Students