Supporting International Student Success

International students bring the world to Queen’s.

By November 2021, we had 4,060 international students (study permit holders) studying at Queen’s University, who came from 126 countries around the world.  

The enrollment number had increased by 13.6% from 3,576 in Fall 2020.
(Source: Queen’s Enrollment Report 2021-2022)

Queen's Student Population Data in 3 pie charts: Overall 2022: 14.7% International, 85.3% Domestic; Undergraduate Population: 10.8% International, 89.2% Domestic; Graduate Population: 26.5% International, 73.5% Domestic

International students are also called study permit holders, who are generally defined as someone that travels to another country (i.e., Canada) specifically to study1. This student population should not be characterized as one homogenous group because they come from a wide spectrum of cultural, linguistic, educational, religious, social, economic, and political backgrounds2.   

The boundaries between international and domestic students have become blurry due to the fast process of globalization. Some international students at Queen’s may already be familiar with the Canadian academic culture because they have prior learning experiences in Canada. English may be one of the additional languages they speak, or English may be their first language3. On the other hand, students who are considered domestic may share similar needs to the ones identified as international by visa status. They may be newcomers who speak another language at home and Queen’s may be their first experience with the Canadian education system3.  

As a result of global student mobility, some international students (domestic alike) may have spent many years living in different countries and cultures before joining Queen’s. Thus, the traditional view or understanding of international students is of limited value nowadays3. Educators are encouraged to get to know international students as unique individuals and leverage their diverse experiences to enrich learning opportunities within the Queen’s community.   

World map with land mass in blue with 4 orange dots marking a student's program and location: Ph.D. Engineering - Toronto; S.Sc. Physics - Freiburg, Germany; K-12 - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; M.Sc. Engineering - Tokyo, Japan

This graphic was adapted from the Globalization of Learning, Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Modules by Aisha Haque and Nanda Dimitrov, copyright 2015 Queen’s University, Western University, and the University of Waterloo

While international students bring widely different skill sets and educational backgrounds into Queen’s classrooms, they encounter unique challenges in their academic studies and oftentimes suffer a sense of marginalization or exclusion.  

Yosso’s Community Cultural Wealth Framework6 (p.78) provides educators with a holistic view of what anticipated challenges international students may encounter in the new academic environment. The framework is comprised of six capitals, each representing one challenge.

It is worth noting that many other students (e.g., first generation college students, students from diverse high school experiences, Francophone students, or Indigenous students, etc.) are likely to share some, if not all, of the challenges. Therefore, becoming cognizant of international students’ barriers to academic success enables educators to implement best practices to support the learning needs of diverse students.  

visual representation on anticipated challengesAnticipated Challenges

  1. Linguistic Capital: language proficiency and communication skills
  2. Familial Capital: beliefs, values, worldviews, and identity nurtured in pre-university experiences
  3. Social Capital: social and personal connections, networks, and community resources
  4. Navigational Capital: skills and abilities to maneuver within unfamiliar (learning) environment
  5. Aspirational Capital: ability to maintain motivation despite persistent (academic) difficulties and frustrations
  6. Resistant Capital: reactions to biases, (micro)aggressions, or other forms of discrimination

Linguistic Capital

Language Proficiency and Communication Skills

Challenge: It is often assumed that international students have adequate language skills for academic studies in English, as they must pass an English language proficiency test to be accepted into a Canadian university. However, there are multiple pathways towards enrollment at post-secondary level of studies in Canada, and not all of them require a proof of English proficiency7.

For those who did take a language proficiency test, due to the dissonance between the test and the disciplinary discourses, many international students are not prepared for the “discipline-specific and fast-paced” English used in class2 (p.306), thus are struggling to achieve academic success.   

Key Question for Educators to Consider:

How to help international students improve English language skills while acquiring disciplinary knowledge7?  

For more information about linguistic challenge visit our Identifying Challenges in Writing Across Borders section.

Familial Capital

Beliefs, Values, Worldviews, and Identity Nurtured in Pre- University Experiences

Challenge: Despite the diversity students bring into Queen’s classrooms, their cultural backgrounds, previous experiences, and various academic needs may not be reflected in daily academic practices. Some international students, accordingly, may feel marginalized or excluded in class, and eventually withdraw from their studies.   

Key Question for Educators to Consider:

How to recognize and effectively respond to international students’ cultural diversity and previous academic experiences in teaching and learning9?

Social Capital

Social and Personal Connections, Networks, and Community Resources

Challenge: Moving away from family and friends, international students may lose support and resources they used to have. Many face the challenge of building networks from scratch in the new learning environment. Their lack of interactions with domestic students and the local communities often leads to cultural misunderstandings and social isolation which are potential factors for psychological and emotional distress10

Key Question for Educators to Consider:

How to engage international students in meaningful interactions with peers, and connect them to the local communities to get the support they require9?

Navigational Capital

Skills and abilities to Maneuver within Unfamiliar (Learning) Environment

Challenge: Due to the differences in educational landscape, international students may find it challenging to understand how the new education system functions while transiting cultures. Without proper guidance and assistance, they often experience difficulties interpretating the academic expectations and adapting to the pedagogies in the new learning environment10

Key Question for Educators to Consider:  

How to help international students successfully navigate the new academic context9

Aspirational Capital

Ability to Maintain Motivation Despite Persistent (Academic) Difficulties and Frustrations

Challenge: Some international students are challenged to adapt to the new academic paradigm, including building relationships with educators and peers. In addition, some are struggling to strike a balance between study and life (i.e., working multiple shifts due to financial burdens), while others experience constant loneliness, homesickness, and depression. Therefore, they need to equip themselves with the aspirational capital to persevere in the new learning environment. 

Key Question for Educators to Consider:

How to help international students maintain aspirations in academic studies despite the constant challenges and difficulties they face9?

Resistant Capital

Reactions to Biases, (Micro)Aggressions, or Other Forms of Discrimination 

Challenge: International students may face biases, (micro)aggressions, or other forms of discrimination in their studies. It is the resistant capital that “truly highlights the strength that these students demonstrate in standing up for their own rights and the ability to challenge the people or situation at the root of the problem”10 (p.86). Their ways of resistance come in various manifestations, such as silence in class2 which could be simply interpreted as an indication of lacking English language proficiency or a projection of a shy personality. 

Key Question for Educators to Consider:

How to best help international students prepare for and respond to discriminations or unfairness emerged in learning process?  

Considering the challenges international students face in the new academic environment, a holistic approach needs to be incorporated to support this student group. To guide this collective endeavor, the ‘Student Success Framework'11 is introduced as a reference, which advocates that student success at the post-secondary level depends on the development of a few senses. 

pie chart with 6 sections: Connection, Resourcefulness, Purpose, Competence, Academic Culture, and Educational Equity

  1. Developing a sense of Connection through:
    • Student to student relationship: experiencing positive and meaningful relationships with peers
    • Student to educator relationship: receiving timely feedback and support from educators
    • Student to institution connection: developing an understanding of the history of the institution as well as its visions, missions, and values
  2. Developing a sense of Resourcefulness through:  
    • System navigation: understanding university policies and procedures
    • Environment orientation: orienting physical or online learning environment
    • Resource identification: making best use of the services and support on campus
  3. Developing a sense of Purpose through:
    • Personal development: utilizing university education as an opportunity for personal growth
    • Career direction: establishing a professional identity in the subject field; and growing a future career direction  
    • Community participation and contribution: gaining capability and confidence to make positive influences in class and in communities (i.e., local, national, and global, etc.)
  4. Developing a sense of Competence through:
    • Intercultural interactions: developing skills for effective and respectful intercultural interactions
    • Academic skills: valuing one’s already-developed learning approaches; and adapting new skill sets and acquiring new knowledge
    • Study-life balance: managing commitments to study and to the many other aspects of life
  5. Developing a sense of Academic Culture through:  
    • Task and role clarity: being clear about the expectations on students and what can be expected of the educator; and understanding the ways in which learning in this course is different from one’s previous academic experience  
    • Disciplinary engagement: understanding the rationale and structure of the curriculum; and having opportunities to use prior knowledge, skills, and experiences in learning
    • Academic integrity: understanding the Canadian concept of academic integrity; and developing knowledge and skills to avoid misconducts or academic departures
    • Independence: working towards independent and self-directed learners
  6. Developing a sense of Educational Equity through:
    • Promote Inclusion: recognizing and responding effectively to cultural diversity and multiplicity of identities in class
    • Value diversity: respecting and actively engaging in diverse ways of being, thinking, and learning
    • Ensure Equity: possessing equal access to knowledge, learning opportunity, and resources regardless of personal and social circumstances 

As comprehensive as this framework is, the whole university community needs to be actively involved in helping international students overcome the anticipated challenges and thrive in academic studies. Educators, to be more specific, are encouraged to make small changes in teaching practice that will lead to big results in students’ learning progress.

Recommended strategies for culturally diverse classrooms


  1. Bridging Gaps in Expectations
  2. Navigating the Learning Context
  3. Making Lessons Accessible
  4. Referring Student to Academic Support Services
  5. Creating a Learning Community
  6. Encourage Intercultural Interaction and Engagement in Class

Bridging Gaps in Expectations

Beginning university study is like playing a new game in which all students are expected to figure out the new rules and apply them properly in practice12. It seems more challenging for international students to win the game, as they may not even realize the “rules have changed, and most will start out using behaviours and assumptions that have served them well [as learners] up to this point”13 (p.26).

Some international students (domestic students alike) may come from an educational system where13:

  • teachers lecture while students listen and take notes quietly
  • students collaborate on assignments after class, which may involve copying each other’s answers
  • tasks are highly structured and teacher-directed  
  • heavy workload on homework and frequent quizzes or tests in class
  • a high value is placed on knowing or memorizing information while low value is placed on using the information
  • personal diligence (i.e., time spent on homework or length of essays) is the norm

In addition, international students’ previous educational experiences may include13:

  • teachers being experts and authorities of the subject who provide answers to students’ questions
  • teachers acting as parental figures, guiding, and being involved with the student as a person
  • teachers spotting students’ issues in learning and guiding them to solutions
  • teachers giving clear instructions on what students must do
  • teachers being generally available to students outside of class

Adapting to new ways of learning is a hard task for most if not all international students to accomplish due to the variations in their educational experiences, academic expectations, and learning preferences13. To demystify educators’ expectations as well as identify approaches to academic success, international students, particularly who are new to the course and the learning environment, may welcome and appreciate explicit explanations about the following aspects of teaching and learning.

Teaching Methods13

  • Ways of teaching: what teaching strategies will the educator implement to help students reach learning outcomes (i.e., clearly explain the purpose of lectures or benefits of learning activities, etc.)?
  • Educator’s expectations: how are students expected to learn or perform in class (i.e., asking questions and participating in discussions are good learning strategies)?
  • Ground rules and policies: what are the policies and procedures that students are required to comply with? consider negotiating some ground rules with students to reach mutual agreements (if applicable), and explain where the responsibilities lie to make learning happen


  • Indicate if English language proficiency is being assessed: be specific about what aspects of English language proficiency will be assessed (i.e., grammatical rules, sentence structures or use of vocabulary, etc.), and what percentage of marks will be allocated
  • Length of submission: be clear about the fact that longer does not mean better
  • Format of assessment: make sure to provide detailed explanations and samples or exemplars (if applicable)
  • Criteria of the assessment: go through the criteria in detail and explain clearly or demonstrate how they apply

Educator-Student Relationships13

  • How should students address the educator: be aware that students from high power distance societies may feel hesitant to address personnel with power by their first name, i.e., professors and staff members
  • How could students contact the educator outside of class: i.e., office hours, emails, phone calls, or by appointments (best to provide work email address and office numbers to establish boundaries); set up a brief turn-around time for responses to emails or voice messages
  • What issues are appropriate/inappropriate to bring to the educator: be clear with students about what kind of support can be expected from the educator; refer students to support units on campus when their questions are out of the educator’s capacity (i.e., refer students to QUIC if they are seeking help with renewing study permits)
  • Explain the educator’s role: help students who used to expect answers from teachers or consider teachers as experts of the subject start seeing the educator as the facilitator of learning (help students understand their responsibility to shoulder as learners to make learning happen)

Academic Writing and Issues of Plagiarism7, 14

  • Clarify expectations for the academic genres in the discipline
    1. Clearly identify the characteristics of a well-written assignment in the discipline
    2. Provide exemplary work to demonstrate how ideas can be presented and sources referenced
  • Make sure students understand the purpose and proper use of citing and referencing
    1. Draw students’ attention to how and why citing and referencing are used in the discipline
    2. Model the use of citing and referencing in teaching  
    3. Have students compare their own use of references and citations with the proper use in the discipline
    4. Identify what may/may not be considered as “common knowledge” in the subject field

Read more about Academic Writing and Issues of Plagiarism

Navigating the Learning Context

One way of helping international students navigate the (new) learning context as well as develop an overview of the course is to make good use of course syllabus. In many cases, the syllabus serves as the first communication educators have with students in terms of course goals, learning outcomes, class schedules, assignments, and rubrics together with policies and procedures that students need to comply. Through careful reading of course syllabus, students will develop an understanding of the educator’s expectations and are informed of their responsibilities as learners15.

On the contrary to educators’ wishes, many students don’t seem to read the course syllabus, nor use it to manage their studies. To some international students’ defense, they may have not yet developed an understanding of the value of the syllabus, as it is something they may have never encountered or experienced previously. Therefore, educators shoulder the responsibility to reinforce the importance of the course syllabus by inviting students to read it in the first class or on the outset of the semester.

Strategies to help students read the course syllabus

Adapted from Berdahl16

  1. Make the syllabus available to students prior to the first class
    Upload the syllabus to the learning management system (i.e., onQ) or simply email it to students a few days prior to the beginning of the course and ask them to bring a copy to the first class. For in-person classes, educators may consider preparing a few printed copies for students who forget to bring one.
  2. Engage students with the syllabus during the first class (or first week)
    Help students see the syllabus – rather than the educator – as their starting point for information about the course. Engage students directly with the syllabus through an activity (or activities) in the first class.

    Here are a few ideas for syllabus activity.
    • Learning outcome mapping. Assign one of the course learning outcomes to groups of two to four students. Each group must map how that particular learning outcome relates to the course content and course evaluation components.
    • Figure out why activity. Have students review the class policies in small groups. For each policy, ask the students to discuss why they think the policy is made. For example, why do assignments need to be submitted over the learning management system and not over email? Follow this activity with a class discussion about the rationale for the class policies.
    • Jargon search. In pairs or groups, have students review the syllabus and highlight any words or phrases that they don’t understand or need explanations for. Ask students to submit them and explain in plain language to the class.
    • Syllabus quiz. Hand out a quiz with a few true or false or fill-in-the-blank questions that can be answered with information in the syllabus. Have groups of students work together to complete the quiz. Review the answers with the class, inviting any questions for clarification.
    • FAQ search. Create a list of frequently asked questions received in the past. Have students work in pairs to find the answers in the syllabus.
    • Personal assessment. Provide students with a feedback sheet that asks them to make personal connection with the syllabus. For example: which of the course learning outcomes interests you the most, and why? Which of the course assignments do you think will be the most challenge to you, and why?

      To move beyond merely reviewing the syllabus, educators are also encouraged to provide time and space for students to seek clarifications, express concerns, co-develop some rules or agreements, and negotiate certain expectations if appropriate, as a means to empower the students
  3. Create an automatic email reply that guides students back to the syllabus
    Setting up an automatic email reply helps educators save time in responding to common queries, such as student requests for information that can be easily found in the syllabus. In this case, educators can use the auto reply to politely redirect students to the syllabus to seek out the answers to their questions. However, this doesn’t mean that educators don’t read students’ emails or answer their questions. If a student seems to be under stress, educators could consider providing them with the answers they need.
  4. Refer back to the syllabus regularly over the term
    Continuously remind students as the semester goes on to access the syllabus as a resource. For example, when discussing assignments, educators could directly reference the syllabus by saying something like “as described in the syllabus…”

Making Lessons Accessible

Listening to a lesson fully delivered in English can be challenging for international students, particularly the ones who do not speak the language as their mother tongue. This is because English as an additional language (EAL) students attempt to “understand the main ideas presented and draw on what they already know to make sense of the material presented in the lecture, in what may be their second, third or fourth language7 (p.52)”. This is especially true for some first-year EAL students who are still developing English language proficiency in specific disciplines while adapting to the different learning approaches in the new academic environment.

Despite the fact that developing academic language proficiency poses a long-term challenge, there are a number of strategies that help enhance accessibility of lessons for international and EAL students7, 13, 17:

  1. Provide a lesson outline with the main points to be covered to help students take notes more effectively; summarize key content or information at certain stages in class
  2. Post skeleton notes and key questions in onQ (or email them to students) ahead of time, and encourage students to read them before coming to class
  3. Explain background information of key concepts to help students with better understanding
  4. Define new or unfamiliar words or concepts, and provide opportunities for clarification; explain acronyms and abbreviations fully
  5. If slang, jargon, and idioms are used, rephrase them to help students understand
  6. Speak steadily and use frequent re-capping to help students better understand what you are saying
  7. Record the lecture pieces of the lesson so that students can access them as many times as needed to learn at their own pace; this also allows students to catch missing information or clarify the muddiest points
  8. Conclude each lesson by summarizing the main points or highlighting the ‘take home’ messages
  9. Incorporate UDL principles in the planning and delivering of lessons
  10. Pause in class to let students check notes or catch up with notetaking
  11. Share an agenda at the beginning of class to help students understand what will be covered and the structure of the lesson
  12. Signal to students before moving on to a new part of the lesson and when they can ask questions
  13. Focus on one task at a time as multi-task overwhelms students (i.e., ask students to listen to the lecture while reading different information on a PPT slide and also taking notes is unlikely to be effective)

Referring Student to Academic Support Services

Juggling multiple commitments, educators are oftentimes restrained in the amount of support they could provide to students after class. Referring international students to academic support services, to a great extent, provides them with additional opportunities to advance skills and competence required for academic success, such as academic writing, critical thinking, public speaking, and time management. Therefore, it is critical that educators familiarize themselves with such services on campus to make a proper referral to students whenever needed.

Student Academic Success Services (SASS) offers a wide range of support to help international and EAL students with academic success.

For more information about the academic support SASS offers, please check their official website.

For information about other student support services on campus, Supports for Remote Learners (PDF, 1.4MB)

Creating a Learning Community

A learning community, or a community of learners, is defined as a group of people who actively engage in learning from one another (i.e., learners from teachers, teachers from learners, and learners from learners)18. This collaboration in learning creates an inclusive and supportive learning environment where international students could establish a sense of belonging through constructing knowledge together with the educator and fellow students.

Recommended Strategies

Adapted from Nilson15, Western University19 , Columbia University34 and Carnegie Mellon University35

Facilitating an inclusive learning environment

  1. Define values and goals, and set up ground rules for behaviours within the class:
    • Negotiate a class agreement which emphasises the importance of encouraging different voices, perspectives, and points of view.
  2. Implement strategies to deal with challenging topics or ‘heated’ moments:
    • Remind students about the ground rules for behaviours and refer back to the class agreement when needed.
    • Be clear that the educator reserves the right to intervene in response to any behaviours that involve prejudice, bias, or discrimination.
    • Model how to use ‘evidence’ based discussion in debates rather than just providing personal opinions.
    • Promote turn-taking when discussing controversial issues.
  3. Seek feedback from students on the class climate:
    • Ask for informal feedback in terms of the class climate (inclusive, welcoming, etc.) regularly as part of a class activity.

Getting to know students

  1. Learn and use students’ names:
    • Learn and use students’ names from the outset of the course.
    • Learn and practice the accurate pronunciation of the students’ names (check out this example)
  2. Communicate regularly with students:
    • Create inclusive and accountable asynchronous spaces where the educator and students can interact after class, for example, group chat, blogs, and social networks.
    • Implement a variety of activities to learn something unique about each student if possible.  
  3. Ask students about their educational experiences and future aspirations:
    • Survey students about their educational experiences, learning preferences, and future aspirations.  
    • Incorporate the information in lesson planning and delivery it whenever appropriate.

Helping students get to know each other

  1. Create both informal and formal opportunities for students to get to know each other:
    • Use ice breaker activities in class particularly in the first class.
    • Set up opportunities for pair work or group collaboration on a regular basis.

Valuinge diversity in class

  1. Be mindful not to make assumptions about students:
    • Get to know the students as individuals with multiple and intersectional identities.
    • Employ a range of strategies to address diverse learning needs and preferences, including language competence, socioeconomic status, gender, race, ethnicity, prior educational experience, etc.
  2. Value difference:
    • Create opportunities for students to present their values, beliefs, and worldviews.
    • Use resources that project a broad spectrum of perspectives and references.
  3. Use inclusive language to respond to students from diverse backgrounds:
    • If stereotypical or inappropriate language is observed in readings, websites, or texts, point them out for discussion.
  4. Treat all students with fairness:
    • Ensure all students have equal access to knowledge, resources, and assistance.
    • Avoid undervaluing or overlooking comments from students whose first language is not English.

Building confidence in students

  1. Have high expectations of all students:
    • Clearly explain expectations of students in the first class or at the outset of the semester.
    • Reiterate what the expectations are in terms of participation, rubrics, and deadlines before activities or assignments.
  2. Listen attentively:
    • Practice active listening with individual students as well as with the whole class.
  3. Respond thoughtfully:
    • Pay attention to the needs of both individual students and student groups.
    • Use positive language in responses.
    • Be clear with the purpose of response. For example, to assist a student to find meaning, to integrate new learning with previous knowledge, or to analyse a concept.

Encourage Intercultural Interaction and Engagement in Class

Interaction and engagement between international and domestic students have a number of benefits, one of which is to help students develop cultural awareness and communication skills. In addition, they provide students, particularly international students, with a greater sense of belonging in class, which has a positive impact on their retention and learning achievements20. While the increasing presence of international students has enhanced opportunities for intercultural interaction and engagement in the classroom, both anecdotal and research evidence have shown that spatial proximity does not necessarily result in meaningful collaboration between students across cultural, linguistic, and educational diversity21. Educators need to intentionally build group work in class to engage diverse students.

The intercultural collaboration for learning framework may be used to support educators in the effort to encourage and promote group work. This framework is composed of six interrelated components. Each component represents a particular teaching aspect and learning opportunity associated with interactions between students of diverse backgrounds22.

  1. Intercultural Collaboration for Learning Framework Planning collaboration Forming intercultural groups Supporting collaboration Creating an environment to collaborate Incorporating reflective processes  Assessing collaborationPlanning collaboration
  2. Forming intercultural groups
  3. Supporting collaboration
  4. Creating environments to collaborate
  5. Incorporating reflective processes
  6. Assessing collaboration

For more information about this framework, review our Intercultural Group Work Page.

In addition, educators may consider encouraging all students to seek opportunities to develop intercultural awareness and competence that will enable them to collaborate effectively in class. QUIC offers the Intercultural Awareness Certificate for both students and staff. Also, SASS has a group work resource developed to help students overcome challenges in working together. They also offer group work training for students based on educators’ request. Please contact SASS at for more information about this service.

 Suggested workshop:

Exploring Best Practices to Support International Students

Coming from different cultural, educational, and linguistic backgrounds, international students are encountered with severe challenges learning at Queen’s . In this workshop, participants will work together to explore the anticipated challenges faced by international students and identify best practices that help enhance the students’ academic experience and success.

Book a consultation about the topic

Similar to the face-to-face setting, international students face unique challenges learning in online courses, and their diversity is likely to become even more invisible in a virtual classroom. Some of their major challenges can be grouped into the following three categories.

Unfamiliarity Invisibility Inaccessibility
  • Disorientation
  • Overwhelmingness
  • Technical Skills
  • Language Barriers
  • Disengagement
  • Communication
  • Resources
  • Support

Challenges related to Unfamiliarity:  

Adapted from Porto et al.23, Liu et al.24, Kung 25, and Hannon et al.26


  • International students may have diverse levels of experience with online courses; some may require more preparation and guidance than others.
  • Different structures and ways of facilitation in online courses may also cause international students to feel disoriented at the beginning.  


  • Some international students may depend on detailed instructions in learning, as they may come from educational backgrounds where lectures are highly structured, and teachers tell students exactly what to do in class.
  • Lack of instructor’s presence may lead to confusion and discouragement, as some students may not know where to begin with and how to guide themselves in online learning.

Technical Skills 

International students may differ in technical skills; some may obtain little knowledge of the learning management system (i.e., onQ) while others may be unfamiliar with the technological tools (i.e., feedback fruits) required in the course.

Challenges related to Invisibility:  

Adapted from Liu et al.24, Kung 25, Hannon et al.26, Ku et al.27, and Gunawardena et al.28

Language Barriers

  • Inadequate language competencies tend to magnify other academic problems in an online course.  
  • Language barriers tend to detract non-native English speakers from equal participation in learning.
Exploring the Pros and Cons of Asynchronous and Synchronous Communications



Asynchronous Learning
(Mostly Depending on Written Communication)

Synchronous Learning
(Most Depending on Verbal Communication)

  • less misunderstanding or failures in understanding caused by barriers in verbal communication, i.e., speed, use of terminology, etc.
  • less stress of immediate responses
  • well-prepared answers to questions
  • understand teaching content better by checking relevant background information
  • immediate responses and continuous communications  
  • intensions of communication may be better read through live interactions, i.e., tones, emotions, body languages, etc.
  • less time consuming on tasks (time restriction in class)
  • more engaging in learning process
  • **cultural diversity in communication and learning might be more visible
  • delayed responses and discontinuous communications
  • difficult to read intentions in communication
  • cultural diversity in communication and learning is hidden
  • more time consuming on tasks (without time restrictions rescheduled for class)
  • increased misunderstanding caused by verbal communication  
  • less well-prepared responses or even failures in response (need time to organize ideas and look for proper vocabulary, etc.)
  • knowledge or information gaps
  • pressure caused by immediate responses

Educators are encouraged to use a balanced mix of asynchronous and synchronous sessions in online courses (if applicable) to help bridge language barriers and better engage international students in online learning.  


  • Language barriers that impede students’ participation in learning activities.
  • Different learning experiences and expectations that block some students from seeing the value of class participation or developing required skills to engender successful participation.  
  • Marginalization in class due to cultural, educational, and other forms of differences students bring into class.
  • Withdrawal from participation as a response to discrimination or unfairness emerged in learning process. 

Challenges related to Inaccessibility:  

Due to Time Zones Difference, international students may experience the following inaccessible issues.25, 26, 29

Communication with Educators Course Content/Materials Support/Help
  • delayed response to queries
  • Misinterpretation of written messages
  • Bandwidth (low or shared with family)
  • Content holders (i.e., YouTube is not accessible in come countries)
  • Technical help
  • Academic help
  • Other helps (i.e., mental health, accommodation to special learning needs)

To actively respond to the aforementioned challenges, educators are encouraged to make small changes in instructional strategies to help international students overcome (at least some of) the challenges in online learning23-26, 29-33

Recommended strategies for culturally diverse online learning

Unfamiliarity to Familiarity Invisibility to Visibility Inaccessibility to Accessibility
  • Establishing orientation
  • Building navigation
  • Integrating technical considerations
  • Increasing instructor presence
  • Encouraging student engagement
  • Bridging language barriers (at best)
  • Being mindful of time zone differences

From Unfamiliarity to Familiarity

Establishing Orientation

  1. Provide substantial information about the course overview with the goal of improving student readiness:
    • academic expectations
    • course structure  
    • policies and procedures
  2. State the expectations clearly and use examples to help avoid miscommunication, assumptions, or ambiguity
  3. An orientation module/video can function as an important asset in helping students gaining an overview of the course  
  4. Suggest students to use the ‘Online Learning’ resource developed by Student Academic Success Services (SASS) to familiarize themselves with an online teaching and learning environment:  
    • review the course syllabus
    • understand the platform
    • be an active participant
    • take responsibility
    • get organized
    • expect the unexpected

Building Navigation

  1. Highlight the key components and core information of the learning content/materials:  
    • provide questions to guide reading
    • explain how one piece of the content builds upon the previous ones
    • describe the context for, and the purpose of, each reading or learning activity
    • summarize the major “take-aways” for each learning module/section
  2. Provide clear instructions, checklists, and rubrics for required assignments as well as learning activities
  3. Ask students to create a reliable weekly schedule to monitor time for learning
  4. Establish a regular flow and rhythm of the course on a weekly basis, i.e.,
    • quizzes on Thursdays  
    • initial discussion posts due Wednesdays; replies due Friday
    • reflection essay of what they learned due Monday night
  5. Build a Q & A section in onQ to summarize the most frequently asked questions about the learning content/materials, update it based on student feedback
  6. Help students build up self-confidence by slowly scaffolding knowledge and skills required to succeed in the course

Integrating Technical Considerations

  1. Introduce the technology tools and functions of onQ, i.e., use short info videos or provide relevant information at the outset of the course
  2. Indicate the technical skills required in the course, i.e.,
    • using word processing software
    • searching information using Wikipedia
    • using Turnitin in onQ
  3. Provide links to instructions in terms of how to use the technical skills

From Invisibility to Visibility

Increasing Educator Presence

  1. Post a self-introduction with a photo or ideally a video in onQ to help students get to know the instructor and TA/s, etc.
  2. Post skeleton lecture notes/discussion notes ahead of time in onQ and insert a video of the educator explaining the concepts/terminologies based on the notes
  3. Invite students to synchronously communicate for questions and clarifications after they read the notes and watch the recordings (if applicable)
  4. Provide regular feedback and invite students to the virtual office hours to help keep students engaged and remind students of the instructor’s presence

Encouraging Student Engagement

  1. Include an ice breaker assignment to invite students to introduce themselves at the beginning of the course
  2. Use a balanced mix of asynchronous and synchronous communications (if applicable), multimedia, external resources, and instructional materials to increase student engagement  
  3. Encourage students to interact with classmates and educators in/out of class, i.e., having students create their own social media network groups  
  4. Speak slowly and clearly during synchronous sessions to provide international and EAL students with a better opportunity to follow and participate
  5. Organize smaller group activity to provide greater interactions; assign all students a role in the group so no one gets left out  
  6. Plan intercultural projects, or invite students to solve world problems to gain international perspectives and establish international networks within the discipline
  7. Ensure learning activities are built on diversity and relevant to students’ cultural backgrounds:
    • providing intercultural case studies that ask students to share their cultural perspectives (not to represent the country/cultural community)
  8. Use the quiz and assignment functions in onQ to make sure students are engaging with the course content/materials
    • make the quiz simple: use auto-graded, multiple-choice quizzes with a restricted time setting
    • make the purpose clear: check if the students have read or watched the materials

Bridging (some) Language Barriers

  1. Provide opportunities for academic guidance and support in the course to bridge language barriers (e.g., post skeleton notes in advance, video of explaining terminology, Q & A session, virtual office hours, etc.)
  2. Use synchronous communication for reviews and discussions (if applicable); avoid lecturing during this time, i.e., use several activities to clarify questions and confusions, provide feedback, and create discussion opportunities
  3. Present learning content/materials in different formats in addition to text, such as audio and visual supplements; this does not only help students understand the course content, but also allowed them to access the content as many times as they need in order to overcome the language barriers
  4. Include a variety of assignments to assess student learning (e.g., individual work, group projects, and a whole-class discussion, etc.)

From Inaccessibility to Accessibility  

Being mindful of time zone differences

  1. Survey students for accessibility purposes
    • time zone/locations
    • access to applications/web sites/cloud shared drives
    • access to devices/internet/bandwidth
  2. Use learning activities that expect for minimal technical knowledge and computer skills as each student’s technology experience will vary  
  3. Record the synchronous sessions (if applicable); post them in onQ
  4. Avoid using YouTube videos or google drive (anything that some students may not have access to) as course content holder  
  5. Provide students with multiple access to technical support, and academic assistance, and other student services (i.e., office number, email address, websites, etc.)
  6. Offer students multiple ways to connect with instructor (specify the best option if needed), and set up turn around time for asynchronous communications
  7. Avoid last-minute assignments/notifications/changes
  8. Group students by time zones for projects and assignments (if applicable)  

 Suggested workshop:

Supporting International Students in Online Teaching & Learning Environments
An online teaching and learning context may be challenging to many students at Queen’s, particularly to the ones who come from diverse cultural, educational, and linguistic backgrounds. In this workshop, participants will work together to explore the unique challenges faced by international students in an online course and identify teaching strategies that help the students overcome the anticipated challenges.

Book a consultation about the topic

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