Creating the Context: Understanding Student Experiences

Creating the Context: Understanding Student Experience

international students in canadian postsecondary institutions

Canadian postsecondary institutions receive growing numbers of international students; 498,735 international students studied at colleges or universities in Canada at the end of 2019.  Currently, India is the country of origin for 34% of international students studying in Canada and 22% of international students are from China.  According to a survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, students choose to study in Canada because of our educational quality and our reputation as a tolerant society (Canadian Bureau for International Education, 2020).  As educators adapt to increasingly culturally diverse classrooms, many search for information that would support effective teaching and greater inclusion for all students.

Despite Canada’s strong reputation, international students often face challenges in their transition to the Canadian education system.  Some of these challenges arise from the process of transition from one educational culture to another.  Other challenges arise when students face discrimination or environments where their cultural identities are not fully honoured. Killick (2018) lists three common myths that impact instructor perceptions of international students:

  1. They’re all alike.  This myth assumes that all international students have the same prior experiences, challenges and learning needs.
  2. They can’t do it.  This myth positions students within a deficit model where they are viewed as lacking key skills expected in an academic environment.  Students may be perceived as lacking the ability for critical thinking, struggling with self-expression in English, or being limited in their ability to participate in class (Ryan & Carroll, 2005). Deficit thinking fails to acknowledge the strengths and prior knowledge that students bring to the academic environment.  In addition, international students may experience a type of Othering where their learning challenges are attributed to their international-student status, rather than to the experience of being an academic novice that is common to all students (Laufer & Gorup, 2019).
  3. Failure is their fault.  This view positions students, rather than the learning environment, as the reason for their struggles. In reality, as Blasco (2015) highlights, many of the challenges students face in their academic transition arise from the differences between academic cultures.  Misunderstandings arise for students when the implicit expectations of the students’ new academic culture are not made explicit by faculty.  Students respond with the “scripts” and expectations from their previous context, and may experience confusion when they no longer achieve the academic success that they previously experienced.

The three myths, and the harms that may arise from them, can be countered by creating environments that honour the wholeness of each person, seeking genuine relationship and reciprocity (Sterling, 2008).  This includes viewing students as sources of knowledge about their own experiences.  Unfortunately, student views are often missing from conversations about internationalization and intercultural teaching (Ryan, 2011), and there is need for additional student voices to be heard.

Getting to Know Your International Students seeks to contribute to intercultural teaching practice in the following ways:

  1. The project seeks to honour students as key sources of knowledge about their own learning experience.
  2. The project seeks to counter deficit thinking by creating an opportunity for educators to learn about academic transition from students with a rich variety of educational and life experiences.  The student contributors to this project include undergraduate students who have contributed richly to peer leadership, post-baccalaureate students who chose to further their credentials in Canada after completing a degree at a high-ranking institution, and experienced professionals who returned to education as a part of their immigration journey.
  3. The project seeks to address the tensions caused by implicit academic expectations in the transition to a new academic environment. The students in the video share differences between academic expectations in their home contexts and in the Canadian context.  Listening to these differences creates an opportunity to identify these implicit expectations more clearly, and to prepare to make them more explicit in intercultural teaching contexts.

value dimensions in teaching and learning

A common response to intercultural classrooms is to seek to understand the characteristics and expectations of students that come from a particular country.  While students from a similar geographic area may share a common set of experiences,  focusing strictly on national origin as a source of cultural information and preferences can be problematic, leading to stereotyping.  Instead,  we recognize that all students bring a range of life experiences, and are influenced by a variety of “small cultures” that can include family, religion, gender, and socioeconomic status, among other factors (Holliday, 1999).  In other words, two students from the same country may have very different life experiences and personal characteristics that influence their transition to the Canadian classroom.

While seeking to avoid stereotypical labels based on national origin, it is nonetheless helpful to broaden our understanding of the range of  values that can shape thinking and behaviour in an intercultural context.  These values are often described dimensionally, as in the work of Hofstede (2001) and Trompenaars (Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner, 2011).  While rejecting the idea of these dimensions as aspects of a fixed national culture,  value dimensions may be useful in developing a broader understanding of values that may be different from our own. Value dimensions can include: power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, long-term vs. short-term orientation, and indulgence vs. restraint (Grove, 2015a; Grove, 2015b).  Misunderstandings in intercultural contexts may occur because unarticulated differences in values shape how behaviours are interpreted.  Value frameworks can provide alternative explanatory possibilities for interpreting interactions in non-judgemental ways.

The chart below describes four value dimensions, and the ways in which they might be expressed in classroom contexts.

Cultural Dimension Definitions Possible Classroom Expressions
Direct/ Indirect Communication  Direct communicators focus on the speaker’s role in delivering a clear message to the listeners. The key point of the message is communicated in the speaker’s words. Messages may be shorter, and the primary focus of the communication may be stated first. Listeners are expected to take the speaker’s words directly and literally. Indirect communicators focus on the recipient’s role in interpreting the message. Some communication may be implied or non-verbal, with the expectation that the recipient will work to understand the intended meaning. For example, an indirect communicator may not answer “no” to a request, but may respond with a statement such as “I’ll see what I can do”. Direct communicators might readily express that they are having difficulty with course work or material.  Indirect communicators might be more hesitant to express that they are not able to complete an assigned task, with the assumption that their communication partner will understand other nonverbal communication signals.
Universalism/ Particularism Universalism: Individuals and groups that tend toward universalism value the consistent application of rules, policies, and procedures in all situations, regardless of the relationships of those involved. Particularism: Those that tend toward particularism value flexible application of rules, dependent on circumstances and the relationships of those involved in the situation Instructors who value universalism may emphasize that classroom policies must apply to all students equally, creating tension with students who expect that more flexibility is warranted.
Low Power Distance/ High Power Distance Low power difference (egalitarian): In contexts with a low power difference, there is a high focus on the equality of all people, regardless or age, gender, or social status. Individuals may speak freely or challenge one another. High power difference (hierarchical): In high power distance contexts, individuals of different ages, professions, and social status are seen as unequal. Deference to those with higher power is valued. Possible classroom behaviours of those who value low power distance include calling instructors by their first names, using informality and humour in class, and challenging the instructor. Possible classroom behaviour of those who value higher power difference may include referring to the instructor by title only, waiting for the instructor to take initiative if problems occur, or avoiding sharing one’s own opinions in class.
Individualism/ Collectivism Those who tend toward individualism value the independence and self-directedness of the person.  Those who tend toward collectivism value the social group as a source of identity and belonging.  People who value collectivism may make choices based on the preferences of the group. Students who value individualism may be motivated to share personal opinions, to stand out,  or to be a leader among their peers. Student who value collectivism may be hesitant to participate in ways that cause them to stand out among their peers, or may feel obligated to help struggling peers.


In the next part of the resource, you will have the opportunity to watch ten short videos where international students share their lived experience of their transition to the Canadian classroom. As you listen to the students, consider how your students’ lived experiences, the implicit expectations that may arise from these experiences, and your students’ values may impact their classroom experience.

For Reflection

  • Where have you encountered “deficit” discourses about international students?  How have these influenced your relationships with your students?
  • How can you use knowledge about value dimensions in ways that increase understanding, while avoiding stereotyping students in ways that cause harm?
  • How can learning about students’ experiences help you to identify your own implicit expectations about academic culture?


Blasco, M. (2015). Making the tacit explicit: rethinking culturally inclusive pedagogy in international student academic adaptation. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 23(1), 85–106.

Canadian Bureau for International Education. (2020). International Students in Canada Infographic.

Grove, C. N. (2015a). Value Dimensions: Hofstede. In J. M. Bennett (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of intercultural competence. Thousand Oaks, United States: SAGE Publications. Retrieved from;

Grove, C. N. (2015b). Value Dimensions: Trompenaars. In J. M. Bennett (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of intercultural competence. Thousand Oaks, United States: SAGE Publications. Retrieved from

Holliday, A. (1999). Small cultures. Applied Linguistics, 20(2), 237–264.

Hofstede, G. H. (2001). Culture’s consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed). Sage Publications.

Killick, D. (2018). Developing intercultural practice: academic development in a multicultural and globalizing world.

Laufer, M., & Gorup, M. (2019). The invisible others: Stories of international doctoral student dropout. Higher Education, 78(1), 165–181.

Ryan, J., & Carroll, J. (2005). “Canaries in the coalmine”: International students in Western universities. In J. Carroll & J. Ryan (Eds.), Teaching international students: improving learning for all (ebook, pp. 3–10). Routledge.

Ryan, J. (2011). Teaching and learning for international students: Towards a transcultural approach. Teachers and Teaching, 17(6), 631–648.

Sterling, S. (2008). Sustainable education – Towards a deep learning response to unsustainability. Policy & Practice: A Developmental Education Review, 6, 63–68.

Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (2011). Riding the waves of culture: understanding cultural diversity in business (2nd ed.). Brealey.


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Getting to Know Your International Students (2nd Edition) by Kwantlen Polytechnic University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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