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The Challenges International Students Face Developing Critical Thinking Skills in the United States


PHOTO: Tsewang Chuskit. This picture was taken on Smith Rally Day where graduating students wear hats, and celebrate the achievements of Smith alumni.


According to the Institute of International Education’s 2019 Open Doors report, there are over one million international students in the U.S., forming 5.5 percent of its higher-education population. Globalization, cultural diversity in the U.S. classroom, academic achievements, and international students’ contributions to the economy are some of the critical reasons students attend these schools, and the schools accept them. The International Students Office and Admission Office in U.S. schools try to provide a safe and welcoming space for students. Still, cultural differences, language barriers, and an unfamiliar education system generate challenges. I studied until 10th grade in Ladakh, India. But I spent my junior and senior years of high school in Congers, New York. The transition from an Indian education to the U.S. system was immensely challenging. Initially, I was only concerned about the language barrier. I knew my teacher would speak English as fast as the subtitled Hollywood movies I had watched. But I wasn’t aware of differences in academic expectations, for example, critical thinking, office hours, and participating in class discussion.


I was amazed in my 11th-grade European history class when my teacher asked me to write an essay exploring “What if Hitler had won the World War II?” I hadn’t expected my teachers to be interested in my perspective on a historical moment. My main challenge was my new classroom’s focus on critical thinking through acknowledging and including student perspectives. A qualitative study conducted with six Indian international students found that the critical thinking approach necessary for US graduate work was something that they had to adapt to after graduating from a system of memorization and rote learning. Rote learning and memorization are primary methods of learning in my school in Ladakh, because, “Free expression is atypical within the formal learning environment as [Ladakh’s school] curriculum rewards rote memorization”. But rote learning and memorization have paved the way for me to study abroad. I credit my ability to learn new concepts and material quickly to my education in India, where I first learned to comprehend the concepts before thinking analytically. However, when students learn to ask for help and pose questions, they can learn to put critical thinking skills into practice in school and in life, which seems unachievable at first.


Some international students find it challenging in the U.S. classroom to learn using resources other than the textbook. Most lessons in my Indian classroom were solely based on the textbook because 8th- and 10th-grade board examinations are prepared by the education ministry office using textbooks. So, teachers must use only the textbook for the lesson. As Kaur notes, most governmental education institutions in India do not have adequate resources to provide other resources. Thus, some international students do not have the experience of looking at a concept or issue through different resources or perspectives.


The language barrier also contributes to challenges in thinking critically in the classroom: in the article “The language deficit: a comparison of the critical thinking skills of Asian students in first and second language contexts”, the author, Rear, writes, “When Asian students have been tested in their first language, in critical thinking as well as other more traditional disciplines, they tend to score highly”. In a study of ten international students from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Southeast Asia, the students shared that they find it difficult to communicate with their professors and peers, and to share their views in class because of the language barrier. Participating in class discussion is a primary part of critical thinking, to learn to share one’s perspective and to ask questions and get clarification, but some students, because of cultural differences, weren’t used to interrupting their teachers, as it is considered “rude behavior” at home (Wu et al.,2015). One of the participants shared, “I was curious whether the professor noticed that I am an international student or not. I want to participate, but I worried that he cannot understand me. I guess he might question that I did not study hard if I can express myself clearly”.


Rear notes that standardized tests such as PISA, Watson-Glaser, and HCTAES are intended to reflect international students’ critical thinking skills; however, these tests do not replicate the academic tasks students will perform in the Western institution. PISA assesses students’ ability to tackle unfamiliar problems about time, travel, and distance; these problems often use mathematics or statistics to solve real-life problems. HCTAES and Watson-Glaser assess students on their ability to make logical inferences or evaluate an argument. Students choose the most appropriate response from multiple-choice options. The skills assessed by such tests are all components of critical thinking but do not require students to form well-reasoned arguments from scratch (Rear, 2017). But “when educators in Western universities discuss the lack of CT skills in international Asian students, they are usually referring to their ability to compose argumentative essays or participate in academic discussions”. Coming from a ranking system, I was identified by my rank within class. My self-consciousness about my academic performance eventually transformed into anxiety and nervousness. When a teacher takes attendance, they call out the roll number instead of the student’s name. The roll number is the result of their final exam. The openly revealed rank number also determines our social circle. Even though I was accepted to my New York high school based on my rank in the top three, that didn’t necessarily mean I was prepared for the different academic skills and tasks there. I am still nervous at Smith to post my assignment on Moodle where everyone can read my work, share my work for peer review assignments, or comment in class discussion; I feel like I will be assessed again for my performance by my peers and teacher, which will become my identity.


While transitioning to a different education system and country, it is inevitable for international students to face challenges academically and socially. However, some of the difficulties can be settled if institutions offer additional support. For example, having a buddy system between an international senior or junior and a first-year international student, potentially from the same country, acknowledges the same differences and helps them grapple with it. It would be helpful to have a workshop between international students and professors about “I wish my professors knew,” or “I wish my international students knew”. Smith is very academic; hence my social and academic lives are interconnected. My Multicultural Education class talked about how our course or a social justice class should be mandatory in Smith’s first year to educate students about racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, intersectionality, and how to be comfortable having those supposedly “taboo” and difficult conversations. This class made me unlearn some of my ideologies and implicit biases and encouraged me to be more open-minded toward people who are different from me. There also should be weekly informal language chat programs, so both domestic and international students will be well-informed about each other’s culture and have the social skills to interact (Milian et al., 2015).


I think “asking for help” doesn’t come naturally to international students coming from a collectivist

culture, where one acquires help when needed, to an individualistic culture, where one needs to look after themselves. During orientation, students should be fully assured that Jacobson and Spinelli Centers, the counseling center, and many other offices are willing to help international students. Finally, a workshop during orientation should educate domestic students about the benefit of a multicultural environment due to the presence of international students.


by Tsewang Chuskit


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