International Student Workshops: The Theory Behind the Magic
This blog post is meant to be an accompaniment to my previous post on international student workshops. In the first post, I discussed how the workshop works. Now, it’s important to look at the theory behind these programs to truly understand why they can be used effectively.
The literature analyzing international student learning often fails to encompass the potential that lies in the learning environment of a workshop. A workshop provides its attendees with basic guidance and instruction while they perform the exercises of the program. The workshop participants receive two types of interactions: instructor guidance and peer support. With regards to the international student workshops, a small workshop allows students to personally communicate with their English-speaking instructor, an essential step to learning English that can usually only be attained in one-on-one sessions. This allows students a judgment-free environment where they can be sure that any advice they receive comes from a reputable source. Further, these students tend to be more open as they become more comfortable with their instructor; there is no replacement for the confidence that consistency builds. Without taking away from the benefits of a one-on-one session, workshops also incorporate other students into the fold. In workshops, instructors create a new dynamic that cannot be attained in specific sessions just with each individual student. The international students attending a workshop actively choose to be there because they are looking to improve their language skills, a goal they all share. By creating the potential for interactions between these similarly-driven learners, instructors allow students to learn from each other as well. The workshops give students direction in their studies and the opportunity to help their fellow English language learners along the way. Both instructor guidance and peer support will benefit them tremendously on their path to becoming comfortable English speakers, showing the undeniable advantages of a workshop setting.
With all their benefits, legitimate criticisms about group learning need to be addressed when planning international student workshops. One concern with workshop learning is the risk for some students to disappear. The group learning environment appeals to the extroverts, but some of the more introverted students run the risk of not being heard. It’s important, then, when planning ELL student workshops, to understand how critical it is to encourage all students to participate. This may mean pairing a quieter student up with a more vocal one or simply asking the audience a question and having them write their answers down to compare with their neighbor’s. This can also be done by ensuring a strong ratio of consultant to student. Four consultants currently lead Texas A&M’s workshops so that every ten students has a consultant to help them through the process. Another concern with workshops is the establishment of a classroom feel. Many international students, when placed in a room with their peers trying to learn the same thing, will see these workshops as they would a university level course. This will result in unnecessary stresses and will detract from the forum-feel that a workshop should evoke. A good way to avoid this is to be aware of consultant appearance. Have consultants dress professionally, but not to the point where they are intimidatingly well-dressed. Also, instruct consultants to speak to the students as friends instead of students to show that they are not English professors, but native speaking peers who are there to help. Something as simple as sitting casually on a table while talking will dispel the classroom image some students may form. By directly addressing the main concerns associated with a workshop-style learning environment, consultants can utilize this great medium to its fullest.
Clearly, the workshop setup will not work for all students. Some may simply prefer individual attention, while others may feel the instruction is not formal enough for their liking. Despite this, a groups setting offers many ways for consultants to pass their knowledge on to a large number of students at once. The concept requires some refining before a replicable standard can be achieved and applied to writing centers across the country. However, all students who attend an international student workshop leave with at least this knowledge: they are not alone.