21 May 2021

Blind spots of internationalization


Language is not the only challenge in English-taught courses at the University of Copenhagen. The exam and teaching forms taken for granted by Danish students and teachers cause problems for international students. A recent PhD project shows how the processes of university internationalisation can affect – and sometimes pressure – students in ways that are difficult to anticipate when offering courses in English.

“I wonder if my grade is a reflection of my work or another reflection of me not understanding the system. And that stinks.” Gabriela, student, Spanish. 

Internationalisation is often equated to and enacted through the use of English. However, changing the language of instruction to English does not per se make teaching and exam forms more international. Oral exams are widely used throughout the Danish educational system but not globally. In my study, the oral exam was an example of students meeting – not immediately visible – differences in what was expected from them.

The exam form caused great frustrations for international students. When asking about the exam, they often got the answer that “there’s no right or wrong way to do this”. However, in the actual exam practices, it turned out that there were indeed certain expectations for students’ behaviour. This behaviour was to a large extent taken for granted by teachers (and local students); they know the ‘right’ way when they see it.

English only?

Group work also caused problems in the courses observed. Most international students had limited experience with this teaching form. In some groups, this made international students passive and in others, Danish students were positioned, and positioned themselves, as ‘local experts’ – regardless of whether they actually were experts.

Other students struggled with language in terms of participating. All three courses in my study were taught in English, but English was not the only language used. Students used the languages available to them to solve the task most efficiently. In some cases, this led to the exclusion of international students, when the native students spoke Danish. However, when used successfully, it led to the inclusion of students with lesser proficiency (or confidence) in English. For example, Spanish students spoke Spanish together to discuss or understand a certain assignment or challenge and then translated to English afterwards – and the same goes for the Danish students. Thus, it could be beneficial for English-taught courses to adopt a more pragmatic attitude towards language use.

Internationalization as an intensifier

As an ending note, it should be stressed – as is also one of the main points of the thesis – that the international classroom has parallels to what happens in every classroom. Group work and oral exams are often the cause of problems, but when you add cultural and linguistic issues, they become more visible. With internationalization comes potential cultural clashes, which intensifies the challenges of every classroom – first of all for the students on foreign soil.  

By Camilla Falk Rønne Nielsen