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Foto: Daniel Rommens

UvA research: feeling at home is more difficult in an international classroom

Sterre van der Hee,
15 oktober 2021 - 15:18

Together with the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, UvA lecturer Seval Gündemir (psychology) conducted a study on social security in international classrooms. Her conclusion: teachers have a major role to play. ‘Cultural differences can cause clashes when students have to work together.’

What is the definition of an ‘international classroom’? 

‘I studied fifteen years ago, and the classrooms of those days were not international. Lectures were in Dutch and all the students came from Dutch high schools. Since the international psychology bachelor program started at the UvA, we have seen a lot of freshmen who don’t speak Dutch. When we talk about an international classroom, we mean the lecture hall filled with people from all kinds of different countries, sometimes also with a diversity of ethnic backgrounds.’

Seval Güldemir

What is the main problem in these classrooms?

‘In Anglo-Saxon countries, there is a more advanced tradition when it comes to internationalization, and a lot of research has been done on misunderstandings that can arise when students with different nationalities and therefore also different study cultures come together. For example, in some countries the work/life balance is different and completing an assignment on time is much more important than in other countries, where social activities are given more priority. This can result in clashes when people have to work together, and it happens at the expense of positive things that international classrooms can bring: learning from each other’s culture, becoming more flexible and creative, and so on. Misunderstandings can also occur because of nonverbal behavior or other scripts that are interpreted differently in other cultures, making it harder for students to maintain connections.’


You made freshmen from the UvA reflect on their experiences with national and international classrooms. What questions did they have to answer?

‘The first-year students followed tutorials for six months, some of them a national and others an international version. We asked them to what extent they had had awkward interaction with classmates, to what extent things were more difficult because of cultural differences, whether they felt psychologically safe enough to ask questions, and whether they experienced a sense of belonging and authenticity. That study found that students felt more comfortable if the teacher explicitly addressed cultural differences - this seemed to eliminate the misunderstandings mentioned earlier. If the teacher used a color-blind approach, and thus taught in a culture-neutral way without paying attention to student differences, those misunderstandings remained.’

‘Teachers would do well to communicate with students that there is no one neutral way to look at the world’

So shouldn’t teachers at English-speaking UvA colleges all learn something about such a multiculturalist approach?

‘That’s our main recommendation. Teachers would do well to communicate with students about the fact that there is not one neutral way of looking at the world, but that you look at things through a cultural filter. By acknowledging that, you can also emphasize the positive aspects of cultural differences, you can celebrate them without having to see them as something that can potentially pose risks. Within the research project, training courses are already underway for lecturers to better deal with international classrooms.’ 


The UvA has all kinds of training and toolkits when it comes to social safety and diversity. Does this add anything to everything that’s being offered already?

‘One of the most important things we need to do as a university is to scientifically evaluate and monitor the effects of such trainings. Training literature is quite complicated: on the one hand we see that they can work and on the other hand we see that the effects can be disappointing. I think we need to evaluate the way in which we provide such trainings well, critically and long-term.’ 


Internationalization is not new, of course. Aren’t we a bit late to the party, drawing these conclusions now? 

‘Within the psychology bachelor we are not so late, we started since the international program was launched in 2018. It is true that certainly in master programs at Dutch universities much more attention can be paid to dynamics in international classrooms. Like I said, in Anglo-Saxon countries this is quite well-known, but I think we can definitely pay more attention to it in the Netherlands.’