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International students

As a major consequence of globalization and mobility, the share of international students in German universities and institutions of higher education is increasing continuously. Since 1970, their number has increased ninefold (Isserstedt/Schnitzler 2005). More and more students from abroad are now studying to achieve BA, MA and doctorate degrees at Freie Universität Berlin – not least due to the future-oriented concept of the International Network University.

One typical feature of international students is a subjectively perceived tension between high ambitions and the feeling of insecurity. On the one hand, they often see themselves as a minority, because – irrespective of their actual skills – they are often not convinced of their German language skills, and because there are just a few of them in most classes. They are also often insecure whether they attend the right class or meet the requirements of the curriculum. On the other hand, international students are often very ambitious; they have to achieve excellent grades and degrees to justify grants by (national) sponsors, meet the expectations of their family where they are regarded as an example or have the function of a future breadwinner and assert themselves on the global job market.

International students are faced with a broad range of adaptation efforts. They have to become familiar with a new society, learn a new language, find their way through a different university system, establish a social network, etc. The biggest challenges are funding the studies and getting in touch with German fellow students (Isserstedt/Schnitzer 2005). The German university tradition including critical discussion of texts and materials, oral presentations, working on one’s own in small groups, individual organization of studies, etc. is particularly challenging for international students who are acquainted with a completely different style of learning. Misunderstandings are quite frequent. However, international students (with the exception of students from the US) often hesitate to contact lecturers – not least due to a different educational background. As a consequence, they are shy, participate only rarely in discussions or avoid asking questions.

The following measures help you to support and integrate these students

  • Give them a clear overview of the performance you expect from them. Provide clear information about the preparation for and the actual course of examinations and written tests, if necessary in writing. Underline explicitly that it is not the language skills but rather the expertise that will be assessed;
  • Try to contact the students directly. Invite them to consult you during your office hours (regularly, if possible), ask if they have any questions or need assistance. Here, you can give a clear feedback on their individual performance and prepare a detailed plan together with the student, if necessary, of how to achieve learning and study objectives and targets;
  • Form heterogeneous groups of students preparing presentations or workgroups in order to integrate the students. Contact other students directly and ask them to assist fellow students from abroad or with non-German language skills in matters of everyday life and studies;
  • Ask the students affected to hold a presentation. Experience has shown that the self-confidence gained by holding a presentation often encourages students to speak in other situations, too;
  • React as flexibly as possible to different levels of student expertise. Offer a wide range of teaching and learning methods. Teach at several levels: Try, for example, to address students with lower learning competencies by making the content more concrete while asking students with medium learning competencies questions about the topic and giving students with a high learning competency information about research works and literature;
  • Inform about services offered by FU Berlin and other institutions to support students (see “Advice Centers”);

We would like to thank Dr. Frank Stucke, Institute of German and Dutch Literatures and Languages at Freie Universität Berlin as well as Elke Löschhorn, Acting Dean International Affairs, International Office of Freie Universität Berlin for advice and information provided during the preparation of these recommendations.