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The U.S. Educational System as Viewed by a Salvadoran Student

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I decided to conduct my first interview with an international student from El Salvador, who recently moved to the U.S. after finishing high school in his homeland. The bottom line is that, as a new person to the American culture of learning, this student helped me clearly distinguish unique features inherent in an American classroom. Especially, I was interested in a participation aspect, which is a necessary part of the U.S. culture of learning but not that common in other countries. Most international students are thought to struggle with being actively involved in a classroom discussion. This interview helps us find out how true this claim is, the reasons for low participation among international students, and grade reflection of such a passive approach.

When did you move to the USA?

I moved to the U.S. a couple of months ago to study at Temple. However, I spent my whole childhood and school years in El Salvador.

Does the studying process here appear different for you compared with El Salvador?

Could you describe major aspects of how an American classroom is different to the one in your homeland?

The studying process in El Salvador is very different to the one in the U.S. Here, the learning approach is all about collaboration with the tutor, classmates, and friends. I mean that, here, you always discuss controversial issues with the tutor rather than just listen to the lecture, have group projects with classmates, and go to common study sessions with your friends. In El Salvador, however, your studying process is very individualistic. I imply that the professor is only there to give a lecture and that is it. No questions, no group discussions…. As a result, you just come to class to take notes and then it is only up to you to memorize and reproduce them on the exam.

So, you mentioned that there is an active classroom discussion in the U.S. Do you think that you are an active participant in those discussions? Why/ why not?

I raise my hand from time to time to answer a particular question. However, my American classmates are much more active than I am. It seems like my professor wants me to be more involved in a classroom discussion. The main reason why I keep silent is that I am simply used to it. I have never been taught in El Salvador how to participate in class. We just had to keep quiet and take notes. So, it is not easy for me to switch from one learning approach to the other one.

What about the language barrier? Is it another reason for being passive in class?

Yep, it is also true. I mean, I am pretty fluent in spoken English. However, when it comes to answering a specific question in, for instance, Legal Studies, I struggle with the legal terminology and, therefore, cannot present my idea.

I have also heard that El Salvador has a “modest” culture, where students really treat their tutor as a role model and never tend to bother other people with questions. Is it true? If yes, might your cultural background be a reason for your low participation?

All people are very religious in El Salvador. For this reason, all high schools there started as catholic schools, where all the tutors were priests and all students were monks. Therefore, there was a very formal and respectful attitude towards the tutor and among students. Although our schools do not have a religious context anymore, there still exist very modest, calm, and quiet behaviour. So, my cultural background also affects my participation level.

Nevertheless, do you feel the progress in your personal participation ability? Are you getting better at this?

Oh, for sure. After a while, you get adjusted to the local way of conducting classwork and start participating more and more often. Right now, I am involved in participation much more than a few months ago.

To sum up, you have mentioned that possible reasons for your low participation in a classroom discussion are unfamiliarity with the U.S. speculative learning approach, language barrier, and “modest” cultural background. However, you have not said anything about personal lack of knowledge. Is not it a reason for keeping silent in class?

Not at all! It is such a big myth that international students do not participate because they have nothing to say. They keep silent not due to the lack of knowledge but because of language and etc.

So, it seems unfair that students’ grades depend on their class participation, doesn’t it?

In my personal opinion, the low participation of international students should not affect their grades because keeping silent in class does not show a lack of knowledge.

Internationals even do better than American students on exams, which shows that they have a sufficient amount of knowledge and deserve a good grade.

Patterns 1

International students’ answers match the data in course readings and proof findings from my observation. First of all, he accepts that international students tend to have low classroom participation. Secondly, he claims that this low participation is not a reflection of lack of knowledge but appears due to language barrier, different educational experiences they had before, and cultural background. Additionally, El Salvadorians argues that international students are getting better after some time spent in the U.S. Finally, this international student concludes that the grading system should not depend on participation level.

Interview 2

I have conducted my second interview with an American student, who was born and brought up in the American “active” culture of learning, to find out what his opinion is on the participation issue among international students. I tried to get to know whether foreign students, in Americans’ view, have less knowledge and deserve worse grades for not being active in class.

Have you been studying in the USA for whole your life? Do you have experience of other cultures of learning? If yes, what is special about the American classroom?

Although I went to high school in the U.S. and currently study at an American University, a few years ago I had an experience of studying in Rome when I took summer courses in Italy. Obviously, the American classroom is very different to how they taught us in Rome. The main difference is that here, in the USA, we participate a lot, take part in discussions, etc. In Italy, to my surprise, we just had various lectures given by the tutor, and students just had to reproduce what they learnt on the exam.

So, you know that the American classroom is thought to be very active in terms of participation. Did you notice that international students are usually less involved in such discussions? How do they behave in class?

Well, yeah. International students are not very active in class. I am not trying to say that they do not pay attention to what is going on. They always listen, take notes, and ask questions after class. However, if the tutor asks international students to hold a group discussion or volunteer to give their personal opinion on the issue, foreigners usually prefer listening to American kids and keeping silent.

In your view, what are the possible reasons for international students to keep silent during a classroom discussion?

I would assume it might be a language barrier. They might simply struggle to understand the direct concept the teacher is trying to portray. You know, in class, it is not only about speaking skills but about knowing the terminology and that kind of stuff. Moreover, they are just not used to answering questions in class. It was never required to participate in their homelands.

Do they tend to eliminate the language barrier after a while and become more involved in a classroom discussion?

Sure. I mean, for example, junior and senior international students feel much better about discussing things in class than freshmen, who just moved to the U.S. This is because upper-class students have mastered English by that point and fully adjusted to the American educational system. I think that international kids just need some time to start participating in class.

So, do you think that international students do not deserve a worse grade for being inactive in class because their participation is just a matter of language and improved within some time?

Exactly. It should not be a requirement for the course. Might be an extra credit but not something necessary. I mean, those international students are really bright. They might struggle with language, but if it is a Math class, they should be assessed in terms of their mathematical knowledge, not language. Math is about numbers rather than words. It should not affect your grade.

If tutors still want to have participation in their class, what are the possible ways they can encourage international students to take part in a classroom discussion?

Tutors might start holding some class activities when they put international students into small groups. It will give foreigners some confidence with public speaking. Afterwards, internationals will feel better about participating in class.


American students’ answers also match the data from readings, my observation, and the first interview. In his opinion, international students do not participate in classroom discussions because of the language barrier. In addition, they are new to such a learning approach that exists in the U.S. and, therefore, need some time for adaptation. American student thinks that grades should not be affected by low participation, which should be just an extra credit thing.

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