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Author: Martha Garcia-Murillo

Teaching ProfessorIt is the beginning of the semester and faculty and students are excited about their classes. There is something about meeting your new students, a feeling you are transforming the lives of citizens. So, if the students are excited, why then, soon after the semester starts, do they start missing deadlines, asking for extensions, and, telling you that they are confused, which is why they did not follow the instructions provided on the syllabus? Although this problem applies to many students, this article focuses on international students, because they are becoming more prevalent in American university classrooms and pedagogical advice rarely takes into account their particular circumstances. For many international students, this is the first time that they have left their family home, and are free to make decisions on their own. They are like first-year undergraduates, even though many of them are actually starting a graduate program. Add to that the excitement of being in another country and not wanting to miss any opportunities, academic or otherwise. Therefore, confronted with working on your assignment or attending a Thursday night athletic event, the choice is easy. Control over one’s activities is another significant factor. Other countries may not be as regimented about time as we are. Part of this is cultural, part contextual. For example, in India students follow their teachers’ instructions on a class-by-class basis. Assignments are given just before they are due. As a result, students are not used to planning their semester and do not develop time-management skills. There are three aspects of this cultural element. The first is the educational system. In many other countries, the grade for a class is determined largely by a final exam, with little weight given to other assignments. Some students are thus unaware of the need to prioritize earlier assignments. They do not fully realize that each of these academic tasks matters for their final grade. It takes several warnings for some to recognize this. The second cultural aspect that affects international students’ ability to manage time is their context. In India’s many large cities, thousands of people are in motion having to get to destinations while facing an inadequate transportation infrastructure. It is difficult to keep a schedule and people have to be flexible. This contributes to the development of a culture around time that is more forgiving about deadlines and schedules. A third difference is that the United States educational system puts greater emphasis on group work. Group projects require much more planning and time management because students are taking several courses. Many believe that they can “pull it off” by working a bit harder to complete tasks just before they are due, which gets them into trouble with class and group deadlines. Lastly, many international students need to work to cover their living expenses, and typically their work hours are not flexible. Time allocated to class assignments is more flexible and might be delayed to the point that they may ask for an extension. Thus, not having developed the habit of planning, the distraction of exciting events on campus, students’ own tolerance for lateness, and work commitments all contribute to missed deadlines and the failure to follow what is stated in the syllabus. So what to do? Many of our universities use learning management systems (LMS) with calendar components and mobile apps that remind students about deadlines. Instructors should take time to learn this feature of the LMS and ensure that all of your assignment deadlines and details are listed correctly. The LMS system can also generate graphs showing the amount of time every student spent on the site which can help pinpoint who is behind. If you share this information with your students, it can help motivate them. After all, students track many things including steps, calories, and sleep. Tracking progress in comparison to the rest of the class could be a metric they would like to improve. You can also share data about the number of students who completed assignments on time. This type of information takes advantage of the latest research in behavioral economics, which has found nudges to be effective in encouraging people to do something they would not normally do. Generally international students are more afraid to ask questions than American students. For example, you could mention the number of students that have come to your office to seek advice. Similarly, you may give students time to get work done early. One option is to give ten minutes at the end of class to discuss upcoming work. These suggestions can benefit all students. Hopefully, they will minimize the number of special requests, while helping students develop time management habits they will use throughout their careers. Martha Garcia-Murillo, Syracuse University, New York, mgarciam@syr.edu.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 30.5 (2016): 1,5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.