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266 International Students, 18 Online Courses, 7 Valuable Lessons

EIS staff
Faculty and staff of The Graduate School's English for International Students program
By the English for International Students Program

EIS Director and Assistant Dean: Brad Teague
Program Coordinator: Christian Gómez
Instructors: Rebekah Callari-Kaczmarczyk, Andrew Davis, Elizabeth Long, Daniel McCarthy, Carolyn Quarterman, Stacy Sabraw


In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Duke decided in March to move its classes online for the remainder of the spring semester. Faculty and students had to make quick, substantial adjustments to how they taught and learned. This transition affected everyone, including international students, who faced particular challenges based on linguistic and cultural issues.


EIS lessons

Instructors in the Duke Graduate School’s English for International Students (EIS) program were part of this transition, as we moved 18 courses (serving 266 students) and our 1-on-1 consultations online in less than two weeks. After spending the last four weeks of the semester helping international students continue learning amid challenging circumstances, we recently reflected on our experiences working with that population.  Here is a look at how we adjusted the way we taught and seven lessons we learned along the way that could be helpful as faculty prepare for the possibility of more online instruction in the near future, and even when we return to the physical classroom.

Lesson 1: Divide students into smaller groups

Opportunities for interaction are especially important for language learning. That’s why EIS classes are capped at 15 students. To enable fruitful discussion after the transition to online instruction, a few instructors decided to split their classes of 15 students into even smaller groups of seven or eight.  Each group was taught for 40-45 minutes (instead of the full 75 minutes), which both students and instructors found more manageable.

Instructors also used Zoom’s breakout-rooms feature, which gave students more “air time” in each class. For example, students were sent to breakout rooms to answer specific questions, compare homework, and provide peer feedback. Similar to what happens in an in-person class, instructors were able to check in with each group as they worked. Students were then brought back together as a whole class to debrief and share key findings. We found that our international students were more likely to talk during discussions in small groups, which in turn encouraged them to participate more in whole-group discussions.

Lesson 2: Use a flipped learning model

To maximize attention and engagement in a new online environment, we decided to limit the amount of live (synchronous) class time in Zoom. As much as possible, we asked students to learn new material outside of class—such as by completing readings and watching videos—so that class time could be spent practicing, applying, and “workshopping.” In other words, we followed a flipped learning model.

For example, for an interview project in an oral-communication course, we assigned students readings and videos on how to answer or conduct key aspects of an interview. Then in class, we practiced applying these skills. Students were able to test out new language and skills in a low-stakes environment, and we were able to better grasp their command of new material and provide specific feedback. In an upper-level academic writing course, we created more in-depth homework assignments, turning material that we would have covered in class into homework. Our synchronous Zoom sessions then focused on comparing findings and discussing questions.

This model is especially useful for international students because they often find the course material to be covered too quickly in a live setting. In contrast, in a flipped learning environment, students can study and review the material at the pace that best fits their needs. Also, this format minimizes fatigue and burnout in a new online setting.

Lesson 3: Ask for feedback at the end of each class

Using an “exit ticket” at the end of each online class is a helpful way to get feedback from students. Exit tickets, which ask students to answer a few short questions before leaving or signing off, help instructors pinpoint specific student needs, confirm what they learned that day, and determine which aspects they are still having trouble with. International students in particular may be hesitant to provide feedback or ask questions, even more so in a new online environment. We learned that requesting quick feedback from all students at the end of class gave them an opportunity to be heard and feel included.

Similarly, students who feel uncomfortable asking public questions can be given the option of asking them privately via Zoom’s chat function. For instance, an EIS writing instructor provided this option when asking students to share specific changes they planned to make to their papers based on peer feedback. Several of our instructors found that they received more questions and comments when they used the private chat function than when they simply opened the floor for public questions.

Lesson 4: Begin class with a warm-up/community-building prompt

Knowing that students were dealing with major changes in their routines, we decided to begin each live class with a short warm-up/community-building prompt. This prompt was posted on the Zoom whiteboard or in the chat box. We asked questions such as, “What was a highlight of your week?” and “What is one challenge you have been facing while staying at home?” Students then responded individually in the chat window, and we briefly acknowledged and discussed their responses.

Beginning with this activity provided a way for our international students to engage in small talk as they “came to class.” It also gave us a means of celebrating small victories (e.g., recently passing a prelim) and empathizing with challenges (e.g., a heavier workload). We know that community building is more challenging online. Creating space for a quick warm-up or icebreaker helped students feel more connected in a time of physical distancing and lowered their anxiety levels, thus enhancing learning. 

Lesson 5: Use multiple modalities and consider pacing

Online communication lacks the same level of non-verbal communication that helps convey meaning in an in-person setting, which can be especially problematic for international students since they often rely on non-verbal cues (e.g., body language, intonation) to understand particular messages. Therefore, it is important to convey information in a variety of ways. For example, several EIS instructors found it helpful to post instructions for breakout-room activities on Sakai and in the Zoom chat window before reviewing them with students and sending them to breakout rooms. Similarly, when orally reviewing key ideas, we learned that students benefitted from seeing a slide or visual that they could easily access on Sakai.

Students also told us that they were struggling to stay engaged in their other classes where professors who had previously taken time to write on the board instead were quickly going through slides that they had already prepared. In other words, students for whom English is a second language had been finding the extra board “writing” time beneficial for their learning and understanding. As a result of this feedback, we began thinking about ways to use “in the moment” tools such as the Zoom whiteboard in addition to sharing previously created slides and handouts.

Lesson 6: Meet with students one-on-one 

Students may be hesitant to contact professors despite scheduled office hours and encouragement to ask for help. This is especially true for many international students, who may be from cultures where students have been taught not to impose on their instructors. Instead, we have found that students are more willing to request assistance if their instructor requires occasional one-on-one meetings. First, students learn that interactions with professors are not so intimidating. Second, class rapport is enhanced because students feel seen. Working in an online environment makes this personal contact even more important.

At EIS, we immediately started following up with students who were not submitting online homework. Also, when students fell behind or were not submitting acceptable work, we asked them to meet one-on-one to check in. This method was much more productive than a back-and-forth email exchange, and we were better able to address their concerns and difficulties. Moreover, we found success with conducting individual online writing conferences, specifically by using Zoom’s screen-share feature to discuss issues, questions, and feedback.

Lesson 7: Teach with even greater compassion and understanding

While all students are feeling overwhelmed during this difficult time, international students may be facing additional challenges due to language abilities; uncertainty around visas, travel, and work or internships; isolation or lack of a strong support system; and concerns about their families back home. Some of our students told us that their exposure to English had become quite limited since they were no longer using it outside of the home. Other students expressed concerns about whether they could travel abroad and then return to the U.S. and what they could do over the summer without classes, work, or internships. Moreover, many of our students reported that they lived alone or, even if they had roommates, that they were physically separated from close family and friends.

In response to these challenges, we tried to be as flexible and accommodating as possible with due dates, expected levels of participation, and “problematic” issues. For example, we allowed students to submit assignments after deadlines without penalty as long as they communicated with us. Also, when students arrived late to a scheduled Zoom session or not at all, we followed up with them to find out what happened instead of counting them tardy or absent. More than anything, we tried to be understanding and to give them space to vent about particular problems they were facing. In almost all cases, we were able to negotiate mutually acceptable alternatives that allowed students to stay engaged and successfully complete our courses.


The pandemic will continue to affect teaching and learning into the foreseeable future. Thus, we hope that these experiences and the lessons learned are useful for other faculty working with international students. Feel free to contact members of the EIS team if we can be of assistance.