Many participants reflected on a need to create a positive classroom environment, within which students could feel ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ to engage in discussions and contribute to collaborative tasks. This was particularly seen as important in intercultural environments, highlighting that work with international students is ‘about respect and trust’ (Participant 31, Education and teaching, Unaffiliated pre-1992). There were many comments in this area, along the lines of:
Making them feel comfortable in the classroom, setting that safe culture of learning. (Participant 16, Education and teaching, Russell Group)
It’s about trying to engender an atmosphere where people can trust, open up, reflect and ask difficult questions. (Participant 29, Social sciences, Russell Group)
Trying to make students at ease, respect for students and respect for the ideas of students. So there is no reason to be dismissive (Participant 43, Social sciences, Russell Group)
These sentiments echo the theme of empathy for students’ challenges and anxieties. In particular, a key focus here was on international students’ worries about the validity of their contributions or ‘getting the answers right’. Also mentioned was a need to ease anxiety about learning norms of participation in a more dialogic and discursive context, which was assumed to be different than what many international students might have previously experienced. Some participants emphasised ‘just to kind of make sure that everyone’s voice is heard’ (Participant 24, Subjects allied to medicine, Unaffiliated pre-1992), suggesting an awareness of the potential for students who are more comfortable with the discursive classroom to dominate discussions, while others might be left unheard. Here, the concept of ‘safe spaces’ in particular was notable and consistently discussed:
And then in the discussions. It’s about trying to create safe spaces. It’s not beholden on someone in a war zone to necessarily share their experiences with strangers. And so we can’t sort of say, ‘oh, gosh, you’re, you know, you’re in Syria, please tell us what it’s like to live in such a terrible place’, you know, that would be really wrong. But we can create a safe environment, where if they feel that they want to share their experience, that can be done. (Participant 30, Education and teaching, Russell Group)
I always try to create a safe space for them. I repeat all the time that there is not a right or wrong answer. (Participant 26, Education and teaching, Unaffiliated pre-1992)
For many participants, the notion of ‘safety’ was demonstrated by valuing and respecting contributions, ensuring that students won’t feel ‘dismissed’. They felt, in this sense, that ‘safety’ came from ‘a lot of reassurance’ (Participant 41, Physical sciences, Russell Group) and offering a welcome environment for ‘ask[ing] questions, no questions are dumb questions (Participant 11, Education and teaching, Russell Group).
And rather than dismissing them, I try to simply say, Oh, that’s very, thank you. Can you tell me more about it, that sort of thing, you know, so, so that opens up there? Will they feel safe to bring more to the table? (Participant 16, Education and teaching, Russell Group)
The evocation of a ‘safe space’ implies that participants are aware that barriers are imposed upon international students to the degree that classrooms might be felt as ‘unsafe’ by some. This was primarily reflected on as international students’ perceived lack of knowledge about existing norms within the learning space, or confidence in skills to meet those norms. However, we noted there was limited reflection or discussion on the underlying structures of discrimination, racism, or violence that international students may experience in the classroom or elsewhere on campus and how these can influence participation. Our workshop participants further clarified that they would explicitly challenge contributions from students who ‘othered’ international students or were implicitly (and, at times, explicitly) racist. However, whether these practices are sufficient to structure classrooms towards epistemic equality (Hayes, 2019) is not clear.
This was reflected limitedly by some participants, who noted the existence of political or cultural tensions between students. For example, one participant outlined that part of making the space ‘safe’ meant not confronting students with controversial political examples from their own national context:
I will try initially to choose some examples or areas or countries that are more or less neutral. So for instance, if I know that I have three or four nationalities within the class initially I would try to bring examples, from different areas or regions, probably is not the best approach in terms of the diversity part at least, I don’t want any student to feel personally threatened to or to be offended within the class. (Participant 43, Social sciences, Russell Group)
While this was framed as ‘not the best approach’, they emphasised that it was a deliberate strategy to allow students to focus on the learning outcomes by depersonalising the issues.
A successful classroom also reflected by participants as one that developed relationships between students. This was seen as a source of ‘belonging’ for students, which could contribute to making a learning space that was ‘safe’.
They develop a sense of belonging, which is very important, that helps with engagement, they learn from one another in the group…being, in a very safe space, they could express the disagreements, for instance, or alternative viewpoints. (Participant 16, Education and teaching, Russell Group)
Trying to encourage them to get to know each other and start to share and feel kind of safe and secure, that they can speak up in class as well again. (Participant 24, Subjects allied to medicine, Unaffiliated pre-1992)
I always have some sort of social chat spaces just to bring in that personal thing and sharing and, you know, it’s just lovely. We had someone in Egypt, his daughter was getting married and she shared the wedding photos and it was just lovely for the group. (Participant 30, Education and teaching, Russell Group)
I make something like a Venn diagram based on interests, experience and expertise. And then they build up team venns. And they have to network their different interests and experience, like a network diagram. (Participant 7, Language and area studies, Russell Group)
This did mean drawing clear boundaries to protect students from each other, however:
And just say, absolutely, nobody gets abused for their actual beliefs, or what they say in the classroom as long as not abusing somebody else. Yeah, the only thing I’ll not tolerate is intolerance. (Participant 17, Social sciences, Unaffiliated post-1992)
To capitalise on learning from diversity, as well as in conceptualising international students as having positive curriculum contributions to make, it was reflected that students needed to have a basis of working relationships with their peers. Building familiarity, social spaces and creating a sense of belonging were seen as foundational for learning, which mirrors the literature on this topic (Mittelmeier et al 2018). However, this particular theme emerged more strongly from participants with backgrounds in education or related social sciences. Such social theories of learning did not appear as strongly from participants from other disciplines.