Across the disciplines, most interviewed participants (31 out of 45, 69%) explicitly described using interactive pedagogies, guided by some form of active learning. In the words of one participant, ‘I don’t tend to lecture…I’m actually trying to get them to work together to share with one another and do something a little bit different’ (Participant 1, Business and management, Unaffiliated post-1992). Although there might be a presumed norm of traditional didactic lectures followed by smaller interactive seminars, several contrasted their practice as more integrative of content and application. 

Lots of discussion and getting them to mix, maximise that discussion space in the classroom as well as going beyond the classroom and giving that sense for group belonging (Participant 16, Education and teaching, Russell Group)

I don’t lecture, I break everything down, I change activities a lot (Participant 31, Education and teaching, Russell Group)

No matter how big the lecture, I always try and do something interactive (Participant 3, Business and management, Russell Group)

I set it up like interval training, short bursts of little activities (Participant 32, Business and management, Russell Group)

In most cases, participants did not describe adopting a specific approach such as team- or problem-based learning (though there were exceptions in maths, statistics, programming, linguistics and business). Instead, they referred to purposefully developing tasks or activities, frequently in the form of small group discussions, which structured and organised an interactive classroom session. For example, in a computer science classroom, this might take the form of a guided exercise in programming, with a specific task setup in PowerPoint slides, facilitated by the lecturer circulating to check progress (Participant 35, Computing, Unaffiliated pre-1992). In a marketing classroom, this might take the form of applying a PEST (political, economic, social, and technological factors) analysis to a specific case study of a product (Participant 34, Business and management, Russell Group). In a literacy classroom, this approach might mean analysing different forms of graphic novels (Participant 31, Education and teaching, Russell Group). Yet, no matter the discipline, a typical approach would be assigning a reading or a video lecture, which students were expected to complete before the class, which the live input would summarise, consolidate or extend. 

These tasks or activities did not need to have a complex pedagogic basis. However, they were seen to be important, firstly, to engage students more broadly and maintain their attention, and secondly to allow students the space to understand and consolidate the content delivered in the short chunked lecture or input as described above. Together, this showed a shifting direction of travel for pedagogies in UK HE, with a strong recognition of activity-based and constructivist learning approaches across our participants. In this regard, we were surprised to find limited disciplinary differences between lecturers regarding their overarching teaching approaches. In particular, participants from Geographical Science (Participant 2, Geographical and environmental studies, University Alliance), subjects allied to medicine (Participant 4, Subjects allied to medicine, Unaffiliated pre-1992), computing (Participant 35, Computing, Russell Group), and mathematics (Participant 45, Mathematical sciences, Russell Group), all specifically identified highly interactive teaching styles.

Interviewees were asked to reflect on these interactive teaching approaches specifically in their work with international students. In this regard, such approaches were seen by interviewees as a learning shock (Gu and Maley, 2015) for international students, who were believed to expect a more formal structure to learning. While interactive teaching is seen as a ‘just good teaching’ (Participant 31, Education and teaching, Russell Group), participants perceived it to present challenges for many students new to this set of expectations, which some participants articulated as particularly affecting ‘Asian’ and ‘Chinese students’. We identified many assumptions about what international students were expected to want from their university degree, with a strong focus on assumptions about their preferences for didactic learning models. 

In these discussions, we saw a recurrence of the deficit model in participants’ reflections of international students, as they were frequently depicted as ‘unadapted’ to British-style pedagogies. Such reflections were often made despite positive attitudes often displayed in the same interview about the value of international students’ contributions. Some participants attributed this to ‘cultural differences’, though many almost immediately re-framed this as ‘different learning experiences’. The trope of the ‘silent Asian student’ was still apparent in our interviews, which was seen as a source of challenge for lecturers: ‘The challenge will be just to keep up the engagement. Just hopefully, somebody will say something’ (Participant 3, Business and management, Russell Group). This was contrasted by the way the participation of other groups of international students were framed, such as those from the United States: ‘I don’t know whether you’ve taught US students but you know, it’s quite difficult to shut them up in class sometimes’ (Participant 13, Business and management, Russell Group). Nonetheless, many participants discussed how the presence of international students contributed to developing pedagogical approaches that encouraged greater engagement and helped students to be more vocal over time.  

These strategies included ‘setting clear expectations’ (Participant 16, Education and teaching, Russell Group), both for what is expected in a particular task and in engagement in the module overall (Participant 33, Social sciences, Unaffiliated pre-1992), as well as for disciplinary norms (Participant 19, Language and area studies, Million+). For example, participants reflected on supporting international students through increased induction activities or scaffolding expectations for activities or readings. This also meant developing ‘safe spaces’ to encourage interaction by ‘trying to get away from that idea that you can only contribute a correct answer, or a perfected statement’ (Participant 22, Language and area studies, Unaffiliated post-1992) and emphasising that ‘unless they don’t turn up and don’t engage, there’s not really a lot they can do to fail’ (Participant 7, Language and area studies, Russell Group).

Participants noted several constraints for developing more interactive teaching approaches. The most frequently outlined was university infrastructures, such as challenges around timetabling or limitations to the physical classroom space. Timetables were reflected to be constrained by nominating a session as a lecture and labelling follow-up sessions as seminars, which structured students’ expectations (Participant 31, Education and teaching, Russell Group). Similarly, blocking extended periods can be beneficial for this kind of activity-led teaching. For example, short sessions of one hour or less were felt to be a challenge for organising the sequence of chunked input and activities. Similarly, classroom structures such as the availability of whiteboards, being timetabled in a tiered lecture theatre (Participant 3, Business and management, Russell Group), or with fixed seating, limited options for moving students around or organising group work, whereas flat spaces facilitated this. Student numbers also constituted a barrier (Participant 16, Education and teaching, Russell Group), but many of our participants identified solutions to this, which are described in more detail below.

Of course, seminars have been an established characteristic of UK HE pedagogies for many years. But what differentiates the active learning described in this study from the traditional seminar, as might have been the norm 20 years ago, is the structure needed for managing larger numbers: 

My first teaching experience is a very long time ago now but was as a PhD student, where you got thrown into supervisions, which are an hour one-on-two. You know, you’ve been given a question and a reading list, come and tell me what you think…. Then yeah, as the numbers have gone up as well, now, there are different ways to be adapted. (Participant 29, Social sciences, Russell Group)

Many participants suggested that the presence of international students in the classroom made more obvious the weaknesses and shortcomings of this traditional approach, namely: uneven engagement; reliance on vocalised participation; absence of structure connecting the discussions to the learning outcomes of the unit/module; reliance on implicit norms of discussions; failure to acknowledge the intersectional class, race, and gender dynamics of turn-taking and discussion, which can further marginalise non-traditional student groups. 

 I do think that sometimes this kind of communicative Eurocentric Western approach likes the performative element of a discussion. (Participant 22, Language and area studies, Post-1992)

In this way, there was a recognition that internationalisation itself was not problematic, but that it, combined with the massification of student numbers, made more apparent existing challenges to teaching norms and assumptions. 

Altogether, the vast majority of our participants emphasised the importance of interactive teaching methods to include and engage international students and facilitate learning. Below, we turn our attention to how technologies are used to serve this purpose. 

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