The resources provided on this website stemmed from our SRHE-funded project: ‘How do we teach international students in the UK?’. A report of our findings is available open access on the SRHE website.

About the project: How do we teach international students in the UK?

Funded by the Society for Research in Higher Education, this project aimed to:

  1. To map evidence on pedagogic practices for and with international students
    1. To systematically review  published and grey literature on pedagogic innovations and adaptations for and with international students in the UK
    2. To document and disseminate the pedagogic practices undertaken by academic staff to teach international students in the UK
  2. To identify whether, how and why staff are innovating, adapting or retaining established pedagogic practices in response to the presence of international students
    1. To explore how and why staff are adapting or retaining particular pedagogic practices when faced with different teaching contexts, including different student demographics, disciplines and institutional cultures
    2. To explore whether and how evidence and literature informs and shapes academic staff’s understanding of pedagogic practices


The UK hosts a large number of international students as the second global destination country. International students are 14% of the total student population (HESA 2019) and play a major role in shaping the contemporary HE sector. This is not just through their £25.8 billion annual economic contribution, but also through participation and contributions to their classrooms (Universities UK International 2018).

Yet, while there is considerable academic interest in international student mobility (e.g. Mazzarol and Soutar 2012), there is a lack of critical research on pedagogy that supports international students’ academic transitions and learning experiences in higher education (Madge, Raghuram, and Noxolo 2015).

Literature typically instead focuses on challenges. For example, international students are often described as lacking the language and academic skills required to participate effectively in British academic life (Lomer 2017). Intercultural tensions with home students arise, particularly during high stakes groupwork and seminar discussions (Straker 2015). Their silence is often misunderstood as failing to think critically and participate verbally (Marlina 2009; Song and McCarthy 2018).

This deficit narrative is frequently based on stereotypes around East Asian students but applies by extension to most non-EU students. It also shapes learning relationships, given that many international students perceive discriminatory language and bias from their classmates (Heliot, Mittelmeier and Rienties, 2019) and from lecturers (Rhoden, 2019). Taken together, this depicts international students, particularly non-EU and East Asian students, as a necessary evil – a net educational drain on higher education, but essential economic contributors, ‘cash cows’ who are assumed to lower educational standards (e.g. The Telegraph, 2012). This narrative is often heard, but the academic literature rarely confronts how this may impact students.  Even the apparently benign act of labelling students as ‘international’ can have ‘real, emotional consequences’ (Ploner 2018).

David Ihrig coaches 4th year drama majors Sharon Luo and Joo Won Ahn in the Science of Acting class. Steve Zylius/UCI CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We suggest that how international students are perceived is likely to shape teaching practices. Deficit narratives imply that students should adapt to UK higher education norms (Ploner 2018), instead of critically conceptualising international students as complex knowledge agents and partners in pedagogy (Madge, Raghuram, and Noxolo 2015).  For instance, institutions often provide generic centralised support rather than a through re-examination of fundamental pedagogic practices (Jenkins and Wingate 2015). Yet individual academics frequently undertake the latter, supporting more inclusive, ethical, and sustainable curriculum internationalisation (Turner, 2015; Lomer and Anthony-Okeke, 2019).

Literature and case studies by professional organisations like AdvanceHE, UKCISA, and BALEAP show that innovative practices aimed at enhancing learning for and with international students exist but are disparate and institutionally bound. However, the persistence of the deficit narrative and assimilationist model of academic integration suggests that such innovations are far from universal across the sector. This project, therefore, aims to build on existing literature and case studies to systematically synthesise and disseminate what is currently known about evidence-based pedagogic practices for and with international students.

Out work attempts to understand how we teach international students in the UK.

Systematic Literature Review

We adopted a systematic review approach as the first stage in this project and report on the approach and findings here. Although the UK produces the most publications about internationalisation and international students (Kuzhabekova, Hendel, and Chapman 2015), the link to pedagogy remains fuzzy, particularly regarding transferable and ethical practices between lecturers or institutions. Pedagogic literature is widely dispersed across discipline-specific journals and networks, and often poorly cited. A systematic review was, therefore, a necessary first exercise to scope the field and compile existing evidence. This chapter of the report draws from material accepted for publication:

Lomer, S. & Mittelmeier, J. (in press). Mapping the research on pedagogies with international students in the UK: A systematic literature review. Teaching in Higher Education.

Systematic review method 

We undertook a systematic literature review of pedagogic practices with international students in UK HE, informed by the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) checklist (Moher et al. 2009). To identify pedagogic practices, our keywords included: pedagogy; classroom; teaching; curriculum; or assessment. These were used in a Boolean ‘and’ combination with ‘UK’ and ‘higher education’. These search terms were applied in our institutional library search, ProQuest, Web of Science, British Education Index and archives of major publishing companies (SAGE, Elsevier, Emerald, Springer, and Taylor & Francis). 

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Table 1 summarises the inclusion and exclusion criteria applied to our search. A wide range of sources was identified in the initial searches from other countries, but this was outside the scope of this project, particularly as pedagogies likely vary widely by national context and degree of internationalisation. However, we recognise that a multinational comparison offers potential for further research to build on these findings.  

We limited our search to taught units in degree-level HE settings, as pedagogic practices and purposes vary widely for programmes such as pre-sessional or in-sessional language courses, extracurricular activities, or informal learning programmes. 

Finally, the key phrase ‘international students’ was used. We considered a wider range of terms related to internationalisation (e.g. ‘intercultural learning’), but search strategy testing revealed this did not identify new papers for inclusion. 

We focused on peer-reviewed journal articles to synthesise evidence-based pedagogic practices in internationalised HE taught course units. Our review includes only articles with some form of empirical data. Conceptual explorations were excluded. We also purposefully excluded research about students’ experiences, unless connected to a specific classroom pedagogy. 

Table 1: Inclusion and exclusion criteria for systematic literature review 
Inclusion criteria
Published in a peer-reviewed journal
Collected data at least partially in the UK
Included any form of empirical data
Focused on pedagogies in an HE taught unit
Included international students somewhere in the rationale or research design 
Published between 2013 and 2019
Exclusion criteria
Published outside a peer-reviewed journal 
Collected data fully outside the UK
Did not include any form of empirical data (i.e. fully theoretical or conceptual) 
Focused outside taught HE units (e.g. pre-sessional, writing centres, etc.)
Did not include international students or focussed entirely on home students in the rational or research design
Published before 2013 or after 2019

We reviewed all titles for relevance, applied exclusion criteria, and retained 1,216 articles for further review of the abstracts. At this point, we looked for mention of a specific pedagogic practice and confirmed that part of the empirical data was collected in the UK. The full text was then reviewed to confirm our inclusion. We established no quality criteria, other than publication in peer-reviewed journals. We also set no defining criteria for international students, accepting the authors’ definitions (or lack thereof) as a key data point. Although an initial review of grey literature was also proposed, in practice this proved extremely time-consuming to identify and the final sample of peer-reviewed literature was considered sufficient. 

We initially planned to examine only those articles that described an innovation or development in teaching practices. However, notions of innovation in HE pedagogy are highly contested. A practice may be established in one discipline, but innovative in another. Further, much of the literature that relates international students to pedagogy examines established or traditional practices. We decided therefore not to impose external or generalised criteria as to the ‘innovative-ness’ of the practices described and encompass both ‘new’ and ‘established’ practices. We do not differentiate between these in our analysis. 

We also found we needed to relax the criteria around international students. Our initial aim was to examine pedagogies ‘for and with international students’, implying particular practices would be closely related to student demographics. We found very few articles met this criteria. Instead, we examined all papers which explicitly considered international students at all in their design, evaluation, or rationale. We anticipate that some papers which match our aims might be excluded by this criteria and welcome contact from such authors. 

Finally, the search was limited to papers published between 2013 and 2019. This starting date was purposefully chosen as 2013 demarcates the beginning of the current international HE policy period, with the publication of the UK’s first International Education Strategy. Patterns of international student recruitment being shaped in part by policy (Lomer 2018), we expected to see an intensification of pedagogic development relating to international students in the UK during this period. 

Altogether, 49 studies fit our established criteria for analysis, which are listed in our findings (Table 2). 

Analysis approach

Included studies were read by both researchers. Afterwards, papers were split between the researchers for inclusion in a data extraction template, which included: pedagogic focus, research context, methods, participants included, theoretical frameworks, and key findings. This template formed a basis for numerically exploring themes across the papers and compiling evidence for our findings.

Originally, we intended to synthesise findings about particular pedagogies to make concrete recommendations for practitioners, but as we detail below, this has proved impossible. Instead, qualitative analysis was undertaken to explore representations of international students in the literature sample. We adopted a Foucauldian-based discourse analysis approach (Foucault 1977), with attention given to dominant themes and key linguistic features (Fairclough 2013). We treated the sample of 49 articles as a linguistic corpus and further sampled all extracts of text directly referring to ‘international students’. This generated 622 extracts (excluding references). Using NVivo to facilitate the qualitative analysis (Bazeley and Jackson 2013), we coded these extracts simultaneously to en vivo codes based on keywords (particularly adjectives and verbs)  associated with ‘international students’. This generated 17 codes based on keywords such as ‘ability’, ‘active’, ‘lack’, and ‘passive’, which formed the basis for the discursive analysis reported in the final section of the results.


We only looked at literature that researched or included teaching practices in the UK, on the assumption that there would be national and cultural differences in practices. This is clearly methodologically nationalist (Kezar and Shajahan, 2013) and limited in the context of internationalisation. The assumption of national variation should be tested in future empirical or literature work.

We also focused exclusively on peer-reviewed journal articles. Originally we had intended to incorporate grey-literature such as reports, institutional case studies, and so on but these proved so challenging to identify that we were unable to do so within the limited time and resources available. Where we have identified such resources, we have included them here as useful resources and reading and welcome hearing from readers and colleagues with more of these. Book chapters were also excluded from the scope but likely would prove a useful source of further data.

Study 2: Interviews with Academic Staff

We recognised that the published literature in Study 1 does not necessarily paint an accurate portrait of the full breadth of pedagogic practices enacted across the UK HE sector, as not all innovations or practices are formally published. Therefore, we collected primary data via in-depth interviews with 45 UK teaching staff members across the disciplines. The primary purpose of the second half of our research was to explore RQ2 and RQ3, which focused on developing a deeper understanding of academic staff’s conceptualisations of international students and how their presence impacts upon pedagogic practices in UK HE.

Participants and sampling approach

Altogether 45 staff members participated in an interview for this study. Our only inclusion criteria for participation was that interviewees needed to be: a) academic staff members at any UK institution (at any level and with any contract type); b) contributing to taught course units (i.e. not exclusively English for Academic Purposes (EAP) or pre-sessional courses); and c) working with any number of international students. To develop an in-depth understanding about how the presence of international students shapes pedagogic practices across the UK HE sector (RQ3), we purposefully sampled interview participants in a wide range of personal and institutional categories, as outlined in Table 3. In terms of participants, we sought diversity related to career level, discipline, gender, and status as home or international members of staff (as self-identified by participants during the interviews). In terms of their employing institutions, we have included participants from all four nations of the UK and sought diversity related to institution type and numbers of international students recruited. 

Table 3: Individual and institutional information about participants 
CategoryNumber of participants  recruited
Individual factors
Career levelTeaching fellow / TutorLecturerSenior LecturerReaderProfessor4131846
Business and management
Creative Arts and design
Education and teaching
Engineering and technology
Geography and environmental studies
Language and area studies
Mathematical sciences
Physical sciences
Social sciences
Subjects allied to medicine
Institutional factors
Northern Ireland
University typeGuildHE
Russell Group
University Alliance
Unaffiliated pre-1992
Unaffiliated post-1992
Number of international students recruited at institution1,000 – 4,000
5,000 – 10,000
11,000 -14,000
15,000 -20,000
Proportion of international students to total students0-9%
50% and above

Recruitment of participants was multi-pronged, which reflects challenges associated with reaching academic staff in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. We first issued personal invitations to authors from the studies included in our Study 1 systematic literature review. We also issued calls for participants at dissemination events related to this project, including a Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) webinar in June 2020 and a Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) webinar in July 2020. We then issued general invitations on social media via Twitter and through targeted professional Facebook groups. The schedules for previous SRHE conferences were also reviewed to invite past contributors of pedagogy-related research or research with international students. Finally, a snowball method was employed by asking members of our personal networks and those previously interviewed to share our invitation with their own networks. In doing so, we aimed to interview participants with at least one degree of separation (i.e. to interview the ‘friend of a friend’) to avoid biasing contributions through social desirability. Similarly, the personal contacts of one researcher were referred to the other researcher to interview to ensure a measure of objectivity. 

The list of participants was regularly reviewed for inclusion of our identified recruitment categories (as outlined above). Where recruitment was lacking in particular categories, we specifically targeted these areas by reviewing staff pages and identifying contributors to pedagogy-related institutional resources.

Interview method

Considering the wide variation in our participants’ experiences as academic staff, we opted for a semi-structured interview approach. This meant developing a base set of questions to guide discussions with participants while allowing flexibility to add, delete, or change questions as needed throughout the interview. An initial interview schedule was developed based on our research questions and aims, focusing specifically on conceptualisations of international students and adopted pedagogies. We also considered key areas of missing evidence in our Study 1 systematic literature, to use the interviews as an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of pedagogy in practice. The interview schedule included questions related to the interviewee’s professional and personal background; conceptualisations and definitions of international students in their teaching context; specific pedagogical practices used with international students; and changes or innovations made to create more inclusive practices. Altogether, we aimed to develop a deeper understanding of participants’ subjective interpretations of their practices and rationales. We also sought to build relationships with participants by referring to their own professional experiences and context, asking for corroborating examples where appropriate. A full list of guiding interview questions is available in Appendix 1.

All interviews were conducted online via Zoom, as necessitated by travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst we had concerns about challenges with building relationships with participants in an online forum, in fact, the context of the pandemic meant that most participants were experienced and accustomed to conducting professional meetings online by the time of data collection. Many participants were exceptionally forthcoming and did not self-censor, as we had originally anticipated. Perhaps the very fact of being online, and at home, made participants more willing to share opinions and attitudes which might seem inappropriate or outspoken in a face-to-face context. Simply not being able to be overheard by colleagues, for instance, offered an additional layer of confidentiality. 

Ethical considerations

This research has followed the British Educational Research Association (BERA)’s ethical review guidelines and followed all protocols outlined by our institutional ethical review board for research with human participants. In addition, several steps were taken to ensure the ethical collection of our data. In terms of informed consent for participation, we circulated the call for participants with a link to the participant information sheet (included in Appendix 2). Participants also had the opportunity to request a list of interview questions ahead of time to inform their decision to participate. An electronic booking system was used so that participants could select their own interview slot at a convenient time. At the point of booking, the participants were also given a set of informed consent questions (see Appendix 3) and asked to tick in order to book. This was followed up at the start of the interview, with the interviewer reiterating key points about confidentiality and data protection and providing a space for the interviewee to express any concerns or questions. 

Our interview transcripts were anonymised by removing any identifiable information about participants, including redacting any information about specific courses or classes they teach and minimizing data that might make their role or department apparent to the reader. We have also reflected on confidentiality in the reporting of our results. For example, we have opted not to provide full demographic or background details about each individual participant, as we felt this would make participants identifiable. We have, instead, provided anonymised contextual information next to participant quotes, as was valuable for meaningful interpretation. 

Regarding our data storage, interviews were recorded onto the hard-drives of the researchers’ computers in reflection of concerns about Zoom’s cloud data security protocols. was used to automatically transcribe recordings, which were password-protected and uploaded using a unique identifying file number. Transcriptions were simultaneously checked against the original voice recording and anonymised by a paid research assistant, after which the original recording and non-anonymised files were deleted. 

Data analysis 

Template analysis was used to structure the qualitative data analysis across a team of three researchers, following the protocol outlined by Brooks et al (2015). Template analysis is a form of thematic analysis that emphasises a structured coding approach, which is developed and refined through iterative phases of analysis. This approach is recommended for teams of researchers analysing large amounts of qualitative data, as in this present study. Nvivo software was used to manage and organise coding across multiple coders and a large dataset. 

Brooks et al (2015) outline a six-step approach for conducting template analysis. The first step focuses on data familiarisation, which was undertaken by reading and discussing a subset of interviews assigned to each member of the research team. In the second step, a set of preliminary codes were identified and defined through repeated discussions about the data. As suggested for step three, these were organised into meaningful thematic clusters and defined to create an initial coding template (step four). In step five, the data were divided between the three researchers for initial coding, which supported subsequent further refinement to the list of codes. To support this, we compared a sample of codes, revised the coding structure and re-coded where appropriate. For step six, our coding template was finalised and applied to the full data set. Afterwards, the data within each code was checked by a member of the research team for consistency. 

The coding structure supported the subsequent analysis of the data by identifying prominent topics that emerged from the interviews. This was further developed through in-depth reading within each code and comparing responses between different participant attributes. Our analysis was also aided through frequent team meetings and regular communication between team members about developing findings. 

Finally, we recognised that our experiences with university teaching might cloud our interpretation of participants’ subjective experiences. For this reason, we offered all participants the opportunity to attend an online follow-up workshop, where we described initial findings and allowed further contributions through structured discussion activities. This was attended by nine participants (20%), which reflected a good return rate considering this research was undertaken during increased workloads under the COVID-19 pandemic. Hosting this workshop allowed us to follow-up with remaining questions and elicit more details about puzzling or underdeveloped findings. With participants’ permission, the workshop was recorded, transcribed, and data were included in our analysis.