Volume:6, Issue: 2

Sep. 1, 2014

Cultural Differences at the University Level: How are Teaching and Learning Affected?
Pierson, Melinda R. [about]

KEY WORDS: cultural differences between professors and university students, strategies to support culturally and linguistically diverse students.

ABSTRACT: Student diversity on a college campus confers benefits which include exposure to different viewpoints, development of student self-confidence, and stronger academic achievement.  Techniques on how to best support students from different cultures with academic and social success at the university level are outlined with personal perspectives from a professor teaching in a highly diverse competitive university environment.

Due to the diversity in Southern California, it is typical that university professors and their students come from different cultures. Each will bring their own perceptions and beliefs that may affect the way they will interact with one another within the university classroom. These cultural differences may affect the teaching and learning that is expected of both the professor and the student. It is vital that professors reflect on their own beliefs and recognize the way that these beliefs may interfere with different teaching styles. Likewise, students must learn to adapt to new cultures. Professors should begin to build connections with the students and learn more about their diverse cultures. A student’s background may affect their way of learning depending on the way that specific cultures view education, communication, and organization. Professors should inspire their students and make a great impact their lives.

Yet, at one university in Southern California, this can be difficult based on the extreme diversity of the student population.  In this university with more than 38,000 students, there are students from 81 nations.  Besides these international students, the ethnic distribution of the student body is approximately 21% Asian/Pacific Islander, 35% Hispanic, 2% Black, 27% White, and the remaining define themselves as being of multiple races.  Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education (May 2014) ranks this university as number one in California and tenth in the nation among top colleges and universities awarding degrees to Hispanics based on 2012 data from the U.S. Department of Education.  Thus, taking a close look at how culture and learning interact at the university level is imperative for student success.

Culture shapes and influences the way people learn.  The nature of a classroom is shaped by culture. Culture defines who the students are and it defines the way the student will see themselves and the professor. When professors fail to learn and reflect on a variety of cultures, the professor’s instruction may conflict with the needs of the students.  For instance, due to difficult backgrounds, certain students may be more prone to focus on social justice issues and be more civic-minded due to difficulties faced in a home country versus focusing solely on academic needs (Terenzini, Cabrera, & Colbeck, 2001).  Professors must understand that culture plays an important role in education. By identifying their own values and beliefs, professors will then be able to acknowledge the ways that their world-views affect their teaching. Antonio (2003) confirmed that diverse faculty are underrepresented in American higher education and make up only 10 percent of full-time undergraduate professors.  The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements (2009) states, “Some might even believe that they do not have a culture—that is, their opinions, values, and expectations about education and behavior are part of the dominant cultural perspective and, therefore, are regarded as the norm.”  When professors understand their own culture, they also understand how complex cultures actually are. A connection between the professor and his students is built when it is acknowledged that everyone has different values and beliefs from one's own. If professors do not become aware of the impact that their own beliefs have in their actions, problems may arise.

It is important for professors to understand that when a student is new to a country, he/she must adjust to a new culture and way of living. It is important that the professor create a welcoming classroom environment for the students. The more comfortable students feel, the easier it will be for them to participate in class discussion and activities, assimilate to the university environment, and build relationships that will facilitate their learning and increase their chances for success in college. Thus, professors should recognize a series of stages that students will go through when trying to adjust to life in a new country. As Colorado (2009) explains, “Being aware of these stages may help you to better understand "unusual" actions and reactions that may just be part of adjusting to a new culture.” The students experience euphoria; they will feel excited to be surrounded by a new culture. They will experience culture shock; they may feel anger or frustration towards the new culture. The student will experience acceptance; the student is slowly accepting his/her new surroundings. Lastly, the student experiences assimilation/adaptation; he/she has adapted to the surroundings and the culture. Since students are entering unfamiliar territory, the professor is there to help serve as a bridge for the new culture and school; it will help make the student's transition smoother which will make it easier for the professor to teach and the student to learn.

The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements (2011) states, “Teachers sometimes assume that all of their English language learners have similar language needs; however, ELLs have a wide diversity of familiarity and comfort with English.” As the professor gets to know a student and his background, the professor will have a greater understanding of how to support that student in the university environment. The professor will find ways to make the student feel comfortable in his particular classroom. It is important to build a relationship with the student once they enter the classroom. It is easier on the professor to teach the student after a connection is formed, and the student will feel comfortable to communicate specific needs.  This will strengthen the university environment overall as a diverse student body contributes to a positive campus climate for diversity and collaborations between students and faculty will follow (Antonio, 2003).  Increased openness to diversity and challenges on a university campus will contribute to greater racial/cultural knowledge, more positive academic and social self-concepts, more complex civic-related attitudes and values, and greater involvement overall across the campus (Terenzini, Cabrera, & Colbeck, 2001).

In addition, the way a classroom is organized can impact teaching and learning for ELLs. Cultural differences can interfere with student participation when learning new activities.  For instance, students may feel uncomfortable having to speak and interact with others if this is not typically practiced in their home country.  When students are in small groups, it helps increase their learning and it is especially effective for ELLs. Peregoy and Boyle (2008) stress the fact that cooperative groups provide students with practice in getting along with people different from themselves. Having students learn cooperatively is an effective tool for professors to use for many reasons. It is also important to balance the amount of group work and professor-directed instruction in a class. There might be students from a culture who believe that learning should come from the professor alone. One study reported that the level of racial/ethnic diversity in a classroom contributed to students’ reports of increases in their problem-solving and collaboration skills (Terenzini, Cabrera, & Colbeck, 2001).

The way a professor uses language during instruction can also affect teaching and learning. Teaching and learning depends on there being clear communication between a student and his professor. Between diverse students and their professor, the uncommon language barrier will arise. However, communication difficulties may persist even after students have acquired the basics of English if the student and professor are following different sociocultural rules for speaking. (Peregoy & Boyle, 2008) For example, the student might come from a culture where they must not speak if not spoken to. The student will not participate in class unless spoken to. If the professor does not know much about the student’s culture, the professor might think that the student has no interest in the lesson or does not understand the lesson. It is also important for the professor to allow enough wait time for students to answer the question. As Peregoy and Boyle (2008) explain, “It turns out that what is considered enough wait time in everyday conversations varies across cultures, as do rules concerning how and when to interrupt and the number of people who may speak at once.” (p. 12).  When professors help students find their comfort zone in the class, students will express themselves more and their self-esteem, social relationships and learning will have a great impact.

In conclusion, it is widely proven that cultural differences will affect teaching and learning in a classroom. Future studies should focus on specific cultures and how professors can ensure student academic success at the university level.  It would also be interesting to focus on how the racial/ethnic composition of classrooms in higher education settings affect the success of student assimilation and feelings of support at universities. This would inform administrators and professors how to best encourage and interact with students who come from diverse backgrounds.


  1. Antonio, A.  (2003).  Diverse student bodies, diverse faculties.  Academe, 89(6), 14-17.
  2. Colarаdo, C. (2009). Creating a welcoming classroom environment. Retrieved from Reading Rockets website: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/32690.
  3. Mathis, W. (2013). English Language Learners and parental involvement. Retrieved from University of Colorado Boulder website: http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/pb-options-7-ellparents.pdf.
  4. Peregoy, S. F., Boyle, O. F. (2008). Reading, writing, and learning in ESL: A resource book for    teaching K-12 English learners (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
  5. Terenzini, P.T., Cabrera, A.F., & Colbeck, C.L.  (2001). Racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom.  Racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom, 72(5), 509-531.
  6. The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements. (2009). Cultural and linguistic differences: What teachers should know. Retrieved on June 27, 2014 from http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/clde/.
  7. The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements. (2011). Teaching English Language Learners: Effective instructional practices. Retrieved on June 27, 2014 from http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/ell/

Home | Copyright © 2021, Russian-American Education Forum