University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management

Student life

In the 'international' classroom, it is the Danish students who thrive

International students — International students are often perceived as deficit learners, not having their previous knowledge recognized by lecturers and students at their host institutions. We need to consider the international student as a ‘whole person’ beyond just the university, says anthropologist Vera Spangler.

When students in an ‘international’ university program sit in an auditorium, it is not only the meeting of many nationalities. It is a collection of many different teaching cultures, ways of learning and diverse understandings of what characterizes the ‘good student’.

Nevertheless, in Danish higher education the ‘international’ classroom is dominated by Danish ways of thinking about pedagogy and didactics. This presents challenges, says Vera Spangler, who is a research assistant at the Department of Science Education and part of the research project Geographies of Internationalisation. 

During the course of several months of ethnographic fieldwork among international students across various classrooms she has explored their experiences in Danish university life.

»I have seen many international students struggle with the Danish university setting,« says Vera Spangler, who recently published the second paper on her findings.

»Lecturers described them as deficit leaners compared to Danish students, and their previous acquired knowledge was perceived inferior.«

Learning taken for granted

The Danish lecturers in Vera Spangler’s fieldwork were used to students who would debate, discuss and engage actively, but most of the international students came with different pedagogical experiences.

Many of the international students expressed that they did not feel they received the guidance and support that they needed from the lecturers to be successful in the program.

»I observed, for example, several of the international students struggling with working in groups and getting frustrated with the process as most of them were used to working individually,« says Vera Spangler.

»This shows how the learning and the situatedness of pedagogy in this ‘international’ classroom is being taken for granted.«

Though labeled international, the classroom was in many ways national, says Vera Spangler.

»The language was English but the teaching, the pedagogies and the implied perception of, for instance, the ‘good student’ were very much situated in Danish policies and practices.«

Both lecturers and students brought with them culturally, national and place-specific understandings of teaching, knowledge and learning. In her research, Vera Spangler found how these understandings come together, meet and merge, but also clash in classroom settings.

The whole person

During fieldwork, Vera Spangler spent most of her time in classrooms among the international students. Soon, she also began to explore students’ lived experiences beyond the campus. In her recently published paper, she explores the meaning of home and home-making processes among international students.

»Having both perspectives of campus and private sphere was quite unique and helped me to see also how the students’ personal world beyond the campus actually informed much of their performance on campus,« she says.

Her work illustrates the importance of considering the ‘whole person’ beyond the university.

»Their sense of home is stretched. It’s a conflicting time, where they experience freedom and independence in a new way, but also miss their family,« says Vera Spangler.

For most of the students in her research, it was the first time living abroad and away from their families. The article unpacks how international students in Denmark discuss their relationships, ties and families from a distance, while negotiating complex emotions.

Finding the international

Vera Spangler herself has been a student away from home. During her undergraduate studies, she spent one semester in Denmark. Her experience was similar to the students who took part in her research.

»Even though Denmark and Germany are neighboring countries I noticed big differences between the higher education systems. In Denmark, I was taught in different ways and felt much greater freedom in my learning. Experiencing these differences, I became curious about how learning, studying and knowledge production vary in different places and how, for instance, knowledge and pedagogies also travel with students.«

After she had finished her studies in Germany, she came back to study her master’s degree in anthropology.

»Sometimes it gives me comfort if I read about someone else’s experiences of living in a foreign, different place, and how they navigate that. The paper shows that it can be very tough, and very challenging to study abroad. But there’s also a lot of self-development, in gaining independence, and in a way, a little bit of also growing up as a young person.«

Vera Spangler hopes that her research can provide a ground for further critical reflection on internationalization with everyday academic practices, pedagogical approaches and lived experiences of international students.

»We need to critically question what the ‘international’ is, and as, for example, institutions and lecturers, carefully reflect on who we meet in the classroom. There is not this one international student experience. it is a highly diverse group, and each person is bringing different dimensions to the classroom.«