How to Engage International Students: 12 Strategies and Tips

Group of international students in a classroom

Published: April 11th, 2023

The number of foreign students pursuing their education in UK schools and universities is increasing year after year, with unprecedented international enrollment figures reported in 2021-22. This continual upward trend is due to a number of factors, including international partnerships, the quality of teaching in UK schools and higher education institutions and fewer language barriers for students and family members.

Without a doubt, a culturally diverse student body has a wealth of benefits for both domestic and international students. At all stages of the education system, students are able to learn from one another about their varied life experiences, cultural practices and general perspectives on the world.

The challenge, though, arises when international students are not engaged with the course material. There may be difficulties relating to cultural assimilation, frustrated communication or general anxieties about being in an unfamiliar country, all of which can lead foreign students to feel less able or inclined to engage with their studies.

In this article, we will discuss how teachers can engage these students to provide greater enrichment and better learning opportunities for all of their pupils – using examples such as increasing confidence, using interactive whiteboards to create multimodal lessons, and more.

Why might international students struggle to engage?

Before we discuss how to increase the engagement of international students, it is first important to understand why international students may not be interacting with the coursework as much as local learners.

1. A lack of confidence when it comes to the local language

International students with a different first language may not be entirely confident about studying in English when they first arrive, especially if they have not had the opportunity to learn English in their native country. It can be incredibly daunting to speak English in front of a classroom or lecture hall full of people, and, as such, these students may feel too nervous about contributing during lessons.

2. Not being accustomed to the teaching style

Different countries utilise different curriculums and teaching styles. In many foreign countries, there is a high student-to-teacher ratio, something that you are more likely to have in universities and colleges in the UK.

International students may not be used to the smaller classrooms and the UK approach to teaching. They might not be comfortable speaking up in a more intimate environment where there is a far greater degree of attention on individuals as they volunteer their ideas or ask questions.

To counteract this, teachers in all kinds of educational settings can ensure they’re using a range of teaching styles – from whole class activities to paired work and even individual feedback. Furthermore, you can think about the media types you use to deliver your lessons, and incorporate a range of these – including quiet individual written tasks, active games that get kids off their seats, and using an interactive whiteboard or display to engage visual and auditory learners.

3. Not being accustomed to a close teacher-student relationship

Several cultures discourage the asking of questions during lessons, especially in school systems where there are a lot of students assigned to each teacher.

In the UK, educators act as guides that share information and challenge students to form independent opinions, often via dynamic class debates or through the questioning of key concepts and topics. International students, however, may be used to having teachers that have a far more authoritative role than those in the UK, which means that interaction between pupils and teachers is not common practice. 

Because international students may not be used to challenging the opinions of their educators or raising their opinion in class, their default behaviours during lessons will be more passive.

Strategies & tips to engage international students

Below are some strategies that can be applied in the higher education or university community to increase class engagement of international students.

1. Assign a student mentor

Provide international students with a student mentor. This should ideally be a fellow pupil who is in their classes with them and can provide direct, hands-on support at a student-to-student level.

Sometimes, one-on-one sessions where there is the chance to receive guidance from a peer can go a long way in boosting the confidence of international students and helping them to feel more at ease in lessons.

A cultural membership program is one way to facilitate this. Student voice should guide the membership program, and prospective students must be notified of this program to provide them with peace of mind regarding integration into the campus community.

2. Tackle the language barrier

Even if foreign students have a good grasp of English, they can still feel at a disadvantage against native speakers. Information can be missed if the educator is speaking rapidly about complex topics or if the student is reading large passages of text.

This can lead to international students feeling like they cannot eloquently answer questions or express themselves in your teaching language, causing them to become withdrawn.

Although it is not possible to assign tasks and set up tests in an array of different languages, educators should help to break down the language barrier.

If possible, lecture notes can be translated into different languages, which are then kept on file for when a student who speaks that language comes into class. Several external companies in the UK offer this translation service.

Alternatively, teachers of younger international students might want to use their Promethean ActivPanel display to run engaging English games in the classroom, or explore your options for interactive whiteboard phonics games. These activities can be used with your whole class or a group of international students on their own, and are a great way to bring video, image and sound to the language acclimatisation process.

3. Allow revision of written work

Sometimes, you may deal with a student who has a firm understanding of the coursework but is simply unable to express themselves because of a communication gap.

Many international students may be able to speak English fluently but then struggle with the written component of classwork.

Teachers need to be patient with international students and give them the opportunity to revise any written tasks or tests with the guidance of another student if they are struggling to write fluently. Just as additional time allowances are made available for students with certain accessibility issues, the same can be offered to international students as they work to get their writing skills up to speed.

4. Welcome other languages

Native students are able to voice their thoughts immediately without difficulty, whilst foreign students often first have to translate ideas from their mother tongue and then worry whether it is being pronounced correctly and if the main messages have been communicated effectively.

Educators should encourage international students to answer questions in their native tongue first or use a blend of English and their native language. Afterwards, the student can translate what they said to the rest of the class. This is a great strategy as local students will be exposed to different languages and may even pick up some new foreign language skills of their own!

5. Make use of visual aids

Visual aids are brilliant for encouraging students to engage with coursework. Visual aids can be slides, videos, images, flowcharts and graphs. These aids can help a non-English student better comprehend the material.

A teacher who is using videos in their coursework can make use of closed captions set to the native language of the international student to help them make sense of the work. Interactive whiteboards, also known as interactive displays or smart displays, are a fantastic way of incorporating visual elements into lessons, as different types of media can be presented alongside one another in dynamic, multi-sensory ways.

These displays – such as the Promethean ActivPanel – are great for engaging international students of all ages – from using them in primary schools all the way up to using interactive whiteboards in higher education settings.

6. Encourage international students to use examples from their cultures

An international student may not speak up in class if they feel like the examples or opinions being shared by the teacher are not relevant.

Teachers must encourage foreign students who might not relate to their examples to provide experiences from their own culture. Discussing ideas from different countries is a great way to engage the entire class and enrich everyone’s appreciation of cultural diversity in the process.

Moreover, international students may not feel safe sharing their own opinions or culture. It is up to the educator to foster a welcoming environment where language barriers and vastly different cultural norms are not a hindrance to participation.

7. Foster a social environment

Students are more likely to be engaged if they feel a social connection with their peers and their teacher. To achieve this, teachers can send a “get to know you” questionnaire to new students before they join the class and also share some information about their own lives.

In a higher education setting, these questions can be related to their goals for the year, their career aspirations, their preferred learning process, and what a teacher can do to improve their learning experience.

Teachers should introduce themselves to their class on the first day of the course. This can be an informal chat where the teacher shares more about themselves or a formal presentation with some factoids about their lives.

8. Encourage participation in group discussions

It can be difficult to get a shy student to partake in discussions, and this is magnified when it is an international student who is not confident in their language abilities.

To encourage group discussion participation, teachers should divide the class into smaller groups. It would then be less intimidating for the international learner to give their opinion.

Here are some other ways to encourage engagement in group projects:

  • Teachers must assign group members and ensure the groups are small but diverse. Don’t let students divide themselves into groups based on existing friendships.
  • Keep groups the same throughout the course. That way, relationships can form which can support international students.
  • Encourage domestic students to provide support and aid to international students. You can mention the benefits of learning about different cultures and how fortunate the local students are to be working with a person from another country.
  • Create group projects that fairly divide the labour of the work required. Group projects that are purely composed of written components may be challenging for international students. Rather develop projects with both written and spoken tasks. Ensure all students get a chance to speak, if you’re asking them to present something to the class using the interactive whiteboard.
  • Before the onset of a group project, provide students with the right communication and decision-making skills to avoid conflict.
  • Establish strict ground rules for all class discussions and group projects – nobody should feel uncomfortable about participating or that their contributions will be met with judgement from other groups.

9. Encourage active learning

Learning expectations need to be targeted and well-organised, with healthy classroom environments that create conditions that promote active learning.

It’s important to note, though, that active learning can be challenging for international students who do not have a firm grasp of the local language.

Teachers should encourage students to master active learning through:

  • Dedicating enough time to their work.
  • Asking questions when they do not understand a concept.
  • Encourage international students to figure out how concepts can be applied to situations they are familiar with.

International students who are not actively engaged with the courses should be encouraged to approach faculty staff with any concerns and questions.

10. Don’t rush students to complete assignments or reach milestones

It may take a few days or weeks for an international student to become acclimated and comfortable in class. Moving to a new country pushes them out of their comfort zone, and an educator shouldn’t add additional pressure.

If a teacher notices that the student is not participating, it may just take some time for them to feel confident enough to speak in class. Keep a close eye on them and look out for signs of them slipping too far behind their classmates.

11. Remind students why engagement is important

Students may not always understand why student engagement is so important. Thus, teachers need to reiterate the importance of student engagement in the classroom.

The benefits of being engaged include retaining information and a proven success rate in passing tests, both of which will serve them well in the future.

Additionally, some projects require active participation in class discussions, counting it as a contribution towards a student’s final grade. The teacher needs to make their class aware if this is the case and stress the importance of demonstrating their engagement with the course materials.

12. Ask students to present a lesson

Teachers may be surprised by the vast and varied knowledge of their students.

If you are presenting a specific topic, and one of your students has knowledge of this topic, ask your students to present the class. Getting students to the front of the class and presenting on the interactive whiteboard, just like a teacher, can do wonders for someone’s confidence – especially once you’ve fostered a friendly and supportive environment.

You can also simply have a “free” lesson where you ask students to present topics they are passionate about. This will allow them to speak confidently without the chance of being “wrong”.

Engage students with an interactive whiteboard

Visual aids can only go so far in promoting student engagement.

Many teachers have seen success with incorporating the latest technology into their classrooms, such as interactive whiteboards – also known as smart displays or smart boards. These whiteboards allow teachers to present a variety of media types to students, enabling visual, aural and kinaesthetic learners to benefit in lessons.

The Promethean ActivPanel is a brilliant addition to any classroom, as it can meet the unique needs of the teachers while also captivating the students. International students can benefit from unique features such as lesson recording and the ability to screen capture at any time – which is great if you’ve made collective notes on the board as a class. These features can allow international students to go back through the lessons at their own pace, truly cementing their understanding.


How can I smooth the transition for an international student?

When a new international student joins your class, begin by explaining the expectations and classroom rules to them. Make course materials available in their native language, if possible. Additionally, ensure they know they can approach you during office hours for any questions.

When international students are engaged in the classroom, they will feel as if they are part of a non-judgemental community, and they might be able to make some friends when partnered with a peer mentor.

What are the biggest challenges international students face?

The main challenge to international students is language barriers and not being able to make friends due to cultural differences.

Additionally, if large numbers of students in your class are already disengaged with the course materials for whatever reason, this can cause foreign students to pick up on the general atmosphere of disinterest and mirror their peers. This is why it’s crucial to ensure that all students, domestic and international, are consistently engaged with lessons year-round.

Learn more about how to re-engage disengaged students.


It can be difficult to help international students feel welcome in a class. They may not be engaging in class discussions due to a lack of language competency or simply not understanding how local classrooms function.

Using the student engagement strategies provided above will help you integrate your international students into your class and promote engagement during lessons.

Do you want to learn more about student engagement? Check out some additional resources below!

What is student engagement?
12 Student Engagement Strategies
How to Engage Students Without Relying Solely on Technology
How Do You Keep Students Engaged at the Beginning and End of a Lesson?
The benefits of reflection in education
How to Engage Shy and Quiet Students in The Classroom?
How to Engage Disengaged Students
How to Engage Students in a Hybrid Learning Class
How To Engage University Students