Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Developing cross-cultural interaction in a university classroom

Chris King
Management and Marketing
Curtin University
In our global educational environment the classroom consists of students from many countries and the interaction and friendships formed within these international classrooms can be a great asset to students. Students have the opportunity to learn about different cultures, different approaches, different perceptions and can establish international networks which can help them in business and socially. These advantages and opportunities can only be gained if there is interaction and understanding in the classroom.

This case study is an overview of action research conducted within a graduate international management class to develop interaction within the classroom. The case includes research objectives, the reasons for using action research, the methodology undertaken as part of the research, the outcomes in relation to students interaction and teaching formats and some of the difficulties the author encountered when changing from a quantitative research format to an action research format.

The research objective

The research objective was to enhance Australian and Overseas students' interaction. The criteria for selecting this research topic was:
  1. It is important to student learning.
  2. It is something which could be changed. By changing behaviour the author considered this could change perceptions or at the least it would make the students think about interaction.
  3. It was a research objective that could be managed within the class situation.
  4. The research could be explained to the students, they could participate in the research and to a certain degree negotiate the research and their participation.
  5. Permission could be gained from the students to participate in the research and confidentially could be maintained.
  6. The results could be reported.

Why select action research

The research was designed to observe different behaviour in different settings. The activities which were implemented needed to be flexible and to allow unrestrained behaviour. Action research allows the researcher to change with the situation and watch what actually was happening in the different situations. The problem was verifying that these changes were actually happening and not just in the eyes of the researcher. In this research the evaluation of the programme and the interaction came from the students.[1]

The researcher therefore felt action research was an ideal tool to observe and measurement of change in attitude or interaction would be evaluated by the students.

The classroom and business situation

The class traditionally consisted of Australian students with an English or European background, Australian students with Asian backgrounds and International students. International students mainly consisted of fee paying students from Asia who were in Australia to gain graduate qualifications - primarily Masters degree. Generally the Australian students with English, European and Asian backgrounds did mix and get to know each other but International students and Australian students did not interact. Many Australian students considered International students did not contribute in the class or to group work and in some cases there was direct opposition to working with International students. International students on the other hand considered that Australians were loud, took over the class and did not allow participation by the International students.

The students attitudes and objectives for the unit differed considerably. The perspective of the Australian students was primarily to pass a graduate unit. Interaction was not an aim or part of the study programme and in many cases it was deliberately avoided. The perspective of the international students was to pass a graduate unit but also to learn about another culture. This knowledge of another culture would help them in their search for an international position. This learning of another culture did not seem to include mixing with Australian students. It should be stated that this lack of interaction was noticed in the class and it may have differed from their behaviour when they first arrived in Australia i.e. it could have been learnt behaviour.

As well as the classroom situation there was comment in consulting reports on Australian International Business in relation to Australians being too individualistic and not working well in teams. This was considered to be interfering with the individual's, and Australian corporations', ability to succeed in an international setting.

Action research was introduced to try and overcome some of these barriers and introduce interaction for all students.

The research

The research consisted of four major aspects:
  1. Altering the course outline to include interaction, research and participation by students.

  2. Students must state advantages and disadvantages of cross-cultural interaction; these advantages and disadvantages were to be backed by interviews with cultural coordinators, students and journal articles.
    The students must then develop strategies to introduce the advantages and overcome the disadvantages in class tutorials of one hour per week.

  3. Each week one of the strategies was introduced. The semester was also divided into three different teaching formats.

    1. Week 1-5: The format consisted of workshops with all class members. Workshops and international games on culture and working and learning in a cross cultural situation. Students were given maximum exposure to different cultures both in lectures and tutorials.

    2. Week 6-10: The format consisted of students working in small groups. These groups were changed so that people were not in the same group and the groups represented people from many cultures and backgrounds. The groups discussing case studies which the students had completed and assessed. Students worked in these small groups for at least one hour each week and during this time the following recommendations from the assignments were put in place:

      • Classify questions; restate the other persons ideas.
      • Speak slowly, reduce slang.
      • Appoint a chairperson to ensure everyone participates.
      • Encourage others to speak about what they have to say before going onto your opinion.
      • There is no right or wrong.
      • Each individual has the right to express their cultural and linguistic identity.
      • Small groups to encourage discussion among members.

    3. Week 11-14: Students worked as one group and there was encouragement from the lecturer for open discussion. There was very little group work and interaction strategies were not introduced.

    To reinforce what was happening in the classroom students also had to submit a paper on doing business in an Asian country and there was a group project to develop a strategy for conducting business in Asia.

  4. Week 14 evaluation by the students.
The original outline of the research consisted of using workshops and small group work and introducing the interaction strategies every week for the whole semester. This format was altered as the researcher found due to their training in quantitative research it was personally uncomfortable not to introduce a comparison with the 'usual' teaching style; that is to have a measurable comparative base.

Evaluation and observation of the project

The researcher's observations

Week 1 to 5: One student withdrew after the cross cultural workshop and this may have been due to the workshop being outside the student's cultural comfort zone. Students did seem to like the workshops and role play. One international student needed debriefing after the role play but he stayed with the class and was a very good class member. Participation and interaction was very good; students knew each others name.

Week 6 to 10: Participation was good and one female international student offered to be chairperson in a group of Australian and International students. An observer was nominated for each group but these students were continually involved in discussions and after two weeks the idea of observers was abandoned and everyone participated in groups. Students from different backgrounds and cultures left the class together and socialised after class but still everyone stayed in their same seating position in the classroom. The interaction in the classroom and outside the classroom appeared to be improving.

Week 11 to 14: Students were not put into groups but in the last two weeks all but one student changed their seating arrangement. Interaction in the class reduced but a change had taken place.

The student's observations

In week 14 students gave the researcher a written version of their attitude towards the interaction in the class: I asked them to compare the interaction in this class with their other classes.

The results were:

Week 1 to 5: Very good interaction. The attitude towards the workshops and role play were very good and the rating of interaction was high.
Week 6 to 10: Interaction was better than in most classes.
Week 11 to 14: Attitudes were diverse but all were negative.
The general consensus by the international students was those loud Australians have taken over again. The Australian students stated average to poor interaction while one Australian stated he felt the educational level was reduced because the International students would not contribute to discussions.

Class interaction - student's and lecturer's perception

Contrary to the researcher's observations which would have graphed the interactions as reasonably level over week 1 to 10 and reducing a little in weeks 11 to 14, the students saw it as strong week 1 to 5, average to above average week 6 to 10 but weeks 11 to 14 were very poorly rated.

Class interaction - student's perception

The lessons to be learnt are:


Interaction within the class room can be achieved by the use of workshops and small group work but it takes time and effort of the lecturers and support of the educational institutions. Action research is a tool which could be used to continually improve interaction and the class situation but the research must be well planned and researchers must be committed to this form of research and not be swayed by compromising with other forms of research which in this case reduced the overall effect of the research in weeks 11 to 14.


  1. This of course brings in the view from the participants, namely the students, but so does survey research which measures students attitudes.
Please cite as: King, C. (1995). Developing cross-cultural interaction in a university classroom. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p139-143. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/king.html

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