How do international students learn critical theory best: through the traditional lecture approach, or through a “little and often” approach facilitated through short group discussions on given topics?

This paper aims to review the effectiveness of a learning intervention I designed for MA Illustration students, the majority international, by which they were introduced to bites sized chucks of critical theory which we would discuss as a group. The purpose was for these, which I called ‘the quotation of the day’, to be part of the theoretical foundation on which they would build the argument in their essays.

My findings, as are discussed below, were two-fold: first of all, the overall feedback was that the intervention was successful and that it helped the students’ learning. The majority would like to see more of these nuggets introduced in their timetable, or were at least neutral about it. Secondly, that many of my students had had no introduction to critical theory before my intervention, which turned my intervention from something that I perceived as scaffolding of prior knowledge into the introduction of threshold concepts. In this regard I believe that the students would have benefited from more expended discussion times and better constructive alignment of the activity with the learning objectives of the course.

WRITTEN BY Camelia Burn | PUBLISHED ON 3rd March 2022 | Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash


Working with a large(ish) community of international students and being new in my role of Graduate Teaching Assistant on a postgraduate course in Illustration, I found myself questioning the effectiveness of each session and seeking to find out just how much the students understood and took away as useful knowledge for the furthering of their studies. Through my classroom interactions I noticed that only a small number of (the same) people engaged visibly with the material delivered on any specific day leading me to want to investigate more closely the issues, beyond that obvious one of linguistic variety, surrounding the pedagogy of internationalisation (Ryan, 2013). To that end I set out to address more specifically an aspect of teaching that I know to be difficult to access if the student comes from a different linguistic environment – i.e. contextual theory. Setting up my learning experiment was relatively simple – as a previous student on the same course I was familiar with the curriculum and the way it was delivered. In the past, a series of lectures around contextual theory and research methods culminated with an assessed task in two parts, requiring students to (a) demonstrate their learning by researching a topic and producing an illustration in response and (b) write an essay on a particular topic, which enabled them to apply and discuss in some depth a theoretical aspect they had been introduced to during the term. My cohort of international students were still assessed in the same way and still had access to a reading list around theoretical concepts, but the teacher fronted lectures had been dropped altogether. As the teaching assistant to the course, I was lucky to be allowed an input into session delivery. I suggested that the students still needed some introduction to the critical concepts we wanted to see reflected in their research and essays, even if this was no longer explicitly taught to them and proposed a new idea: each session would be open with a ‘quotation of the day’ (QD[1]) (set around a new concept) which we would introduce to the group, explain briefly so that new terminology was not alienating and then discuss in the plenary to make sure that everyone had a basic understanding of the new issue in question. The idea was that students would use this as a guide to which issues to consider in their written pieces and commence a process of enquiry that would lead their independent reading and research.        

Theoretical context for my research

There is a good amount of literature about internationalisation in Higher Education. A great deal has been written about the difficulties encountered by lecturers in dealing with student groups of mixed cultural background. One of those reported issues revolves around inconsistent language standards which inevitably see students struggling with grasping important concepts (John, 2019; Sovic, 2012; Ryan, 2013). The literature also notes the lack of understanding we have for one another culturally and promotes ‘culturally responsive teaching’ (Gay, 2002; Leask, 2011[2]; Luxon and Peelo, 2009; Wang, 2009) while a number of writers remark on the many assumptions we tend to make and how we stereotype (Sovic, 2012[3]; Korhonen and Weil, 2015). Internationalisation of the curriculum requires empathy, understanding of ‘the other’ and display of an inclusive attitude by introducing examples of artists from other cultures (Gay, 2002; Haigh, 2009; John, 2019; Wang, 2012) and generally puts the onus on the lecturer to prepare students to integrate and work together effectively (Jokikokko, 2009 as quoted in Sovic, 2012:10). Some studies (Sample, 2013; Wilhborg, 2009) advocate the benefits of internationalisation for employability in a world in which the East and the West are opening up towards each other more and more. Taking a different approach, a study by Bell (2004) explores the view of academics on internationalising the curriculum and acknowledges that some people feel that international students seek out the authentic experience of learning abroad and therefore an altered curriculum may be less suited to their expectations.

Only some of that literature I reviewed gives practical direction for what works and what does not work in specific areas of teaching in terms of effectively designing a curriculum that targets the mix of home and international students so that everyone benefits on a more balanced footing[4] and none of the studies addressed the illustration classroom. This presents itself like a possible area for additional research and dissemination so a consensus can be sought about what and how we will teach for students to feel better represented, included and prepared for professional careers in a way that is responsive to the perceived need for a more international workforce as introduced above.

How I conceived the research: planning stages

My research sits evenly between an action research and a case study (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2011). For clarity, I understood action research as a practice – altering collaborative process aimed at bringing about change and innovation where a perceived need was identified and which relies on the researcher delivering an intervention, the effects of which are then observed, recorded and evaluated. The process can be continuous as it relies on collection, interpretation and reflection on data which is then adapted and re-tested. The collaborative aspect refers to feedback being collected from the learners affected by the intervention. A case study relies on interviews with participants and does not necessarily require the researcher creating an intervention although case studies are acknowledged to be reliant on a number of data collection methods, including action research (ibid., p.296). As a research method, the latter shares qualities of both qualitative and quantitative methods, enabling the (sometimes biased) answering of how or why questions and the accurate measuring of participants’ responses.

My intention being to focus on the less examined issue of curriculum design for an international cohort of postgraduate students of Illustration, I was specifically interested not just in my own observations of what happened when I created my intervention (i.e. the action research) but also in my students’ opinions and suggestions around what happened, what they experienced and how they used that knowledge (if at all) for the completion of subsequent tasks.

In order to collect my data, after the delivery of my intervention for a period of time (ibid, pp. 303 – 311) I devised a questionnaire which I sent out to all our students to complete explaining how their contribution could help to shape the learning experiences of future students on the course. Participation was, nonetheless, voluntary and anonymous, in line with ethical guidance (ibid. pp 377 – 407). The questions I asked sought to target how they perceived the effectiveness of traditional style lectures (ideally at delivery point) and that of the quotation of the day. I had also intended to invite students from different countries, who had experienced my intervention, to a focus group but this was made difficult by the first pandemic lockdown combined with my concern that without the shroud of anonymity the students’ answers would stop being as candid as I needed them to be.  

The questionnaire contained a mixture of easily quantifiable questions (s.a. yes / no and likert scale) and some by which the students could express an opinion or make a suggestion – a total of 15 questions . The students were invited to provide their answers by reference to “the short group discussions we had last term, around concepts of contextual studies (question of the day)”. When analysing the data I tried to look at it through the lens of what we already know about working with international students, verifying my findings but also proposing new hypotheses if relevant.

Initial observations and commentary

Once I collected the replies, I became curious in relation to the following, which represent my first reaction to what I observed about my students and their participation in my research:

1. The perceived role of the ‘teacher’

Only 15/43 (34.89%) of students enrolled on the MA Illustration chose to engage with my questionnaire. 4 students (10% of the group) did so on the day it was offered to them to interact with. In my view, on a vocational postgraduate course this is a relatively low response rate. Why was that and are there any conclusions to be drawn from it?

There are a few reasons I could speculate on but here I choose to look at one in particular: the QD and the questionnaire are both initiatives introduced to the group by a teaching assistant. The low level of engagement caused me to question how I was viewed by the class as a member of the teaching team. Ryan (2013:282) discusses the binary views of western and Chinese cultures of learning and observes that the role of the teacher is central to imparting knowledge in those cultures whereas that of the students is more passive. She also points out that ‘level of knowledge’ is important in China (and the majority of our students were Chinese), which accounted for my students’ slight distancing from me on discovering that not only I was merely the ‘assistant’ but also didn’t hold a PhD. If Ryan’s observations and my perceived experience are correct, then there is very little I could have done to persuade my students to engage more and the trusting relationship (Jokikokko, 2009) I thought I was building with them (Sovic, 2012) through my being both enthusiastic about the subject matter and caring was meaningless. On a hierarchy basis my finding suggests that an initiative delivered by a lower ranking member of the teaching team is likely to be seen as less important to the learning process leading to it being more easily ignored.

2. Helpfulness of the QD

Most of the replies that came in first were positive. The initiative had been helpful either overall or in connection with the essay assignment in term 1. Only a small proportion of the respondents were neutral. What did that mean in terms of the remainder of the group?

Figure 1: Initial responses

I had expected no variation in the replies to questions 1 – 3 above. The first and second of the questions are the most similar and register the biggest variation in replies, an increase from 5 to 9 in positive and decrease of 2 in neutrals and negatives. There is also an interesting move from ‘strongly agree’ for usefulness of the QD to unit 1 which required students to write an essay to ‘neutral’ in the context of the MA overall. The inference I made is that for this one respondent theory was very specifically connected with academic writing but they were unsure what role it played in their practice in the longer term.

I assumed the middle column to be more closely related to the replies to Q12 – how often do you use your learning from the question of the day (eg in your reflective writing, your critical evaluation, for project development etc)? 11 students used the learning some of the time, 3 not very often and only 1 did not use it at all. I wondered if that person was the same as the one who found no help in the QD when writing their essay. I also wondered how significant was the difference between ‘some of the time’ and ‘not very often’ in terms of students’ perception. Was ‘not very often’ a polite way of saying ‘not at all’?

In addition, I found that the majority of the students engaged outside the classroom with the concepts introduced to them via the QD. 14 people said that they continued to learn about it in their own time; the majority of those people said that they talked to their peers about it, did additional independent research and / or referred to the source of the quotation. In addition, where people had additional questions about the QD, 12 respondents indicated that they discussed them with their peers. This is a great example that the students are sufficiently confident to continue their learning independently, take charge and also learn socially (an example of constructivism and social constructivism in action).

One person responded that they did not engage with the QD outside the classroom. This was because ‘it didn’t seem a central part of the presentation’. It is true that the QD was introduced in the morning, before the main part of the learning was started and sometimes while the majority were waiting for the arrival of the usual latecomers. It was also introduced by me, rather than the full-time lecturers for the course (see my comments in the section above in relation to how junior members of the teaching team are likely to be perceived by students). However, the majority of the QD texts were provided on the main lecture slides and / or via shared Google Sheets resources. This reply felt at odds with the majority of the respondents for whom, according to their replies, the new knowledge seemed sufficiently important to engage with in their own time.

Roughly the same sample that engaged with the QD and found it useful agreed that the QD should be part of all of the course units (6) or showed neutral feelings about it (8). Only one, presumably the same one, disagrees. A pivot table analysis of the data by prior knowledge of contextual theory looks like this:

Figure 2: pivot table analysis

It is notable that between 5-7 replies were always neutral. This represents between 33.3% – 46.7% of respondents and made me question what prevented students from committing one way or another? Politeness? Fear? Were they trying to second guess the purpose of the questionnaire and how their replies would be put to use? Or were they simply disengaged? It would be interesting to compare my ‘neutral’ sample to trends identified by other researchers in terms of ‘how people reply to questionnaires’.

3. Was prior knowledge of theory an advantage and how did it influence students in perceiving the QD useful or not?

In order to find this out I filtered the responses using a pivot table as shown below.

Figure 3: second pivot table analysis

73.3% of respondents (11/ 15) had not learnt contextual theory before joining the course. The teaching team used the terms “critical” and “contextual” theory in free variation. I question now whether the students had an understanding of their meaning and how deep that understanding actually was. The replies suggest that critical theory was a threshold concept for the majority of our students.

4. Was a few weeks enough to experience the QD and expect it to make a significant difference to the students’ learning? How would the replies differ if the ‘intervention’ had run for a lot longer?

Having reviewed the above and considered the context my research is situated in by reference to policies of internationalisation of the curriculum in Higher Education, I drew the following preliminary conclusions.

The QD was largely successful in getting students to think about concepts and engage with them outside the classroom. My intervention appears to have been successful in terms of introducing concepts for the students to then go and explore in their own time. Questions arise around their ability to make sense of the new learning unguided in the context in which the majority did not have a theoretical background before joining the course. Were they able to make valuable connections by themselves or should more guidance have been provided? My inference is that more time spent on the QD would have been valuable – almost half the respondents said they would have liked more time spent on it, one person asked about the relevance of theory in the context of studying illustration (so they would have definitely benefited from more time and more in-depth explanation), one asked to discuss more visual examples and another to receive guidance around exhibitions and receive personalised suggestions for critical theory to explore.

Despite the requests above, my research also shows that the students found the QD helpful to the course overall and used the concepts in relation to their reflective and critical writing. More people want it introduced to all the units than not, with a number almost equal to the positives showing neutral about the whole experience. Neutrality is difficult to interpret but if the requests the respondents made are anything to go by, the results of the questionnaire suggest that spending more time on this intervention and explaining its relevance to learning and to the field of illustration in more depth would have swung the balance towards positive. Encouraging more introspection into how they learn best would have also helped the students to be more committed in their replies.

An interesting finding is that the person who strongly disagreed with the usefulness of the QD for the essay task is also the only person who claimed to have understood the topic very well. They had no prior knowledge of critical theory, answered that the QD helped their learning on the course (although they are neutral about its connection with the learning objectives and assessment criteria) and chose to engage with the topic after class, by talking to peers and referring to the source of the quotation. The person does not refer to the knowledge gained very often (eg for their reflective and critical writing). They asked to read more books on critical theory and made no suggestions on what the teacher could do to improve their learning experience.

Analysis of findings

The fact that 11/15 respondents had no prior knowledge of contextual theory tells me that, far from scaffolding their knowledge and helping them reach a higher level of practice as I thought I would be doing teaching postgraduate students, I was in fact introducing new concepts. This is extremely problematic given the type of students on our course, for whom language (English language and academic terminology in the field of art and design) is already a threshold concept (Meyer and Land, 2005). The ‘I am not sure’ or ‘stuck places’ state discussed in specialist literature (Meyer and Land, 2005:377) in connection with threshold concepts is evident from my students’ replies to the questionnaire – the fact that the majority of responses are ‘neutral’. While they are spending time making sense of the new concepts introduced to them and where and how they fit in with their practice, they are unable to commit fully to either a positive or a negative answer about their experience learning these new concepts through my intervention. Loeffler and Wuetherick (2012) discuss that in addition to language liminality the students will have also experienced other parts of the intervention as troublesome: in order to interpret something you need a subject to decode it. My students come from different cultures and so their points of view (ways of interpreting) towards the new knowledge will have differed. The content and level of their knowledge of art history will have also differed. The combination of all those factors results in the majority of the experience being perceived as new, troublesome.

The question arises about why the majority of students chose to reply in the ‘neutral’. Why would they not commit one way or another? That result also needs to be seen in the context of students who had prior knowledge of critical theory, out of whom ¾ were neutral about the helpfulness of the QD discussions to their learning on the course but half agreed that the discussions helped their learning and ¾ agreed that they helped their essay writing. From a learning theory point of view this suggests that although the intervention ended weeks before my administering the questionnaire, the students remained in liminal state. Something went wrong for them and I am inclined to speculate a number of reasons:

  • Using the Kolb experiential cycles learning model (Kolb, 1984; McLeod, 2017) it seems fair to infer that everyone processes information at different rates and people generally take different periods of time to become comfortable with new concepts. When asked to use the concepts for essay writing, the students with prior knowledge of critical theory fared better than the rest. They had the advantage of having spent more time thinking about those concepts.
  • Students may have simply not felt confident enough to express a definite opinion, a reflection on the individual personalities in the group, possible low levels of self-confidence or deference to authority and not wishing to challenge in the absence of better suggestions for improvement of delivery of the topic. Individual difference and how it manifests in the classroom is not something that my research focused on and a potential direction for future personal development. 
  • The new knowledge was not properly aligned to the learning objectives for the course. This failed to let the students know why it was important to introduce this new knowledge and how and why they should use it. This in turn will have had an impact on their level of motivation when tackling the new material (Biggs, 2003). Arguably, the missing ingredient may have been the I-focused emotional dimension of the learning intervention as referred to in a study by Sogunro( 2014). This is the most likely reason given how the students with prior knowledge of the subject felt in relation to the usefulness of the discussions to their learning on the course up to that point.
  • The learning theory I am applying to analyse my findings works well in a Western paradigm but I have to account of the fact that my students are mostly international. The type of education experiences they are used to (e.g. relating to receipt of feedback, participation in collaborative practices and assessment) is different and so will be their expectations in relation to the material they are provided with and how that is disseminated to them (see for instance Ryan, 2013, pp 53 – 68).  Even if language wasn’t a problem chances are that the new concepts pose several other problems.

With the benefit of hindsight, there are a few things I could have done differently and suggest for others to include in their planning:

  • Spend time at the start of each new intervention aligning it with the rest of the course and making sure that everyone understands exactly why I am introducing that learning
  • Ask open questions that require the students to use that new knowledge in context e.g. take an image and decode its signifers together, introduce small group tasks etc. The problem with this is in the precise design of the intervention which was always meant to be a small, discreet part of the day that the students can take away and work on independently outside of the studio.
  • Spend more time on the discussions and, as above, discuss more examples. This coincides with one of my questionnaire findings: a number of students answered that their learning would have been helped if we had spent more time on the discussions.
Figure 4: How well do you feel you understood the topic when discussed in class?

This is an interesting revelation as it sends the argument in full circle. My intervention started because we lacked a clearly defined cluster of timetabled sessions introducing theory and aimed at supporting the critical analysis and essay writing part of the course. As something ‘thrown together’ quickly to cover a teaching gap it had a surprisingly positive impact overall but it also shows that taking the time to really unpack new knowledge and verify that the students understand why they are learning something and how to use it is paramount to successful teaching.

However, one thing we expect of students at postgraduate level is to see them exercising a level of independence and initiative taking in relation to their learning. Despite the response above, it appears that our students continued to engage with the new knowledge after my discreet sessions ended. They took steps to enhance their knowledge by using their peers and / or asking questions of staff, therefore using their more knowledgeable others to level off knowledge gaps and scaffold their own learning. This is a good example of social constructivism (Vygotsky) in action and I can take some credit for initiating it through the design of the intervention which invited students to unpack the content as a group, which would have revealed the more knowledgeable (or at the very least the more outspoken) group members to the rest.

Figure 5: After the class, did you continue to learn about the topic in your own time?

If yes, how?

Figure 6: If yes, how?

The 6.7% difference to 100% above accounts for only 1 / 15 respondents for whom the quotation did not seem to be ‘a central part of the presentation’.  I do not wish to ignore this very important piece of feedback. One lesson I learnt from a fellow lecturer is that if one student says that they do not understand then there are probably others who are too shy to speak up and it is worth stopping to address the situation. If one person did not see my intervention as a central part of the presentation then there must be something I could have done to increase its importance or visibility.

The QD was delivered first thing in the morning before the start of the main session and often while waiting for students who were late to arrive. The delivery was done by me and students knew that I was the teaching assistant employed to support the main teaching staff on the course. The session was kept deliberately brief so as to not overshadow the rest of the teaching prepared for that morning.

The above will have indicated to some students that my intervention was less important, either because of how they perceived my role in relation to their learning or because of cultural differences (Ryan, 2013). Literature on international students, especially Chinese, observes that punctuality is not perceived as essential in Chinese culture. Punctuality is something that our students struggle with and so it would make sense to schedule ‘entertainment’ while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. If it is ok for some to miss it, then it probably is less important overall.

A few ways of making my contribution appear connected to the rest of the schedule for the day would have been for me to have handouts at the end, to force the students to keep thinking about the new learning beyond the session. This would have ensured that those who missed it would have had an opportunity to catch up. Making it look like ‘homework’ might have focused additional attention on it. I also started to put the quotations on a shared Google document but it later transpired that very few students engaged with it or checked it regularly. A better place would have been the walls of our classroom – what If I asked them to illustrated the quotation or just simply made posters and affixed them to the walls?

The overall conclusion to draw from this experience is that the majority of the students saw value in it and would like to see more of it in practice in their future sessions.

Figure 7: Would you like the quotation of the day included in all your course units?

Although a discreet intervention it was perceived as largely helpful to the students’ learning. Better alignment with the rest of the course contents and a clear explanation of how knowledge and application of critical theory enhances the value of an illustrator’s work professionally would have helped to build stronger motivation for learning within the group. This finding is well documented in specialist literature s.a. Dweck (2014) (fixed and growth mindsets) and Sogunro (2014: 22)[1], with Pritchard et al (2005:13)[2]  and Cunliffe (1999) actually highlighting the importance of a social constructivist teaching model to help bring other students to the same deeper appreciation of the value of critical theory to enhancing their knowledge and therefore their practice.  

The experience also taught me that I should assume that most students have not had prior knowledge of critical theory and treat the concepts as threshold. As such, it is important to explain why they are required to learn them, what benefits incorporating them in their practice could bring and also make sure that I introduce strategies to scaffold their knowledge over a period of time.

It feels like there is still room for additional research into curriculum design for international students[TR1]  generally, not just in the fields of art and design. I want to read more about the subject to learn what problems and solutions others encounter but I also think that regular interventions and co-designing the curriculum to an extent with the students could work well towards meeting the ever changing needs of each new student cohort. That could make the subject of further study, with questionnaires, focus groups and also discussions with fellow lecturers about their experiences too.

Author biography

Camelia Burn holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Creative Education from the UCA where she is contracted as (sessional) Associate Lecturer on the MA Illustration. Her interests span across art law, cultural heritage, illustration and visual communication and teaching for creative practice. Camelia is currently building upon her teaching and artistic experiences by undertaking additional training in counselling and psychotherapy.


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[1] From now, for the entirety of this paper QD will be used to replace the phrase ‘quotation of the day’

[2] The engagement of students with internationally informed research and cultural and linguistic diversity, and the purposeful development of their international and intercultural perspectives, are key components of an internationalised curriculum. (p8)

[3] It is clear that stereotyped, ethnocentric views about different learning traditions and cultures are highly detrimental. (p100)

[4] Notably, some of the sources cited so far recognise the need to teach in a way that is meaningful and integrative to ‘home’ and international students alike. My criticism is that they stop at recognising this need, instead of delving deeper into examples of what successful pedagogy looks like in this context.

[5] the reality is that in all teaching and learning transactions, motivation is an inevitable construct that evokes and sustains effective learning

[6] Students’ perceptions of relevance would appear to be the key, and group discussion on this topic, based on examples where dissertation and practice were seen as relational may help raise awareness for some students, of what those describing categories A and B are experiencing.

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