Theme: Intercultural Competence in Educational Contexts

DRAFT    Enhancing intercultural relations and the student experience



The quality of the international student experience is in large part dependent on students achieving their academic goals. These may be English language learning goals, university entrance goals for secondary school students, graduation from tertiary institutions or postgraduate qualifications that may lead to future employment and global mobility. Fundamental to achieving these goals is a sense of identity and belonging. Students need intercultural skills and language competence to understand new ways of learning and adjusting to new environments so that they can achieve their goals. 

Interaction is an essential part of a successful international programme. How do international students gain skills, intercultural competence and language proficiency in your institution? What opportunities do they have to practice these skills in the academic and social environment? Last century, some people thought that just being enrolled in education programmes alongside domestic students was enough to develop intercultural and language skills. Institutions possibly offered an orientation programme and perhaps one or two social outings each year. However, while this may be enough support for some international students, more active interventions to promote interaction are required to enhance the quality of the students’ overseas experience (Vande Berg, 2009). An understanding of intercultural models (see upcoming Intercultural models for education contexts topic) that are applicable to educational contexts, for instance, is important for enhancing the international student experience. 

How does interaction with locals benefit international students?

Opportunities for interaction among international students and local can:

  • promote greater adaptation to the host culture 
  • lessen depression and acculturation stress
  • decrease feelings of isolation and homesickness, and
  • allow international students to become familiar with educational systems. 

(Quinton, 2020)

Connectiveness for international students relates friendships with host nationals, and a sense of belonging and support. In a large-scale New Zealand study of international students at tertiary and private training institutions, connectiveness was found to be relatively weak (Bethel, Ward & Fetvadjiev, 2020). Connectiveness was important as it partly mediates the effects of low English language proficiency, and cultural difference (the similarity between an international and a domestic student’s culture). The researchers found that establishing connectiveness increases international students’ life satisfaction and enhances the quality of the study-abroad experience. Connectiveness requires opportunities and support for interaction and it opens up opportunities for ako/reciprocal learning. These can occur through interventions both in both academic and social settings.  

Case study: International students at Catsville High School

Gemma had been the Dean of International Students at Catsville High School for over 5 years. Since 2000, the number of students at the school had grown rapidly and prior to the Covid-19 pandemic had reached 15% of the student population. Most of the international students were in the senior school and Gemma had noticed an increasing trend for the international students to gather in the ESOL classroom at breaks and lunchtime. Gemma appreciated the importance of interaction among the international students but was concerned about low levels of interaction with local students. She wanted to ensure that the international students had opportunities to meet and make relationships with local students in the school. Initially, she decided that having an ESOL space available during breaks was a problem as it gave students a place to withdraw from contact with New Zealand students. She decided to lock the classroom at breaks and lunchtimes to force the international students to engage more with the rest of the school. She did this, and when she was walking around the campus, she noticed the international students were gathered around the back of the ESOL classroom block, chatting together. She concluded that her strategy had not worked. What should she do next?

a. Buddy individual students with local students of a similar age  

While there was initial commitment and enthusiasm from both the buddies and the international students, many of these relationships did not last beyond the first week. Even though she had thought carefully about the buddy programme and researched the interests of the participants, many of the students did not develop ongoing friendships.

b. Organise an international food festival  

This was a complex project because many of the international students had no access to the ingredients to cook their national dishes, nor did they have the skills to do so. After conquering the logistics (and getting some finance from the school), she was disappointed that so few domestic students turned up to the festival. There were also several students who sampled the food and made negative comments about it. However, the staff enjoyed the food greatly! 

c. Create an international club and invite local students to join  

Some of the international students were interested, particularly in learning about each other’s countries but no domestic students came to the after-school meetings. She contacted the few who had responded to the initial notice and inquired why they did not come. They explained that they had wanted to but that they worked or had sports after school. 

d. Do some research by asking international students and other institutions about interventions that have been successful in promoting interaction

A few of the international students seemed to have been more successful than others in forming friendships with local students. Talking with them about how these friendships were initiated and sustained may give some insight into ways to effectively intervene for other students. Colleagues in her local cluster group had also developed programmes that fostered interaction. Wider discussion can provide ideas for interventions that are effective in particular situations. 

e. Provide some professional development for mainstream teaching staff on fostering interaction  

School-wide professional development was mentioned by colleagues at other schools who saw the job of creating opportunities for interaction as a shared responsibility across the whole school. In talking with the international students, Gemma had heard that, for some of the international students, opportunities for sustained relationships had occurred within subject classrooms through group work. Gemma talked with the curriculum area leaders at her school about this shared responsibility for enhancing the quality of international programmes through classroom interaction. Together, they made a plan for professional development to develop a school-wide approach for fostering interaction.

How can teachers promote interaction within classrooms and lecture theatres?

There are benefits to learning for all students when international students have structured opportunities to interact within their courses. These benefits include:

  • enhancing cognitive skills
  • developing a greater sense of belonging 
  • developing processes in group learning for negotiating understanding, especially when other people may have a different perspective on course material
  • deepening all students’ awareness of their own and others’ cultures, and
  • broadening international students’ perspectives.

(Arkoudis et al., 2013)

Curriculum leaders, course designers and teaching staff require commitment to strategies to promote student centred learning through interaction and to support international students to engage in learning this way. Relationships between international and local students can begin in classes through activities such as group work and develop further outside of class (Bennett, Volet, & Fozdar, 2013). Arkoudis and colleagues (2013) working in Australia researched and proposed a framework with six dimensions called the Interaction for Learning Framework (ILF). The use of the ILF develops academic environments which promote interaction between diverse student groups, with a specific focus on international students. This framework is outlined below with some reflective questions which will allow you and colleagues to think about practices within your own institution or teaching context.

Interaction for Learning Framework

Dimension Reflective questions for discussion
1. Planning for interaction Do the objectives of the course or unit of work explicitly incorporate interaction and / or communication?

Are there assessments directly linked to engaging with peers from diverse backgrounds?

Do you use problem-based learning tasks where students work in groups or teams to consider multiple perspectives?

Are students made aware of the benefits of working within diverse groups and teams?

Are students allocated to groups to ensure diversity in the group?

2. Creating environments for interaction Is the physical environment conducive for interaction? If not, then how can you modify it?

How do you encourage students to move beyond their regular social groups?

How do you build relationships right from the start of the course by using social activities such as icebreakers?

Do you allow students enough time in group work to introduce themselves and their backgrounds?

3. Supporting interaction How do you support and enhance students’ confidence and skills in interacting with each other?

Do you set clear expectations around the form of the interactions, such as turn taking and respect?

Do you provide training for all students in intercultural skills?

4. Engaging with subject knowledge Do you allow time for students to think independently before they are asked to share ideas with a group?

Are there opportunities to peer review others’ work and some training in giving constructive feedback?

Can the outcomes of the group tasks be different but equally valid?

How do tasks draw on the different lived experiences of students?

5. Developing reflexive processes Are the students encouraged to self-evaluate their own contribution to the group?

Are students encouraged to self-assess their own work using explicit criteria?

Are reflective questions built into the tasks and valued through the assessment process?

6. Fostering a community of learners Are there a variety of online tools used which allow students to interact both for academic and social purposes?

Are there peer mentoring programmes which allow learners to engage with more knowledgeable others

How are relationships maintained? Are groups established for both short term and long-term purposes?

 Adapted from Arkoudis et al. (2010)

This video from the University of Melbourne provides a useful open access resource to understand this framework. 

The ILF can be used as a way for mainstream subject teachers, lecturers and tutors to consider how they can effectively incorporate interaction into subjects, courses and programmes for international students, providing support for international students and enhancing the experience of studying at a New Zealand institution. While interaction within the classroom enhances learning, further interventions outside of the classroom can enable international students to become more networked locally and develop a sense of belonging. 

 What interventions can facilitate interaction beyond the classroom?

All students require support at transition points such as when they are starting university but international students require particular support sustained beyond the first year to have a high-quality international experience (Andrade, 2006). The Learning Zone Model provides a theory that can underpin the concept of support for international students (Hartwell, & Ounoughi, 2019; Prazeres, 2017).

The Learning Zone Model (Senninger, 2000

This Learning Zone model has been used extensively in empirical literature on travel and outdoor education (e.g. Brown 2008). The model is a useful way of describing affective and emotional states. In the comfort zone, learners are familiar with an educational and social context. They know habits and everyday practices that they need to survive and succeed. There is a sense of cultural familiarity. Studying abroad can propel students into a new space, the learning zone, where there is unfamiliarity. This can bring reflection and personal growth. “[International] students expect to negotiate and attenuate feelings of ‘in/out of place’ and discomfort by acquiring insider knowledge through everyday life practices”. (Prazeres, 2017, p. 920). 

The boundaries of these three zones are not fixed. Rather, these boundaries are fluid for each individual learner and situation. Institutions need ways to provide sufficient challenge to move students to the learning zone without overwhelming the students as they transition to a different environment. At the same time, it is possible to expand the boundaries of the comfort zone and the learning zone by providing appropriate support. Reducing the barriers to interaction between local international students provides support and helps international students navigate the environment (Hartwell, & Ounoughi, 2019). Examples of support are organised opportunities in the institution and the local community for:


  • Buddy programmes
  • Peer tutoring 
  • Extracurricular activities such as clubs
  • Volunteering in the community, and
  • Internships.


Buddy programmes/peer tutoring

The success of peer tutor/buddy programmes tend to be mixed (Hendrickson, 2018). Local students may have paid work commitments, struggle with communication, or have very different social capital from international students. Although buddy pairs are arranged by an international coordinator in an institution, international students may report in some cases that they never met their buddy in person. However, some buddies are highly active and are conduits to multicultural friendship networks. 

There are some characteristics of buddy programmes that are likely to make these programmes effective in fostering connectiveness through interaction: 

  • Providing some form of recognition for local students who act as buddies or tutors. This can be a badge, a certificate or some form of course credit. In the case of peer tutors at tertiary level, there may be payment for their work.
  • Training for the host nationals to ensure they understand the international student experience and they have the intercultural skills to meet the expectations in the programme. 
  • Some organised activities, structured around developing shared social capital, for example, opportunities to attend events such as sports, music, drama, cultural events and festivals.
  • An understanding from the students that this is a commitment over a time period, and will require energy and time from both parties during that period
  • A skilled person who can train the host national buddies, organise the buddy matches, check in with both parties during the period, and troubleshoot should problems arise.
  • An appreciation of the diversity of the New Zealand student population with a recognition that more experienced international students may be very effective buddies in guiding others during the acculturation process. 

(Campbell, 2012; Hendrickson, 2018)

Extra-curricular activities such as clubs

Participation in extra-curricular activities provided by the institution has positive effects on friendship networks. Information about clubs and other activities may not be available to international students or they may not see these activities as inaccessible (Hendrickson, 2018). Some international students have “parallel life realities” (Hendrickson, 2018, p. 9) and they may want to spend time travelling or they may not see the benefits of joining clubs or playing sport. Some can feel this is a distraction from their study. Orientation events may not be the best time for alerting students to details of extracurricular activities on offer. Students are more likely to join an activity if they can see how it contributes to their goals, and they have the opportunity to interact with a person currently involved in the activity. This could be a club day where clubs recruit members in person or other opportunities to interact with club or sports organisers.   

Volunteering in the community

Volunteering in the community can give international students a sense of social belonging and insight into wider New Zealand society. Volunteering provides interaction opportunities with a wide range of people, some of whom may have more time and interest in interacting than domestic students. You will be aware of volunteer opportunities in your own context, ranging from working in food banks, visiting retirement homes to assisting with predator control and working in environmental projects. While helping activities occur in every culture, attitudes towards volunteering may vary according to cultures (Aydinli et al., 2013). Volunteering which requires a long-term commitment to others is more common in affluent and western societies. Students may need to be introduced to the idea and given information about how they can benefit from this activity. This may include volunteering as a component of a recognised programme such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award.   


Unpaid professional work placements can provide a way to gain valuable workplace experiences and possibly contribute to a resume when the student is looking for employment. Internships are not common in some cultures and students may need specific preparation around applying for an internship (Goodwin, & Mbah, 2019). It is important to ensure that the international student understands the conditions of the internship and the expectations of the work placement (Ruhanen, Robinson, & Breakey, 2013). Formal internship agreements between the education institute and the employers safeguard both organisations and help ensure the students are not exploited. All parties, particularly the students, need to have a clear understanding of a complaints process should there be a problem, including how to get support during a complaints process. 

Case study continued: International students at Catsville High School

Two years later at Catsville High, you would see a very different situation from when Gemma was first pondering the issue of interaction. You would notice the following:

  • Most teachers are intentionally implementing opportunities for interaction between international and local students in their teaching.
  • The ESOL classrooms are open during breaks to allow some international students to move between their comfort zone and the learning zone according to their needs.
  • Some local students are eating lunch in the ESOL room and making use of the microwave provided there for all students.
  • There is a specific mechanism, such as visits by students engaged in extracurricular activities to ESOL rooms during Whānau time, to recruit new members to clubs and sporting activities.
  • A sustainable buddy programme had been implemented with recognition and training from the school for those involved.
  • All staff, including non-teaching staff, had intercultural skills training. 
  • Pastoral care of the students included resourcing an activities coordinator to facilitate the acculturation of international students through relationships within the school community and the wide local community. 
  • There are regular surveys and focus groups with international students to ascertain their level of satisfaction with their experiences. 
  • There were regular discussions with staff about their perceptions of the affordances and constraints for international students’ interaction within classrooms.

You observe international students and local students socialising together outside of class. International students report a higher level of satisfaction with their school experience than in previous years. Local students enjoy the benefits of learning through internationalisation and interaction with a range of cultures. Refugees and other minority students feel a sense of belonging and inclusion. The number of international and domestic students in the school has started to grow as the quality of the programmes enhanced the school’s reputation.


Interventions to enhance the quality of your international programme have some elements in common. These elements include:

  • Regular reflection on the importance of supporting international students at transitions
  • Skilled staff and the provision of staff professional development
  • Providing intercultural competence development before, during and after orientations, and
  • Creating the right balance of challenge and support to promote the learning of international students at different stages of their acculturation process but not to overwhelm them.



Below are a series of practical examples and resources that you can access to explore how to further enhance your programme.

Activity Description and access
Making the most of your international student barometer data: A guide for good practice This is published by Universities Australia and I Graduate.

Fromp.26 onwards presents some case studies of good practice organised under arrival and orientation, learning, living and support. 

Available from:

Internships An example of information about internships available from a university Internships  
Secondary school buddy programme This is the website of the Cambridge High School Buddy Programme. Of particular note is the clear guidance provided to buddies. Buddies contact their partner international student before arrival in New Zealand. 

A leadership programme for international tertiary students A recognised co-curricular leadership programme which includes volunteer components and experiential learning

A voluntary service opportunity within a recognised programme The Duke of Edinburgh’s Hillary Award requires volunteer service at each level with enough flexibility to allow students to select the opportunity according to their own interests.

A mentor programme in secondary schools Learning Hawkes Bay Student Ambassadors is a programme to support interactions and integration between local secondary school students and international students
New Zealand research study Bethel, A., Ward, C., & Fetvadjiev, V. H. (2020). Cross-cultural transition and psychological adaptation of international students: The mediating role of host national connectedness. Frontiers in Education, 5, 1-12.  retrieved from  



Andrade, M. S. (2006). International students in English-speaking universities: Adjustment factors. Journal of Research in International Education5(2), 131-154.  

Arkoudis, S., Yu, X., Baik, C., Chang, S., Lang, I., Watty, K., Lang, J.,…. (2010). Finding common ground: Enhancing interaction between domestic and international students-Guide for academics. Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Retrieved from 

Arkoudis. S., Watty, K., Baik, C., Yu, X., Borland, H., Chang, S., Lang, I.,… (2013). Finding common ground: enhancing interaction between domestic and international students in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(3), 222–235. 

Aydinli, A., Bender, M., & Chasiotis, A. (2013). Helping and Volunteering across Cultures: Determinants of Prosocial Behavior. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 5(3). 

Bennett, R.J., Volet, S.E. & Fozdar, F.E. (2013) “I’d say it’s kind of unique in a way”: The development of an intercultural student relationship. Journal of Studies in International Education, 17 (5). pp. 533-553. retrieved from 

Bethel, A., Ward, C., & Fetvadjiev, V. H. (2020). Cross-cultural transition and psychological adaptation of international students: The mediating role of host national connectedness. Frontiers in Education, 5, 1-12.  

Brown. (2008). Comfort zone : model or metaphor? Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 12(1), 3–12.  

Campbell, N. (2012). Promoting intercultural contact on campus: A project to connect and engage international and host students. Journal of Studies in International E

Education16(3), 205-227.

Goodwin, & Mbah, M. (2019). Enhancing the work placement experience of international students: towards a support framework. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 43(4), 521–532. 

Hartwell, L, & Ounoughi,  S. (2019). Expanding the Comfort Zones: Divergent Practices of Host and International University Students. European Journal of Higher Education, 9(4),377–392.  

Hendrickson, B. (2018). Intercultural connectors: Explaining the influence of extra-curricular activities and tutor programs on international student friendship network development. International Journal of Intercultural Relations63, 1-16. 

Prazeres. (2017). Challenging the comfort zone: self-discovery, everyday practices and international student mobility to the Global South. Mobilities, 12(6), 908–923. 

Quinton, W. J. (2020). So close and yet so far? Predictors of international students’ socialization with host nationals. International Journal of Intercultural Relations74, 7-16.

Ruhanen, Robinson, R., & Breakey, N. (2013). A foreign assignment: Internships and international students. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 20, 1–4.

Senninger, T. (2000). Abenteuer leiten-in Abenteuern lernen: Methodenset zur Planung und Leitung kooperativer Lerngemeinschaften für Training und Teamentwicklung in Schule, Jugendarbeit und Betrieb. Ökotopia Verlag.

Vande Berg. (2007). Intervening in the Learning of U.S. Students Abroad. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11(3-4), 392–399.

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