WASHINGTON – Greg Sans' chemistry class at George Washington University regularly took longer than his friend's section of the same class across the hall.
The foreign instructor's English was too difficult to understand. Students wound up teaching themselves,mainly with the textbook,he said.
“I couldn't understand him for the life of me,” said Sans,an 18-year-old engineering major from New York. “It really affected our class.”
Sans isn't alone. His friend Kathleen Dunn,a biology major,said she has had the same problem,and their difficulties are common among college students nationwide.
A representative in the North Dakota state legislature wants to make sure colleges there are dealing with the problem.
Rep. Bette Grande,R-Fargo,introduced a bill last month that would require colleges and universities in North Dakota to be sure foreign instructors – most often international graduate students teaching undergraduate classes – can communicate clearly in English.
The bill would also force schools to reimburse class fees for any student who submits a complaint about an instructor's lack of communication skills. If 10 percent of the students in a class submitted such complaints,the instructor would be removed from teaching pending further review.
GWU is nowhere near North Dakota,but Dunn said she liked the idea.
“If you're paying for a class and you can't understand it,there's really no point in being in it,” she said.
Grande said she sponsored the bill after receiving complaints from college students “falling behind because they're spending more time deciphering the instructor” than learning. This came despite vague language requirements that the legislature enacted 10 years ago.
“The university system is here for what? To educate students,” Grande said,adding that the bill was written “in a fairly harsh form because if you don't hit university systems in their pocketbooks,you don't affect them.”
The bill likely will not pass as it is written,Grande said,but drawing attention to the issue may prove effective anyway. She said she had received supportive calls from across the country.
“I hoped to really just have them look more aggressively at their policies and start having a keener eye toward student complaints,” she said.
Clara Lovett,president of the American Association for Higher Education,said difficulties among students in classes with international teaching assistants “goes back a long time” and,while possible at any school,occurs most often at large,research-based universities.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education,the presence of international students in graduate programs is much higher than in the undergraduate population.
While international students accounted for 3.2 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States in 2002,they received 13 percent of master's degrees and 25 percent of doctoral degrees. In computer sciences,engineering and math,international students account for as much as 40 to 50 percent of graduate degrees awarded.
Some education organizations believe the government should not need to step in.
“This isn't really a legislative job,” said Ruth Flower,director of public policy and communications for the American Association of University Professors. “It's an on-campus judgment that faculty would need to make.”
Lovett agreed,but said that if lawmakers in one state feel the need to step in,then perhaps universities aren't doing enough to prepare foreign graduate students to teach. A simple language proficiency test may not be enough.
“Sometimes communication issues relate to language,but sometimes they can relate to teaching style,” she said. “It's not that hard to test for language proficiency. They're smart people. They're capable of a lot. It wouldn't be that hard to give them training.”
Graduate students at GWU,regardless of where they're from,are screened and critiqued before they teach in a classroom,said Geri Rypkema,director of the GWU office of graduate student support.
All must give a five-minute “mini-teaching lesson” to a panel of advisers,and those for whom English is not a first language must take a written English language test and a communication assessment in a speech and hearing clinic. The clinic assessment examines everything from enunciation to eye contact.
“We think the speech and hearing clinic really addresses problems,” Rykema said. “Slowing your rate of speech,something as simple as that,can make a difference.”
Rypkema said the policy works well. She received only one complaint last year.
However,students simply may not be reporting difficulties. Despite frustrations,Sans and Dunn seemed to view the problem as a nuisance,nothing worth making a fuss about.
“I didn't really care that much,” Sans said. “We just dealt with it.”