in cooperation with Els Laenens (UAntwerp, Department of Computer Science), Ching Lin Pang (UAntwerp, Department of Translators and Interpreters) and Bianca Roseaux (UAntwerp, Education Department)


The world has become a village, and this process of globalisation has consequences for higher education. More English-taught Master programmes and a growing number of international students are but two examples. Institutions of higher education are increasingly focusing on internationalisation and using the diverse inflow to strengthen the international and intercultural competences of all stakeholders. In this regard, it is essential for international and Flemish students to meet and cooperate with each other. A pleasant, positive climate (both within and outside the classroom) can contribute to this aim (see also ECHO teaching tip, 2020). Interaction is just easier when the atmosphere is good and people feel at home.

In this tip, we consider how instructors can help to build such a good atmosphere and engage in the well-being of all students, both international and Flemish.

The formal, informal and hidden curriculum

To promote the well-being of international students and create a positive learning environment, various possibilities can be found in the formal, informal and hidden curriculum. An optimal effect can be achieved by devoting attention to this issue from the very first class.

The formal curriculum

Elements of the formal curriculum include core competences, the study programme, teaching methods and the forms of evaluation.  It can differ from that of international students (see also ECHO teaching tip, 2022). For example, our teaching includes a variety of teaching methods that expect active input from students. Depending on their country of origin, however, international students are often not accustomed to actively participating in classes. For example, the following forms of work are often less familiar to them and probably need to be taught: presentations, participation in group discussions, expressing opinions, reflection on/critical formulation of comments and working together in small groups.

The following points are important when introducing students to activation and making them feel comfortable with it (see also this ECHO teaching tip, 2018):

  • Start at the beginning. Confront students with activation as soon as possible, and thus activate them during the very first class.
  • Provide tender, loving care in the form of an introduction to the activation. The following aspects can be included:
    • What is the goal of the activation? Why are you using activation (e.g. activation ensures that a variety of opinions are brought to light)?
    • Why do you consider activation important (e.g. answers from students provide a clear image of what students have and have not understood)?
    • What are your expectations for the activation (e.g. everyone is expected to collaborate)?
    • What is the relationship to the examination (e.g. the same types of questions are asked during activation, at the same level)? How does the activation prepare students for the examination?
  • Have students gain experience with activation, and make them comfortable with it. This can be done in the following ways:
    • Create a certain amount of predictability. One way to do this could involve always giving assignment instructions/announcing that you want to discuss the assignment in the same way.
    • Start small. As an instructor, it is okay to accept that only a small group will participate in the beginning. Thereafter, systematically try to involve more and more students.
    • Build up activation gradually. Start by introducing simple teaching methods (see also ECHO teaching tip, 2014), and gradually shift to more difficult methods (e.g. Jigsaw). Another way this can be done could be to give students a small home assignment first and use the result as the basis for a discussion or further elaboration, in which you involve them step by step.

Being aware of your own teaching culture also entails knowing the habits of Flemish students. Flemish students should probably be encouraged to work together in mixed teams of Flemish and international students. Point out to them the importance of forming international groups, and make it clear that cooperation is both enriching and educational. Another idea could be to adopt a more directive approach and compose such international groups yourself (see also ECHO teaching tip, 2018).

The informal curriculum

It is essential to make international students feel at home in their host country. Social interaction is important in this regard. This can be addressed in the ‘informal curriculum’, which includes such extra-curricular activities as student club events, buddy programmes and field trips. In these activities, international students come into contact with others who share their own culture and language. Introducing international students to instructors who share their language and culture is also valuable. In addition, it is important for international students to get to know Flemish students as well. The following are several possibilities for encouraging this:

  • Have students introduce themselves individually, in order to create a sense of connection. One way to do this could be to throw a tennis ball into the group. The row in which the ball is caught comes forward to loud, welcoming applause, and the students share a few things about themselves to the rest of the student group (e.g. name, hobby, reason for choosing the study programme, favourite snack). Then, one of the students throws the ball into the group, and the process repeats until everyone has had a turn. Although some students may feel uncomfortable, this has proven to be a great icebreaker that initiates social interaction in a relaxed atmosphere that includes lots of laughter. 
  • Have students introduce themselves with posters. The poster can be designed according to individual insights. Examples of things to include on the poster could be a photo, first name and surname, how fellow students can easily reach the student, nationality, hobbies, interesting and fun facts about oneself and/or something one is proud of.
  • Instruct students to chat with five new students each campus day for at least two weeks. After two weeks, the students submit lists of the names of all students they have spoken to. They also indicate those with whom they would like to collaborate at that time.
  • Create a group on social media (e.g. WhatsApp, Facebook) consisting of Flemish and international students.
  • Encourage international students to participate in institutional/programme activities (e.g. the opening of the academic year or an internationalisation day).

The hidden curriculum

The hidden curriculum includes all the unspoken cultural norms and expectations that are often overlooked. For international students, it is important to be informed about this during the first class. Be sure to consider other issues as well (see also this ECHO teaching tip, 2022):

  • Some evaluation methods (e.g. oral examinations) are often unfamiliar to foreign students and require additional explanation.
  • Views on plagiarism may differ according to culture. For example, there are differences in the specific ways in which people deal with academic sources.
  • The general culture of education may differ. For example, Western educational culture centres on critical thinking, reflection, debate and discussion. The distance between instructors and students is generally small. Educational cultures based on a pyramid system (as in some Asian cultures) focus on information transmission and listening; people are not accustomed to active participation. The distance between instructors and students is large.
  • The role of the instructor (e.g. The instructor as a coach, see also ECHO teaching tip, 2021) could also be new.
  • Unwritten rules (e.g. how to cope with making mistakes or being late) are best made explicit.

Want to know more?

For UAntwerp staff

ECHO teaching tips:

De Leersnyder, J., Gündemir, S. & Agirdag, O. (2022). Diversity approaches matter in international classrooms: how a multicultural approach buffers against cultural misunderstanding and encourages inclusion and psychological safety. Studies in Higher Education, 47(9), 1903-1920.

Moodspace (support website for students)

Challenges and opportunities in International Classrooms: Toward an intercultural Perspective and Practice at the university. Dutch Research Council; last consulted on 6 October 2023.

How is it going with international students at Dutch higher education institutions? Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education; last consulted in 6 October 2023.

Lees deze tip in het Nederlands