Immigrant Adults As Learners: Lessons From The Field

Having taught in higher education for years, I assumed I was on familiar ground when I began teaching a class of 28 Bachelor’s degree-seeking students—half of which were immigrants. The content of my courses was obviously familiar, but the dynamics of the classroom and the needs of the foreign-born students were not. My reflections on this experience led me to a series of insights that has increased my effectiveness as a teacher.

Here are the top insights I gathered from teaching immigrants:

1. The Scope of Interest for College-level Education

Between 1990 and 2000 the number of immigrants doubled to 250,000 in Minnesota alone. These immigrants settled in major metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities metro area, Fairbault, and other populated areas around the state. The number of immigrant college students has grown steadily; 32 percent of adult immigrants have some college education and wish to continue their studies to complete their degree on American soil.

2. Barriers to Success for Immigrant College Students

Language Barriers: This is not the “they-do-not-speak-passable-English barrier”, but the barrier that exists with use of complex figurative language tools such as idioms, similes, metaphors, and provincialisms. This is far from familiar to these students because they are based on implicit cultural assumptions and practices. Instructors often do not realize that even a syllabus is infused with confusing figurative language. The assigned reading is full of obstacles of this type and the students may be grasping only part of the knowledge available to them. It is unrealistic to assume that everyone understands the question at hand.

Cultural Barriers: In some countries, teachers are held in such high regard, and questioning the teacher on an assignment or test question is akin to disrespect. The student who wants to do well is left in a cultural quandary—go against personal cultural norms to get a needed answer or try guess what the teacher really wants.

Physical barriers: I shake each student’s hand at the beginning of the first session of a course. It creates a bond and a sense of accessibility between the student and me. Imagine my surprise when a student told me that his culture did not allow male-female contact except between husband and wife. There are also countries where eye contact between teacher or a person of authority and a student is a sign of disrespect.

3. Mutual Understanding

First, it’s likely that immigrants have made multiple sacrifices to obtain higher education. As is true with native-born adult learners, they have families and a full-time jobs while they are attending classes. Most of my immigrant students, however. had two to three jobs, slept only four hours a day, were taking a full course load, and were paying for their education as they went so as not to get into debt—even when that meant taking money away from basic needs. They do these things while living in homes that house multiple families who depend on each other for support in the absence of extended families they left behind.

Second, immigrants do not take any part of the education process for granted. They have a high level of understanding of the value of education, and therefore demand nothing less than the best from themselves. They are quick learners and will absorb the information if it is presented in a way that they can grasp it.

4. What the Students want from their Teachers

First and foremost, assume nothing. If an assignment is late, don’t make the assumption the student doesn’t care. If the assignment misses the mark, don’t assume it is because the student is lazy. The most important thing these students want from their teachers is feedback, which is immediate, specific, and straightforward feedback. The learning curve with immigrant students tends to be remarkable. Feedback on one assignment is immediately put into place in the next assignment. Within the 13-courses that I taught, I had a number of students move from a grade of ‘D’ to a grade of ‘A’ because of the regular, specific, and applicable feedback I gave to them.

5. A Deeper Understanding

Each student that enters our classroom deserves the same professional level of education. Unlike students with physical and mental disabilities who are visible or documented, immigrant students have invisible barriers that we don’t know about and they don’t recognize are obstacles to effective learning. Our awareness of these barriers can make all the difference.

As educators, we try to provide students with learning outcomes that give them skills and knowledge they can apply in their personal and professional lives. Each student is equal in importance, and as such it is our duty to do all we are capable of to proffer our content in a way that each student can excel if they so desire. Immigrant students bring tremendous richness to the classroom. Their perspectives, values, and desire to learn are inspiring for the instructor as well as for other students.

Immigrant students understand something about education that makes teaching them both an honor and a challenge. John Dewey said it best, “Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” -My Pedagogic Creed  (1897) 

About the Author: This article was written by Leslie Shore, an adjunct instructor for Rasmussen College.

External links provided on are for reference only. Rasmussen College does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced.

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