Middle Eastern Students’ Oral Participation in American Higher Education Classrooms
University of North Texas
Studies show that students from Asian countries studying abroad are ‘silent’ or ‘reticent’ in the Western universities’ classrooms and this has been attributed to cultural differences in classroom teaching methods and in approaches of knowledge that underlie those teaching practices. One of the noticeable things during my Masters and Ph.D. is that many Middle Eastern students, unlike native ones, do not participate in classroom conversations. The academic literature presents a gap in that students from the Middle East are not represented in the studies. In consequence, this study will focus on the perceptions of Middle Eastern students about their oral participation in American higher education classrooms. This qualitative study aims to find relationships between bilingualism and classroom participation and find why some Middle Eastern students are silent in U.S. classrooms by using data derived from interviews with three students.
University of North Texas
Concerns are growing that in U.S. classrooms, there are international students who have a very high potential to succeed academically but they have a problem of being quiet or silent in the classroom. These individuals, who can be easily overlooked and misinterpreted, come from various parts of Asia and Middle East, taking up college degrees and doctorate courses.
Silence can be perceived as an impediment to learning or social interaction, but factors have to be considered like cultural or sociological. Silence is ambiguous but appreciated by many cultures and languages. However, Western culture perceived silence as “a barrier in conversation” or an “omission in communication interactions” (Hao, 2009, p. 14). In other instances, silence is referred to as “absence and oppression” (Simonis, 2016, p. 6).
In different cultures, silence has several norms and meanings. For instance, in Iranian culture when children perceive that their parents are not happy, they stay silent to show that they also are not happy. In the same culture, a husband and wife observe silence when they are not happy. If two male individuals are silent, there is something happening between the two that can be construed as different in other cultures (Lemak, 2012). In Farsi culture, silence is more appreciated. In a study, a participant who spoke Farsi indicated that it was not commendable to speak about oneself or to sell oneself, and it was better to remain silent and listen (Lemak, 2012), in contrast to the Western and American cultures in which oral communication is a determinant of student performance.
Most of those who have chosen the road of silence are second language learners, particularly Middle Eastern students studying in the U.S. Communication can be frustrating for second language (L2) learners, some of them are graduate students. Foreign students prefer to be silent and listen, but others have the willingness to communicate (WTC). Middle Eastern students studying in the U.S. find it difficult to enter into communication, but are willing to do so. Mac-Intyre et al. (as cited in Bernales, 2014) define willingness to communicate as “a readiness to enter into discourse” with other people using the English language.
The question arises: is silence a barrier to learning? In the U.S. universities, the communication dynamics are designed to develop skills that will strengthen effective communication with organizational colleagues, business and professional associates as well as with family and friends. Proficiency in oral communication skills is the expectation in all U.S. universities. Coursework and activities presented to students in interactional classrooms are grounded in the elements of communication as applied to a variety of public speaking situations and social interactions. The goals are to improve the student’s ability in speaking and listening to others, interacting more effectively interpersonally, and gaining an increased awareness of the role of communication in our complex society and world.
However, in many U.S. classrooms designed with the above expectations, there exist stu-dents who do not orally interact with others; most of them are international students who have difficulty in their second language acquisition. The general perception in research as well as by others, about individuals who avoid orally communicating is that quiet and silent students in the classroom are less competent, less likely to be leaders, lonely, and encumbered by low self-esteem (Richmond, 1997, as cited in Thurston-Jackson, 2003).
The purpose of the study
The purpose of this study is to investigate why Middle Eastern students studying in the U.S. are silent and do not actively participate in classroom instructions and conversations. In a dominant culture like that of the U.S., a quiet and silent learner is usually ignored, excluded, and left behind. The American culture is a verbal culture and has a Western bias of spontaneous speech that rewards assertiveness and responsiveness, and misunderstandings and misconceptions about individuals who are quiet in social interactions and academic settings (Thurston-Jackson, 2003).
The problem the research will focus on is the silence of Middle Eastern students who are studying in U.S. universities. This is a problem because student success and retention in U.S. universities is measured through “academic success and interpersonal success,” with the latter refer-ring to communicative social skills (McCroskey, Booth-Butterfield, & Payne, 1989).
Questions will focus on the factors that contribute to the silence or quietness of Middle Eastern students during class lecture and instructions. Cultural influences affect learning style and methods. In the Middle Eastern context, second language learners tend to be silent as their culture influences the student to be “respectful,” or arguing with elderly people is a sign of disrespect. This influences the Arabic student’s behavior in the classroom. According to Gardner, Lalonde, and Pierson (as cited in Niehoff, 1999), “cultural beliefs about the second language community influence both the nature and the role played by attitudes in the language learning process” (p. 1). Learner attitudes and student motivational orientations reflect the cultural milieu, beliefs, and social settings (monolingual or bilingual) in which learners find themselves. Other questions in this research that need more focus include:
1- What are the perceptions of Middle Eastern students about silence or quietness and classroom oral participation?
2- What are the reasons for Middle Eastern students’ silence in American higher education class-rooms
The study will fill the gap in the literature, i.e. studies focusing on Middle Eastern students studying in U.S. universities lack empirical data. This study has attempted to search various websites, databases and online repositories about Middle Eastern graduate students and their silence and comprehension apprehension, but it looks that there is a gap. Therefore, this study aims to fill the gap about the silence of Middle Eastern students in U.S. universities and helps in the understanding about this problem.
Most early work on communication apprehension, shyness, and performance competence was conducted by McCroskey (1977), along with colleagues Booth-Butterfly and Payne (1989). Their work focused on student shyness and difficulties in oral communication that reflect class-room performance. McCroskey (1977) defines communication apprehension (CA) as “fear or anxiety” in communicating with another person or persons. Students – especially foreign students, second language learners – at one point of time will feel uneasiness or trepidation when asked to communicate orally particularly in the classroom. The fear is that there is like some alter ego in-side whispering that the response to the question might be wrong or the way it is delivered will not be understood by a native-English speaking classmate or professor.
In a culture like the U.S., a quiet and silent learner is intentionally or unintentionally ignored, excluded, and deprioritized. A Western bias toward spontaneous speech exists which re-wards assertiveness and responsiveness, introducing problematical categorizations, stereotypes, misunderstanding and misconceptions about individuals who are less talkative in social situations. This is contrast to the Middle Eastern studying in Western and U.S. universities (Thurston-Jackson, 2003). Several works, especially theses and dissertations, have been conducted by graduate students pertaining to shyness and silence of international students, in particular, the work of Thurston-Jackson (2003), Simonis (2016), and others, and are a part of the literature review for this proposal and in the dissertation proper.
In Middle Eastern culture, observing and listening to older people is a common feature. In the educational context, reading and writing are the primary modes of learning. Students learn to read and write by first listening as the teacher reads to introduce and incorporate grammar, vocabulary and comprehension in context (Diaz-Rico, 1995, as cited in Thurston-Jackson, 2003).In the teacher-centered pedagogy in Middle East culture, interaction takes place using “teacher-directed approaches,” which is to improve teaching and learning. Arab students are used to the culture of listening and not asking questions which they have brought and applied in the class-room setting. Saudi teachers also used this kind of pedagogy, in which they talk while the students listen and do not care to ask a question (Thurston-Jackson, 2003).
Sociocultural and Psychological Barriers
Although thinking and learning are highly dependent on social interaction, the factor that is most often not seen is that people have preferred learning styles, thinking styles, and certain practices of their culture that guide the way in which learning approached. This means that students acquire knowledge through many different ways: envisioning, seeing the written word, listening, and acting. Howard Gardner (1999), the author of Multiple Intelligences and Intelligence Reframed, argued that active listening in the form of focusing and concentration skills, silent reflective, thinking skills, during communication processes are reflective of an individual’s distinct learning style.
Gardner (1999) developed a socio-educational model of language acquisition and empha-sized the socio-cultural milieu to determine the relative weight of his four individual difference variables – intelligence, language aptitude, motivation, and situation anxiety. Cultural milieu (e.g. beliefs) affects language learning to which those variables were implicated.
Factors point to sociocultural. In the Middle East culture, children are taught to listen and not to ask questions as asking questions is a sign of disrespect. Being quiet demonstrates self-respect and control (Thurston-Jackson, 2003). For Native American Indians, remaining quiet symbolizes a way of communicating cooperation that speaking aloud cannot (as cited in Thurston-Jackson, 2003). In most Western culture, being silent is seen as negative, especially when this is displayed during conventional interpersonal communication. It appears that each culture, within its own features affects the process of how individuals have chosen to learn, particularly during interaction that takes place within the complex, multicultural context of the class-room. Asian students learn the collectivistic cultural environment that focuses on group unity, which explains their low profile in asserting themselves than their American counterparts who are more individualistic, that explains the uniqueness of different groups of people (Hsu & Huang, 2017).
In regards to the psychological barriers, International students from the Middle East feel shy and embarrassed if they respond with a wrong answer. Responses to questioning differ across cultures. Students are hesitant to respond to questions if they are unsure of their answers. As mentioned earlier, most international students are afraid of mistakes. Another dimension of communication is accent. Many learners will minimize interaction with classmates who are native language speakers to avoid repeating themselves, semantic misunderstandings, and public and private self-consciousness during inflectional, syntactical, pronunciation and usage of the English language (Martinez, 2010).
Relationship Between Bilingualism and Classroom Oral Participation
Language minority students need to improve their language skills and apply this in their interpersonal communications. Passing written examination is attributed to success. Classroom connectedness means a collaborative and supportive environment between native-English speakers and second language learners (Dwyer et al., 2004). However, silence is not at all too dangerous. Language minority students and second language learners need silence in order to think, to organize their thoughts and frame words appropriately into the target language. Silence can be used in tense situations. People who are highly emotional have to be silent to control their emotion while at the same time express passive discontentment without directly challenging the other person. The social psychologist perspective considers silence as a barrier in communication, which leads to the concept that silence is the opposite of speech. The media texts that covered the Virginia Tech tragedy used this perspective primarily in communicating how silence should be discouraged in the classroom because it is detrimental to students’ academic success (Hao, 2009).
Listening is an active, voluntary and complicated process. Tomatis (as cited in Thurston-Jackson, 2003) indicates that listening is a natural phenomenon characterized by a series of slow changes leading to a certain outcome. Active listening motivates students to select information they want to absorb and what they do not want. It requires the conscious desire to determine the linguistic value they hear. Effective listening provides a variety of benefits, including learning, relating, influencing, playing, and helping (Thurston-Jackson, 2003).
Bilinguals need to listen in order to imitate. Studies show that bilinguals tend “to inhibit irrelevant information” as they listen and interact with classmates and friends, and this could affect their conversational skills (Kaushanskaya, Gross, & Buac, 2014, p. 564). But this is not to be interpreted as negative; in fact, the authors concluded that bilingualism had positive effects on their cognitive control and executive functioning. Bilingualism becomes an asset not a liability (Miller, Heilmann, & Nockerts, 2006). Collaboration among teachers and students, including university administration, is needed to deal with the problem of international students on classroom participation and interpersonal/social interaction (Tompson & Tompson, 1996).
The Negative effects of less classroom participation on students
Shy individuals have difficulties communicating with other people (Jones, Briggs, & Smith, 1986). Communication apprehension (CA) leads to lower grades as it provokes anxiety. The study of McCroskey, Booth-Butterfield, and Payne (1989) found that participants with higher CA obtained “lower grade point averages” and were predicted to stop schooling (p. 104). The conclusion was that higher CA was closely related with poorer academic performance.
In southeastern universities, class participation is a primary issue among international students, who ascribe their weakness to fear or apprehension when called upon to participate in the discussion (Tompson & Tompson, 1996). Class participation is an important manifestation of good performance resulting in higher grades. Studies have recommended improving oral language. Both teacher-student and peer interactions are necessary to improve student participation and lower comprehension apprehension among international students (Hsu & Huang, 2017).
This research study will make use of the qualitative research analysis method to examine metrics such as the reasons why foreign students from the Middle East are less participative in the classrooms and how this trend has continued to progress despite different efforts to increase participation of foreign students in higher education classes in the United States. The qualitative research analysis method to be used in this particular research is the case study research. A case study explores in depth the causes or reasons behind a particular situation. In this case several students currently undertaking higher education courses in the United States will be examined narrowing down the broad topic of the lack or minimal participation by foreign students especially Middle Eastern students into the specific topic of the impact of cultural differences and language differences in causing minimal or lack of participation of these foreign students in their classes. The case study research design selected for the qualitative analysis of the topic of minimal or lack of participation of foreign students especially Middle Eastern students because it will enable me as the researcher to evaluate the various theories proposed on the causes of this situation to determine if the proposed theories can actually work or reflect the real world situation. Currently the existing literature on the topic of minimal or lack of participation of foreign students in higher education classes which generalize the causes of this phenomenon as lack of un-distending of English and cultural differences as the main causes of the lack or minimal participation of foreign students. Instead it will narrow down these general theories into the specific reasons and a holistic approach behind the lack or minimal participation of Middle Eastern students in United States universities. The reasons for choosing the case study research method for the qualitative analysis since it is flexible and enables the researcher to identify new results or hypothesis instead of focusing on trying to prove or disapprove a single hypothesis. The other reason for selecting the case study research method is the ability of the method to isolate a small study group.
The targeted study group will be Middle Eastern students and the study will make use of individual students from the Middle Eastern students study group. The case study will also make use of observations which will enable the researcher to remain passive while examining Middle Eastern students in their actual environment to collect real and actual data on the phenomenon. An analysis of the collected data from transcripts collected from interviews to provide opinion based results. Upon analyzing the collected data from the transcriptions, it is clear that some Middle Eastern students opt not to participate in the higher education classes due to being home sick and feeling out of place in a new study environment. Some Middle Eastern students are adamant in participating in class due to minimal understanding of English. Such students may prefer to remain silent in class since they dread being considered illiterate or not smart enough if they try to participate in class using poor English. Middle Eastern students rank poorly in class participation in higher education institutions due to cultural differences with the native students. These students opt to maintain silence since expressing their opinion which is based on their cultural background may be hard for other students to understand which might lead to misinterpretation by other students or bias from people from other cultures.
This study will introduce the interview method of gathering data and information from three Middle Eastern females, higher education students in U.S. universities; two of them are taking up Masters’ degree and one is a PhD student, ages between 25 and 32. The three participants are proficient in English.
Methods of Data Collection
Using interviews is a qualitative method of research. Creswell (1998) suggests that there are several compelling reasons for undertaking this method. The ability to describe “what” is occurring as opposed to “why” is inherent in qualitative research. The use of qualitative inquiry focuses on the interests and limitations of the researcher. Writing style, available resources and audience are considerations that often solidify the selection of this approach. Qualitative research is inductive by nature proceeding from an examination of the particulars found within the case to a broader, more generalized perspective (Creswell, 1998).
Reinharz (1983) provided the metaphor of rape to describe the nature of the harm posed by interview research: “Interview research takes, hits, and runs. It invades privacy, disrupts perceptions, utilizes the pretenses, manipulates the relationship, gives little or nothing in return, and once the researcher’s needs are satisfied, contact is broken off” (p. 80). Unstructured interviews typify sensitive research methods that aim to ascertain people’s in-depth experiences, and the interpretations, and meaning of such experiences.
The data for this study will become easily available through the participants’ cooperation and with their belief that this is a necessity due to the gap, as mentioned, that Middle Eastern students’ silence in conversational classroom has not been given enough focus and studies.
Open-ended questions are designed to facilitate the participants’ ideas and opinions on the particular topic of communication apprehension and Middle Eastern students’ perceived silence in the classroom. Questions will delve on the “what” aspects of communication apprehension, and ask opinions from participants on how to deal with silence of international students. The questions are part of the appendix of this paper. The interviews will be recorded using audio and video technology.
As mentioned above, this qualitative research study will make use of individual interviews to collect data from participants to get a better understanding of the reasons behind minimal or lack of participation of Middle Eastern students in higher education classes in the United States colleges and universities. The interview data will be analyzed using the coding method of qualitative analysis. The first step in coding is to determine and describe distinct concepts and data categories which will act as the basic units for the analysis process. This will involve the breakdown of interview data into master headings, first level concepts, second level concepts and subheadings. The identified first level concepts are language barriers and culture differences. The subheadings for language barriers are misinterpretation of messages in poor English and unfair observation of illiteracy by other students. The subheadings for cultural differences are differences in communication styles between Middle Eastern cultures and western cultures, a listening culture among some Middle Eastern cultures and differences in teaching and interaction methods from their previous education institutions.
Limitations of the Study at the End of Methods Section Different Headings
Availability of participants is one of the limitations of this study. There were only three participants who gave their consent to be a part of the study and give their views regarding the silence of Middle Eastern students studying in U.S. universities. Resources and geographic location are some of the factors contributing to this limitation.
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For you, is there a fear of talking to unfamiliar others?
Do you sometimes wish to talk and voice your opinion or speak in class, but something holds you. Please explain.
Do you think of a topic too late, but you try to take your turn and the opportunity has passed? Please explain.
Are cultural factors holding you to talk? What about your customs, norms, politeness, or accent – are these preventing you to speak openly? Please explain.
In what ways are silence displays in the interactive classroom personally effective for your learn-ing process?
Does the use of more visual expressions (the use of technology, e.g. slides, videos) increase your understanding and help clarify meanings being discussed?
Would an overview of the topic by the instructor be helpful to you prior to interactional class-room discussion?
Do you need silence before you talk? Please explain.
Does silence make you a creative learner? Please explain.
What would motivate quiet and silent learners to become more verbally forthcoming in interac-tional classrooms?