Ensuring equal learning opportunities for international students studying medicine and STEM subjects in two higher education institutions


  1. Hayes Aneta
  2. Tan Eloise


3II International


RCSI Bahrain
National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning


• With the growth of Western universities in countries such as Bahrain, Dubai or Qatar, ensuring equal opportunities for learning for culturally and linguistically diverse students is significant.

• This growth raises issues of  students as global citizens and the role of learners’ socio-cultural framework within the global movement of transnationalisation of HE.

• Ensuring equal opportunities for learning in the context of language and culture change is difficult because linguistic and cultural background of students different from the respective national ones serves as a means of exclusion and prevention from equal access to HE

• There is a connection between how students identify themselves through language and how they approach learning and their socio-cultural context.

• Diverse students have unique challenges of cultural and linguistic adaptation that have consequences for assessment.

• To explore which factors offer equal opportunities for medical and STEM students in two Irish higher education institutions based in Dublin and Bahrain.


Summary of Work

• Narrative inquiry

Tell us about how you see your cultural and linguistic background.
Could you share a time when you thought the assessment was very different from what you had been exposed to before.
Can you recall a time when you didn’t complete assessment successfully? What were the barriers? 
Can you recall a situation when you engaged with assessment successfully? What facilitated that?

• Thematic analysis
• Inductive position to coding
• NVivo
• Theortical framework - sociocultural model - Vygotsky (1978)
• Snowball sampling - undergraduate and postgraduate students from Egypt, Pakistan, Bahrain, China, USA, Canada and India.
• Validity and Reliability - respondent validation, cross-checking transcribed data with field notes, voices triangulation and double-coding

Summary of Results

The emerging themes highlighted that institutional culture, rather than student social or linguistic background, plays a major role in ensuring equal opportunities for learning. This can be achieved through:
• cultural competency of lecturers,
• engagement with students and staff
• transparent assessment/ criteria
• and assessment that is meaningful 

These themes were important for students from all nationalities and all linguistic backgrounds.  

Themes Codes
Role of Institutional Culture cultural competency of lecturers; engagement with peers; engagement with lecturers; importance of lecturer feedback; lecturer support; meaningful assessment; past papers; promoting equality for all students; transparency of assessment criteria; variety of assessment



• The daily practice of a medical teacher in higher education, rather than students’ societal culture, plays a major role in creating equality for learning.

• Despite making indirect links to their societal and previous educational cultures, students adopt strategic approaches to assessment by seeking cues as to what the lecturer values and therefore uncover the ‘hidden curriculum’

Kaleidoscope of Cultures - a metaphor to describe how individual agency, previous school culture and national culture of students combine to inform how students understand and engage with assessment in HE. 

• Cues – marking criteria; analyzing feedback; analyzing opinions with other students; seeking one-to-one help; past papers

• The daily practice of a medical teacher also needs to be underpinned by understanding of students’ culture

• Social scientist - ‘Agentic’ participation – students abandon their old ways and are proactive about their cultural backgrounds – significance for socio-cultural theories of learning

Take-home Messages
  • Pilot stage and we are yet to analyse 15 more interviews


  • Towards a conceptual model that places institutional culture in the centre of STEM students’ engagement with assessment


  • From a narrative inquiry - build a composite model of an international student



This project is funded by 3U Partnership


Cortazzi, M. & Jin, L. (1997) Communication for learning. In McNamara & Harris (Eds.), Overseas students in higher education. London: Routledge.
Gogolin, I. (2002). Linguistic and cultural diversity in Europe: a challenge for educational research and practice.ECER Keynote. European Educational Research Journal,1(1), 123
Sook Lee, J., Anderson, K.T. (2009). Negotiating linguistic and cultural identities: theorizing and constructing opportunities and risks in education. Review of research in education. 33, 181.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

Summary of Work
Summary of Results

Participant Quotations

Cultural Competency of Lecturers
There’s like, even if it’s not during Ramadan, Ramadan was in summer, but there was a day - there was Eid and I remember I emailed my lecturers and I was like, ‘Hi, I won’t be in tomorrow because it’s Eid and it’s a religious holiday’.  I didn’t even have to explain it, I just said it’s Eid and da, da, da and then the next day I had a meeting with my lecturer, the same lecturer I emailed, and he was like, ‘How was your Eid?  Did you have a good time?  Did you all -?’  And he saw my hand then he’s like, ‘I really like your henna, da, da, da.’ (PI1DCU)

Engagement with Students and Staff
I think just even sitting there and throwing out an idea and hearing what other people have to say.  Because a lot of my lectures in first year, or second year even when I went, and even now, they’d literally end up being that we’ve talked about a point and we’ll all - someone might raise their hand and ask a question then and someone else might say something and it’ll turn into a discussion, and it’s more a discussion between a group of peers as opposed to a lecture, and the ideas you get from those can branch on into your essays, or assignments, and that’s so beneficial that - people don’t realise how beneficial that actually is and I’ve gotten so many ideas just from even sitting in a lecture and hearing someone say, ‘What about this point?’  Or, ‘How about this?’  And then even hearing what the lecturer has to say in turn and them coming back like, ‘Actually, that’s a great point, maybe we could expand on that in the next one.’ (PI1DCU)

Importance of Lecturer Feedback
It’s actually bothering me because I still haven’t; I want to see my actual tests.  I want to see what questions I actually missed and I haven’t seen that yet so yeah I think that’s the most important.  That actually helps me so much with learning.  That helps me a lot.
Interviewer: When you see the...
When I see my test and see my mistakes that helps me a lot.  Like even in high school I used to always go through my tests and write all my corrections and that would help me study more. (PI4RCSI)

Lecturer Support
Well, for my formatives because my formative exams were MCQ’s only, I didn’t do well in these. (…) So in first formative it was ok, second formative worse, third formative even worse.  Then there was a revision session by the professors where they just gave this piece of information which helped me.  They said you had to cross out the answers that you don’t now and, you know, find your way though so that helped me and then for my summatives, my grades improved.  I actually got H1’s for my summative which like helped me a lot.  I mean if it wasn’t for that revision session I wouldn’t have been able to achieve high marks in my summatives. (PI5RCSI)

Past Papers
I would say that in medicine case, yeah I need the past papers to know how will they ask me.  Past papers are so important to understanding exam though, because I can’t understand exam from the lecture (PI5RCSI)

Meaningful Assessment
I believe it is quite good because they integrate a lot of learning strategies and a lot of different assessment types.  You have your lectures and then you have tutorials or labs (…) to reinforce what you have already taken in the lecture so it’s a lecture where people can hear or hear properly, so professors talking to you, so if you learn like that you understand and then to reinforce your knowledge you go to a tutorial where it’s more interactive, the professor is talking to you personally, you are talking with the group members and it helps some people, and then labs as well where you have models so it’s just hands on learning and the assessments as well we have different written assessments, we have the formatives which is basically a little motivation to make sure that everyone is studying.  It’s just an incentive to study that’s all, it doesn’t really matter in the overall grade because it’s about 5% so a few people will say ‘It’s just 5%, we don’t care about 5%, we care about the 95% in the final’ but then it’s a good incentive for them to study which would make it easier for them to study for the final. (PI1RCSI)

Transparency of Assessment Criteria
My favourite subject’s mathematics.  I’ll tell you why, because that’s one subject where there is no question of opinion.  If two plus three is five, it’s five for me; it’s five for the professor too, so he can’t mark me wrong no matter what.  He can’t think you could have done better and I can’t - I think the professor wants more.  Five’s still five.  So keeping that in mind here, I think a lot of things depends on the professor’s opinion, ‘cause I wouldn’t know what’s running in his mind.  Yes, we do create coding and everything, but the lecturer may think, ‘No, this is too easy, anyone could do it’.  I don’t know what’s easy or tough from his point of view, so keeping that in mind I think the assessment is pretty unfair. (PI4DCU)


Take-home Messages
Send ePoster Link