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Are you talking to me? Influence of cultural background on international students’ willingness to participate in open-class interactions (online and face-to-face) 


Mirena Nalbantova
English for Academic Study, School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Glasgow, UK


This exploration is aimed at establishing international students' expectations in terms of teacher-student interactions in open class and the factors determining their willingness to respond when nominated to answer an open-class question. A survey amongst a cohort of international students on a pre-sessional course at a UK university was conducted followed by semi-structured interviews. Results from the survey indicate that less than 30% of participants expect the teacher to nominate a student to speak. Most participants said they are willing to answer even though almost half of the respondents feel nervous when the teacher nominates someone. Among the main factors determining students’ willingness to answer an open-class question are a self-perceived low level of language proficiency and the fear of embarrassing themselves if the answer is wrong. Surprisingly, a large proportion of students said they would speak in a larger group, whereas three of the four interviewees said they would not. A link between the willingness to answer on the one hand and the belief it would impact on students’ final score on the other was established. Most participants in the survey and three of the four interviewees prefer interacting in the face-to-face classroom. However, the small sample is a considerable limitation for coming to a more generalisable conclusion, especially as to students’ interaction in terms of the mode of teaching (face-to-face or online). Results from this study provide further insights into international students’ expectations in terms of tutorial behaviour and the factors behind their willingness to respond when nominated in open class. These findings can heighten educators’ awareness of more subtle cultural differences in terms of students’ perceptions of classroom dynamics and thus modify their classroom approach when interacting with students, especially when nominating them to answer a question. The implication is that nomination might not be a feasible pedagogical tool in the EAP classroom. The study can provide insights to educators working with international students in an EFL context too.

KEYWORDS: Confucian-heritage culture, open-class interactions, nomination, willingness to communicate (WTC)


Pre-sessional courses at UK universities aim to prepare international students for their chosen programme of study by developing their academic writing skills and discussion skills. The place and nature of spoken interaction at HE level have been extensively discussed in the literature (Alexander et al., 2008; Aquilar, 2016). Meaningful participation in seminars is aimed at developing students’ critical thinking skills and subject specific knowledge. The importance of developing oracy skills for disciplinary study and students’ further career has also been emphasised by Baker and Heron (2023). In the case of international students and particularly those from a Confucian-heritage culture, participating in discussions and open-class interactions can sometimes prove to be challenging. The reasons behind it could be closely related to cultural traits and previous learning contexts (Wang, 2013; Hodkinson & Poropat, 2014).

The present study was prompted by a student’s feedback on my classwork in terms of nominating students to speak in online synchronous classes. The student shared that it is the students’ expectation that I call out names in order to answer a question so that quieter students have a chance to speak. My reluctance to nominate was based on three factors:

  1. Empathy and care towards their feelings as calling them out might put them on the spot and embarrass them in front of others if they do not know the answer or do not want to speak. This is related to the concept of pedagogy of kindness which advocates empathy towards our learners (Denial, 2019; Gorny-Wegrzyn and Perry, 2021). 
  2. The expectation that at this level they should be responsible for their own agency and independence as learners, as explicated in the graduate attributes (University of Glasgow) and also discussed elsewhere (Ai, 2017; Kung,2017; Salfipour et al., 2017). 
  3. Technical obstacles - in an online class if I am screen-sharing and interacting with them, this prevents me from seeing them and nominating the ones who did not answer as I am looking at the document on the screen and typing/ inputting their contributions. 

One of the reasons behind my not nominating students was my expectation that they should be more autonomous, which turned out to not be the case in reality. Differences in expectations between teachers and students are discussed both in Safipour et al. (2017, p. 9), Ali (2017, p. 491) and more recently by Agostinelli (2021), and in online environments by Kung (2017) - the teacher expects students to be mature and responsible for their participation at higher level education but they expect the teacher to nominate someone because it is a chance to reply and get a higher grade as corroborated by student 1 in the present study. Discrepancy in both groups expectations in terms of developing oracy skills for disciplinary study have been discussed in Heron et al. (2021) and Bakon and Heron (2023).

My initial observations were that most students are quiet when asked a question in front of the whole class in synchronous live class. My hypothesis (based on informal chats with students) is that the main reason for that is feeling shy to speak in front of many people. I was interested to explore the other reasons that might determine students’ unwillingness to speak in this situation as well as their expectations of the teacher’s role and behavour in class, particularly in terms of nominating them. Furthermore, I wanted to establish if the mode of teaching (online vs face-to-face) is a factor in students willingness to participate in open class interactions or when the teacher poses an open class question in particular. The following research questions were posed:

  1. What are students' expectations in terms of teachers’ nominating them when asking a question in open class?
  2. What are the factors determining students’ willingness to participate in open class synchronous sessions?
  3. To what extent does the mode of teaching (online vs face-to-face) impact students’ willingness to participate in open class interactions?


Willingness to communicate (WTC) has been extensively discussed in literature and various factors have been reported behind students’ motivation to participate in classroom interactions. MacIntyre et al. (1998) proposed a conceptual model to account for the interplay of psychological, linguistic and communicative variables behind learners’ WTC. Using their model as a framework for analysis, Cao and Philp (2006) added interactional context as a variable. They looked into WTC in open class, group and pairs and found that even though individual students’ patterns varied across contexts, whole class interactions were lower than the other two contexts (pp.485-486). Likewise, Zhong (2013) established that students demonstrate less willingness to participate in open-class interactions, but are more willing to interact in collaborative activities. This study will look at the respondents’ attitude towards open-class interactions and being nominated in particular.

Even though there are studies trying to debunk the commonly accepted image of students from Confucian-heritage cultures as reticent to speak (Chen, 2000; Belchamber, 2007), there is a large body of literature pointing to culturally determined factors when it comes to international students’ spoken interactions in Western educational context. Adapting McIntyre et al.’s framework for WTC to the Chinese EFL classroom, Wen and Clement (2003) discuss the linguistic, cultural and social psychological factors that might affect students’ communicative behaviour in a Chinese setting. The authors offer a comprehensive discussion on the Confucian culture's perception of self and others and Chinese way of conducting themselves in public. Building on this work, Li and Liu (2011) further add to the evidence of culturally determined factors and collectivism shaping Chinese students’ reticence to communicate in the EFL classroom. The influence of Confucian culture and views of education are shown to directly influence Chinese students’ classroom behaviour despite some evidence that this is changing (Wang, 2013). This is further corroborated by Hodkinson and Poropat (2014) where the phenomenon of kiasu (fear of losing out) is discussed in relation to a broader cultural context, linking this to Chinese students' reticence to interact in the Western tertiary education classroom. The concept of kiasu linked to findings from the present study will be discussed in the Finding and Discussion section.

More recent studies investigating international students’ reticence to participate in the Western classroom add other factors to the culturally determined one - self-perceived low language level (Safipour et al., 2017) and differences in students and teachers expectations due to differing learning contexts (Safipour et al., 2017; Agostinelli, 2021). Additionally, Wu (2019) reported low language proficiency level, face-saving and anxiety and introversion as reasons for lack of willingness to interact. Wen and Clemens (2003, pp.27-28) argue that teacher involvement – readiness to help students, providing resources, taking care of students’ needs - is found to positively influence students’ engagement. Another factor they discuss is teacher immediacy (verbal - use of we/our, students names, and non-verbal – positive nods, smiles), which is shown to significantly reduce students anxiety and positively influence their WTC. The present study aims to probe into the reasons inhibiting East-Asian students to participate in open interactions in the western pre-sessional classroom.

International students’ communicative behaviour online has been the focus of multiple studies. As early as 2001 Tu investigated Chinese students’ attitudes towards social presence in online environments and found that warm relationships with peers and the instructor creates a comfortable atmosphere for learners to interact in a synchronous classroom (2001, p. 56). Similarly, in a study on Korean students’ perceptions of teaching and learning during the pandemic ‘warmth’ was mentioned as a factor for students' interaction (Lim et al., 2022). The figure of the instructor was found to be among the factors affecting classroom behaviour of Asian students in an online classroom at a US university (Kung, 2017). ‘Helpful/ friendly’ and ‘understanding’ were among the high scoring teacher traits in a study of Chinese students' notions of teacher-students interpersonal behaviour (Wei et al., 2015, p. 140), while ‘patient’, ‘friendly’ and ‘humourous’ were mentioned elsewhere (Wu, 2019, p. 120). Wang et al. (2019) explored teachers and students’ perceptions of teaching presence on an online course at a Chinese university and established that students place greater importance on facilitating discourse than direct instruction.

Investigating the experiences of three international students on an online distance education course, Zhang and Kenny (2010) found the language barrier to be the greatest obstacle to students' interaction in online classes. In a more recent survey of university students’ attitudes towards online learning during the pandemic, lack of interaction and lower motivation were mentioned by participants (Zboun and Farrah, 2021).


The following section will detail the project’s aim, instruments for data collection, participants, methods of data analysis, ethical considerations and limitations.

Aim of the study
This study aimed to investigate pre-sessional international students’ attitudes and response towards teachers nominating them in open class when asking a question. The factors determining their willingness to interact in open class were explored. Further, the impact of the mode of teaching on students’ decision to interact was also investigated.

Participants and context
Participants were post-graduate pre-sessional students at B2 level of English (IELTS 6.0-6.5) on a hybrid course. They were attending the pre-sessional classes in order to achieve the required target score in English language proficiency and academic skills to enter their respective programmes. Two main teaching methods were employed during the course – seminars and tutorials. The latter are small-group teacher-led sessions where students consolidate and practise what they learned in the seminars. The project focuses on students’ participation and interactions in the tutorial sessions.

Both online and face-to-face students were approached to take part in the study. 15 students responded to the questionnaire - 10 Chinese, four Thai and one Saudi Arabian students (13 face-to-face and two online students). 4 students volunteered to do an interview (three face-to-face and one online student; three Chinese and one Thai student).

Even though the study involves predominantly Chinese students, it does not purport to generalise about trends in this learner group, not least for the small size of the sample. It could, however, be indicative of existing culturally bound factors that might prevent international students from interacting more freely in the EAP/EFL classroom. Reference to Confucian-heritage culture is made when discussing literature in relation to Chinese students and is linked to contributions from three of the four interviewees from that nationality, the fourth one being Thai.

Data collection and analysis
Two instruments were used for data collection – questionnaire and follow-up semi-structured interviews. The same questionnaire and interview questions were used for both online and face-to-face students, the presumption being that all students have had experience of both modes of teaching prior and during the pandemic. Questions in the survey relating to factors determining WTC were adapted from Cao and Philip (2006). Questions in the interview were related to students’ attitude and response to nomination, students’ previous educational experience in terms of spoken interactions in the classroom, students’ experience and opinion of online study. The survey was made using MS Forms to gather quantitative data in an excel spreadsheet. Interviews were conducted via Zoom and transcribed by the researcher.

Quantitative data from the questionnaire were analysed in an attempt to answer the research questions. Interviews were transcribed manually and subjected to inductive thematic analysis to establish themes in respondents’ answers in terms of their attitudes and expectations (Gill et al., 2008; Evans, 2018) and thus try to gain a deeper understanding of students’ perceptions and reasons behind their motivation or lack of to participate in open class interactions. Even though I had an initial hypothesis as to the main reason for students’ reticence to speak, I allowed the data to lead me and by performing recursive analysis through multiple reading of the interview transcripts, I managed to establish additional themes in answer to the research questions.

Ethical approval was granted by the ethical committee at the College of Arts, University of Glasgow. All participants who volunteered to take part in the study were presented with and signed a consent form. They were also given a Participant Information Sheet to familiarise themselves with the purpose and nature of the study and their rights in relation to their participation in it. All data was stored on the University OneDrive or the researcher’s personal code-locked device. A questionnaire was distributed among the online and face-to-face students via their Moodle class forums. Interviews with students wishing to participate were conducted via Zoom.

The most obvious limitation of this study is the small sample. Nevertheless, interviewees provided interesting answers which corroborated findings from previous research and provided insights into the cultural reasons behind international students’ decision (not) to interact in open-class situations. It would be interesting to explore the tutors’ perspective and experience on nominating students in their EAP classroom.



  1. What are students' expectations in terms of teachers' nominating them when asking a question in open class?

Results from the survey show nominating is not expected generally (less than 1/3 of respondents) but surprisingly, 70% (N=10) said they are willing to answer even though almost half feel nervous when nominated. This contrasts with tutorial experience shared by Belchamber (2007) in large ELT classes in China, where students expected to be nominated as a means to keep them focussed during class. Interestingly, nomination was also seen as a way to give them a chance to speak without “promoting” themselves (p. 62). Similar results are reported by Harumi (2011) who investigated Japanese students’ and teachers’ perception of the reasons for students’ reticence in the EFL classroom. Conversely, Lui (2006) found that putting students on the spot might cause anxiety and increase their reticence to speak.

Some of the reasons for students’ expectations regarding nomination are discussed below along with themes emerging from the semi-structured interviews.

Student 1 brought forward the topic of scores as extremely important for Chinese learners. The student thought nominating is efficient as Chinese students might consider that the nominated students will get a chance to answer and get a higher score.

Chinese students always think a lot and just talk “Oh yes that's right” but they don't want to talk more because they think there will be a lot of mistakes in discussion and the score will be low. They only pay attention to score.
(Student 1) 

The great importance of grades could be family and society-imposed in Chinese culture and is strongly related to the Confucian culture educational system (Wang, 2013, p. 70). This is also strongly supported by observations on Hong Kong students (Christopher Au-Yeung, 2017). In relation to achieving success and higher grades, Hodkinson and Poropat (2014) discuss the concept of kiasu – the fear of losing out. It points to a competitiveness, which is not a characteristic Chinese trait, but is more of a tactic to achieve a particular goal (obtain a higher score in our case or impress the teacher which could reflect on the final score). There are two types of kiasu – positive and negative. The former is related to making more effort doing extra work to achieve academic success, while the latter is using covert tactics to disadvantage the others so one receives a competitive advantage. This seems contrary to the idea of group cohesiveness discussed elsewhere (Wen and Clement, 2003) but is an important aspect which determines the behaviour of Chinese students in the classroom where they have to balance between face-saving and kiasu (Hodkinson and Poropat, 2014, p.436).

Even though nominating is seen as an efficient way to encourage participation (Student 1), it could cause issues with fairness of opportunity, which is again related to getting a higher score and achieving one’s goals. Thus nominating turns into a tool of providing equal chance for a higher score.

It is very efficient I think. Such like Chinese students always don't want to talk about anything. And he doesn't want to answer any questions so I think it is very efficient. But it is a problem you need to have a lot of questions to answer. If you just take some people and other people will think “Oh someone who answered this questions (sic) will get a high score. Why didn't [the teacher] let me answer this questions (sic) so he will think that”. Chinese students always think about the score, score score.
(Student 1) 

Indeed ‘exam-oriented teaching’ entailing preparing materials which would assist students in achieving higher grades is among the themes emerging from semi-structured interviews among higher education students in Hong Kong exploring their attitudes to effective teaching and the role of the teacher (Chan, 2018, p. 48). Treating students equally is an emerging theme under the label ‘ethical’ in a study investigating Chinese students’ perceptions of the traits of effective college educators (Meng and Onwuegbuzie, 2015, p. 334). Equal treatment is likewise mentioned by Chinese students in a study on International students communication with their educators in an Australian university (Ai, 2017).

Embarrassing students if nominating them is among the initial ideas/hypotheses that prompted this study and, significantly, it was mentioned by two of the interviewees. Words they used were ‘excited’, ‘nervous’, ‘stress’(student 1), ‘embarrassed’ (student 3).

I will think what is the question and how to answer that. Chinese people always think a lot. If you call their name, they will just answer that. I want to answer, excited and a little nervous because there is a lot of students. Chinese people are not external about their thinking. Chinese people are not good at presenting themselves esp when there is a lot of students. So I will feel nervous if my questions is not very perfect, the teacher has a different opinion or other students have different opinions about my answer, I will want to be absolutely true.
(Student 1) 

I think for classes which contain several people like 10,11 or 12 it doesn't matter. It's ok if teacher wants to call our name. For some of our classmates in other subjects like social science the teacher just do it, its ok. In small group is ok,but in a large group like lecture I think students might be embarrassed.
(Student 3) 

Shyness and nervousness were among the reasons pointed out by almost 30% of respondents in a study investigating Japanese students’ silence in the EFL classroom (Harumi, 2017, p.264). Anxiety and introversion were mentioned as factors determining students' lack of willingness to interact by Wu (2019, p.115).

In contrast, student 4 is an active participant in classes and is willing to answer even if not nominated:

Well, I think maybe for me there maybe not so many difference if teacher do this or not because even if  teacher do not ask different students name to answer the question I would like to answer the question.
(Student 4)

The present study demonstrates ambiguous attitudes of students towards nomination. Even though most students seem to be anxious to answer open class questions, factors such as the opportunity to achieve a higher score prove to be external motivators for them to answer a question. Similarly, Harumi (2011) found that students’ expectations for being nominated are not straightforward. Some students seemed to expect that turn taking would ensure a chance for participation (30%) (very much like Student 1 in the present study) but others shared they would not like to be singled out. Significantly, students’ ideas of strategies teachers should adopt to encourage them to speak included ‘do not force a reluctant student to speak’ and ‘display understanding of non-verbal behaviour’ (2011, p.267). This is also mentioned by Student 2 in the present study by proposing that establishing eye contact can be a signal for the teacher to nominate someone thus avoiding nominating a student who is unwilling to answer:

Sometimes teacher just looking at our face, there is eye contact between us so the maybe teacher will know that Ok this student is willing to answer her question even though they are not raised their hand to answer that question. So when the teacher has eye contact with the student she will think Ok, Mr A could you please answer that question? So he would know that ok mr A is willing to answer but he or she is just not raising their hand in the class so she is pointing that student to answer the question I think in this situation is ok, its fine [...].
(Student 2)

Another theme emerging from Student 3 is the idea that nominating might signal appreciation on the part of the teacher:  

In a small group like a tutorial I think it's fine. Maybe teacher like (sic) me to answer, maybe teacher appreciate (sic) me so sometimes I may feel it's great, yeah.
(Student 3)

This is consistent with the idea of Chinese students’ expectation of positive evaluation on the part of the authority (teacher) discussed by Wen and Clement (2003) and is closely related to the discussion of self and others and the way Chinese people place importance on the perceptions of others about them. Focusing on learners’ perception of teacher’s care in particular, eye contact was mentioned among the non-verbal clues which show students are appreciated (Larsen, 2015). Using students' names could also help build rapport and create a more comfortable learning environment. A survey of Korean EMI students on their perceptions of teachers using their names in class found that knowing students’ names enhances students’ motivation and engagement and builds positive teacher-student relationship (Murdoch et al., 2018). Interestingly, a small percentage of students viewed hearing their name in class negatively and one of the reasons being it was considered too intimate for a classroom setting. These points to the necessity of heightened awareness on the part of teachers about their international students previous learning context and culture, which would help build more comfortable learning environment conducive of greater engagement and interactivity on the part of the students.

  1. What are the factors determining students' willingness to participate in open class synchronous sessions?

Language level
Factors determining students’ WTC were adapted from Cao and Philip (2016) study where participants self-reported reasons for their WTC. The two most important factors chosen by participants in the present survey are self-perceived lower level of language skills and fear of making mistakes. A little over half of the participants (N=8) in the survey said they would be unwilling to answer due to their self-perceived low level of English language speaking skills. This was corroborated by two of the interviewees:

Firstly, I am aware of my spoken language skills. I am afraid if I can't speak directly about my meaning.
(Student 3) 

I am willing to discuss in a group, however the mistake is always flaw my discussion and that will be not a good thing such like Chinese students always want to be perfect[...].
(Student 1) 

Low level of English language speaking skills has been investigated extensively and reported as one of the main factors for students’ reticence to participate in classroom discussion/interactions (Cheng, 2000; Tu, 2001; Christopher Au-Yeung, 2017, Safipur et al., 2017). The fear of making a mistake due to their language level is invariably related to another phenomenon which has also been largely discussed in literature and seems to be closely related to socio-cultural factors - face-saving, which will be discussed below.

Face saving
Being afraid that the answer is wrong was chosen by half the informants (N=8) in the survey and was discussed by two of the interviewees. 

Chinese students always want to be perfect. […] I want to explain that if you speaking in (sic) a lot of people you make a mistake, everyone will laugh at you.
(Student 1) 

...sometimes we don't attend class very carefully so we are afraid ff we can't answer the question directly
(Student 3)  

Face-saving seems to be an important factor for Chinese students’ WTC in class and the fear of having their image marred is a strong factor determining their lack of desire to speak (Tu, 2001, p.52, Wen and Clement, 2003; Li and Liu, 2011; Zhong, 2013, p. 746; Wu, 2019). Similarly, Christopher Au-Yeung’s (2017) findings are consistent with the fear of losing face if answering incorrectly.

Anxiety stemming from the potential danger of being ridiculed if the answer is not right is also coupled with the fear of disrupting group harmony.

So I will feel nervous if my questions is not very perfect, the teacher has a different opinion or other students have different opinions about my answer, I will want to be absolutely true.
(Student 1) 

Maybe sometimes if I have, if I know the answer directly and I know my answer is right, I may answer it. If I know every person can answer it, I can answer it, I guess. But if I think this question is difficult, however, I have the answer, in this situation I might not want to answer. 

Interviewer: You mean if the question is difficult and you don't know the answer, you might not want to answer? 

No, if this question is difficult, however, I have my own opinion and I think others don't have this opinion, I don't want to answer. I don't want to let others [sic] embarrassed.
(Student 3) 

This is related to the collectivist slant in Chinese culture in particular, where face saving of the group is a priority (Littlewood, 1999, p. 79). Littlewood discusses two versions of the self (based on Markus and Kitayama) - independent and interdependent. The latter is characterized with avoiding forming and expressing opinions which might disrupt the harmony within the group (1999, p. 80). In a similar fashion, Peng and Woodrow (2010) argued that in Chinese culture if a particular behaviour is perceived to be non-conforming to the general norms, it would cause anxiety and unwillingness in the student to perform it. “Face-protecting” is also discussed by Wen and Clement (2013, p. 20) and is pointed out as a major factor determining Chinese students' decision to interact in the classroom.

Group/ Class size
The fear of losing face is closely related to the size of the group where the speech act occurs. Surprisingly, however, only two) of the participants in the survey said they would be embarrassed to talk in front of a larger group. In contrast, this is a theme that is particularly prominent among the interviewees in the present study.

No, I don't want to answer the question because in our undergraduate course the whole class is contains (sic) at least 60 people so it's a little bit embarrassing to answer teacher's question around sixty people.
(Student 3) 

It depends on the size of the class. In tutorial I would prefer to answer the question if no one answer it but I will not be the person who actively answer the teacher question.
(Student 2) 

Chinese people always think a lot. If you call their name, the will just answer that. I want to answer, excited and a little nervous because there is a lot of students [...] Chinese people is not good at presenting themselves, especially when there is a lot of students. 
(Student 1) 

In small group is ok, but in a large group like lecture I think students might be embarrassed.
(Student 3) 

This anxiety to speak in front of a bigger audience could be related to cultural differences in terms of educational systems and teaching and learning routines (Wang, 2013; Christopher Au-Yeung, 2017; Safipur et al., 2017). In their in-depth discussion of Confucian-heritage culture Wen and Clement (2003, p. 27) demonstrate the importance of group belonging for the Chinese - they are cautious and reserved to outsiders to the group and shy away from interacting with outsiders of their group. Larger classes prevent closer contacts and the building of group cohesiveness and thus create unease and anxiety to speak in front of many people. The thought of the way others evaluate them is a major factor in Chinese students’ decision to interact in class (2003, p.20).

Student’s personality, past educational experience, beliefs about importance of speaking in HE correlated to WTC when nominated
In an attempt to delve deeper into the reasons behind students' decision to interact, the relationship between their self-perception as speakers, their past experience of participation in speaking activities and their beliefs about the importance of spoken interaction at university were explored and questions to that effect were asked of the interviewees. Table 1 presents the results. 

Student No Self-perceived characteristics as a person/speaker Past experience of speaking/ discussions Beliefs about importance of speaking at uni Willingness to answer when nominated
Student 1


tries/ wants to be sociable Participation in discussions Group work (discussion) is useful in finding solutions and it entails less responsibility Will reply to get a higher score
Student 2


Will talk in educational/ work environments when necessary and if familiar with the interlocutor. Reserved when discussing personal topics. No experience of taking part in discussions or spoken activities in educational context, only interaction in work environment Very important. It offers exchange of diverse ideas between classmates and learning from each other. Will answer if in a smaller group and if no one answers. Does not actively seek to answer teacher’s questions.
Student 3


Outgoing, likes to communicate with others, in Chinese doesn't like talking to unfamiliar people Teacher occasionally asks a question, one-way communication, no interaction. It’s important to “output” their knowledge, which will help them focus on what they are learning. In a smaller group, it is ok, in a larger group, will feel embarrassed. Feels maybe the teacher appreciates them if nominated
Student 4


Sociable, likes to talk to people Some experience of discussion and doing presentations Being active is important because it shows how well you have understood the material; to exchange opinions, to develop critical thinking Always likes to answer the teacher’s questions

Table 1: Self-perceived characteristics as a speaker; past experience of speaking in educational environment; beliefs about the importance of speaking at university; willingness to answer when nominated

Even though a very small sample has been used in the present study, data from interviews show that there is no straightforward correlation between the student’s self-perceived characteristics as a person and speaker on the one hand, and their WTC if nominated on the other. Such a positive correlation can be seen with student 2, who is shy and will avoid answering a question when nominated if possible. Shy personality as a reason for students' reticence is among the findings in a study by Wu (2019) and Hsu (2015) and corroborates earlier findings (Liu, 2005). Student 4 also shows a straightforward relationship between their outgoing personality and desire to participate in classroom interactions. With students 2 and 3, there is the anxiety to take part in larger groups and fear of being wrong but the external drive to participate to achieve a higher score (student 1) or because it is deemed important for one’s academic growth (student 3).

In terms of their beliefs in relation to the usefulness of spoken interaction in HE, only student 4 exemplifies a direct correlation between the importance of the latter and their willingness to engage in it. Student 3 considers speaking at university important but will only reply and interact in smaller groups similarly to Student 2, who will only reply if the group is small and no one else replies. This is consistent with results from a survey of the attitudes of 354 undergraduates in a Taiwanese university in terms of spoken interaction in EFL class (Hsu, 2015), which reveals a discrepancy between students' beliefs about the value of such interactions and their actual behaviour in class.

All of the interviewees seem to show awareness of the importance of spoken interaction in HE both as a means of exchanging ideas and learning (Students 1, 2 and 4) but also for demonstrating their understanding and knowledge (Students 3 and 4). Indeed, developing oracy skills is seen as a necessary component of developing international students' academic literacies in preparation for university study (Heron et al., 2021). The authors in that study explored undergraduate L2 English speaking students and their tutors' expectations of the development of oracy skills for their programme of study. While tutors seemed to favour argumentation and criticality in students' contributions, students seemed to be more concerned with accuracy of their talk. The latter is evident from the contributions of interviewees in this study discussed in relation to factors determining their decision to participate discussed earlier (RQ2) - awareness of their lower proficiency level and the fear that their answer “might not be right”.

Another dichotomy discussed in the paper is “oracy as competence” vs “oracy for learning” (in disciplinary contexts). The former has a focus on the linguistic aspect and is what students strive to improve prior to their disciplinary programmes and the latter gives them the chance to demonstrate their subject knowledge (Heron et el., 2021, p. 295-296). Relating this to data from the interviews, it appears interviewees value speaking for its cognitive element in sharing knowledge and developing critical thinking, but at the same time see their language competence as an obstacle to participate fully and effectively in spoken interactions.

Surprisingly, past experience of participating in spoken interactions also does not show straightforward relation with readiness to interact with student 4 again being the outlier and reporting little experience in participating in discussions but willingness to be active in classroom interactions. Students 2 demonstrates a more direct correlation as they did not have extensive past experience of spoken interaction in classroom settings and are not eager to participate in such. Student 3 reports WTC due to the importance they place on such activities but only in small groups. Student 1 reports past experience of taking part in discussions and has a strong external motivation to participate when nominated due to the belief that it will positively affect their score, but mentions being ‘nervous’ in case their answer is not correct.

This lack of correlation might again be explained with culturally determined traits in those learners and not so much with their personality (see discussion of kiasu combined with other factors in Finding and Discussion section (Hodkinson and Poropat, 2014). It would be interesting to investigate this further - a bigger sample would provide more insights as to the extent of the culturally determined traits and point to any trends and change in international students’ behaviour as compared to past studies. Length of stay in the foreign country could also be a factor to acculturation into spoken interaction models but this study has only focussed on pre-sessional students who have spent several months in the English-speaking environment at the most.

  1. To what extent does the mode of teaching (online vs face-to-face) impact students’ willingness to participate in open class interactions?

Results from the survey and the interviews seem to favour face-to-face mode when it comes to interacting in open class. Almost half the participants (N=7) in the survey are willing to answer an open class question in an online class while 80% (N=12) would answer in a face-to-face class. Two of the interviewees shared that they consider teacher-student interaction to be more difficult online due to lack of visibility of the tutor’s body language (student 2) or technical issues preventing students from asking questions (student 4). Student 3 said that face-to-face classes have closeness that would make them more comfortable speaking.

There is no participation. There is no interaction between teacher and students. We cannot see the teacher’s gesture. We can only hear her voice, even though there is camera but it's less effective for us to understand what the teacher said.
(Student 2)

Because online means we have distance. Face-to-face we have feelings. We are together so we are close, that feeling makes me feel I want to talk about something, make me not that embarrassed.
(Student 3)

The above findings closely match those of Zboun & Farrah (2021), who investigated university students’ perspectives of online learning and found that the online environment creates challenges like lack of interaction and participation, and lower motivation and technical issues. This is corroborated by Hodkinson and Poropat (2014) who suggest that the online environment decreases students’ willingness to communicate.

Teacher’s behaviour in the online environment seems to have a major impact on the motivation of learners to interact (Tu, 2001; Kung, 2017). Teacher’s immediacy and engagement with learners was pointed out as a positive strategy by Japanese student respondents in a face-to-face EFL classroom (Harumi, 2011). Non-verbal clues, eye contact, positive nodding in particular were seen by students as strategies to encourage their spoken interaction. Positive, non-verbal clues were also mentioned as strategies to ease students’ anxiety by Wen and Clement (2003). In a recent study on Korean EMI students' engagement in online classes, ‘warmth’ and ‘care’ were mentioned as a factor determining learners’ levels of engagement (Lim et al., 2022, p.603).

Interestingly, the lack of closeness and anonymity of the online space would make student 2 more willing to answer an open class question.

But sometimes online class because when it's online we don't know each other, we don't see each other. We just open our microphone and answer the question and dismute” so no one will know who answers it.(Student 2)

Anonymity is discussed by Hodkinson and Poropat (2017, p. 4380) as a caveat for participation. The authors also mention that online environments increase students’ reticence to interact. This corroborates findings by Tu (2001) who conducted an extensive investigation into Chinese students' perceptions of online presence. Findings point to online interactivity creating feelings of stress and reluctance to participate among learners. It is worthy of noting that participants in the present study disclose similar concerns some 20 years after Tu’s study.

Anonymity is discussed by Hodkinson and Poropat (2017, p. 4380) as a caveat for participation. The authors also mention that online environments increase students’ reticence to interact. This corroborates findings by Tu (2001) who conducted an extensive investigation into Chinese students' perceptions of online presence. Findings point to online interactivity creating feelings of stress and reluctance to participate among learners. It is worthy of noting that participants in the present study disclose similar concerns some 20 years after Tu’s study.


The present study aimed to investigate international students’ attitudes towards being nominated in open class and the reasons beyond their decisions (not) to answer. Findings show that even though they do not necessarily expect it, they find it an effective way to encourage them to interact in open class and most importantly, a mechanism to ensure equal chance of participation which is presumed to reflect favourably on their grades. The latter seems to be a strong motivation even though class size and their perceived level of language skills might be obstacles to a decision to interact. The fear of losing face due to giving a wrong answer is a decisive factor for interaction as largely discussed in literature. Participants’ beliefs about the importance of speaking at university and their willingness to interact were also investigated and no straightforward relation was established. Two of the four interviewees show a lack of correspondence between their self-perceived qualities as a speaker, the importance they place on speaking at university and their readiness to interact when nominated. When comparing online and offline mode of study, the participants in the present research show a preference for offline study when facing the need to interact in open class.

Differences in perception and expectations on the part of Western teachers and international students account for challenges and misunderstandings in the international classroom (Agostinelli, 2021). The present study was prompted by one such misunderstanding and misalignment of expectations. It is recommended that one possible solution would be to communicate to students the expectations and pedagogy behind what goes on in the classroom and build better rapport and relations with students (Salipour et al., 2017, p. 9-10; Wang et al, 2021). Learning students’ names has been shown to have positive results on students’ motivation and engagement in classroom activities and interactions (Murdoch et al., 2018). Other ideas to boost students’ interactivity include providing them with longer time to formulate their answer and letting them work in smaller groups/ pairs (He, 2017), creating group assignments whereby inter-group competition might foster intra-group cooperation (Hodskinson and Poropat, 2014). Strategies to encourage students’ interactivity online include guiding them into what constitutes appropriate online interaction, creating a friendly atmosphere through assigning collaborative tasks and giving students a chance to talk about their own culture (Tu, 2001, p. 56). Other recommendations for online learning environments include cross-cultural communication training and cross-cultural instructional design including training instructional designers themselves (Kung, 2017, p.483). Badem-Korkmaz and Balaman (2022) offer an interesting discussion of tutorial strategies to elicit response when asking open class questions in synchronous L2 environments (p.15-17).

Findings from the present study point to the need for heightened awareness on the part of educators of subtleties in cultural differences and students’ expectations when it comes to engaging in spoken interactions. Being empathetic towards their learners would help teachers create a comfortable learning environment, where students will benefit from their active engagement in classroom interactions. In terms of open class interactions, relying on body language (eye contact) as suggested by one of the interviewees in the present study might be a good way to gauge students WTC before nominating them to avoid putting them on the spot. Additionally, an open conversation with students about the development of oracy skills as a prerequisite for successful HE study needs to be considered along with a discussion of how this relates to transferable skills for future employment. This might impact on students WTC considering students' belief in the direct link between classroom participation and their grades as demonstrated by contributions of interviewees in the present study. An obvious limitation of the present paper is the size of the sample. Classroom observations can be conducted as an additional tool for exploring students’ perceptions to open class interactions. This would be particularly useful for investigating differences in students' attitude towards interacting in terms of different modes - online/offline. Further research could also focus on exploring educators’ attitudes and practices of nominating students in the international EAP/EFL classroom.

Acknowledgements: I would like to extend my gratitude to Dr Carole MacDiarmid from EAS at the School of Languages and Cultures for her continued support with my scholarship endeavors by reading my proposals and providing invaluable feedback and Rachel Elmslie (EAS, School of Languages and Cultures) for her initial help with resources and my ethical approval application. I would also like to thank my current employer, Glasgow International College, for supporting me to present my findings at the 2023 BALEAP Conference at Warwick University.

Address for correspondence:, Glasgow International College



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  1. What is your nationality?
  2. Are you an online or a face-to-face student on the pre-sessional July entry course?

Online                             Face-to-face

  1. When the teacher asks an open class question (to the whole class), I expect the teacher to nominate (call out names)?

I strongly agree
I agree
I disagree
I strongly disagree

  1. When the teacher asks an open class question and nominates, I feel nervous

I strongly agree
I agree
I disagree
I strongly disagree

  1. When the teacher asks an open class question and nominates, I feel

I want to reply
I don’t want to reply

  1. When the teacher asks an open class question, I am willing to answer

I strongly agree
I agree
I disagree
I strongly disagree

  1. When the teacher asks an open class question, I might be unwilling to answer because

a. I do not know the answer
b. I feel shy to speak in front of the whole class
c. I feel my English is not good enough to express what I want
d. I am afraid of giving the wrong answer
e. I have technical issues (no mic, weak connection) (for online students only)
f. Other - please specify

8. When the teacher asks an open class question and the group is larger than 5 people, I am willing to answer

I strongly agree
I agree
I disagree
I strongly disagree

  1. When the teacher asks an open class question and I don’t know anybody in the group, I am willing to answer

I strongly agree
I agree
I disagree
I strongly disagree

  1. When the teacher asks an open class question and I know the teacher well, I am willing to answer

I strongly agree
I agree
I disagree
I strongly disagree

  1. When the teacher asks an open class question in an online (live) class I am willing to answer

I strongly agree
I agree
I disagree
I strongly disagree

  1. When the teacher asks an open class question in a face-to-face class I am willing to answer

I strongly agree
I agree
I disagree
I strongly disagree


Interview Questions:

  1. What is your nationality?
  2. Are you a face-to-face or an online student?
  3. How would you describe your personality?
  4. What is the role of the teacher in the classroom?
  5. What qualities do you value in a teacher?
  6. Tell me about your previous learning context – how were classes organized?
  7. Did the teacher ask questions to the whole class? How did you feel? Did you answer?
  8. Tell me about your previous experience of speaking in discussions/ class.
  9. What kind of speaker are you generally (in your L1)?
  10. To what extent do you think speaking in tutorials/ seminars at university is important? Why?
  11. Let’s talk about the pre-sessional course tutorial classes. What do you think about the teacher calling out names (nominating students) when the teacher asks a question in open class?
  12. When the teacher asks an open class question in class, do you usually answer? What is the reason?
  13. If the teacher asks an open class question and nominates you, how would you feel?
  14. Do you think if it was a face-to-face class, you would be more willing to answer? (reverse question for a face-to-face student)
  15. What is your attitude to online learning? Have you been an online student /studied online before?