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University Student Attitudes Toward Foreign Instructors

Tatyana S. Thweatt

NDSTA Journal
Volume 16, 2003


Abstract

To better understand the significance of student-teacher background differences, this study examined student attitudes toward foreign-born instructors in a Midwestern University and their effects on communication competence. Dillman’s (2000) multiple contact survey methodology was applied. The self-administered Web-based survey measured university students’ current attitudes toward foreign instructors. The overall model of multiple regression served first to predict the student attitudes, and then to predict communication competence while examining the independent contributions of each variable to communication competence derived from the analysis of the four sets of independent variables. Student openness to diversity and challenge was found to be a significant predictor of student attitudes and, consequently, of communication competence even when controlling for student backgrounds, experiences, and attitudes.

Key Words: attitudes, openness to diversity, foreign instructors

About the author.

Editor’s Note: For a copy of the survey used in this study, please contact the author.

Introduction and Context
Cultural diversity comprises a central aspect of American future. By the year 2080, the United States of America may well be 24 percent Latino, 15 percent African American, and 12 percent Asian American (Cortes, 1991). College students’ present and future attitudes, values, and the ways in which they relate to the external world, are likely impacted by growing diversity. Interactions between students and teachers play a crucial role in the students' academic future (Galguera, 1998). The quality of student-teacher interactions has a profound and lasting effect on the students' socialization process in schools (Garcia, 1994). Furthermore, differences between student and teacher backgrounds influence the ability of teachers to motivate or to be role models for students (Barnhardt, 1982). In addition, research showed that abstract attitudes toward general aspects of school and education tend to predict student academic achievement (Ogbu, 1978).

However, prejudices and social stereotypes may influence students' perceptions of and behavior toward teachers (Galguera, 1998). This assumption emerges out of attitude theory, which defines the relationship between attitudes and perception as circular (Allport, 1935), and from research documenting mutual influences between people's attitudes (Condon & Crano, 1988). Recent research shows that possibilities of attitude and behavior correlations exist (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). Eagly and Chaiken (1993) suggest that people with positive attitudes would engage in behaviors that approach, support or enhance the attitude object (i.e. a given object, person, idea, etc.) and people with negative attitudes would engage in behaviors that avoid, oppose, or hinder the object. In addition, direct experience with the attitude object, high accessibility of the attitude, possession of substantial information about the attitude object, and perception of an explicit link between the attitude and the behavioral choice at hand could increase the magnitude of these correlations (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).

To better understand the significance of student-teacher background differences, this study examined student attitudes toward foreign-born instructors in a Midwestern University and their effects on communication competence. The study had two specific purposes: (1) to determine how students’ openness to diversity, backgrounds, and experiences influence their attitudes towards foreign instructors; and (2) to determine the correlation between students’ attitudes and communication competence students displayed in interactions with foreign instructors in the academic settings.

Review of Literature
Student-teacher background differences have a profound effect on student-teacher interactions. The quality of teacher-student interactions influence students’ socialization process in schools (Garcia, 1994). In a report of their research on undergraduate students in the 1990s, Levine and Cureton (1998) asserted that “tension regarding diversity and difference runs high across college life… Multiculturalism remains the most unresolved issue on campus today” (p. 7). In fact, 62% of the deans of students participating in the Levine and Cureton’s (1998) study stated that diversity issues were the main cause of student conflicts on their campuses (Whitt et al., 2001).

Several studies showed that teachers’ and students’ cultural background differences contribute to creating cultural discontinuity between students and teachers (Galguera, 1998). According to this view, cultural discontinuity manifests itself in the classroom as clashing discourse patterns, discordant values and beliefs (Galguera, 1998). Several studies have assessed the significance of ethnic differences between students and teachers. For example, Sheets (1996) found substantial evidence of teachers' biases against minority students, and Ehrenberg, Goldhaber, and Brewer (1995) found ethnicity and gender did influence teachers' subjective evaluation of students.

Studies of student attitudes found gender and language to be important components of stereotypes as well as significant variable along with ethnicity (Galguera, 1998). The symbolic role of languages in categorization and group formation is particularly important when status differences exist between groups (Baker, 1992; Giles & Coupland, 1991). Research showed that language or dialect differences evoke in listeners’ prejudices and stereotypes toward speakers (Giles & Coupland, 1991).

Social stereotypes and prejudice influence students’ perceptions of teachers and students’ behavior toward teachers (Galguera, 1998). Several studies of student attitudes showed that openness to diversity and challenge has the greatest impact on changes in student attitudes, beliefs, and actions in the direction of greater tolerance to individual differences (Whitt et al., 2001; Pascarella et al., 1996).

There has been a paucity of research in trying to develop theories explaining the differences between competent interactions and incompetent ones (Rube & Kealey, 1979). Communication competence plays a major role in the development of interactions where a competent communicator is defined as one who is other-oriented, empathetic, affiliative, and supportive, relaxed when interacting, adaptive to new situations, and who is able to accomplish his/her own interpersonal goals (Wiemann, 1977). In order to communicate successfully with individuals from other cultures, it is necessary to have knowledge and understand the cultural factors (Beamer, 1992). Thus, the major dimensions of intercultural communication competence include specific cognitive, affective, and behavioral concepts (Kim, 1988). The research shows that the behavioral approach is the most appropriate when assessing communication competence (Ruben, 1976; Ruben, 1985; Ruben & Kealey, 1979; Duran, 1983). Self-disclosure, flexibility, and interaction management were regarded as the dimensions of intercultural communication competence (Chen, 1989; Beamer, 1992). The areas reviewed for the study provide the basis for the following hypotheses:

H1: Three sets of independent variables representing students’ backgrounds (i.e. sex, age, population), experiences (academic and nonacademic), and openness to diversity will affect their attitudes toward foreign instructors.

Three characteristics were identified as important in affecting students’ attitudes: background, experiences and openness to diversity and challenge. Research has shown that students tend to have more positive attitudes toward students of similar ethnic groups, beliefs, and values (Astin, 1993; Whitt et al., 2001). Prejudice continues to pervade college campuses (Balenger et al., 1992). The studies done in higher education focused mostly on attitudes toward African American and people of Arab descent (Balenger et al., 1992; Sergent et al., 1992). The results of these studies provided evidence that measurable negative attitudes existed among White students toward African American students (Balenger et al., 1992) and Arab students (Sergent et al., 1992). This situation applies to teacher student interactions as well. Evidence was found of student preference for same ethnicity teachers Galguera (1998). More than 90% of students enrolled at the University under study in 2000-2001year, as well as in previous years, were White. Then, it is logical to assume that students will show more solidarity and positive attitude toward teachers of the same ethnicity and more negative attitude toward foreign teachers of different ethnicity. In addition, gender differences in racial attitudes were found (Balenger et al., 1992; Whitt et al., 2001). This fact necessitates different approaches for studying female and male attitudes to foreign instructors. The recent research suggests that college experiences influence changes in students’ values and attitudes (Pascarella et al., 1996). Specifically, students’ interpersonal (social) experiences, such as the frequency and nature of interactions with peers and faculty, were found to have the most crucial impact on value, attitudinal and psychological change during college (Astin, 1993; Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Pascarella et al., 1996). In addition, students’ academic experiences were identified as very important factors that affect values students place on diversity, and consequently, influence student attitudes (Astin, 1993; Pascarella et al., 1996). Pascarella and his associates (1996) found that students, who lived on campus, studied the most, and who were most engaged with their student peers tended to have the highest levels of openness to diversity. Based on these findings, students’ experiences are important factors that influence openness to diversity, and consequently, attitudes. Therefore, it is logical to assume that communicative experiences with foreign instructors in the academic settings will affect student attitudes in a similar manner. In addition, it is relevant to mention research showing that the amount of stored information or knowledge moderates attitude-behavior correspondence. The consistency between attitudes and behaviors is increased by prior knowledge about attitude objects and reinforced by direct experiences (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).

H2: Students’ positive attitudes toward foreign instructors will most likely increase their behavioral communication competence with those instructors.

The perception of communication competence varies across contexts and cultures (Gudykunst, 1991). Gudykunst (1991) further stated, “Our view of our communication competence may not be the same as that of the person with whom we are communicating” (p.102). However, the relationship between students’ attitudes and their competency is expected because research showed that communication skills increase the likelihood that one is able to adapt one’s behavior so that others see him/her as competent Gudykunst, 1991). In addition, openness to diversity and challenge is believed to be a part of such components of competence as behavior flexibility, empathy, uncertainty orientation and ability to be mindful, and, consequently, may contribute to creation of favorable skills and willingness to adapt behavior. Social scientists made divergent claims concerning the attitude-behavior relation (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). Some studies suggested weak relations between attitudes and relevant behaviors. Alan Wicker’s study in 1969 was one of the most influential studies maintaining that there was little evidence that people possess stable, underlying attitudes that influence their overt behaviors (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). However, later empirical studies showed that correlations between attitudes and behaviors varied systematically (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). Eagly and Chaiken (1993) state that single behaviors are not reliable indicators of attitudes, and a composite index of behaviors need to be formed to assess attitudes. The authors conclude, “…an appropriate aggregation of attitude-relevant behaviors creates a reliable behavioral measure of an attitude, just as an appropriate aggregation of responses to attitude-relevant questionnaire items creates a reliable measure of an attitude” (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993, p. 159). By this logic, correlations between students’ attitudes to foreign instructors and behavioral communication competence are expected.

Method
Survey methodology was applied to test the hypotheses. The self-administered Web-based survey measured students’ current attitudes toward foreign instructors. The Web survey design principles and a multiple contact survey strategy outlined by Dillman (2000) were applied. To improve the likelihood of responses, the following steps of Dillman’s (2000) multiple contact survey strategy were utilized:

1. A pre-notice e-mail message was sent to the sampled individuals with the purpose of leaving a positive impression of importance of the study, so that the recipients do not immediately discard the message with a Web site link to the survey when it arrives.
2. The second e-mail message was sent in two days after the first contact. The message invited the individuals to participate in the survey by clicking on a Web address contained in the message.
3. A reminder e-mail message to complete the Web survey was sent in one week after the second message.
4. One week later, the final thank you message was sent. Participants were thanked for making a difference on campus by participating in the study. Those who did not fill out their surveys had the last opportunity to participate by clicking on a Web address contained in the message.
In addition, the participants were offered an opportunity to respond to the survey by regular mail.

Participants
Students from a midwestern university constituted the population of the study. A comprehensive alphabetized list of the population was available as the sampling frame. The list of students registered at the university during 2001-2002 academic year was obtained through the University Directory. The total number of the population was 10,230. The method of systematic random sampling was used to select participants for the study.

A total of 245 participants received e-mails with the invitation to participate in the survey by going to the web site and completing the short questionnaire. The web site remained active for four weeks. There were 73 total responses collected (37 females and 36 males), which constituted 29.8% of responses.

The majority of the participants (82.7%) have been the residents of the states of North Dakota and Minnesota. Over 45% of the participants were from the cities/towns with the population over 5,000, and only 11.4% were from the towns with the population less than 500. All the participants of the study lived in towns/cities with more than 90% of Caucasian population (Census, 2000). Demographic data of the participants are reported in Table 1.

The majority of the subjects of the study (63%) had substantial academic experiences. Specifically, by the time they completed the survey, the participants had completed 45 or more credit hours at the university. More than 83% of all participants had taken several classes taught by foreign instructors. When asked about non-academic experiences, 56.2% of the participants indicated that they belonged to more than one student organization, 37% belonged to only one organization and only 4.1% of the participants belonged to more than 3 student organizations or clubs. Even though 93.2% of the participants belonged to one or more student organizations, 58.9% of the sample chose not to participate in cultural awareness events.

Procedure
Three sets of independent variables were developed. These were student background, student experiences, and student openness to diversity. The student background variable included sex, age, place where students lived at the time of their graduation from high school (city/town, county, state, country), and population of cities/towns where students lived at the time of their graduation from high schools. Student experiences, the second set of independent variables, was a composite of academic and nonacademic student experiences. The third set of independent variables, student openness to diversity, was represented by an 8-item five point Likert-type scale measuring students’ levels of openness to diversity and challenge with alpha reliability = 0.88. The scale was developed by Pascarella and his associates in 1996 and adopted for the present study.

The dependent variable for the first hypothesis was Student Attitudes.

Student Attitudes, a composite of 3 items , had alpha reliability = .68. By utilizing a five-point Likert scale, the items intended to explore students’ preference for foreign instructors, student opinions about foreign instructors’ competence and teaching abilities, level of difficulty of learning from foreign instructors compared to American instructors, and student overall satisfaction with foreign instructors.

The dependent variable for the second hypothesis was Communication Competence. Communication Competence was measured by Ruben’s (1979) seven-item communication competence scale . Specifically, this 5-point Likert-type scale measured student abilities to communicate with foreign instructors. Alpha reliability of the scale was 0.72.

Limitations
This investigation had some limitations that should be kept in mind when interpreting the findings. Although attempts were made in the sampling design and procedures to make the sample as representative as possible, the low rate response undoubtedly led to some self-selection. The fact that the analysis was limited to a demographically homogeneous sample of 73 students means that we cannot necessarily generalize the results to an entire student population at the midwestern university.

Results
Multiple regression technique was used to analyze the relationship between three sets of independent variables of student backgrounds, experiences, and openness to diversity, and a single dependent variable of student attitudes to test the first hypothesis. In order to explore the relationship between the student attitudes toward foreign instructors and communication competence, they displayed in interactions with those instructors, a stepwise multiple regression was applied. The overall model of multiple regression served first to predict the student attitudes, and then to predict communication competence while examining the independent contributions of each variable to communication competence derived from the analysis of the four sets of independent variables. Table 2 summarizes the means and standard deviations of the independent and dependent variables.

Table 3 summarizes the findings and ties them to the hypotheses of the study. The squares of the coefficient of correlation (R2) are reported for each block of independent variable to show the proportion of variance in the dependent variable of student attitudes that is accounted for by the predictor variables of student background, experiences, and openness to diversity and challenge. As Table 3 shows, only the openness to diversity and challenge predictor has moderately significant impact on student attitudes (r = .401, p<.001). Further, as the beta weights of .604 with significance of p<.001 confirm, openness to diversity and challenge seems to be the best predictor of student attitudes, even when controlling for the other variables. Student sex, age, and populations of their communities, as well as student academic experiences and participation in cultural awareness events cannot be considered significant predictors of student attitudes (see Table 3). Thus, the first hypothesis of the study was not supported.

When looking at the relationship between student attitudes and communication competence, attitudes were found to be positively associated with communication competence (r = .313, p=.001). However, after looking more specifically at separate affects of each independent variable on the communication competence change, only one factor – openness to diversity and challenge (Beta = .640, p = .001) – affected the communication competence variable. Although the correlation coefficient between attitudes and communication competence was in the hypothesized direction, the second hypothesis was not supported.

Because of an unexpected finding that student sex, age, the sizes of their communities and student academic experiences and participation in cultural awareness events do not affect student attitudes toward foreign instructors, it is reasonable to ask whether or not other factors related to student backgrounds or experiences were more significant predictors of student attitudes toward foreign instructors. As expected, student openness to diversity and challenge was found to be as a significant predictor of student attitudes and, consequently, of communication competence even when controlling for the variables representing student backgrounds, experiences, and attitudes.

Discussion
Guided by the previous research, this study sought to determine to what extent three sets of independent variables representing student backgrounds, experiences, and openness to diversity, affected their attitudes toward foreign instructors and communication competence in interactions with those instructors. Apparently the variables of student sex, age, and size of their communities regarded as student backgrounds were not influential in predicting student attitudes toward foreign instructors. Student academic experiences with foreign instructors and student participation in cultural awareness events also did not seem to have a significant affect on student attitudes toward foreign instructors. The study also predicted student attitudes would relate positively to their communication competence with foreign instructors. The results did not support the hypotheses; only one set of independent variables had a significant influence on student attitudes. Openness to diversity has shown to be a significant factor in predicting student attitudes toward foreign instructors, and consequently their communication competence.

The openness to diversity and challenge assessed students’ openness to cultural, racial, and value diversity, as well as the extent to which students enjoyed being challenged by different perspectives, values, and ideas. This complex set of variables showed the cumulative result of interrelated experiences sustained over an extended period of time rather than the results of any single experience. Not surprisingly then, the openness to diversity was the main predictor of student attitudes and communication competence. This finding may have implications for institutional policy. Colleges may be able to enhance students’ growth on the dimension of openness to diversity/challenge through purposeful training programs that foster students’ appreciation and acceptance of cultural diversity.

Although it has previously been acknowledged that human attitudes, values, motives and beliefs certainly play an important role in the dynamics of human interaction, conflicting views connect attitudes and behavior. Specifically, there are conflicting views as to whether attitudes should be considered as unobservable intervening variables or as probabilistic summaries of a person’s consistency in making a particular response (Oskamp, 1991). Alone, this study’s results extend current understanding of the topic of attitude-behavior consistency by examining the relationships between student attitudes toward foreign instructors and student communication competences in interactions. This research suggests that the relationship between attitudes and behaviors should not be regarded as linear, and the multidimensional nature of attitudes should be emphasized.

Because the results of this study only partially support previously reported research, replication with a larger, more representative sample is necessary to strengthen the conclusions. The results may yet be further strengthened by a more ethnically diverse sample. A qualitative examination of influences on student attitudes toward foreign instructors, such as via focus groups or open-ended questions, would add depth and insight to this issue. The concept of openness to diversity/challenge could be further refined and augmented and may serve as an important input to the design of a future study.

Future research should also explore the connection between communication competence and attitudes. Such research may hold important implications for creating a more favorable environment for all university instructors, and it also may provide additional insights about effective interactions in culturally diverse academic settings. Additional analysis focusing on students’ ethnicities, knowledge of and exposure to various cultures, and students’ expectations of college instruction hold the potential for revealing additional insights about student attitudes toward foreign instructors in academic settings.

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About the author
Tatyana S. Thweatt is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication of North Dakota State University. Born and raised in the Ukraine, she arrived to the United States several years ago with the goal of advancing her education. Tatyana’s background in philology of foreign languages, literary translation, and teaching provided her with an excellent opportunity to conduct research on many different cultures represented in the Fargo-Moorhead area while pursuing her doctorate degree in intercultural communication.

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