Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why don’t students respond to the material as I’d expected?

U.S. faculty member, CMU-Qatar

When I came to Qatar to teach, I naively expected that my carefully designed course materials would work as well here as they did in my classes back home. Very soon, however, I realized that the content itself reflected some basic assumptions that students in this cultural context don’t share. For example, the underlying assumption in my unit on venture creation is that making money is a driving force for students. However, I’ve found that my students were more interested in the social impact of their new ventures than their profitability. Deeply held values, such as “taking care of your neighbor,” seemed far more central to my students’ decision-making than I expected, based on my experiences in the U.S. It required me to rethink how I taught the whole unit.

I’ve realized that we cannot come into teaching, especially in a very different cultural context, with the attitude that we have all the answers: we don’t. Our students can sometimes challenge even our core assumptions. That being said, we owe it to students to challenge some of their assumptions. I believe that there are some basic business principles and strategies – borrowing money, for example – that my students need to consider, even if they don’t think the idea is compatible with their culture or religion. But now, rather than present the principle as a given, I introduce it as a topic for discussion and we look at how cultural, religious and economic issues intersect. I also highlight local businesses that employ the strategies I’m teaching in order to challenge students to think in new ways about what is and isn’t culturally compatible.

Other strategies 

  • Ask students questions that expose their prior knowledge and assumptions. Finding out what they know and believe can help you build more effective bridges to new information and new frames of reference. And it can raise possibilities and interpretations that may never have occurred to you!
  • Use examples or cases from the students’ cultural context to illustrate how course principles apply. For example, you might point out contexts in which borrowing and lending is religiously and culturally sanctioned, or highlight local businesses that have successfully employed the principles you are teaching. Highlighting course concepts as they apply in a familiar cultural context can help students begin to challenge their own assumptions and create a “best local practices” model that they may be more willing to endorse.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.