Fostering engagement in assessed group work with diverse cohorts. Case study from Introduction to Marketing Communications (MKT1002)

Samantha Read, Lecturer in Marketing, FBL, UoN

Statement of the problem

With the Higher Education landscape becoming more diverse (Byram, 2018), research into academic motivation recognises that a problem exists in relation to cross-cultural interactivity, particularly in relation to group work. According to Welikala and Watkins (2008), this can be attributed to a clash of cultural scripts for learning; with approaches to learning being mediated by a number of socio-cultural factors. A cultural script for learning can be considered as a ‘road map’ embedded within children as a result of their early learning experiences to contextualise the way in which they have been accustomed to learn. This is a cognitive process which is culturally shaped in an attempt to attribute meaning to life experiences, thoughts, beliefs and observations (Tan, 2015). As a result of different educational practices being prevalent across various cultures, a number of cultural scripts have emerged, with contrasting emphasis placed within ‘activities for learning’ in relation to views about how knowledge is constructed, and ‘relationships for learning’ in terms of perceptions about the role of the learner (Welikala and Watkins, 2008) (figure 1). For example, ‘talk for learning’ refers to the communication aspect of education and cultural expectations of how much teacher and student are expected to contribute to knowledge acquisition. In China for instance, it is well evidenced in the literature that the teacher is seen as a highly respected role model by their students. The result of this is an engrained expectation that the teacher has control of communication within the classroom and the role of the learner is to listen and respect the teacher’s authoritarian position (Tan, 2015). In Western cultures however, educational reform has moved towards the practice of teachers being required to foster engagement within the classroom, with developing learners’ interpersonal skills being a key component of this (van Uden, Ritzen and Pieters, 2014).  The significance of such differences between cultures in relation to the ‘talk for learning’ element of cultural script construction is the knock-on effect that this has on the other areas encompassed within ‘activities for learning’ and ‘relationships for learning’, as conceptualised by Welikala and Watkins’ model (2008).

Differences in cultural scripts for learning are argued in the academic literature to cause concerning barriers to student engagement and cross-cultural collaboration. This calls for a pressing need for educators to develop ‘intercultural competence’ in order to embrace cultural diversity and actively provide opportunities for intercultural dialogue and shared working (Günay, 2017). However, the academic literature raises several challenges to fostering engagement with diverse cohorts, within both classroom learning environments as well as e-learning platforms (Serradell-López, Lara-Navarra, and Casado-Lumbreras, 2012).

Cultural scripts for learning

 

Figure 1: Cultural scripts for learning (Welikala and Watkins, 2008, p.6)

Literature review

Context

The problem of lack of cross-cultural interaction has proved prevalent within the large first year module Introduction to Marketing Communications (MKT1002). The module is fundamentally split across five workshops with around 35-40 students within each from across six different programmes and two subject groups. To add to the natural diversity of the student body, which has a mix of home and international students, each workshop includes approximately five to seven students studying on the International Exchange Programme (IEP), predominately of Chinese origin.

From the tutor’s perspective, a key difficulty has been in encouraging home students to willingly work with international students. Observed reasons for such resistance to cross-cultural working are linked to motivation to succeed in the first group assessment which is worth 50% of the overall module grade. This is further evidenced by Hampton and Moore (2015) who found students possessed persistent negative attitudes to working with people from different cultures when the group grade impacted upon their individual grades. One reason for this could be that the differences between the students’ cultural scripts for learning result in conflicting expectations between the various group members (Popov, Brinkman, Biemans, Mulder, Kuznetsov and Noroozi, 2012). Within MKT1002 for example, this was expressed by both the home and the international students as a concern over difficulties with the group work process as well as the group delivery of the final presentation. Although no direct conflict between the students was observed, I was approached by individual students asking to move groups, with the international students requesting to all work together as one group. This is in agreement with several studies in this field which confirmed students prefer working with other students from similar cultural backgrounds (ibid). However, allowing students to not integrate with others from different cultural backgrounds is a problem in terms of fostering segregation rather than engagement (Moore and Hampton, 2015) in addition to a breach against learning outcome f of the module, which is to ‘perform and function co-operatively in given situations in small groups.’ Working with people of different cultural backgrounds has also been found to link to increased employability skills (Prokofieva, Jackling and Natoli, 2015) and positive attitudes to be an active member of a global society (Denson and Bowman, 2013). This also brings into question my role as an educator in integrating the UKSPF dimension V4 to ‘acknowledge the wider context in which Higher Education operates, recognising implications for professional practice’, and V1 to ‘respect individual leaners and diverse learning communities’ within my practice (HEA, 2011).

Language barriers were presented as particularly problematic in both face-to-face and online activities for MTK1002. With communication being paramount to the success of group formation (Mamas, 2018), this made it difficult to encourage interaction between the diverse cultural groups. In the classroom, it was observed that students were willing to communicate with their friends from the same cultural background, yet struggled with interacting with students from different backgrounds. This made group work problematic as students were unable to devise group expectations or discuss an effective group management system for preparing for the presentation. Within online learning environments, in principle the students were able to contribute more individually, with emerging research evidencing the mediating role of digital technology to foster engagement by enabling students to position their learn within their own contexts (Margolis, Porter, and Pitterle, 2017). However, there was little evidence of conversations between the students occurring online. This further presents a problem in terms of achieving the group work learning outcome f for the module if students are merely combining individual pieces of work to form a presentation rather than working collaboratively on the assignment brief, with shared ownership of all content. This lack of communication also highlights that as well as language barriers posing a challenge to interaction, understanding the communication processes to foster engagement in group work situations is also a predominant concern here. This is particularly problematic for international students who have not studied at a UK university previously and are therefore unfamiliar with learning and teaching styles, often contrasting with their own cultural learning scripts, as well as group work requirements (Prokoieva, Jackling and Riccado, 2015). For students from Eastern cultures for example, the ‘role of the student’ and ‘talk for learning’ aspects of their cultural script formation are evidenced as contrasting greatly with students from Western cultures. Furthermore, home students have been found in the literature to show impatience and frustration with students for whom English is a second language (Harrison and Peacock, 2010), causing underlying tension between the individual group members. International students have also reported their frustrations in their inability to seemingly be able to make meaningful connections with home students (McMahon, 2011).  Kimmel and Violet (2012) however, stress that a comparison can be made between problematic diverse group working and occurrences where cross-cultural groups are able to work productively together. Research in this area is limited (Mittelmeier, Rienties, Tempelaar and Whitelock, 2018), yet critical analysis of the key emerging themes from this field can be applied to suggest appropriate interventions to foster engagement in assessed group work with diverse cohorts.

Cultural traits

It has been suggested within the literature that a tutor is able to predict the amount of contributions that a student will make in a group work situation based on their cultural traits (Idris, Ion and Seery, 2018). This is based on research into the impact of culture on academic motivation and performance. Urdan and Bruchmann present a literature review of relevant research in this area, noting that that terms ‘culture’, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are often used interchangeably and there is a lack of methodological consistency in studying this phenomenon (2018, p. 115). Caution is furthermore given in the interpretation of the results from cultural studies, with the prominence of researcher bias and wide variability in motivational beliefs about belonging to specific groups (ibid).

Lavy (2016) further adds to this perspective by asserting that cultural traits cannot be considered in isolation, highlighting importance of personality dimensions and attachment styles on whether a student will benefit from group work. This has implications for the other groups members and in the role of the tutor in facilitating group work as it was found that students with certain personality characteristics and attachment styles require greater levels of support to deal with group work challenges and receiving feedback on group functionality (ibid). This is in support of findings by Walker (2007) who found that introverts had more of a negative experience of group work in comparison to extroverts, though there was no difference in overall grades. Little research however has been conducted in this area and there is a danger that the two perspectives of cultural traits and personality characteristics could be viewed as being closely connected with each other (King, McInerney and Pitliya, 2018), potentially leading to cultural stereotyping and having a negative impact on student expectations.

Cognitive dissonance

Despite the literature evidencing student resistance to working with international students in group work, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found that 84% of UK students applying for a place on an undergraduate programme expected to work alongside international students (2015). Furthermore, 42% of UK applicants strongly disagreed or disagreed that working alongside international students would slow down the class (ibid). It can be deduced therefore that it is the assessment element of the group work which is likely to be impacting on home students’ willingness to work with international students. There may also be an element of contention based on home students’ expectations of international students’ levels of English language and qualifications, with the majority of UK students agreeing that entry requirements should be the same for home and international entrants (National Union of Students, 2016).

One strand of the literature which addresses the gap between cultural expectations and perceptions of academic motivation and performance is that of the social psychological perspective of group membership. According to Walton (2011), taking this view, resistance to cross-cultural group working can be attributed to a fear of cognitive dissonance as a result of perceived differences between cultural learning scripts causing potential disequilibrium in the group. In this way, it is evidenced that students opt for working with others of similar cultural backgrounds to avoid any cognitive tension caused by the mismatch of cultural learning scripts.  This is problematic however as research has shown that students have a tendency to revert to cultural stereotypes to generalise student attitudes and behaviour (Moore and Hampton, 2015). This could potentially lead to what Harrison and Peacock (2009) have coined ‘passive xenophobia’ (2009, p.887). Linked to the theory of cognitive dissonance, Moore and Hampton apply the Integrated Threat Theory as an underpinning argument for why home students perceive international students to pose as a ‘threat to their academic success and group identity’ (ibid). Moreover, they evidence the belief that discussing cultural differences is seen as a taboo amongst students, causing further barriers to communication. This reason for the lack of communication between home and international students alludes to not only student perspectives of cultural interaction but also tutor attitudes to embracing cultural diversity.

Tutor attitudes to cultural diversity in the classroom 

An area of concern within the academic literature in this field suggests that opportunities for tutors to promote collaboration with diverse student groups are often missed. Arguably, without a conscious awareness of cultural differences and active tutor management of this, the tendency for mono-cultural groups to occur in the classroom will continue by default (Hills and Thom, 2005). This is certainly the case for MKT1002 in which despite random group formation, students continue to only sit with and communicate with students from the same cultural background. Moving the focus away from student perspectives, the literature draws attention to tutor attitudes and beliefs as a reason for a lack of cross-cultural interaction. This relates to what Günay describes as tutors needing to acquire ‘intercultural competence’ (2017, p.409); the knowledge and skills to be able to actively provide opportunities for cross-cultural working. This directly relates to the UKPSF dimension V2 to ‘promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners’ (HEA, 2019).

As an example of this, Hills and Thom (2005) reflect on positive changes made to a Postgraduate business programme as a result of a self-reflective process in which the tutors worked alongside the international student support team. By openly discussing their own expectations of international learners and their previous learning experiences based on their cultural learning scripts, the teaching team were able to identify any areas of misconception or ambiguity. With MKT1002, this would involve all tutors on the module coming together to consciously reflect on the diverse student cohorts which make up the classes and actively incorporating opportunities within the module curriculum to understand and embrace cultural differences. This is supported by Mittelmeier et al who advocate that students’ diverse backgrounds are important influences on their behaviours in the classroom, and that educators should consider this when designing classroom activities (2015, p.148).

Setting expectations and reducing cognitive dissonance

Mittelmeier et al (2016) assert that ‘students’ frustrations with cross-cultural group work might be avoided if they (and their instructors) have more realistic expectations at the start of their projects about the types of contributions that their culturally diverse peers naturally gravitate towards in group work’ (2016, p. 141). One possible solution to alleviating the tension between group members for the MKT1002 assessed group work presentation would therefore be to set clear expectations at the start of term of the role of the group work process as part of formative assessment. This is particularly important for students of Chinese origin in the class, as highlighted by Poole and Adamson who evidence a ‘clash of assessment cultures’ (2016, p.7). Poole and Adamson (ibid) assert that because of their cultural learning scripts, many students of Chinese origin view formative assessment as ineffective, placing emphasis on knowledge transmission rather than seeing the value of student-centred learning.  For home students, this may come across as an unwillingness to actively participate in the group assessment.

Once clear group work expectations are established, to overcome the problem of cognitive dissonance causing resistance for home students to work within international students, Walton (2011) suggests that tutors support students in making relevant connections between the different cultural learning scripts. By encouraging students to see the value in different cultural experiences, cognitive dissonance can be rationalised and even embraced through a process of reconstructive meaning (ibid). This supports evidence presented by Liu and Dall’Alba (2010) who affirm that learning design needs to enable students to apply their knowledge to relevant intercultural experiences that would naturally take place out of the classroom. In this way, it would be appropriate for students studying MKT1002 to be provided with opportunities for offline and online collaboration tasks which require them to work together in problem-based learning situations appropriate to their discipline of marketing and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, the students would require a collaborative space to not only share their ideas but to build on others’ idea constructively through peer feedback (Zhu and Carless, 2018).

Creating a dialogue space
To offset the language and communication barriers preventing effective group engagement, the academic literature offers research into the benefit of providing groups with a collaborative space. Decuyper, Dochy and Van Den Bossche advocate the need for the establishment of what they term a ‘dialogue space… in which communicative behaviours such as ‘sharing’, ‘co-construction’ and ‘constructive conflict’ are balanced’ (2010, p.111). Acknowledging the challenges for groups to acquire this ‘balance’, Decupyper et al (2010) further stress the importance of a clear purpose for the dialogue space as part of development of the group work process. This would link back to the notion of setting clear expectations for what is required in the group assessment for MKT1002 so that students understand the need to contribute to the dialogue space and how this links to them achieving the learning outcomes for the module as well as enhancing their employability skills.

Further solutions in the literature provide evidence of effective use of online learning environments to foster engagement and to promote positive attitudes within diverse cultural groups.  Shishah and FitzGerald (2016) argue that for online dialogue spaces to be successful, they must take into account that different students with have different cultural dimensions influencing how they behave online. For example, a student who places emphasis on the individual being separate to their social context (ibid) will need additional scaffolding to align their contributions to other online learners. The design of the online environment must therefore reflect cultural assumptions around the use of technology in order for students to feel comfortable sharing and co-creating content. With this in mind, it would benefit the students studying on the MKT1002 module to be part of the design process for creating the group dialogue spaces in order to facilitate the different preferences and expectations amongst the groups. This further supports the embedding of UKPSF dimension K4 ‘the use and value of appropriate learning technologies’ as well as dimension A4 to ‘develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance’ (HEA, 2019).

Developing intercultural competence
There is general consensus in the literature that there is a prevailing need for tutors to develop an understanding of different cultures in order to acknowledge students’ cultural learning scripts and adapt their teaching and learning practices to be inclusive to all. Gu (2010) further provides a solution to the problem of students viewing talking about cultural differences as a taboo by advocating that tutors model an ‘open attitude towards difference and diversity’ (2010), and explore ways in which they can improve communication and collaboration through their teaching practices. Likewise, Shiel asserts that ‘an important aspect of developing a global perspective is the ability to challenge our own assumptions and a preparedness to engage with opportunities that enable us to look through an alternative cultural lens’ (2008, p.4). In the context of MKT1002, this would involve re-addressing the module curriculum to allow for greater cultural diversity to be embedded within the module delivery.

Pinto further advocates for tutors to teach cultural competence directly to their students, referring to this process as an ‘intercultural skills training programme’ (2018, p.144). This is in support of Hampton and Moore’s recommendations for fostering engagement with diverse cohorts (2009) which includes the need for students to develop mindfulness and to challenge taboos associated with discussing cultural differences. They also advocate for the need for students to develop long-term friendships, with people from varying cultures, outside of the classroom in order to cement the in-class cultural assimilation. However, Pinto’s research (2018) suggests that the majority of academics profess to be underprepared to integrate this into their teaching practice. Further empirical evidence into the effectiveness of these interventions within Higher Education is also needed in order to draw conclusions on the best ways to enhance cultural competence (Griffith, Wolfeld, Armon, Rios and Liu, 2016).

The intervention

Taking into consideration the solutions offered by a review of the academic literature in the area of cross-cultural group work, a role play and reflective approach to learning was introduced to the module MKT1002 Introduction to Marketing Communications.  The key objective for this intervention was to address the underlying problems which were currently preventing all students from achieving learning outcome f for the module to ‘perform and function co-operatively in given situations in small groups and teams to meet specified objectives and fulfil own responsibilities.’

Within a typical two-hour workshop, I first set out the expectations for the session, emphasising that cross-cultural interaction was required in order for the students to develop their group working and employability skills. I then modelled the importance of discussing cultural differences, breaking down any pre-conceived ideas of this being a taboo subject (Moore and Hampton, 2009). This discussion was followed by the introduction of a task to establish a role-play situation in which students were required to work in their pre-established groups that I had previously set up for the group work assessment. The role-play involved each of the groups taking on the role of business management executives tasked with establishing a new company which utilised at least one strength from each group member in order to prepare a business development plan.

The groups had forty minutes to prepare their business development plan, with tutor support to facilitate conversations around embracing cultural differences and valuing each other’s’ cultural learning styles for the benefit of the new business venture. As part of this task, the students were asked to decide between themselves the best online platform to use to encourage the sharing and collaboration of their ideas. The groups were then required to present their ideas, with each group member contributing to the overall business pitch and establishing their place in the new company directive.

Following the face-to-face workshop sessions, the groups were asked to take part in an online reflective task which required them to assess each group member’s capability to fulfil the group-work learning outcome and suggestions for how each group member could improve their group work skills.

A role-play situation was implemented as part of the intervention as this has been found to promote cross-cultural interaction by reducing anxieties and encouraging students to interact in an environment unfamiliar to all group members (Mittelmeier et al, 2015). The specific business scenario was designed to closely link to relevant real-world situations in the context of the students’ area of study being Marketing and Entrepreneurship. This would provide meaning for the intervention in terms of contextualising the purpose of the task (Decupyper et al, 2010) as well as linking to the development of employability skills.

The classroom task required each group member to contribute at least one strength to the formation of the new company in order to encourage the group members to reflect on their cultural learning styles and embrace these as positive attributes to bring to the task, as suggested by Walton (2012). The purpose of the tutor mediated support during the task was to model discussions of cultural differences so that students could develop the confidence to discuss this openly and therefore alleviate any cognitive dissonance (Liu and Dall’Alba, 2010).

As part of an ABL approach to embedding the intervention into the module, an online activity was developed to support the face-to-face workshop. This was intended to provide the students with a ‘dialogue space’ (Decuyper et al, 2011) of their own design that would take into account the different cultural learning scripts that made up each individual group (Shishah and FitzGerald, 2016). The aim of the dialogue space was to enable collaboration through a digital medium that could promote the sharing of ideas and peer review. As argued by Zhu and Carless (2018), the peer review element of the task is important in establishing the group’s homogeneous identity. The online space served as a link between the classroom and the outside world in an attempt to establish opportunities for friendship and camaraderie to develop in order to embed the cultural assimilation of the classroom, as recommended by Hampton and Moore (2009).

The reflective element of the task further allowed the students to reflect on their own cultural learning scripts and that of others in order to avoid any clash of previous learning experiences to cause conflict (Welikala and Watkins, 2008). By offering suggestions to each other for how they can develop their group work skills to achieve the group-work learning outcome for the module MKT1002, each group member could also take responsibility for their own and other’s learning. This is key to establishing an effective group work ethic as well as prompting each group member to develop their intercultural competence. According to Günay (2016), by embedding such practices to enhance intercultural competence, students will become more self-aware and derive greater levels of acceptance for different cultural approaches to learning.

Peer Observation

Before the workshop took place, a meeting was set up with the peer observer for the session in order to go over the key objective of the session being to address learning outcome f for the module. Once this was established, feedback from the peer observer could be compared with my own observations of the session so that key learnings from the intervention could be deduced.

In terms of the initial set up of the task, the peer observer agreed that the expectations that I set out for cross-cultural interaction and the development of employability skills, were clear. I also reinforced this during the task to ensure that all students understood not only the requirements of the task but the purpose behind the role-play scenario. Once the task was underway, I immediately noticed a difference in the behaviours from the group members. The students were now actively talking to each other, including with those from cultural backgrounds different to their own. The key aim of this I observed was to address the task requirement for at least one strength from each group member to be included. What was further surprising was that the international students were pro-actively showcasing their language skills to demonstrate the potential global reach of the new company. The peer observer additionally commented that she even observed within one of the groups, a Chinese student teaching a home student some Chinese words.

Tutor support was particularly needed in relation to the setting up of an appropriate online platform for group collaboration. It appeared that I had under-estimated the difficulties that would be faced in assessing and accessing the different technological platforms available. The peer observer also highlighted issues with some group member’s understanding of the online dialogue space. This highlights the need for myself as a tutor to scaffold the use of online technologies to a much greater extent. Indeed, it has been found that the more students accept online technologies as being used as form of formative assessment, the greater their academic performance can develop in the future (Glover, Parkin, Hepplestone, Irwin and Rodger, 2015).

Key learning from intervention

The Intervention established three main areas of development to continue to address the problems associated with fostering engagement with assessed group member for the module MKT1002:

  1. The importance of setting expectations – The intervention and reflection of the peer observation supports the views expressed within the academic literature that clear expectations of what is required for group work are key to fostering cross-cultural engagement. Once the expectations were set, a notable shift was seen, with much more effort being displayed by both home and international students to interact with each other.
  2. Learning design needs to be student-centred yet tutor-supported – I did not anticipate such group difficulties to find and utilise an online platform to set up an online collaborative space. Despite a desire to foster independent thinking amongst the groups, initial lack of support and guidance ultimately stunted the group development process. In the future, I would therefore provide various options for online platforms that could be used, with clear instructions and modelling of these to allow the groups to have informed autonomy over their decision.
  3. Promoting cultural competence – One of the most valuable learnings from this intervention for me personally was in relation to the reflective exercise in which the students were encouraged to gain a deeper understanding of their own and others’ cultural learning scripts. This has prompted me to embed more reflexive group activities into the module to continue to develop the students’ and my own intercultural competence. I will also continue to set expectations around the importance of formative feedback to enhance academic performance, particularly concerning the Chinese students who may not currently value this form of assessment best practice, as previously cited by Poole and Adamson (2016).

Evaluation of findings
The aim of this case study and critical commentary was to develop greater understanding of the problems and solutions associated with fostering engagement with assessed group work and diverse cohorts. This is principally aligned with the UKPSF dimensions V1 to ‘respect individual learners and diverse learning communities’ and V2 to ‘promote participation in higher education and equality in learning opportunities’, as well as considering dimensions of areas of activity and core knowledge related to the effective development of my teaching practice (HEA, 2019).

The core findings of the literature review, intervention and peer observation, are presented in light of the problems faced within the group work assessment element of the module MKT1002 Introduction to Marketing Communications. After considering the impact of the issue on student experience and academic performance, a review of the literature established that the main focus areas for the intervention needed to be on expectation setting, the need for a dialogue space, and the development of tutor and student intercultural competence. Various solutions to the presented problems were considered and, despite this being an area of contention in the literature and in need of further research, an intervention was strategically devised.

Following the intervention and peer observation, clear links back to the literature review could be made, with future directions being sought for continuous professional development within MKT1002. The key findings for the case study and critical commentary can also be evaluated in consideration of future recommendations for dissemination across the University.

Recommendations

A justified output of this case study and critical commentary suggests the following recommendations for future group work practice within a diverse Higher Education landscape:

  1. Establish discussions overtly focusing on students’ cultural learning scripts (figure 1) to address any discrepancies in approaches to group work and encourage cultural differences to be spoken about and valued. This will avoid discussions around cultural differences becoming a taboo topic and will result in personalised adaptations being made to individual learning experiences and expectations. As argued by Burdett (2014), the challenges presented by cross-cultural group work are worthy of investigation in order for students to benefit from increased employability skills that can be applied in an ever-evolving diverse workplace.
  2. Applying an ABL approach, establishing online and offline dialogue spaces which enable group members to collectively share expectations and content, develop communication skills to deal with any group tension, and provide peer feedback. This should be mediated by regular tutor support to monitor group engagement and scaffold cross-cultural understanding. Video conferencing tools in particular have been found to have a positive effect on student engagement (Bauman, 2016), although this is an emerging area of research to consider.
  3. Develop your own cultural competence through openly discussing cultural differences with your students and colleagues, and seek to embed opportunities to develop the intercultural competence of your students within your module delivery. This will enable you to reflect on any conscious or unconscious cultural biases you may have as well as encouraging your students to reflect on the importance of cross-cultural collaborative working; crucial to their academic performance as well as being an important employability skill to develop.
  4. Engage with peer observation to be able to reflect on your own practice and that of others’. The invaluable feedback I received from the peer observer of my intervention has confirmed my own position on the outputs of the session as well as providing constructive future recommendations. This further relates to UKPSF dimension K5 ‘methods for evaluating the effectiveness of teaching’ (HEA, 2019) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

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