The Internet TESL Journal

Perceptions and Stereotypes of ESL Students

Shirley A. Wright
Davidson College (Davidson, North Carolina, USA)

Classifying and Stereotyping

Students who are obviously different from their instructors because of race, religion, native language, etc. are especially subject to categorization and stereotyping as instructors try to manage the various impressions they receive of all their students. While the need/ability to create a framework to organize our perceptions of others is a human trait (Gudykunst and Kim 1984: 84; Miller and Steinberg 1975: 6-7; Nelson 1998: 728; Sokal 1977: 185), if this categorization becomes stereotyping, it can harm individuals by denying them educational, work, and social opportunities.

Our concern here is the situation in which instructors hold stereotyped opinions of ESL students. Spack (1997: 768-772) addresses the issue of ESL instructors making unwarranted generalizations, finding some evidence that this does occur. A further question for research is what happens to ESL students once they leave our classrooms and enter mainstream education. Are they subject to generalizations made by educators in other fields? If so, what types of opinions do other educators hold about ESL students? Are those opinions ones which could hinder the students' education?

In order to determine whether professors stereotype nonnative English-speaking students, the researcher interviewed twenty-one professors at the College of Business Administration at a large university in the U.S. Southwest. The researcher targeted business professors because they are not specifically trained in language education and because within a university setting students take far more courses in subject areas such as engineering or business than courses in English composition. Thus, the reactions of professors in fields other than ESL are very important to the academic success of students.

The researcher asked the professors three questions:

What Makes Students Good?

The researcher asked professors, "What are some personality characteristics of good students?" The professors' answers fell into two large groups:
Within the first group, answers clustered around work ethic (hardworking, reliable, responsible, etc.), motivation (self-motivating, interested in the subject, etc.), intellectual curiosity (willing to ask questions, wants to learn, etc.), and disposition (friendly, mature, respectful, honest, etc). While these types of characteristics were mentioned frequently, intelligence was only cited by two professors. In general professors do not believe that innate intelligence is the only key, or even the most important key, to academic success. Being a good student means having a positive attitude. The behavioral traits (comes to class, sits in the front, punctual, takes notes, etc.) are constructive habits anyone can practice. In all, good students appear to be self-made, not just born. The characteristics of good students are ones which imply making a choice to perform and adopting routines which further that goal.

What Makes Students Bad?

The responses to the question, "what are some personality characteristics of bad students?" follow the same categories as the question regarding good students. (In fact, two professors simply stated "opposite of the good ones.") Mental states clustered around lack of work ethic (lazy, irresponsible), lack of intrinsic motivation (disinterested, not attentive, more interested in earning points than learning, inability to see anything above the letter grade), lack of intellectual curiosity (indifferent, doesn't want to learn, etc.), and disposition (dishonest, sneaky, free-riding, poor attitude, whiny, etc.). Behavioral traits included such items as not coming to class, pushing things off, not turning in homework, "partying," and sitting in the back of the class. Once again, these traits are under the control of the students. They imply a choice not to succeed, not some inherent inability to do good work.

Stereotypes of Foreign Students

Unlike the questions about good students and bad students, which professors answered readily, the question concerning characteristics of foreign students received some opposition. In fact, four of the professors declined to answer this question at all. The most common answer was a safe one, some variation on the fact that foreign students have difficulties with the English language (difficulty understanding what you say, accents can be difficult to understand, they have to filter the material through "Texan" into English and their own language, etc.)

However, evidence of stereotyping did emerge. The first set of answers clustered around work ethic (hardworking, organized, high standards, Asians are very dedicated) or the lack thereof (want to beat the system, work the angle, crafty, know ways around things, some cooperate more than they should - they cheat off each other). Individual professors tended to hold one belief or the other about foreign students in terms of work ethic. That is, some professors responded only with the positive values, and others responded only with the negative values, indicating that professors hold stable beliefs about the work ethic of foreign students. Thus, some professors grouped foreign students with good students while others grouped them with bad students. The obvious danger is that professors who believe that foreign students in general are sneaky and lazy will project that image onto students regardless of evidence to the contrary. Williams (1971) found that student teachers tended to judge minority children according to their stereotypes of those minorities; they did not judge them solely on their actual performance. It is entirely possible that university professors who hold stereotypes of international students will do the same. Another possible danger is that professors will fault international students who are not as hardworking as the professors think they should be. Professors might set the standard so high that students who work hard (but not heroicly) cannot meet it. The students will then fall short, and thus receive less positive evaluations.

The second component of the mental state, disposition, showed a consensus that the stereotypical foreign student is retiring and introverted. Specific descriptions included shy, quiet, serious, less vocal, non-argumentative, polite, attentive, not wanting to lose face, and lacking self-confidence. While professors undoubtedly view some of these characteristics positively (who would not want polite students?), there seems to be a danger that professors view foreign students as a timorous mass instead of as individuals, some of whom are introverted and some of whom are opinionated and extroverted. While being introverted was not specifically mentioned in the interviews as a trait of bad students, Vollmer (2000) notes that American teachers admire character attributes that are seen as more "American," namely being aggressive and outgoing. Lalonde, Lee, and Gardner (1987) also found significant results that teachers equated sociability, extroversion, and self assurance with good students. Thus, professors who believe that nonnative speakers of English are quiet and lacking in confidence might well also believe that these students are inferior. In addition, many professors actively encourage and reward class participation, and if foreign students are prejudged to be less vocal, they might well be perceived as participating less in class regardless of the actual amount of student involvement. Indeed, a lack of self-confidence was one of the stereotypes that Williams (1971) found to affect teachers' perceptions of students.

The third component of mental state mentioned by the university professors was motivation. Business professors believed that foreign students are more motivated and have a greater commitment to study than American students. At first glance this seems to be a positive opinion of foreign students; however, some of the professors elaborated on the reasons behind students' motivation, and these elaborations demonstrated a judgment that the motivation was purely external. One professor correlated foreign students' commitment to their being required to attend school full time. Another professor stated that foreign students' motivation is the fear that if they do not perform well at school, they will have to return to their country of origin. In other words, while there is some consensus that international students are motivated, not all professors believe that the motivation is internal. Some believe that the motivation stems more from university regulations or fear.

Behavioral traits included good class attendance, doing as the professor says, and working with other students (both from their own countries and from other countries) to help each other learn. Much like the behavioral traits listed for good students, these behaviors are examples of constructive practices. In other words, they are methods any student could adopt to achieve academic success.

While certainly not the basis for generalizations on professors' opinions of foreign students, some of the idiosyncratic answers are the most interesting. For instance, one professor stated that foreign students are the underdog. Another professor, perhaps accessing the stereotype of the mathematically gifted Asian, stated that foreign students are good quantitatively. Yet another stated that while at other schools, foreign students are more dedicated, hardworking, and responsible, at the school where the professor currently taught, foreign students lacked respect for instructors and were belligerent. Clearly, professors form opinions of their students and sometimes extremely astringent ones.

This study suggests that the stereotyping of ESL students is indeed an issue at the university level. Some professors believe that foreign students are hard working while others believe the opposite. Many professors believe that foreign students are disposed to be quiet and reserved, and many also view them as highly motivated (although that motivation is viewed as being external by some and internal by others). Professors also believe that foreign students often adopt positive behaviors that help them in their college careers. These opinions show that professors hold both positive and negative stereotypes of nonnative speakers of English.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The researcher sees two important steps in the process of trying to eliminate stereotypes.
We must also serve as intermediaries between our students and our colleagues in other fields. We must help professors in other content areas understand that while ESL students are to some degree products of their home cultures, they are to a greater degree individuals with individual likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses. Specifically, we can contact advisors in other departments to talk with them about working with ESL students. By keeping in contact with former students who are now studying other fields, we can offer to serve as liaisons between them and their current professors. We can talk with the chairs of other academic departments to discuss the progress of foreign students in their programs. We, the experts on foreign students, should create these opportunities for an exchange of information. The researcher's own experience with contacting instructors in other fields has been very positive; many professors have expressed pleasure in meeting someone who has training and experience in ESL and have used the opportunity to ask questions about issues they had encountered in their teaching of ESL students. Moving outside our own classrooms and becoming advocates calls for extra effort and work, but ridding our educational system of stereotyping and prejudice is a meaningful and worthwhile goal.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. X, No. 2, February 2004