Dear Dr. Faizal,

I am a recent immigrant from Beijing, studying at a local university in Toronto. I have a Master’s degree from back home, but feel very inadequate in Canada. The problem is my English instructor continuously gives me low grades, with feedback that he cannot understand my writing. He says that I must realize that education standards in Canada are much higher than they are in China. I think he is racist. I need to pass this course. What can I do?

– Student in Angst

Dear Student,

Congratulations on earning a Master’s degree. Your achievement is a result of your hard work and belief in yourself.

The one setback of education is that it sometimes clouds our ability to be open to criticism from others, limiting our overall perception of situations and people.

Though your instructor could have been more empathic to your concerns, labelling him a “racist” may be premature and a bit harsh. Instructors in Canada have been trained to evaluate students based on set standards. As such, your instructor may not have the ability to decipher your writing style to grasp your intended meanings.

On a different level, it is important to respect and follow the adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Whether or not education standards in Canada are higher than they are in China is irrelevant here. The point is that to succeed in Canada, educationally or in other respects, you must perform in the manner expected by those in Canada. This means learning the system.

In my capacity as a college instructor, I teach students four key strategies to improve their marks in their academic courses:

  1. Form a working relationship with the instructor. You need to tell your instructor how important this course is to you. He needs to know that you are trying your best, but since English is not your native language, and since you are not used to the style of writing here, you would appreciate any extra help he could give you. I do not know of any instructor who would refuse such a plea. Once he has agreed to help you, set regular meetings with him (after class or during his office hours), being respectful of his demanding schedule. During these meetings, go over your past papers in detail, attempting to fully understand the reasons for your errors.
  2. Hire a qualified and experienced tutor. You may find one by asking friends about their present/past tutors or by asking the English department for a list of graduate students who are willing to tutor. The information you receive from your instructor should be passed along to your tutor, who will be able to help you privately to prepare for papers and exams. Yes, tutors have hourly charges, but the investment will be well worth it in the end.
  3. Get a ‘study buddy’ or study in a group. Having peers read your essays and offer constructive criticism will assist you in broadening your perspectives about your topic and your writing style. Many instructors now offer ‘peer editing’ sessions in which classmates exchange papers and comment on how the other student could improve it. You may suggest this technique to your instructor.
  4. Write as much and as frequently as you can. Ask your instructor to give you extra topics, on which you could write and ask him to later comment on. If your instructor or the English department has past exams available to students, use them as practice, and again ask your instructor to review your work and offer feedback.

By following these suggestions, you will not only improve your writing but will also convey to your instructor the important message that you are making the extra effort to be part of the Canadian education system.

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