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Improving International Students' experience of studying in the UK


This case study explores some of the key issues that arose from a qualitative research project focused on an analysis of the international student's experience in a post-92 London university. The data were collected through focus groups and individual semi-structured interviews and seek to present ways in which the international student's experience of studying the UK could be improved.

The findings for the research focus on the international student experiences in the classroom and how international students adapt to a different educational system, academically, culturally and socially. The term "international students" is taken here to mean those students who have been educated in a national education system outside the UK and who on the whole are likely to be non-native speakers of English, although this is not necessarily the case.

Evaluative Comments

There are clearly challenges for international students studying at higher education institutions in the UK. These challenges require higher education institutions to revaluate teaching and learning strategies in the light of the increased recruitment of such students to the UK in order to consider ways in which their experience can be improved.

The first of the these challenges concerns English language ability, or rather consideration of the fact that many international students are non native speakers of English. This has two aspects to it. Firstly, there is a minimum language requirement for entry for all overseas students and secondly, even if students have more than met this entry requirement they may not be familiar with technical terminology for a specialist subject area.

"Tutors should also not assume a background knowledge of political and economic issues in the UK."

For some students who have only just met the criterion for language, studying in English particularly at Masters level can prove onerous and stressful. In this case study this aspect of language ability, that is those students who had just met the language entry requirement, covered half of the students and the levels of independent study required at a very early stage of the course caused a lot of stress. Secondly, there are those that are confident in their language ability and who feel that language support classes do not meet their needs as the classes are too generic and what they are seeking is further explanation of specialised terminology, little time is spent in addressing the more specialist support required by these students. As a consequence, there is frustration expressed by these students as lecturers can mistake their lack of knowledge regarding technical or even political or cultural terminology as the students having difficulties with language, which is not the case.

In addition the students have different levels of English, which can hinder the educational experience of the whole group. One student commented in a focus group that 'there are some people who come from different backgrounds - I don't know enough about how people are taught in China but we have different levels of English and different backgrounds - some people just receive and not give'. Not speaking up in class can also make it difficult for tutors to gain a clear picture of the levels of English language ability and the understanding of the students.

The second issue is that of the social and cultural adjustments of the students. Volet and Ang (1998) comment that 'tertiary institutions have a social responsibility to design learning environments which foster students' developments on intercultural adaptability' (1998:21) While students did not feel that a lack of social and cultural knowledge of the UK had affected their ability to study, there was a feeling that lecturers should incorporate the knowledge of the students' native cultures into their class discussion as this could benefit everyone.

It was also felt that tutors should also not assume a background knowledge of political and economic issues in the UK. Other felt strongly that the differences in study methods compared to their home countries proved to be a challenge, particularly in the first few weeks of their course. There was a strong emphasis on the fact that lecturers need to consider non-English backgrounds in the way in which they explain the material to the class.

Class contribution can also be a traumatic experience but this can be facilitated by tutors who make the students feel more comfortable in discussing subjects with other students that they don't know. The importance of class interaction for overseas students is reinforced by Jackson (2003) who comments on the necessity for building a 'considerable rapport' with the group. This rapport is seen as one of the most effective learning and teaching techniques for overseas students.

It was clear from the focus groups that students from different cultural groups react to these stresses in different ways. In other words there are clearly cultural groups which found class interaction more difficult than others, for example those from more collectivist cultures.

In addition to all of this it must not be forgotten that many students are still suffering from 'culture shock' and often still trying to adjust to life in the UK when their first assessments are due. As one student put it, 'even little things like how to submit your essay if you are in a different country are problematic'.

Students also commented in some depth about the culture shock that they had experienced and this was exacerbated by the difficulties that many students had in making friends in London.

Differences in study methods compared to the country of origin present another difficulty for international students. In many countries students would have a much greater amount of time spent in class. There would be less emphasis on independent study and more focus on developing the information provided by lecturers in their sessions. Obviously the extent of this varies, but it is true to say that many experience a great deal of difficulty with the transition that is required to be made in a very short period of time. For example, students have to cope with the amount of reading required and the need to synthesise that information in a critical way, without further input from their tutors until it comes to the assessment.

As De Vita (2001) observes, different discourse styles create tensions that affect a students' performance. Groupwork may also be an issue and the cultural diversity of groups requires students to use intercultural skills which require training.

The isolation that many international students suffer as result of coming to the UK to study can vary enormously but it is an ever-present theme. The following provides a rather grim and perhaps extreme example of the effect that cultural, social and academic isolation can have on an overseas student. Whilst this represents the emotions and views of one particular student, elements of the student's experience are common and it raises some salient points in relation the social and cultural interactions that are a necessary feature of studying in another country.

Nicos' Story

Nicos was a postgraduate student at the Business School. He was diligent and conscientious and achieved good marks on his MA programme. He was expected to gain an overall distinction grade. He had excellent English language skills.

Towards the end of his programme of study, Nicos had become interested in the experiences of international students at the university and decided that he would explore the university structures and framework for the recruitment and pastoral care of international students for his dissertation topic. His research proposal was excellent and meeting with his supervisor provided no indication of any personal problems that he was undergoing with regard to his studies, only that he was interested in finding out the student perspective of studying in the UK at university.

Prior to meeting with his supervisor for the last time Nicos decided to return to Greece and sent his supervisor an email outlining his reasons for not attending their meeting. The email was extremely sad but honest and heartrending that Nicos had not felt able to talk through his problems with anyone in the UK. He said that he had not been able to adjust to London at all and that the year in Britain had been a very difficult one for him, he had felt ashamed and did not feel that his supervisor would believe him so he had not found the courage to say anything.

He had spent most of his time in his room, 7 days a week, apart from the time spent in university, sometimes without speaking to anyone for 4/5 days. He said that he did not understand the reasons why this had happened and that he had never felt so alone in his life and that the topic for his dissertation came about because of what he was experiencing. The focus groups with his peers that he carried out for his research into the student experiences reinforced ideas of the students' separation from each other and the university.

Nicos passed his dissertation on the second submission a year later. He did not get an overall distinction for his Masters study even though he was clearly a very capable student because the dissertation he submitted did not get a good enough mark. He never returned to England.

An excerpt from Nicos' email:

'I really wanted to finish my dissertation by September so that I would not have to go back to London again, but I broke down, I suddenly felt that I could not do it. I was going crazy and could not write a word anymore. I would stand in front of the computer for hours just writing a paragraph. So on Sunday I left and came to Greece. Today I went to the airport for the flight back, so that I could see you in the morning but as soon as I had to leave my parents and go to the boarding gate, I freezed and panicked. I could not picture myself alone again in the same places for even an hour. The last few days I have started feeling a human being again. I can talk with people and they are people who care about me, I go out with friends for coffee and I want to cry. The first morning I woke up, I started crying because my mother had washed my bag, someone had done something for me.'

Nicos was very concerned that some of the challenges facing international students need to be considered fully by the institutions recruiting them. This case serves to illustrate the impact of culture shock on a students' academic performance.

Reflections and Advice

The research clearly demonstrated the difficulties that overseas students have in adjusting to a new academic environment.

Universities and departments need to consider the impact of recruiting large numbers of students who are either non-native speakers of English, who have been educated in a national education system other than the UK or who have non-UK matriculation qualifications or degrees. The institution needs to consider whether the teaching and learning strategies should address the specific study needs of these students. Students commented that some had felt that their learning and teaching styles — particularly those from the Far East — were incompatible and were too shy to express the difficulties that they were having. In addition tutors could perhaps evaluate the appropriateness of assessment strategies in the light of cohorts of students being overseas: for example, the use of groupwork.

It may also be useful for institutions to provide social activities for students to encourage the social adjustment that students need to make. Students could be encouraged to organise these activities themselves. Social networks are particularly important for students. For example, students from China commented in great depth on the lack of this aspect to their studies. Friendships and social networks are important in helping students feel a sense of identity both with their peers and the university. This is very difficult in an urban institution and where the courses are modular.

Peer-assisted learning is being used more frequently and can prove to be a useful student support mechanism. Students gain a more structured means of communicating with international and British students who have already progressed on their course. Such mentors can offer advice on aspects of their study skills and possible approaches to assessment. This also provides additional social contact with students already on the course.

The findings from the research illustrated that students would like further guidance on things such as referencing and study skills, in sessions that were subject-specific. However when these sessions are held on a voluntary basis, attendance can be an issue and some thought needs to be given as to how to incorporate such sessions into the curriculum. A useful model for first year undergraduate students has proved to be a compulsory higher education orientation module. It is common in some countries to incorporate "communication" based modules into the curriculum, particularly in Business Schools, which provide a forum for students to focus on the communication aspects of their studies.

Some consideration could also be given to the different levels of language and possibly different countries of origin of the students. The use of ice-breakers in the first one or two classes is a useful way of getting the students to engage with each other and feel less conscious about expressing opinions in front of those that they don't know. Tutors need to be aware that non-verbal communication — for example, differences in eye contact — is also an important aspect of classroom communication, and that there is a need for sensitivity to cultural diversity in the classroom.


De Vita, G. (2001), 'The Use of Groupwork in Large and Diverse Business Management Classes: some critical issues', International Journal of Management Education, Vol 1, No 3, 27.

Jackson, P., (2003) 'Ten challenges for introducing Web-supported learning to overseas students in the social sciences', Active Learning Vol 4(1):87.

Volet, S. E., & Ang, G. (1998) 'Culturally mixed groups on international campuses: an opportunity for intercultural learning,' Higher Education Research and Development, Vol 17(1) 5-23.

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