As the first signs of autumn appear and the shop windows announce ‘back to school’, it is time for those working in international education, preparing for the arrival of a new cohort of students, to remind themselves of the challenges that lie ahead. Challenges for students include crossing continents, leaving behind home, family and familiar support structures, but there are also challenges for the staff who will be working with them. It is important to think again about what studying abroad means and to acknowledge the cultural dimension of learning.
The learning environment
A student’s expectations of their new course of study will inevitably be coloured by their previous learning experiences, former relationships with tutors and the teaching methodologies they have encountered in the past.
So, effective understanding of the learning environment is a necessary two-way process. The student needs to recognise that their academic success will depend not just on the acquisition of new knowledge or greater language proficiency, but also on the skills which will enable them to apply their knowledge within the context of the new educational system and to the standards and measures which will be applied by that system. In turn, the tutor needs to both recognise and acknowledge the learning background individual to each student, and make every effort to understand the challenges a student may face in crossing into a new learning context, actively helping them to deal with those difficulties effectively.
For example, linguistic problems are commonplace and can quickly become apparent, in the first face-to-face encounter with a new student or through their first written submission. Beyond language difficulties, we know lie culture shock and anxiety mixed in with excitement, anticipation and high expectations of what studying in the UK will bring.
Acknowledging student difficulties
For some, the transition to personal and academic independence, in a context where they are already feeling at sea, can be a step too far. And to the student, a tutor, whose help they need to make this transition, may appear unapproachable, simply by virtue of their professional status or the student’s past experience of a hierarchical student-teacher relationship. The perception of the role of the tutor may vary hugely, to some a mentor or advisor, others an expert and specialist. The concept of the supervisor or facilitator, whose role is to oversee learning, at times from a distance, may be unfamiliar. The student may view their own role in the learning partnership as being to listen, absorb, reflect and rehearse the learning, rather than actively engage in and instigate the critique of ideas and the exchange of opinions which is demanded by higher education institutions, in particular.
Some students rarely ask for help, for to do so might appear to be over-demanding or to admit weakness; others may seek help all too readily, appearing to the tutor to lack initiative or independence of thought, qualities so prized by higher-level academic study. In addition, external pressures can take their toll. The gloss of excitement which glazed over the first weeks of study fades and the chilly reality of the challenges, which must be overcome if the student is to achieve their academic goals, can seem all too pressing.
External pressures affect the ability of many international students to cope with the transition to this new learning environment: family expectations, the all too common homesickness, political and social upheaval back home, along with financial concerns, can all impact on their emotional and physical health. In turn, this affects their capacity to assimilate the new learning culture and so they slip back into the comfort of former study habits, which may have proved very successful in the past, and step away from the challenge of adapting to new learning practices.
Adjusting to new environments
The impact of stress on international students is well documented and may well result in withdrawal from interaction with others or over reliance on the tutor who represents the security of academic authority. Adjustment is required on both sides. Tutors need to be alert to difficulties and make appropriate adjustments, recognising the value of the cultural learning which students bring with them; students need to acknowledge the difficulties they face and be ready to adapt. Open discussion of these aspects is crucial. Organisations need to develop and sustain an inclusive learning environment, promoting integration and putting in place support systems which are relevant and responsive. Staff need to be sensitive to the diversity of international students, sharply aware of their different educational needs, some of which may not have been acknowledged as needs in their home country.
Each student begins their academic journey from very different starting points, so it’s imperative we take the first steps, helping students to navigate new assessment methods and marking criteria, the pressures of the academic calendar and the rigours of transitioning from one culture to another. It is our responsibility to ensure that we create an environment in which students feel empowered to express concerns and reassured that the experience they bring from their own learning culture will be of value in the new context.