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Supporting international students' transitional adjustment strategies

Jeanne Dawson and Grace Conti-Bekkers
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology
In their first months of Australian university education, international students experience a wide range of transitional difficulties associated with their change of physical, cultural, and educational environment. In addressing such difficulties, it is not sufficient to offer international students a standard 'guide to success at an Australian university'; we must also validate both their cultural identity and their experiences of culture shock. This paper briefly describes the 'Validation Approach' developed for the series of 'Transition Seminars' in the StudyPlus (International) Program at the Curtin Learning Support Centre. It addresses validation of students' cultural subjectivity and identity and of their experience of culture shock.


Every year, thousands of international students invest millions of dollars and countless hours of effort in Australian education. Most come to Australian universities with high expectations of the degree programs in which they are enrolled, with well-specified career goals, and with the will to work hard and succeed. In their first months at university, however, these students experience a wide range of transitional difficulties associated with their change of educational environment. Such transitional difficulties are not, of course exclusive to international students - all students must adjust their approach to learning when they enter tertiary studies - but for international students, the combination of unfamiliarity with the educational system they are entering, language difficulties, homesickness, and, for some, a sense of isolation can combine to make the challenges of higher education so much more challenging.

Australian universities have had a comparatively good record in accommodating international students and some useful work has been done towards internationalising the curriculum (Dawson, 1998). However, assimilation approaches to teaching international students still prevail: many university teachers still believe that the most effective way in which they can enhance international students' academic success is by encouraging them to 'get over' their past experiences of education and to 'move beyond' their habitual way of perceiving what is expected of them as learners (Samuelowitz, 1987; CBS FLOTE Project, 1999). Such a deficit approach implicitly equates difference with deviance; it seeks to normalise, to reduce anomalies, to coerce the student into conformity. And it operates at a time in which the student sojourner is at her or his most vulnerable, newly arrived and experiencing the early, stressful stages of culture shock.

This paper describes and advocates an alternative approach. This approach, which we've called the 'Validation Approach', has the objective of empowering international students to develop strategies for negotiating new knowledge and educational experience in a way that not only acknowledges but also actively validates their existing knowledge and experience (Dawson, 2001). The Validation Approach informs the 'Transition Seminars' of the Curtin Learning Support Centre's 'StudyPlus (International) Program', a free extra-curricular Program for undergraduate and postgraduate international students enrolled at Curtin University of Technology.

Validating international students' experiences of culture shock

Culture shock in its different manifestations is well-recognised and more or less competently managed by universities' psychological counsellors and other support staff (Harris, 1997). In the StudyPlus Transition Seminars, however, the concept of culture shock is put more directly into an academic context and is worked through and reflected upon as a positive growth stage in the international student's development as a successful learner.

Students are invited to understand the process of culture shock in terms of the General Systems Theory of Cultural Adaptation (Kim and Ruben, 1988), which regards people as individual systems that function through interaction with their physical, cultural, and human environment, and react to a changed environment. Cultural dislocation, however well-managed, always involves an increased awareness that the match between internal subjective experiences and external objective experiences is not fixed and stable but contingent upon the environment in which the individual finds her- or himself (Gudykunst and Kim, 1992). In the early stages of culture shock, individuals may experience high levels of stress as they try to reconcile their inner subjective experience with a changed objective environment.

Individual students negotiate this stressful stage with different degrees of success and over different periods of time. Many international students, especially those who come to the university as part of a group sharing the same cultural background, pass quickly through the initial stressful stages of culture shock, moving on to stages of adaptation and growth. Because culture shock tends to be cyclical, however, even these individuals may later encounter situations of cultural uncertainty that undermine their earlier confidence in the accuracy of their perceptions and the appropriateness of their responses. Nor is it only international students who experience culture shock: mature-age students returning to study after several years' absence, students from rural and isolated backgrounds, and even school leavers also experience the stresses of uncertainty as they adapt to the university environment. Nevertheless, given the role of language as the nexus between inner subjective experience and the objective world (Whorf, 1956), those students whose first language is not English are likely to experience the highest levels of stress.

Culture shock, at whatever level it is experienced, is not only inevitable but is also a necessary catalyst to adaptation and growth, and thus to effective learning. The objective of using the Validation Approach in the StudyPlus Transition Seminars is therefore not to assist students to avoid culture shock but, rather, to support them through the early stressful stages, so that stress does not become distress, which, as Gudykunst and Kim imply, is a serious impediment to psychological health as well as to learning. The most effective way we have found of supporting students through the early stages of the process is by acknowledging and validating both their experience of culture shock and their cultural subjectivity/identity.

A support strategy we find useful is simply to discuss with students the processes of culture shock, emphasising that these processes are simultaneously universal (everyone who relocates experiences them) and individual (everyone experiences them in their own way); that they are cyclical rather than linear; and, above, that they have the potential for generating psychic and social growth. Working in groups of four, students are invited to identify any aspects of culture shock they are presently experiencing or have in the past experienced. As a group, they are asked to list some of these experiences and share them with the larger group, without disclosing which member has offered each example. From each of the small group offerings, we compile a longer list for the seminar group to consider, taking each item separately, deciding where it might fit into the culture shock process as a whole and how it might be used for moving on to the next stage. At no time do we suggest that any of these items is a problem to be solved; rather, we recognise each as a valuable learning opportunity that may be responded to in more or less productive ways. We are also careful in our facilitation of the seminar to construct a professional academic environment: we aim to create a warm classroom climate in which students feel safe to disclose, but we focus on culture shock not as a pathological syndrome but as an interesting objective phenomenon that can be interpreted, analysed, and managed rationally.

As a follow up, we introduce students to the practice of structured reflection by offering them possible frameworks through which to evaluate their experiences. Students are encouraged to keep a structured reflection journal, describing incidents or experiences related to culture shock, and reflecting upon the ways in which they responded to these incidents and experiences and the outcomes of such responses. Students are not required to hand in these journals for our comments, but many do so. One of the very gratifying aspects of reading these journals is to see that having articulated their experience in writing, students are more able to think through and respond to issues more productively. For instance, a postgraduate design student from Indonesia wrote:

I find the education system here is so different from Indonesia. I think because I am a post-graduate student I should know what to do but I cannot. My lecturer say I must not expect them to take my hand because I have studied before. But some things I am asked to do I do not understand. Sometimes the lecturer speaks fast and looks angry. I feel like I am in kindergarden class. I worry that I waste my father's money on my study.
Having articulated his present concerns in this way, the student was then able to separate them into five individual issues: the mismatch between his prior experience of education and his present experience; his practical concern that he was not getting the educational guidance he needed; the worry that he might have to return to Indonesia, having spent $7000, without a postgraduate qualification; the related fear of disappointing his father; his loss of self-esteem. Recognising that these five issues were in part related to his situation of cultural dislocation, and not to personal failings, helped this student to make a rational decision to consult a student adviser in his School, and explain his need for more useful educational guidance during his transition to the Australian education system. In a later journal entry he wrote:
I used the assertion strategies we practise in StudyPlus. I went to J.T. and I said, 'I know the lecturers are very busy but when I cannot get help I feel disappointed with the university for recruiting me as a student and then not giving me a chance to succeed.' (I did not say it as clear as I practise it, but J.T. she understood and she helped me to find examples.) I spoke quiet and we also had a joke together.
As well as encouraging students to develop critical metacognitive skills and to manage the stressful aspects of culture shock more effectively, these structured reflection journals give us valuable insights into students' experiences and responses and help us devise further strategies.

Validating international student presage

All students process new knowledge through reference to prior knowledge; what they already know, think, believe, and have experienced are essential elements in their process of negotiating new knowledge. This is acknowledged in Dunkin and Biddle's 'presage-process-product' ('3P') model of the teaching and learning process (1974). This model, refined by Biggs (1996, 1999), recognises that a student's pre-learning characteristics, known as 'student presage factors', have important measurable effects on the learning process and learning outcomes and that the relationship between the presage, process, and product elements of the model is highly dynamic. Student presage factors are relatively stable, having been developed before the student enters the system, but the other elements mat be constructively aligned to student presage in different ways and with different outcomes (Biggs, 1992, 1999).

Effective alignment is more properly the responsibility of teachers rather than learners, but international students do need to be supported in an environment that does not always adequately acknowledge student presage. The issue goes beyond teaching and learning, because presage factors are not simply cognitive acquisitions; they are, in fact, essential elements in the construction of the students' subjectivity and of their sense of self. Moreover, many presage factors are culturally constructed, and may be incompatible with characteristics of the teaching context. For instance, a student whose subjectivity has been constructed in a culture that favours a high-context communication style will need to develop strategies for negotiating the low-context communication style of the Australian university classroom. As a student from a Confucian heritage cultural background wrote in her structured reflection journal,

I have been assigned to a group of Aussie students. We have to discuss the homework question. I sometimes have ideas but when I think of the words, my group mates have moved to next topic. They speak loud and argue. When I disagree I keep my idea inside. I think I will not get a good participation mark for this unit.
There are two issues here. Firstly, there is the group work skills issue, which we address in the StudyPlus Transition Seminars by covering such topics as 'addressing and audience', 'diverse task and maintenance roles in teams', 'filling your space', and 'appropriate assertion'. Secondly, there is the cultural issue. We address this by giving students information about such cross-cultural dimensions as high- and low-context communication, collectivism and individualism, culturally differentiated styles of turn-taking, and so on. More importantly, however, we explore and reflect upon concepts of cultural relativity in a way that validates each student's cultural identity in a multicultural environment. We emphasise that conforming to the Western academic conventions of the Australian university to meet study program requirements is a matter of pragmatics and that these Australian conventions are not per se superior to the conventions of the culture or the education system of the countries from which these students have come.


Student responses to our Validation Approach have been highly encouraging. Especially through the structured reflection journals, we have watched international students grow in confidence and awareness of their cultural identity as well as of their potential as successful learners. Feedback in the first semester of using this approach has been positive and enthusiastic, and we look forward to developing and refining it further in future semesters.


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Authors: Dr Jeanne Dawson, Learning Support Coordinator, Centre for Educational Advancement, Curtin University of Technology. Email: j.s.dawson@curtin.edu.au
Ms Grace Conti-Bekkers, Lecturer, Centre for Educational Advancement, Curtin University of Technology

Please cite as: Dawson, J. and Conti-Bekkers, G. (2002). Supporting international students' transitional adjustment strategies. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/dawson.html

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