A warm welcome is just the first step

February 14, 2003

Even successful international postgraduates can need long-term support such as mentoring and continuing induction to bridge cultural gaps, writes Gina Wisker

Late last year, I was sitting under a blue balloon in a large room with Ravi, an MSc computing science student from India, chatting about his studies during "lighten-up week", a feature of Anglia Polytechnic University's extended year-long induction scheme.

Ravi was puzzled. He was was a dedicated hard-working student who produced excellent work, but he had not settled in here. For a start, he was sharing a room with a stranger with different sleeping, eating and working habits, which stopped him concentrating. He had not done computer science at this level before. He wanted to know how to find the right textbooks for his first essay, which was due any minute and which had to be longer than anything he had ever written. Then there was his English, which was very good, but he was meeting new terminology and questions framed in an alien way. He was an able, articulate student at sea in a different culture.

Ravi's comments chime with those of many international students. We meet them, greet them, load them with information, then leave them to sink or swim. We expect students to settle in, make new friends, manage money, keep warm and ease into a round of lectures, seminars and assessments. If by week 11 postgraduates still find it hard going, what started as induction becomes more an issue of student retention.

Short-term induction is not enough. These students need support. If they are from different cultures, they may have very different expectations from the host university about approach, experience, outcomes and research methods. These potential difficulties need to be taken into account when setting up taught masters courses, research and training programmes and supervisory relationships.

International students often come from an environment where they are not allowed to criticise teachers or experts, raise questions that could embarrass them or correct them if they err. They are more likely to defer to authority than to analyse and criticise. It is not surprising, then, that international postgraduate students find it hard to put forward their ideas.

That may not be all that holds them back. Language abilities can hamper students' access to learning resources. Even successful international postgraduates may need extra English classes and help with subject-specific language. Such support enables the development of "tertiary" literacy and the expression of complex ideas in a second language at an advanced level.

Lecturers should see if texts are available in translation. They should also guide students in using libraries, journals and books and show how we analyse, critique, reference and integrate them into our original work.

In supervisions or seminars, international postgrads need time to translate the ideas presented and to learn the discipline-related discourses so that they can express their complex ideas confidently. Sound learning practices or skills of study, analysis and reflection need to be made explicit and encouraged early on. Those students who are culturally more reticent need to be involved, even if it takes a while for them to join in.

Ravi is still with us. The continuing induction, student mentoring and the tertiary literacy and English support (see box right) seem to be helping him. He says he now knows more people and knows that we care about his success as a learner. He has also received the results of that first assignment.

Gina Wisker is professor of learning and teaching at Anglia Polytechnic University.


* Continuing induction and "bring back" sessions

* Mentors for each student

* Joint involvement of all student support agencies - student union, student services, the learning and teaching centre and so on

* Research students' learning approaches and behaviour to feed into learning, teaching, assessment and curriculum change

* Workshops and individual support in tertiary literacy, learning and assessment techniques and the production of clear writing

* Letting students know what is expected, for example, the do's and don'ts of accessing information and incorporating it into their work

* Events to encourage students to mix and make friends interculturally

* Encouraging reflection about learning

* Recognising achievement in tutorials, mentoring, classroom activities and assessments

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