Sink or Swim: The Challenges of International Students and How to Address Them

Many have heard that American students have abysmal scores in math and science but rank number one in self-confidence. Perhaps this is rubbing off on our international students, as they rated themselves very successful in a number of academic tasks in Caplan and Stevens’ (2017) survey of international students at the University of Delaware, even when faculty rated them as unsuccessful. Of course, self-reporting on surveys is not the most reliable tool, and, in all seriousness, Caplan and Stevens’ research sheds some interesting and important light on the differences between faculty and student perceptions of academic life. At the same time, they point to a number of linguistic, cultural, and academic factors that make the international student experience both a challenge and a worthwhile experience. In addition, they show how they took this information and made changes to their EAP program, helping students better transition to university. These are changes intensive English, pathway, and other programs should pay attention to.

What’s Important?

The authors found some interesting areas of convergence and divergence in terms of what academic skills faculty find important and what skills students find important. Both faculty and students rated critical thinking, understanding lectures, and synthesizing information as the most important skills. Faculty also rated taking notes and participating in class discussions as very important whereas these skills were undervalued by students. Conversely, students overvalued skills such as writing about opinions, taking essay exams and multiple choice tests, giving presentations, writing group papers, and leading discussions. These were among the lowest ranked by faculty, with only the latter two being ranked unimportant by 50% or more of the respondents to the survey.

What’s a Success?

The surveys also looked at perceptions of success on these skills. There were some big discrepancies in this area. While both faculty and students agreed to some extent on the success of reading textbooks and time management, skills such as participating in class discussions, writing research papers, using sources, and writing essays, among others, were ranked as unsuccessful by faculty while they were successful to a high degree by students. In fact, students rated most skills as successful, a stark contrast to the faculty perceptions.

Obstacles to Success

Using the survey data and qualitative interviews with former students who had matriculated from their EAP program, the authors identified major categories that inhibited success in university. Linguistic issues related to communication, writing, and listening were obvious issues that came up for both faculty and students. The authors noted the data here may be skewed based on the number of high-proficiency students who actually took the survey (meaning lower proficiency ones did not) as well as faculty possibly thinking only of their experiences with weaker students. Interestingly, the authors pointed out that culture may underlie a number of issues that typically get blamed on linguistic issues. That is, students may not be accustomed to the way US faculty interact in the classroom, and therefore do not know how to respond. Therefore, cultural differences were found to be another obstacle to success.

This influence of culture appears not only in classroom interaction patterns but in group participation, a lack of shared background or cultural knowledge (a quote from a faculty member interviewed: “‘They tend to be very narrow, culturally – especially those from China. For example, when discussing the carbon dating of the Shroud of Turin, I’ve had several students ask me who Jesus Christ was!’,” p. 21), lack of understanding the university system, source use, and critical thinking.

They also struggle with some academic problems, especially related to understanding instructions and assessment. This problem is usually associated with not being able to understand exactly what the professor is looking for. Completing tests on time is also another major issue.

The authors do highlight some factors that contribute to success in order to balance out the focus on lacks. These included attempting to participate, meeting professors during office hours (a common complaint by professors was that students never visited, even when it was suggested by the professor), utilizing support services such as writing and career centers, and sympathetic and appreciative faculty.

Academic Transitions

The data from this research directly informed the EAP program’s curriculum in a number of ways. They modified their advanced level courses to become a single integrated-skills course rather than several courses focused on discrete skills. Elective courses are offered to help address social, cultural, academic issues. In addition, these students enroll in “transitional semesters” after finishing the core EAP program. These semesters include English composition courses taught by EAP faculty as well as general education courses with ESL support. According to the authors:

Academic Transitions thus provides a shallow entry to the university for conditionally admitted undergraduates, replacing an instructional model which offered high levels of support up to the edge of the precipice, after which students had to sink or swim.

Practical Suggestions

Redesigning a program or its core curriculum is a major task, but it is not the only outcome this data leads to. The skills that are deemed both important and unsuccessful by faculty are ones that certainly should be focused on more in the classroom. This would include building up critical thinking skills, source use, synthesizing information, and especially class participation. This could be done in a way that introduces students to basic cultural background knowledge such as the system of government, significant cultural or historical events, or world religions. Emulating, as best as possible, tasks and assessments that will be encountered in the university classroom is equally as important. At the same time, students should be introduced to important resources the university offers so that they do not need to “sink or swim” but are aware of support after leaving any ESL program.

This article is well worth the read for the additional information of survey responses, and especially the comments from both faculty and students. Their program, well-known within the United States, paints a great picture of what needs analysis and “a little more tolerance from everyone” can do.


Caplan, N.A & Stevens, S.G. (2017). “Step out of the cycle”: Needs, challenges, and successes of international undergraduates at a U.S. university. English for Specific Purposes, 46, 15-28. Retrieved from here.

Thanks to Dr. Nigel Caplan for reviewing my summary!

Featured photo by ctj71081

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Anthony Schmidt
English language Instructor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Anthony Schmidt is editor of ELT Research Bites. He also has his own blog at Offline, he is a full-time English language instructor in a university IEP program. He is interested in all aspects of applied linguistics, in particular English for Academic Purposes.

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