International Students’ interactions with staff



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International Students’ interactions with staff

Abstract

With increasing numbers of International students studying in Australia, it is becoming more and more important to understand their satisfaction with the local university experience. Research has shown that frequent informal interactions with staff enhance student satisfaction. The aim of this study is to examine the International students’ perceptions of interactions with staff by measuring the nature and frequency of their interactions with staff, their expectations and perception of the role of academic staff and incorporate their suggestions for future interactions with staff. A 172 International undergraduate students from The University of Western Australia (hereafter referred to as UWA) participated in the study. Results indicate very infrequent interactions with staff, with a majority of interactions being academic in nature and initiated by students through face-to-face contact. Student recommendations to improve staff availability and initiatives to incorporate cultural awareness within staff training are suggested.

Introduction

Australia is currently the third largest tertiary education provider for International students in the English-speaking world (Australian Education International, 2009). The number of overseas students has increased exponentially from just 188,277 in 2000 to more than 436,895 in 2009, with students now contributing to 26.5 % of all tertiary enrolments in Australia (Australian Education International, 2000; Australian Education International, 2009; Banks, Olsen & Pearce, 2007). At UWA alone, a total of 2984 International undergraduate students from across 80 different countries are currently enrolled (Unistats, 2009). The majority of Undergraduate International students originate from Asia (2573) followed by Africa (168), Britain (120) and North America (91). With the numbers of overseas student enrolments predicted to grow (Banks, Olsen & Pearce, 2007), it is becoming more and more important to understand International student satisfaction with the local university experience.

Past literature has linked student satisfaction to the frequency of staff-student interactions, with more frequent interactions associated with higher levels of student satisfaction and enhanced self-worth (Astin, 1999; Endo & Harpel, 1982; Kuh, 1995; Pascerella & Terenzini, 1976). International students, however, are found to engage in higher levels of interactions with staff than local students, but report surprisingly lower levels of satisfaction in comparison. This observation is common across International Students in Canada, Australia and even locally at UWA (Grayson, 2007; Department of Education, Workplace and Employment, 2008; UWA, 2008). These findings contrast with previous research (Astin, 1999; Endo & Harpel, 1982; Kuh, 1995; Pascerella & Terenzini, 1976) where the frequent informal interactions predicted enhanced student self-worth and satisfaction; thus suggesting that there may be other dynamic factors involved in the process of International student-staff interactions which may influence their perceptions of overall satisfaction.

In investigating the factors that affect International Student-staff interactions, previous research has focussed on language barriers and student expectations in relation to the role of academic staff. Studies have found that language weakness and sensitivity to one’s ability may play a significant role in the quality of International students’ interactions with staff (Robertson, Line, Jones & Thomas, 2000; Brunton & Zhang, 2007). Insensitivity of the faculty to the emotional and psychological problems experienced by International students may also contribute to the problems encountered in interacting with staff (Robertson et al., 2000).

Students’ expectations of the role of academic staff also affect their satisfaction with interactions outside of class. Studies at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) suggest that students expect higher levels of support from faculty during their initial period of adjustment than provided (Khawaja & Dempsey, 2008). However, in other studies, students believe co-nationals to be a more appropriate source of help than faculty (Gillette, 2005). With conflicting suggestions, it has not been clearly established whether International students expect personal support from the faculty during the initial period of adjustment.

Similarly, perceptions of the role of academic staff may also affect International student-staff interactions. Campbell and Li (2008) state that International students expect staff to play a nurturing role and push them to achieve. However, Hee and Woodrow (2008), state that Korean students are reluctant to engage with lecturers in class, assuming that it would be disrespectful and annoying. It is unclear, however, whether this attitude translates into the out-of-class interactions for all international students.

In focussing primarily on the differences between International and local students, some studies have tended to stereotype international students, without systematically investigating the nature and frequency of International student-staff interaction and their expectations and perceptions regarding the role of academic staff (Biggs, 1999). In addition, very few studies have incorporated suggestions from International students in order cater for their needs.

In addressing these limitations, the aim of this study is to systematically investigate: (1) the nature and frequency of interactions, in particular; the frequency of interactions, the time-frame of interaction, who initiates the interactions, purpose of interactions, the preferred medium of interaction and any problems encountered in the interactions. The study will also investigate (2) students’ perceptions and expectations regarding the role of academic staff due to the inconsistency in past literature; and, (3) student suggestions for future interactions. The findings of this study help to inform a growing body of literature on the university experience of International students.

Literature Review

Research into student engagement (Tinto, 1997; Astin, 1999) has found student involvement in the academic and social aspects of the college experience to be associated with higher levels of student persistence at the first-year undergraduate levels. In particular, frequent interactions with staff outside the classroom is associated with higher levels of achievement of desired goals (Endo and Harpel, 1982), perceptions of enhanced self-worth, (Kuh, 1995), and greater commitment to the institution (Pascellera & Terenzini, 1976; Strauss and Volkwein, 2004). In a qualitative study of out-of-class experiences, Kuh (1995) found that informal student–faculty interactions impact aspects of students’ self-concept, such as self-worth and confidence, as well as academic skills.

However, research assessing the frequency of student-staff interactions has found a disappointingly low number of staff-student interactions. The AUSSE which was administered to total of 67,379 students at 25 Australasian universities found that the average score for the Student-Staff Interactions scale was just 21.1 for first year Australian undergraduates, compared to 32.8 for North American students. These interactions are mostly academic in nature, with only 20% of interactions being personal or social in nature (Ananya & Cole, 2001). It is still unknown what medium of communication International students prefer in interacting with staff, although Hee and Woodrow (2008) reveal that Korean students prefer face-to-face interactions with peers.

At UWA, the Student Survey of Engagement (UWA - SSE) which is based on the American National Student Survey of Engagement (NSSE), found that more than 75% of the students failed to engage in key out-of-class interactions with staff (UWA, 2007). It was similarly found that International students engage in higher student-staff interactions than local students, though being less satisfied in comparison. For 2008, 24 percent of International students engaged in interactions with staff compared to 19 percent of local students, but only 69 percent of the International students were satisfied compared to 75 percent of the local students (UWA, 2008). However, there is very little information on who initiates the interactions, the preferred medium of communication and whether the interactions serve to be formal or informal.

In a similar study in Canada, Grayson (2007) found that although International students had significantly more contacts with faculty outside of the classroom (0.7) than local students (0.5), only 70% of International students were satisfied compared to 75% of the domestic students. These findings are contrary to that of previous research (Astin, 1999; Endo & Harpel, 1982; Kuh, 1995; Pascerella & Terenzini, 1976) where frequent contact with staff outside the classroom resulted in higher student satisfaction; pointing to the suggestion that other dynamic factors may influence the quality of International student-staff interactions outside the classroom.

Past research (Robertson et al., 2000; Sawir, Marginson, Deumert, Nyland and Ramia, 2008; Brunton and Zhang, 2007; Campbell & Li, 2008) in Australia and New Zealand has focussed on the difficulties that International students face in adjusting to their new surroundings. Robertson et al. (2000), found that isolation in the new surrounds, unfriendly staff and dealing with language barriers were some of the major problems faced by International students in Australia. Loneliness and lack of social network were major factors that decreased student enjoyment of their course (Sawir et al., 2008).

Other studies (Andrade, 2006; Brunton and Zhang, 2007; Robertson et al., 2000) have found language barrier as a major impediment in the process of adjustment for International students. Brunton and Zhang (2007) found that incompetency in English prevented Asian students from effectively forming friendships and communicating with lecturers and other students. These students attributed their lack of participation to language weaknesses and sensitivity to their ability (Robertson et al., 2000). Andrade (2006) attests that without linguistic ability or sociocultural adjustment, there is an increased probability of stress-related mental illnesses and disruption to study in the initial stage of acclimatization.

Students’ expectations of the level of support from faculty also impacts on the degree of successful adjustment, though studies (Eland, 2001; Hodgons & Simoni, 1995; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992; Gillette, 2005) are inconsistent in reporting whether International students prefer social support from faculty in the initial stage of adjustment. Some studies (Eland, 2001; Hodgons & Simoni, 1995; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992; Ramsay, 1999) show that perceived social support from faculty predicted psychological well-being of students. However, the actual level of support offered by universities seems to fall short of student expectations, with International students from the QUT being dissatisfied with the quality of social support afforded by the university in comparison to local students (Khawaja & Dempsey, 2008). In another survey from New Zealand (Campbell & Li, 2008), Chinese students felt a general lack of empathy from the faculty in the initial stage of adjustment.

In other cases, (Gillette, 2005) students preferred to interact with co-nationals, feeling that it was not appropriate to approach faculty or staff with questions (Gillette, 2005). The inconsistency in the literature needs to be resolved to inform policy makers whether to invest in staff training or organise more social support networks for International students.

In addition, examining students’ perceptions of the role of academic staff may also reveal International students’ expectations. For example, Hee and Woodrow (2008) , report that Korean students are reluctant to question or debate topics with professors, assuming that it is disrespectful and annoying to the teachers. Whether this attitude is persistent in out-of-class interactions with staff has not yet been investigated. International students also consign the responsibility of teaching to lecturers rather than the institution and expect staff to be nurturing and push them to achieve (Campbell & Li, 2008), though it is still unclear if International students expect staff to support them in the process of adjustment to new surroundings.

However, in focussing only on the differences between International and local students, Biggs (1999) suggests that there is an institutional stereotyping of students from Asian backgrounds and that the issues and problems faced by International students are no different from mainstream students undergoing the transition to an academic university culture (Levy, Osborn, and Plunkett, 2003; McInnes, 2001). For example, Hellstén and Prescott (2004) found unavailability of suitable consultation times to be an extensive source of complaint amongst International students. This suggests that in investigating the problems faced by International students, researchers must not lose sight of the common barriers that affect all student-staff interactions. By investigating a sample of the International student community at UWA, this study hopes to provide a platform for international students to voice their concerns and allow individuals of the sample to express their opinions without being stereotyped in contrast to local students.

Thus, the review of literature reveals some significant gaps in our understanding of staff-student interactions outside the classroom as a factor in the university experience of International students. In addressing this shortfall, the paper investigates (1) the nature and frequency of interactions, in particular, the frequency of interactions, the time-frame of interaction, who initiates the interactions, the purpose of interactions, the preferred medium of interaction and any problems and issues encountered in these interactions. The study will also investigate (2) students’ perceptions and expectations regarding the role of academic staff due to the inconsistency in past literature; and, (3) student suggestions for future interactions.

Method

All students registered as International students at UWA for 2009 were sent an email request to participate in an on-line survey. The email informed them of the anonymity of the survey and provided a link to access the survey website. Participants filled in demographic information followed by 22 questions on their perceptions of staff-student interactions at UWA. The questions were both quantitative, e.g., “Approximately how many times in the past semester have you interacted with staff other than during formal class times?” and qualitative in nature, e.g. “For what reason did you mainly interact with staff?”.



The questions addressed 3 main fields: (1) nature and frequency of student interactions; (2) students’ perceptions and expectations of the role of academic staff due to the inconsistency in past literature; and, (3) suggestions for future interactions.

The demographic and quantitative questions were analysed using frequency tables. The qualitative questions were analysed for common themes.

Results

The participants (60% male, 40% female) were mainly from Singapore (38%), Malaysia (19%) and China (12%), with their first languages being English (54%), Mandarin (12%) and Chinese (11%).

Forty-three percent of students reported that they had been in Australia for 1 year or less. Fifty-seven percent of students had been at UWA for a year or less. Although not ascertained in this study, a number of them may have arrived in Australia earlier, prior to commencing university for language bridging courses. Fifty-seven percent of the students were in the process of adjusting to the environment at UWA.

Adapting to the lifestyle, language and the educational system at UWA were the three major concerns expressed. Adjusting to the new culture and operating in a new environment were some of the issues in adapting to the lifestyle. Students also experienced stress in living alone, paying the rent and establishing contacts with co-nationals outside of university.

Students experienced language barriers, such as a lack of confidence in their language ability, anxiety in making mistakes and offending others as a result. One student stated:

…in the first days, I didn't have enough confidence even sending emails to my lecturers ….sometimes I feel shy because of my accent or mistakes I make during our talk, so sometimes I prefer not to interact with them but I think this problem will be solved in the near future.

Students had to adapt their learning to the western pedagogical approach to education and establish friendships within the new environment. Anxiety over participating in class, learning to interact with staff more informally and gaining confidence in their answers were some of the major adaptations students had to make. As one student expressed:

It’s hard to make friends. I feel a little intimidated because everybody else in tutes are confident and have smart answers, so I feel intimidated to give my answers in tutes because in comparison, my answers are not as good. But I'm slowly adjusting to all these problems so I guess it’s okay.

Students had to adjust to the pace of lectures, find the correct venues and learn to cope with the large workload. As one student remarked, “I felt lost at the beginning with so many activities. And I had trouble finding my way to my lectures during the first weeks”. Another stated, “I am quite comfortable but don't fell like I am informed enough (only just found out there was a common lunch time on Tuesdays!!!).”

They had to deal with feelings of isolation both from their family and from the mainstream culture. As one student stated, “….there's still an invisible barrier between Asians and the rest of the cohort”. Another student stated, “it depends on the people you meet…..I'm often the only international student or one of the very few international students in all my units, friendly people will definitely make me feel more”.

Students varied in finding time for social interaction and their openness to social events. Some were uncomfortable, being alienated from the university community or feeling that they had not achieved their goals. Others expressed insecurity in walking alone to university and cultural barriers as contributing to their discomfort. It is within this context of adjusting to a new environment that the survey sort responses to questions about staff-student interactions as part of the university experience of International students.




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