Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Academic preparation programs: A schema approach to learning in context

Robert Weiland, Research Fellow, International Programs
Richard Nowak, Head, International Programs
Curtin Business School

Curtin University of Technology
The adjustment of international students has now become an important issue. The transition of students has been reported as problematic. This claim results from their facing different styles in learning, teaching and language that forms part of the "culture shock" Phenomena. Many attempts have been made to ameliorate the situation. These range from language programs to skills training. But, is training where the problem lay? Students still feel they face many problems in their educational transition to local universities. This is the question we asked at Curtin Business School, as skills training appeared to give minimal return for effort. It appears these students had some of the prerequisite information and skills, but had difficulty transposing these to fit the local circumstance. Where some new tasks had to be acquired, the underlying rationale was mystifying to them. To solve the problem we had to ask two questions: What was wrong with the approach others and we had adopted? Secondly, did schema theory allow us to address these problematic issues more effectively? In this session we will outline the developmental work in progress, discussing the strategies we are adopting and will present both quantitative and qualitative results of our progress to this stage.


It is now evident that the business of educating the International Student returns more to the Australian economy than most other exports. This is a big claim. Therefore, improving educational services, as distinct from the quality of education, to international students, would clearly have two beneficial thrusts: economic and cultural. This places an obligation on us to ensure the expenditure out laid by international students, or sojourners, is seen to bring appropriate returns.

The term sojourner refers to the student with the intention, on enrolling, to return to their place of origin on the completion of a prescribed program, or, on completion of their qualification. The significant components are that they have completed tertiary entrance requirements; they are admitted to a university for a formal program of choice and their stay is finite and their return home is prescribed, at least at the time of enrolment. The influence of these factors and their importance has been largely ignored in the literature on this topic.

It has been claimed that the impact of the new culture on the overseas student, as a result of the culture-crossing sojourn, is evidenced as the "culture shock" phenomena. Here, the socialised individual from the home culture faces the problems of adjustment to the requirements of a host culture. The implicit assumption in this claim is that the students have to become acculturated before they can fully adjust as an effective adjusted student. This process, it has been postulated takes them into and through the "culture shock" phenomena. Culture shock has been defined as the "process of initial adjustment to an unfamiliar environment" (Pederson, 1995, p1). The unfamiliar new culture evokes "emotional, psychological, behavioural, cognitive and physiological impact on individuals" (Pederson, 1995, p1). Oberg's (1960) "U" Curve, culture shock model, has more recently come under scrutiny as an explanation of the phenomena. It would appear that Oberg and his followers, felt that prior learning or socialisation inhibits or disrupts coping (Taft, 1977, p139) in the new situation because of the mismatch between cues and the behavioural responses: this it has been argued evokes a stress reaction.

The attributes of the sojourn

It is necessary to point out that two cultures meet when the student enrols overseas, and, that there is an accommodation required in the behavioural responses of the student. The nature of the sojourn, the nature of the culture, the motivation of the sojourner within the host culture, and the idiosyncratic make up of the sojourner all need to be weighed in evaluating the impact of the meeting. Where there are marked differences the impact on sojourning may be considerable. However, because of the many types of cross-cultural experiences that is possible, the process cannot be considered to be a uniform experience

However, it is clear that the personal attributes that a sojourner brings to the experience also impacts on the adjustment process. They have to demonstrate a basic tertiary level language competency; and, they pre-select themselves; thus, it would appear that self evaluation of their capacity to cope is well and truly tested before they leave home. These two factors would raise questions about the process of culture shock. It is clear from the research we have been conducting at Curtin that the adaptation of these students to the university setting appears to be relatively comfortable; there is no evidence of "shock". Why is this so? It is largely because the explanatory nature of the unidirectional theories that have dominated thinking in this area. Parsimony has been forgotten.

Linear (unidirectional) culture shock theories are vague and rarely clearly described. They contain assumptions that can reflect poorly on the overseas student in that it would appear the only correct stress reducing responses are those derived from the host culture's norms and practices. It assumes that the individual has to substantially modify or drop culture of origin behaviours. This implies that the sojourner is purely a responder to the multiple interactions that impact upon them.

Figure 1 was not available at the time of web mounting

Figure 1: A model of the unidirectional process, where the
activating stimulus predetermines the behavoral response

These notions stem from outdated behavioural theories. At best, this view places the sojourner in a passive responder role; at worst, it assumes the individual sojourner does not have the internal psychological resource to facilitate their own adaptive behaviour.

The bi-directional theory

There is no doubt that some sojourners have some difficulties accommodating to the ambiguity of the new circumstance. It is also clear that there is variability across individuals in their adaptation. Our research at Curtin indicates that some adaptations to the academic program, are problematic, but not dysfunctional.

Figure 2

Figure 2: It can be observed that less than 18% indicated some
difficulty with academic performance, that is less than one in five.

Figure 3

Figure 3: New education approach where about 64% indicated "no" or "average"
difficulties: one in three shows at least some disjunction with the new approach

What Figures 2 and 3 show is that the "new approach" to university education presents concerns for many more students than does their actual performance. Thus there is a difference between what they do, and, their perceived success.

Other data we have collected indicates similar variability whilst still showing sound coping. How then can one explain this coping. Our research shows that stress, language and general adjustment are not great problems. However, cultural differences do have a considerable impact.

It is very clear from socialisation research that specific cultural contexts influence learning styles extensively. As Gudykunst et al (1988, p99) have pointed out, "children do not learn language per se, rather they learn the various patterns and styles of language interactions". This is reflected in the style that "invokes the cultural ethos of the system" (Katriel, 1986). Thus language is part of a greater complex whole. Across cultures, the cultural context variability can be observed within for example, Hofstedte's (1980) dimensions of cultural variability. This contextualizes the acceptance and interpretation of the message within one situation, but changes or distorts it within another.

Teaching and learning

Gudykunst et al (1988) indicated that the contextual (culturally specific) direct or indirect style refers to the extent that speakers reveal their intentions through verbal and non-verbal communication. Also, Altman and Gauvain (1981) state "verbal communication is a digital communication process, nonverbal communication is a multilayered, multimodal, multi-dimensional, analogic process. The direct or indirect style of communication in all its forms is tied to cultural variability (Gudykunst et al, 1988) in Hofstedte's (1980) individualism and collectivism dimensions, as set out in Table 1 below.

Table 1 refers specifically to symbolic or language based communication. However, university teaching content involves high level cognition. It takes place in a social-cognitive context. Social cognition is how "people think about people" (Wegener and Vallacher, 1977). As in the case for communication style, culture variation influences the effectiveness and quality of the interaction because it is dependent on the same cultural variability dimensions (Hofstedte, 1980). These differences in style, as opposed to language per se, do have an effect on international students. It is not the use of language, but the operation on language filtered through their cultural schema.

These are culture specific communication styles. The styles influence or determine the mode of both explicit and implicit communication thus demonstrating that culture crossing from "C" culture to "I" culture may not change the language per se, but alters drastically the context, delivery, the learning style and the interpretation or process communication.

Table 1 Communication Styles, Gudykunst et al (1988), as a
factor of culture, based on Hofstedte's (1980) dimensions

Language Focusses Context
Style (Hofstedte)
Individualism Collectivism

Exacting verbal
Sender Oriented
Exaggerated - elaborate
Status and contextualised
Receiver oriented

Figure 4 was not available at the time of web mounting

Figure 4: The two stage theory of "knowledge" acquisition. The body of subject matter that students are required to know is specified as the curiculum. This is transmitted through the learning and/or teaching style(Stage I and II). In the unidirectional Repetitious learning approach the delivery is linear. In the bidirectional conceptual learning the student transforms the information to knowledge through schemas. The activation of schemas by lecturers and students ensures that the latter operates on ideas rather than on the content of the delivery (Stage III and IV).

Before going on to briefly discuss schemas it is necessary to critique the learning styles construct. The approach to learning styles is based on the theory (Sim, 1986) "that habits of learning emphasise some aspects of the learning process over others". It is clear that the L/S approach is referring to the acquisition of information. This has led to the almost total dependence on the unidirectional approach.

Figure 4 shows how we have been misled at the tertiary level. Stage III is where the major blockage occurs. It is assumed that content is acquired in a linear logical development of the idea or argument, hence, the "knowledge" is structured in the delivery. Stage IV is the vital component, this is where "data" (Input) leads to activation of schemata.

Schema theory

This brings us to schema theory. Schemas are playing a more important role in our understanding of higher level cognition and learning. Schemas form the part of our total functioning in every situation. The acquisition of specific or general knowledge relative to any cognitive object is initially altered by the background structures or schemata of that object.

As Altarriba and Forsythe (1993) state "Schemata are hypothetical mental structures that incorporate general knowledge into an organizational framework". They are viewed as complex units of knowledge that exist for generalized concepts underlying objects. There is a considerable literature that extensively elaborates on their nature and development.

Academic skills development

Preparation is essential for international students. This is set out in Figure 5.

Figure 5 was not available at the time of web mounting

Figure 5: The relationship between the Content, Cultural Variability and the skills required to facilitate the higher level cognitive learning at university level. Note that it is not language per se.

The Academic Skills Program is the key to the transition, as, this level of memory activation (ie., the generation of new knowledge) facilitates the acquisition of subject content at the conceptual level. Our data on the evaluation of the ASP would indicate that this is the case. In the area of academic skills development for international students we have seen to this stage that the host culture mainly determines what is learned, how it is learned, the modes of communication for learning and motivation towards learning and communication in general. Thus the cultural context predetermines the approach. This raises a number of questions that have not as yet been raised about higher level cognitive development . It is hoped that this will occur today.


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Wegener, D. and P. Vallacher. (1977). Implicit Psychology. New York. Oxford University Press.

Please cite as: Weiland, R. and Nowak, R. (1999). Academic preparation programs: A schema approach to learning in context. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 467-473. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/weiland.html

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