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.
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.
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: 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.
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: 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.
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.
Language Focusses Context
Exaggerated - elaborate
Status and contextualised
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.
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.
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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|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|