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Category: Research
Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]
Peers, family, community, supervisors and governance: A review of key sites for supporting international postgraduate students' transitional learning experiences

Andrew Guilfoyle
Centre for Psychological Research
Edith Cowan University

Researchers have rarely turned their attention to international postgraduate (IP) students (Bullen & Kenway, 2003). The particular focus on the paper is a reflective review on an essential element in all 'extra-classroom' learning experiences, and one which is as argued below as critical in the IP student context - the development of good support networks. Developing good support networks in the IP student case is of special interest in that many of the rhetorically posited social learning experiences associated with IP student intakes rely on good extra-classroom exchanges with peers, the community and teaching staff. In cases where there are breakdowns in these relationships, the learning experiences of the student, along with the notions of broadened learning experiences through intercultural social exchange are diminished.


Researchers have rarely turned their attention to international postgraduate (IP) students (Bullen & Kenway, 2003). This paper focuses on an essential element in all 'extra-classroom' learning experiences, and one which is critical in the IP student context - the development of good support networks. Developing good support networks is critical in the IP case; as many social learning advantages are claimed as benefits of hosting IP students, including promotion of understanding, good will and an enriched experience for all students (Harris & Jarret, 1990; Pokarier & Ridings, 1998). Further, a mixed student population provides opportunities for the student body and staff to develop cross-cultural awareness, cultural diversity, understanding and social cohesion (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2002; Beaver & Tuck, 1998; Burns, 1991; Chur-Hansen, 1999; Ryan & Twibell, 2000; Volet & Ang, 1998).

Tanaka (2003) suggests that Australian universities should take the lead in promoting a plural society based on mutual respect and understanding of difference as a 'culture' of the university. More recently, advances in 'Graduate Attributes' suggest developing students' cross cultural awareness is imperative. For the international student specifically, too, Stier (2003) states that "International student exchange... (is) enriching and a path to professional development and personal growth" (p. 78). However, claims about learning experiences are not clearly borne out by research. Below I provide a synthesis examining some of the potential barriers to intercultural learning experiences, suggesting the need for a careful focus on these in developing support programs. In tune with the 'extra-classroom' focus I do not differentiate the review by thesis and coursework students, however there is more to say about this in the conclusion.


Deem and Brehony (2000) argue that adjustment for the IP student is often elongated and complicated as they learn a new education system and adapt to a very different way of life. Adjustments to social norms and cultural styles occur both within and outside the classroom. However, the increased diversity of students in higher education can contribute to feelings of isolation as students are more likely to feel different from, or separate to, those around them. Loneliness has been identified as a major part of IP students' study experience (Pargetter, 2000). As sojourners, IP students are subject to the typical U curve known to affect all sojourners (Church, 1982). However for many IP students in particular the problems are pervasive and longstanding culminating in feelings of isolation and marginalisation (Hammer, 2002) extending into a form of cultural isolation (Tajfel, 1981). This is a feeling of separation from the culture in which one is immersed and it can translate more broadly into social isolation, or the feeling of having no close friendships or diminished potential for participation in relationships (Moghaddam, Taylor & Wright, 1993). Such isolations present many difficulties for the individual and unchecked, can result in serious psychological harm (Furnham, 1990) and a range of psychological issues related to poor transition (Ward & Kennedy, 1999).

Peer supports

A counter to isolation is support networks provided by postgraduate peers. Although the benefits of peer support are large, accessing such support can be problematic for IP students. One clear barrier is language. As Ryan & Twibell, (2000) argue, language proficiency is the key to forming good relationships. Language is the critical element to all social cultural adaptation. Isolation can result through limited class/seminar interactions which occur because IP students may not understand the class/seminar room culture (Choi, 1997). When students are not aware of the rules of participation, rules of conversation, and other social system, forming relationships is difficult (Wang, 2004). Often students can learn at an academic level - but do not understand the rules that apply to social encounters. For some IP students the language proficiency requirements, in order to interact successfully with peers and teachers at the postgraduate level, are much higher than initial expectations.

Oral language is particularly critical for advanced interpersonal relationships such as forming academic networks, speaking with peers and supervisors, and exchanges inside and outside the class/seminar room. For example, sophisticated information presentations are required at the postgraduate level. Students are expected to give informative, oral presentations articulating their work at a high level. Wang (2004) suggests that research proposal presentations early in a study program add an additional burden to international students. There are also complex academic concepts to negotiate at this level. Bullen and Kenway (2003) provide the example of the word 'problematise'; a concept which is not easy to teach or learn. Postgraduate study also requires adjusting to new methods of learning (Latona & Brown, 2001).

There can be a lack of interaction between domestic and international students resulting in a sense of isolation (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2002; Burns, 1991; Choi, 1997; Chur-Hansen, 1999; Volet, Renshaw & Tietzel, 1994). Many IP students question whether to pursue relationships with other students when efforts to enter established networks may go unrewarded. Volet & Ang (1998) demonstrated that IP students can have difficulties developing relationships with Australian students. Other research has shown that Australian students prefer not to work in groups (Barker, et al, 1991) when compared specifically to Asian students. Domestic students can form 'negative' stereotypes of international students (Volet & Ang, 1998) including the idea that Asian students are achievement orientated and hard working (Barker, et al, 1991) and prefer not to socialise or interact with local students. On the other hand, one important source of isolation for IP students is from perceptions that domestic students don't know about their cultural background (Deem & Brehony, 2000). For IP students often the goal is not on socialising per se (see Guilfoyle, 2005; Guilfoyle & Halse, 2004) - but developing deliberate peer academic networks for their professional development. The nature of some postgraduate course programs, with limited classroom interactions or the individual work/nature of the thesis means that IP students often have fewer opportunities to form relationships with other students (Guilfoyle, 2005).

Family support

From another perspective, forming interpersonal relationships can be complicated for IP students as they are often older in age, have family commitments, or must focus on study due to financial pressures / to return home as soon as possible. Changes to personal life have been identified as a major part of IP students study (Pargetter, 2000). While family can be an essential source of support, the reality for IP students is complicated as it often involves managing the 'transition' of family, in order that they can successfully study abroad. New work and family situations are heightened for IP students who leave young families behind, relocate their family abroad, or face extra expectations for success from family members at home who are providing sponsorship. Some IP students are concerned with transition issues for their significant others who travel with them and, and are acutely attuned to their feelings of isolation (Bullen & Kenway, 2003). Research shows that IP students with family may need to restructure study plans to suit their family (Deem & Brehony, 2000). Conversely, IP students' intrinsic motivations towards academic success in the host country conjoined with a sense of responsibilities for family relationships while their families remain at home, places emphasis on completing studies as soon as possible. These explicit career motivations, financial and family pressures can mitigate against forming close interpersonal relationships with postgraduate peers (or members of the community). Therefore, IP students have diminished opportunities to develop on campus peer relationships which can support broader learning experiences.

Research has identified that most IP students clearly have study and work on their mind. Although this doesn't preclude peer networks, it does afford them less priority and, can influence the types of networks they wish to form. IP students will expect academic and professional employment success from their sojourn (Sherry, et al, 2004). Wang (2004) identified that most IP students travel for essentially academic and career reasons and a key motivation was to gain practice in their profession. When asked about their sojourn experiences, lack of appropriate paid work was the major concern leading to poor transition and disillusionment. Another study found housing and finance are the major concerns for international students, with coursework second to this (Rohrlich & Martin, 1991). In this context, an emphasis on socialising and forming supportive peer networks while at University and concomitant broader learning experiences, seem distant. One suggestion is that, if appropriate professional or other work is available in the community, there is the possibility of forming support networks through friendships outside of the University setting. However research by Guilfoyle, (2004) identifies that despite high expectations, for one IP sample appropriate paid work was not readily available.

Community support

Most international students will expect to develop relationships with other Australians (Hellsten, 2002). Interactions with the local community have been identified as significant in helping cultural adjustment, lessening cultural distance and for some, these interactions are the main contributors to social-cultural adaptation (Ward & Kennedy, 1999). Assimilation processes and learning of social rules are aided by links with the community (Church, 1982; Hammer, 2002; Volet & Ang, 1998). Those who can develop local contacts suffer from less cultural adjustment problems (Ying & Liese, 1994). Abramovitch, et al (2000) found that international students regarded local contacts as essential to achieving their sojourner goals (also Hammer, 2002; Tsang, 2001). Further, Asian students prefer to socialise and interact with Australian students outside of the academic study environment rather than in academic group work (Chalmers & Volet, 1997). However, this social learning opportunity is not always achieved. Barker, et al (1991) found Asian students in their sample were unable to function in a range of community based social situations and interactions. More pervasively environmental conditions within the host society can interact with good community relations. There is evidence the Australian customs are generally problematic for international students (Barker, et al, 1991; Chur-Hansen, 1999; Hellsten, 2002). Research has also identified a perception that Australia was a forbidding rather than friendly or supportive society and this supports evidence of perceived community stereotyping, prejudice and racism (Beasley & Pearson, 1998; Cameron & Meade, 2002; Deem & Brehony, 2000; Evans, 2000; Evans & Peel, 1999; Ridings & Pokarier, 1998).

Academic staff

An alternative support to that provided by peers or family, and one thought of by many IP students as essential is, that provided by teachers and supervisors (Guilfoyle & Halse, 2005). Most IP students expect to develop close relationships with teachers. Again, development of these relationships can be problematic (Hellsten, 2002). As Bullen & Kenway (2003) suggest, IP students have to adapt very quickly to the supervisory relationship. For many students, particularly those from collectivistic cultures, there can be cultural learning model barriers to this relationship. Each IP student arrives with learning developed within vastly different systems of knowledge (Harris, 1995). Here we can consider some more subtle manifestations of IP students' supervisory based learning experiences. For example, although a cultural learning model states that the task of sojourners is not to assimilate, but to learn the rules that apply in the new culture (Hammer, 2002), assimilation models often orientate students against their past learning (Dawson & Conti-Bekkers, 2002). This erodes the self esteem base for postgraduate study - self esteem related to past achievement. The problem is acute when past teachers are often seen as central to past success (Pargetter, 2000), and this direct support is replaced by independent learning. For many, past learning experiences are associated with high expectations of a close, regular and 'authoritative' relationship with teaching staff. With different presumptions of what the student teacher relationship should be (Guilfoyle & Halse, 2004) pre-conditions for disillusionment, cultural isolation, loneliness and lowered self esteem are in place.

For some IP students, the 'Australian' learning style appears chaotic and without structure (Wang, 2004). Asian cultures in particular have a directed learning style where the teacher talks and the students listen. At the postgraduate level, critical thinking is required and this is not always a key component of their past learning model. Many IP students in this context are often not used to asking questions of an authority figure directly, nor comfortable disagreeing with a supervisor, and the ideas of continuous assessment, informal communication style, lack of specific feedback, independent inquiry, or that staff are not interested in all intricate details of their project/study are disconcerting (Ninnes, 1999). For IP students, problems occur when clear goals and precise explanations were not communicated by teachers (Bullen & Kenway, 2003; Cameron & Meade, 2002). Bullen and Kenway (2003) and Cargill (1998) argued students need an introduction to staff in the department, who should make clear the nature of the supervision relationship. Adjustments for IP students to a new supervision/teaching model, towards an equal power relationship (Bullen & Kenway, 2003), can seriously affect learning experiences and transition. Deem and Brehony (2000) argue a typical 'matey' relationship found in western models can stand in opposition to cultural norms of power and respect. Alternatively, the cultural adjustment can be across gender where the gender of supervisor does not fit cultural respect models.

Pargetter (2000) argues that University staff must be made aware of transition issues suggesting that there is insufficient training for University lecturers to provide support for students, or even a basic awareness that there is a transition phase. In particular, there was a lack of recognition by staff that new students require a "settling in" period. Others suggest, good relationships between staff and students are dependant on a commitment from both staff and students and an understanding that for example a Western model is not necessarily an absolute better (Ingleton & Cadman, 2000). Related to this, research shows IP students are disappointed when perceiving staff have no formal training in cultural awareness (Bullen & Kenway, 2003). Perceptions that staff are not taught to teach cross-cultural populations and haven't themselves studied abroad affects learning experiences of IP students (Fallon & Berman Brown, 1999). If teachers are involved in connecting with students and asking about their home context; transition outcomes are improved (Brown, 1995). However Wang (2004) suggests students feel thwarted when discussions are not in a context suited to the students needs/experiences. Because IP students arrive with ambitions to improve their professional capacity they are naturally concerned and sensitive to the nature of topics, the content of learning and its applicability. Often this translates into a want to discuss how systems operate in their home nation or knowledge they will apply when they return (Guilfoyle & Halse, 2005).

School, governance and other administrative supports

Like many other postgraduates, IP students are often mature aged, having previously experienced years of academic and professional success (Ingleton & Cadman, 2000). This can engender high and specific expectations about the services and supports needed to continue their successes. IP students can face large personal disappointments when these expectations are not met, or through perceptions that their needs are not being understood (Sherry, et al, 2004). Importantly there also are issues surrounding loss of status and recognition for previous professional and academic achievements / experiences in their home country (Deem & Brehony, 2000). Factors such as poor living and office conditions, or no office space, limited access to facilities and real or perceived segregation in terms of how resources are distributed (Deem & Brehony, 2000); as well as expectations over services and support not being met (Sherry, et al, 2004); can have a large impact on the IP student and their sense of well being. Unchecked they can lead to a sense of exclusion and marginalisation, which detract from the general learning experience.

There is wealth of social psychological literature identifying how individuals' negative group comparison processes and feelings of relative deprivation affect morale, motivation and self esteem (Guilfoyle, 2000; Petta & Walker, 1992). A 1991 inquiry by the Industry Commission found most complaints by international students relate to financial issues including questioning the cost differential between domestic and international students (Baker, 1993). Further, issues such as paying amenities fees for poor quality services, few academic resources, and no public transport concessions (Baker; 1993; Cameron & Meade, 2002) are perceived as relatively unfair. Research does identify that IP students indicate great disappointment when staff and other postgraduate students are not aware of the significant issues that they faced as IP students (Beasley & Pearson, 1998; Ridings & Pokarier, 1998; Hellsten, 2002). Research has shown that students often attribute their own poor transition or lack of academic success to poor services rather than their own lack of ability (Mullins, et al, 1995). Though some concerns over resources might seem trivial from the outside - it is actually the denial of 'small' services (such as easy phone or transport access) which can amount to large feelings of isolation and marginalisation (Guilfoyle & Halse, 2004).

While peers, supervisors, family and community represent potential support networks, it is clear that administrators also are key agents in increasing support structures on campus to facilitate good social exchanges and learning experiences. Research has shown that the relationship between students and their setting / environment is critical to good adjustment (Moghaddam & Studer, 1997). By providing often relatively minor adjustments to the services currently provided, or implementing new services, great impacts on successful transition are to be made. Tinto (2000) argues there is co-dependency between the University and the student and that research should be aimed at identifying strengths and weaknesses of international student support generally (Cameron & Meade, 2002; Harris, 1995; Rambruth & McCormick, 2001; Volet & Renshaw, 1995). In particular, Most IP students arrive with high expectations about quality of teaching, commitment by staff, the availability of accurate and specific information and good orientation programs (Evans & Peel, 1999; Mullins, et al, 1995). Programs that assist orientation (Felix & Lawson, 1998) and transition (Pargetter, 2000) have been found to produce a good effect as do student support programs particularly when these are embedded in the existing study program (Beasley & Pearson, 1998). Wang (2004) argues for extensive orientations to academic life at the institution including to the education system, classroom protocols and processes of learning and the implicit rules that guide social interactions both inside and outside of classrooms. Ridings and Pokarier (1998) found half of the IP students they sampled were disappointed with the support provided both for their academic work and to help meet their social and cultural needs and Guilfoyle and Halse (2004) identified the need for culturally inclusive out of class activities is high.

Successful integration of international students into Australian universities requires an understanding of the academic support required, course restructuring to meet the needs of a diverse student population, appropriate services at the institutional level, cultural awareness and fostering of host/international student social interactions (Brown 1995; Cameron & Meade, 2002; Nelson, 2002; Rambruth & McCormick, 2001). Often support networks can be cultivated by activities within Schools. A research discussion group implemented at a Victorian University for international students and staff to discuss research issues (Webb & Sillitoe, 1998) is one example. This group was invaluable in fostering a sense of belonging amongst students new to the department. The group fulfilled the need for interaction with others engaged in research. The students found the group provided comfort and support by providing a platform to air grievances as well as learning different strategies and successes. New students were able to gain understanding of what research involved in a non-threatening, supportive environment. The students' self esteem was helped by being able to provide assistance to others.

However supporting direct peer-peer based interactions are also useful. Wu, et al (2001) for example, found that international students used peers to clarify information and students acknowledged that much could be learnt from each other. Peer group meetings provided opportunities to network and disseminate administrative information such as changes to units, workshops and conferences. Students also reported they were better able to prepare for the presentation of their proposals and receive feedback on their performances. Abbot-Chapman, Hughes & Wyld (1992) also have advocated program cohesion to facilitate the friendship process especially through the core units that all students study. Here two courses in the first semester curriculum are linked such that students take classes together. One of the goals of these 'learning communities' (Tinto, 2000) is to foster friendships between students in an academic environment. Evidence suggests that learning communities encourage the development of study groups and support networks amongst students that extend beyond University (Tinto, 2000).


The picture above, bound by space into a synthesised listing of variables that can impact on IP learning experiences, is not meant to be a negative construction. Although it is certainly feasible that any one IP student could face all of the contingencies discussed above, it is just as likely that many IP students enjoy their IP sojourn, benefiting from rich learning experiences despite transition variables. The aim of the above survey is rather, to identify by light and shade, the key role that supports can play in maximising a rich and broad learning experience for IP students, and by such, illustrate the role of supports in learning experiences for these (and other student) cohorts. The synthesis has categorised IP students without distinction between coursework and thesis enrolment.

While there has not been space to further the argument, many factors such as isolation, peer interaction opportunities, academic demands, age and status concerns, are likely exacerbated for IP thesis students either directly, or by flow on effects between the integrated variables captured above. However the situation is complex, for example while coursework affords more direct peer interaction, failure to achieve successful interaction within these opportunities might weigh more heavily on coursework students. Opportunities for networks through academic employment on campus or professional work off campus might be more or less difficult for coursework students when compared to thesis students. A finer analysis that contrasts the effects of transitional variables for thesis and coursework students (as well as other cohorts generally) would help solidify the argument that transitional variables need to be well understood in the context of IP (and other student) cohorts and help identify how programs to assist transition can be best tailored for each cohort.

There also has not been space to detail a review of successful orientation programs for aiding IP student transitions, rather than touching on a few. The literature cited suggests these are best founded on a good awareness of the variables affecting transition, including family and other specific IP motivations and contingencies and, awareness of the special cultural differences affecting the IP cohorts, manage expectations and accurate information and should have an ongoing nature. Programs need to appreciate the specific barriers to formation of peer interactions and fostering interactions on and off campus, and critically, interactions with teachers/supervisors. To this end, teachers/supervisors should be afforded orientating opportunities to learn about their IP students needs, and this must be supported by governance to ensure that IP student needs are well resourced both 'physically' and academically. The review suggests that optimal IP support programs are holistic by considering all variables thoroughly, which includes how they interconnect, and by defining 'learning' and the 'classroom' broadly. However it is essential, if considering all variables, also that responsibility for developing programs, is shared. Governance, in developing good transitional strategies for IP students needs to be directed by sound teaching and learning principles and integrated within the existing teaching and learning environment, including course structures or School activities.

Both teachers and administrators need to think carefully about the range of contingencies that IP students face when they plan and develop learning interactions for these students. I hope to identify that teachers/ administrators who are able to carefully consider transition variables under a broad definition of learning experiences - will be those who can assess each site of potential support for IP students - and reflect on ways to develop learning experiences within these. Clearly some factors are within the student and some, such as perceptions of an unfriendly nation, lay in part within the society, however in between these, University learning systems that can reflect on support for their IP student transitions will be those who maximise their students' broad learning experiences.


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Author: Andrew Guilfoyle is a senior research advisor with the Graduate School at Edith Cowan University and researcher for the Centre for Psychological Research and for Social Research. In his advisory role he regularly consults with international and other postgraduate students about their postgraduate research learning experiences and other transition needs. Andrew teaches social research methods and conducts research in the area of health, well-being, and quality of life for special community groups, including Indigenous, rural and regional, and inter-cultural settings.
Dr Andrew Guilfoyle, Centre for Psychological Research, Edith Cowan University, 100 Joondalup Drive, Joondalup WA 6027. Email: a.guilfoyle@ecu.edu.au
Please cite as: Guilfoyle, A. (2006). Peers, family, community, supervisors and governance: A review of key sites for supporting international postgraduate students' transitional learning experiences. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/guilfoyle.html

Copyright 2006 Andrew Guilfoyle. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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