Three Dimensional Factors that Impact Academic Success for International Students

August 16, 2022

By Dr. Harjot Dhatt  
(Edited by R. Buttar)

Student working on his computer

As the world becomes globalized, there is an increasing number of the students wanting to study abroad. Many countries have encouraged universities to host more international students since it provides economic and cultural benefits to the host country, while also encouraging education diplomacy among nations. However, international students face a multitude of problems as they adapt to unfamiliar cultural environment and education system. In this regard, the government and universities in the host country need to establish support systems for international students. This article highlights the multidimensional factors affecting the academic achievement of international students in degree programs.

Most international students prefer English-speaking countries for their academic destinations. According to the OECD (2018), the U.S. is the most popular destination for international students, followed by England, Australia and Canada, and foreign students studying in these countries mainly come from the Asia. While the trend of international student mobility has been ‘East to West’, the trend has become more multidirectional in recent years (Karzunina, West, Moran, & Philippou, 2017). Now, eastern countries like Japan, South Korea and China are trying to attract international students as host countries.

The common challenges that foreign students face:

  1. Language proficiency
  2. Academic problems such as teaching and assessment methods, unfamiliar academic systems and policies
  3. Social problems associated with various kinds of relationships and living environments in the host societies
  4. Financial problems due to increasing cost of living
  5. Psychological problems from homesickness or loneliness as a result of stress

Also, the academic grades of domestic counterparts are higher than those of international students in general. These problems indicate that international students performing at a lower level than domestic students due to various problems ranging from language to financial issues.

Multidimensional Factors Affecting Performance of International Students:

A. Academic Factors

Academic factors are the factors related to the school and learning environment such as curriculum, courses, school system, and academic supervisor/Instructors.

There is a direct correlation between the quality of teaching curriculum and students’ satisfaction (also between class quality and the students’ academic achievement). The academic culture and system of the host country is a significant factor that affects international students’ academic performance. In particular, some international students lack access to technology that their domestic counterparts are familiar with (i.e., online collaboration tools). Student’s from developing countries often report a “Technological gap” compared to their home country. It has also been observed that many international students complain about not receiving important notifications on course registration and dorm arrangement from the administration office.

In the term’s proficiency in English, although universities usually have a minimum English language standard as an admission requirement, and a variety of support services such as language editing, writing workshops, and language advising sessions are usually provided by universities. Effective use of English language in an academic setting is still a hindrance when it comes to academic achievement of International Students who are second language speakers of English. Thus, in spite of having received the required scores in standardized English language tests such as IELTS and TOEFL, International students often struggle in understanding lectures, academic content and presenting ideas in lecture rooms.

B. Social Factors

Social factors refer to the factors related to social adjustments such as living environment, social activities, and interpersonal relationships.

International students face a variety of obstacles in integrating to their host society and culture of the host country.

Cultural adaptation is the primary non-academic factor that can impact international student success. When beginning their studies in a foreign university, International students are faced with dealing with culture-related differences related to language, belief systems, values, and identity. These cultural differences between home country and the host country span across all levels from personal (language, identity) to social (values, lifestyle) which makes cross-cultural adaptation and social integration challenging. As a result, literature cites feelings of isolation, homesickness, stress, and loneliness as common experiences faced by international students. Meanwhile, although previously identified as an aspect related to academic outcomes, language and culture are closely related and lack of competence in the language of the host country also makes social integration more challenging.

Social integration of international students is further complicated by issues such as isolation and identifying with and being part of the campus community, and personal challenges such as health and finance related issues.

The two processes of adjustment (academic and social) that international students have to go through is termed as “double load.” Taken together, getting used to a new educational environment and dealing with social and emotional challenges that come with creating new social interactions and adapting to a lifestyle and value system that operates in a foreign language are challenges and psychological strains that interfere with the overall educational experience and success of international students. Having discussed international student success and factors that impact the success of international students’ experience in the host country, the following section of the paper addresses current quality assurance mechanisms that are in place in countries in different parts of the world to enhance international students’ experience abroad.

C. Economic Factors

Regarding economic factors affecting international students, the stress factors that affect academic adjustment of international students that concern about tuition fees or living expenses while studying abroad is one of the factors making foreign students unable to concentrate on their study, thus leading to difficulties in academic adjustment. International students who are not in a financially stable condition are suffering from coping with the concerns regarding tuition and living expenses. Financial pressure among international students is correlated to the poor academic performance. Having a job also influences the academic achievement of international students in a negative way. Part-time work can reduce time to concentrate on academic studies

If one reviews the macro-level mechanisms for International student success, it is clear that both academic and social factors have been considered to varying degrees. The academic achievement of international students has become an important issue and proactive outreach by education institutions in the host country can make a significant impact on the international student experience. Having counselling resources and international student success workshops to help support students pre- and post-arrival would be highly beneficial.

In terms of social factors, relationship with friends on campus and extracurricular activity are observed to be factors that positively impact social adjustment of the international students. Having an assigned mentor or “buddy” system would help in this process. Cultivating positive relationships with new friends, professors and local staff are shown to key factors to significantly help international students with social adjustment and cultural adaption.

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