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Challenges facing international students

Research into the aspirations of international students from non-English speaking backgrounds at Australian universities, challenges common preconceptions about how these students learn and the ways in which they are commonly taught and assessed at university. 

Dr Dianne Jonasson, who was awarded a PhD from Charles Sturt University (CSU) last year, recommends a different approach to the way international students are taught in the higher education sector.

"The aspirations of international students from non-English speaking backgrounds attending Australian universities include graduating with a Western degree and experiencing 'Australian culture'.

"Also, these students want to improve their English language, understand concepts, and achieve high grades. These aspirations are very important to these students.

Dr Jonasson said that, "Achieving these aspirations, however, causes considerable challenges for the students and their teachers. Not only do students have to learn about their chosen professions, but they also have to learn how to negotiate the complex teaching, learning and assessment practices of a Western university.

"Many of these practices are different from educational practices students may have experienced in other countries. Additionally, and critically, these practices are all negotiated through dialogue – by listening, speaking, reading and writing in various combinations and contexts, for various purposes. And students have to learn to use not just one English language, but many different kinds of English language and academic terminology.

"This causes challenges for local students who speak English as a first language. But, for those students whose first language is not English, the challenges are even greater – both for the students and their teachers," Dr Jonasson said.

"Contrary to the views of some authors in research literature, the way international students learn and what they want to achieve is not very different from what Australian students want to achieve; namely, deep learning, and an excellent command of the academic discourses of their chosen professions. They want to become competent in the practice of their professions.

"My research emphasises the critical role of improved dialogue in the successful achievement of these aspirations; dialogue among international students and with their Australian peers, and between the students and their teachers."

As well as contributing to theoretical understandings of the challenges facing students and teachers, Dr Jonasson's research makes practical suggestions for the design of teaching and academic support practices to enhance positive outcomes for both students and teachers. These include suggested changes to two common practices in universities, namely, the use of lectures for teaching, and the use of academic essays for assessment.

Dr Jonasson advocates the use of a simple technique known as Dialogic Practice Spaces (DIPS) and Learning Journals - which she creatively calls 'Dips and Crackers' - as a means of improving the oral and written dialogue critical to the achievement of aspirations.

Professor of Education at CSU, Stephen Kemmis said, "This research throws light on the struggles international students of non-English speaking backgrounds face in Australian universities. The students come with high expectations which are sometimes dashed by their performance in the first subjects they undertake, largely because of the demands in working in a second or third language.

"One of Dr Jonasson's most interesting findings is that it is the lack of development of their generalist, everyday English language expression that makes it hard for some of these students, and not their lack of specialist academic or discipline-specific English," Professor Kemmis said.

Dr Jonasson, who is currently a teacher of English language to students from non-English speaking backgrounds at TAFE NSW Riverina Institute, and an Adjunct Research Associate with the School of Education at CSU in Wagga Wagga, will speak about her study during a seminar at CSU on Wednesday 19 October which focuses on Skills Australia's major report in 2011, Skills for prosperity - a roadmap for vocation education and training.

The seminar will be held from 10.30am to 2.30pm at the National Wine and Grape Industry Centre, building 412, McKeown Drive at CSU in Wagga Wagga. It is co-hosted by the Australian VET Research Association, the School of Education at CSU in Wagga Wagga, and CSU Training. A program is available from CSU Media.

The keynote address, Skills for Prosperity:The Challenges Ahead will be delivered from 10.30am by Head of Secretariat for Skills Australia, Ms Sue Beitz. Mr Paul Galloway from the School of Education at CSU in Wagga Wagga will also speak on Challenges for Workplace Assessors.

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Media Officer : Fiona Halloran

Telephone : 02 6933 2207

Media Note:

As part of her PhD, Negotiating academic discourses: Challenges facing international students from non-English speaking backgrounds, and their teachers, Dr Jonasson conducted 85 interviews with students, teachers and other staff at CSU with 23 countries represented in her research. She was awarded the Faculty of Education Outstanding Thesis Award by Charles Sturt University, and the Beth Southwell Research Award for outstanding thesis by the NSW Institute for Educational Research. Dr Jonasson has been invited by Gothenburg University in Sweden to be the keynote speaker at a conference in November 2011, entitled Widening Participation: Students' encounters with academic texts and the cultural world.