Academic Issues for International Students

(with thanks to Liz Grant, formally CALT)

International students

It is widely accepted that prior educational experiences influence learning. This applies to all students whether designated home or international. However, students from backgrounds where educational norms and practices are ‘different’ may experience particular challenges.

This page outlines some of the Teaching and Learning challenges for international students reported in a number of studies across the UK (e.g. Carroll & Ryan 2005; Burnapp, 2006; Grant & Chan, 2006), and it offers resources for further information.

However, because these challenges are not exclusive difficulties experienced by international students it is worth reflecting that by understanding the needs of international students we can improve learning for all of our students. 

Personal tutors should always refer students to the International Office when situations arise that are specifically related to their international student status.

Adjusting to Teaching and Learning in UCL

Although there is a need to help students adjust, it is equally important to value their prior learning experiences, and where relevant to adjust current teaching practices in order to encourage inclusive learning. The requirement to adjust practice is underpinned by the 2010 Equality Act

Some examples of student concerns

Learning and teaching

Students may have little or no experience of self-directed/autonomous learning and it may cause them to feel isolated and uncertain. Similarly, some students may be used to a more passive style of learning which could be interpreted as lack of engagement. In reality these students may be silently participating or they may be experiencing barriers to learning - possibly caused by difference in prior learning experiences, or other cultural norms influencing participation.

Differences in academic conventions – referencing, for example, can be a particularly challenging skill to learn; whilst skills of argument, encouraged in many disciplines, may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for many students - especially when challenging authority figures. Consideration also needs to be given to ensuring fair representation within learning materials to avoid the promotion of western viewpoints and in order to enabling effective student participation.


Understanding assessment at university can be mystifying for most students. There may be difficulties associated with understanding assessment strategies and the marking system. Where oral presentations are used to demonstrate learning, students whose first language is not English, or who lack confidence, may require additional support.

In written work consideration needs to be given as to whether marks will be given for use of English. Similarly, consideration needs to be given to ensure that assignments do not exclude students due to lack of cultural representation.

Ensuring that students are clear from the outset of a module or unit about what is to be assessed, why it is to be assessed, how it is to be assessed and what is expected of them will help to overcome anxieties about this. Providing timely formative and summative feedback is also essential in helping students to learn and engage in their learning.

Taught postgraduate courses of typically short duration can exacerbate problems of adjustment to university reinforcing the need to provide timely, helpful formative and summative ‘feedback’.

Examples of student concerns taken from UK HEIs

"The tutors expect me to have knowledge of theories that I never learned on my previous courses."

"I am left to learn by myself far more than in my own country"

"There are a lot of terms and jargon that the tutor uses that I just don’t understand."

"I have been asked to write a reflective assessment of my work - I have not done this before and cannot find the right words to express myself."

"I am doing a group project but one of my team - from China – is so very, very anxious about the oral presentations she cries."

"Assessment should be designed so that everyone can relate to it, not just British students."

"I was so disappointed with my mark of 64%. Perhaps I should not be studying at university?"

"I have been accused of cheating – I am really distressed about this."

"Why do the tutors expect me speak in the class? This is the time that we must listen."

How and where to seek advice?

Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT)

You may be able to help the student by clarifying the situation or by working through the problem quite easily. However if you need further advice please contact one of CALT's school-facing teaching fellows:

External Resources

Language related concerns

UCL's International Office

The International Office website is a useful resource for information and guidance on all aspects of the international student experience including all UCL provision offering

The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA)

The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) provides helpful downloadable information sheets for international students - useful for staff too. They cover:

  • Arriving and living in the UK (Transport, money, accommodation, culture shock and preparing to return home)
  • Immigration
  • Financial Support
  • Studying in the UK

Further UKCISA publications are readily available for staff. However, some resources are targeted at staff working as advisors within International Education and Support Centres and are password protected. Please direct enquiries about this to the International Office.

Page last modified on 30 jul 13 16:55