For not only are students faced with learning a new culture outside of the classroom (in addition to having in many cases to gain fluency in a foreign language) and having to handle the pragmatics of living in a foreign country, they are faced with the daunting task of learning new ways to learn.
Trice summarizes these problems, although she is describing the experiences of international students in the United States rather than in Australia.
Looking first at the role that language barriers play for international students, weak English language skills are related to a number of negative outcomes. The results of several studies showed that the poorer their English, the less adapted international students were to the host culture (Surdam & Collins, 1984), the less satisfied they were with their social and community relations (Perrucci & Hu, 1995), and the more difficulty they had making friends (Heikenheimo & Shute, 1986). Not only do students with weak English language skills have more difficulty communicating with Americans, but they also do not gain important cultural insights that come about through extensive knowledge of the language.
These cultural insights include cultural concepts of what is means to be a student.
Cadmans research design is essentially ethnographic: She focuses on information gained through interviews with international students, blending this with insight from her own experience with students. She is essentially in the position of being an anthropologist reporting back on her own culture: She is speaking as an authority on her own culture while also sampling the views of the “natives from beyond Oz” who have wandered into her village. She serves as a skilled anthropologist in interpreting the meaning of what the students tell her, allowing them to speak critically without judging them. For example, from one student she elicits:
I hope the [new transcultural program] will give more attention to help the students understand the expectations of their departments and their supervisors, because the educational system, teaching methods and styles are very different. My [home county] [deletion in original] supervisor always told me what to do and how to do it, and it was impolite to disobey him, but the situation is different here. So, it is very difficult for me to get used to it.
It should be immediately clear how such a shift in academic culture could be fundamentally disorienting to students. It should also be clear how students coming from a culture in which they were required not to question their academic supervisors might appear to be insufficiently thoughtful or critical. What was to the students required obedience and respect when they had gone to university at home could seem to the Australian students and faculty like a lack of initiative or even intelligence.
Disagreements about the potential for international students to be sufficiently critical in their thinking was a central issue for both students and faculty, Cadman writes in one of her key findings. Even more important, she notes, is that students who participated in the bridge program were able to learn to think critically in ways that allowed them to do better in their classes, feel more comfortable, and feel that they were acquiring the skills that they had come to the university to find. The bridge program also had an important function in helping the staff to reassess their evaluations of their international students: The program allowed both sides to see each other more clearly.
Cadman is mildly — but effectively — critical of staff members who fell back on stereotypes of foreign students skills, noting that the “staff associated the developing expertise of international students with their participation in those departmental activities which require critical interaction.” She follows this up with the insight that the staff tended to see the students “poor” performances as arising from poor training in their countries of origin:
In some cases, staff focussed on what they believed the students needed, as in There may be some connection to country of origin in learning how to think critically. Therefore critical evaluation of papers is important & #8230; or in Student attitude toward learning and scientific inquiry is the most important factor.”
Rather than understanding that foreign students may think in different but equally valid ways — or may be thinking with great insight but may simply stay quiet because they have been taught that this is respectful, the Australian staff often saw the quietness or difference of their students as being a “deficit.
” One staff member says with clear frustration — and maybe even disdain:
Students desperately need to ask questions during seminars and other oral presentations, this forces students to listen, synthesise, identify areas they dont understand and then formulate questions in English. Many of our overseas students sit quietly in class and say nothing.
Cadman is arguing — for her findings are couched within her arguments about the ways in which she wants the university to change — that the staff need to be more flexible in what they see as “acceptable” student decorum while at the same time helping students to learn to express themselves in the ways that Western students do since such modes of critical expression are — at least in the West — highly valuable.
International students come to Australian universities for a range of motivations, including (and perhaps even primarily) because they wish to earn a degree that will increase their earning potential. But they also, Cadman suggests, may well come to Australia because they are interested in learning about the kinds of critical thinking skills that they are daily exposed to. They will be best served, her research suggests, if they are exposed to the critical learning and thinking traditions of the West without whatever research skills and perspectives that they have been taught in their own nation being disparaged.
A final note on Cadmans methodology. If one believes that only quantitative methodologies that include large sample sizes that can be manipulated with statistical software packages are valid, then her study will seem highly problematic and unconvincing, for her sample size is small and her research is highly qualitative, even hermeneutic. She is more interested in asking questions and encouraging her readers to come to their own answers. Within the realm of social scientific research, this is a highly unusual strategy. However, it is also for this particular research question with this particular research population, an effective one.
Hara (1995) summarizes the key reasons why Cadmans choice of research methodology is such a good fit:
Qualitative research in education, thus, maintains that the researchers subjectivity is central. In consequence, the researchers viewpoint and value judgments are deeply connected to the research. In this view, the relationship of researcher and what is being researched is impossible to separate. In other words, what a researcher chooses to study is related to his/her value judgment. There is a belief that research facts and researchers value judgments or interpretations of the research cannot exist separately. Rather, facts and the researchers viewpoint are inextricably intertwined with each other. That is to say, a researcher is considered to be “an insider to the research” (Carr and Kemmis, 1986). Philosophically, this view is based on a “subject-subject relationship” (Smith, 1983, p.8) in which human reality is subjective. There is a belief that the researcher acts on the basis of his/her own value.
Had Cadman not served as both researcher and subject and acted on the basis of her own values, this research would have been impossible to perform.
Part Three: Strengths of the Study
Overall, this is a strong study — although I should admit that we are each likely to be convinced by research which accords with our own preconceptions. The primary strengths of this study are its ethnographic focus (and the willingness of Cadman to admit to her own evolving feelings about the issues involved) and the insistence on the importance of culture as a framing element of the educational process. It would have been easy for her — as it was to at least some of her colleagues — to dismiss the study habits and classroom behaviors of the international students as evidence of their inadequacy rather than as a failure of the staff to be sufficiently self-reflective. Instead, she examines her long-held assumptions about what it means to be a good student — and a good instructor — and how these idealised forms must be shifted to accommodate the ways in which even the ivory towers of universities are changed by the changing of the worlds political and economic borders.
Because universities deal in knowledge, it is easy to idealise them, to believe that those within the groves of academe are as self-reflective as they are knowledgeable. But we all tend to have blind spots about the areas of.