Studying in a foreign culture
Culture can be defined as ” the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others” (Hofstede 2011). The differences in cultural socialization tend to influence learning preferences and produce different learning styles (Hofstede 1997; Earley & Ang 2003; Joy & Kolb 2007). Thus, international students may find that they need to develop different learning strategies and study patterns from those they used in their own countries.
‘Culture shock’ is explained as a normal reaction to a new environment and cultural differences. Its possible symptoms are tiredness, insomnia, feeling down and homesick, feeling irritated, eating problems, social tiredness and withdrawal. (Brown & Holloway 2008.) Based on a critical literature review, Hu and Zhang (2013) have identified issues that may cause ‘shock’ and hinder international undergraduate students’ adaptation. (Figure 1.)
Figure 1 Problems facing international students (Hu & Zhang 2013)
Adaptation to the new environment is critical for international students’ successful engagement with their learning. However, instead of viewing these problems from a negative perspective, with planning, support and understanding, positive experiences can be provided and developed for the students (Lillyman & Bennett 2014).
This study focuses on the experiences of the students from the International Degree Programme in Energy and Environmental Engineering (IDEE). The research question is: How do international students describe their experiences concerning studying at Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK)?
The study procedure
When the students entering into the International Degree Programme in Energy and Environmental Engineering in 2016 had arrived, they were welcomed by four student tutors and one teacher tutor. Several activities took place to help the members of the group to learn each others’ names, and to become familiar with each other and the practices of TAMK. Some theory of culture shock and learning was conveyed and the students were asked to discuss these and share experiences.
The actual data was produced after two months in TAMK by asking 27 students to write on the topic Learning. They were instructed to choose an aspect of learning that most interested them, to find out about the theoretical background of the topic and to analyze how they were taught earlier in their home country and now in TAMK and what was/is expected of them as a learner The students came from nine countries, a considerable number from Asia.
The students returned their essays in early December 2016. The material was analysed to find out how they viewed their previous experiences, the experience of learning in TAMK and the reactions they have to studying in TAMK: The results are presented below. They are illustrated with short narratives. Each narrative is a compilation of several students’ writings.
A) Studying prior to TAMK
The experiences of learning prior to TAMK varied considerably. Both positive and negative experiences were described. To some the difference with TAMK was not great.
The academic environment of my country and Finland are fairly similar and what is expected of me is essentially the same. Because I know what works for me I am able to pass most courses with ease.
Those coming from Asian countries seemed to notice the greatest differences concerning the roles of a teacher and a student. At its best, learning vast amounts of information by heart and working in a disciplined manner helped them to bear with stress and gave a good basis for studying in another country.
These circumstances really made students study hard in order not to be left behind. This way of education results in hard-working and brilliant students in international environment. I can work under pressure and learn everything the lecturer gives to me.
Aspects that were mostly seen as negative in the previous schools were the competition causing stress and the external motivation that did not support building a healthy self-confidence.
Students have to undergo strict and fixed curricula long hours a day, being taught only academic knowledge without a chance of practicing and applying it in real life. The pressure often made my study attitude worse. I study for examination just to get high grade, I did not have any intention to understand the subject and I forgot everything I learnt after the exam is done.
Learning material in order to be able just to repeat it was seen as a hindrance to actually understanding subject matter and being able to apply it in practice. Many students also criticised their previous schools for not helping them to develop their own thinking and questioning.
B) Studying in TAMK
Based on the essays, the study environment in TAMK was mostly perceived as student centred, taking into account the needs of the students and giving opportunities to develop confidence and thinking skills. TAMK was seen as a place where there is room for the student’s own choices. The teaching is practically based and the students are encouraged to ask questions and to discuss issues. The students commented on the how this would develop work life skills in addition to helping to understand the substance matter. The integration of theory and practice was seen as particularly valuable for the future.
Here in TAMK I’m not only studying to get a degree but studying to understand. TAMK set student as the center in their learning process. I tend to gain more practical skills and learn to be more active in searching for new information. In class, students can express their confusion and make questions for their teacher. We are given chances to speak out loud and every assumption is taken into account. We learn collaboration, social skills, communication, group work and being self-confident.
Figure 2 Experiences of 16IDEE students on learning in TAMK.
For those used to a teacher centred learning environment the experiences in TAMK were not always positive. The student centred approach could make the class situations seem chaotic and the authority of the teacher appeared undermined. The amount of freedom of choice could also lead to a loss of direction. When life felt too free, one started to miss the old and the familiar.
It is hilarious that in Finland, you can freely do whatever you want and learn whatever you think is necessary but you feel empty and you miss your education back home.
This suddenly left a blank space in my new life. It is hilarious that in Finland, you can freely do whatever you want and learn whatever you think is necessary but you feel empty and you miss your education back home. Very comfortable learning atmosphere sometimes lead to disrespectful to the teachers as the students can leave or do whatever they want during the lectures. Language is the toughest challenge that I have to overcome. The Finnish accent of some teachers makes overseas students like me hard to understand and follow the lecture.
c) Experiences about studying at TAMK
Based on the identified positive and negative features of studying at TAMK three different types of reaction to a new learning culture were identified.
Confusion. Adapting to a new learning culture takes time and seldom comes easily. A sense of confusion and uncertainty may affect students without adequate preparation.
For the first two months, I had absolutely no goals at all, which meant I did not have any motivation to study and learn new things. The teacher did not push me to achieve anything. If I failed a course, I could take the retake exams. I could skip the class without being punished by any rule.
Many students came from educational systems that emphasized considerable instructor guidance and supervision. They were embarrassed or did not know which way to go when confronted with TAMK’s learning culture which involves independent learning, working in teams and active classroom participation. Each student adjusts at a different pace to new habits and expectations (Brown and Holloway, 2008; Wang 2012). According to Gudykunst (2005) culture shock is not a problem to be cured but a certain amount of uncertainty and anxiety is seen as positive and as a necessary step towards intercultural communicative competence.
Transformation. Some students found the learner centred approach in TAMK liberating and became critical of the teacher centred approach.
This four-month-period of time changed myself completely. Learning, now that I have found my motivation, has become surprisingly enjoyable. I’ve overcome my insecurities, my social anxieties and my feeling of unworthiness. It feels like my whole school experience has changed. My learning methods have changed from passive to active. This lead to amazing changes in my learning attitudes from pessimistic to optimistic. What is more, I can use the positive attitude to deal with every problem relating to learning.
In other words, learning in another culture has made it possible to evolve from the ways learnt in the past, from learning because you are told to do so to learning because you want to do so.. Students have acquired in their own culture a coherent body of experience – associations, concepts, values, feelings – frames of reference that shape their expectations, perceptions, cognition, and feelings in new culture. Transformation is the process of change in student’s frame of reference (Mezirow 1991).
Combination of familiar and new. Some students were critical of the suggestion that they should completely assume a new approach to learning and give up approaches and practices learnt in their culture. They were striving to create a merger of the old and the new.
Looking back and reflecting how my learning style has changed I realized that my current learning style is a modified combination of collective and individual system. Students should flexibly combine both passive and active way to achieve the highest efficiency in learning. They can benefit from a combination instead of getting distract in a Teacher-Centered education or losing their goals with a completely Learning-Centered class.
Learning about the host cultures’ values, customs and social codes can aid a positive psychological behavioural adaptation, while maintaining the individual’s own cultural values (Calvez 2008). Adaptation is a dual process that includes not only cultural but also psychological change This shift in personal identification does not change, however, the core of who the student is as an individual (Berry 2005; Smith & Demjanenko 2011; Tran, 2011).
Conclusions and Recommendations
Teacher and student are an archetypal role pair in virtually any society. When teacher and student come from different cultures, complexities can arise due to differences in expected teacher-student interaction or to different social positions of teachers and students.
The findings of this study suggest that there are many positive effects in starting to study in a foreign culture. However, different pedagogical approaches and solutions may be needed to ease the students’ first months in a foreign culture and to facilitate them in their learning processes. It is important to discuss possible problems and the learning culture in Finland: What is expected from students? How to learn academic practices? Is it ok to contact the teachers? It is important to increase feelings of connectedness to studying in a Finnish higher education institution.
Students, teachers and other staff members need to be aware that both positive and negative incidents can provoke feelings of confusion, disappointment and frustration. Listening to international students’ experiences and reflecting on their perspectives creates a basis for co-operation, communication, understanding and support.
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Tampere University of Applied Sciences, Pedagogical RDI
Fields of expertise: Curriculum development, student experience, competency-based education, counselling and mentoring
Tampere University of Applied Sciences, Language services
Fields of expertise: International groups, integration of substance and communication
Photo: Joel Forsman