Succeeding as an International Student
As international students you face many challenges when you come to the US to study. The following list of suggestions for overcoming these challenges is broken into the categories of socialization, language (speaking, listening, writing, and reading), and academic culture (interactions and expectations in class and with professors and classmates). In addition to reading and following the suggestions below, the book Succeeding as an International Student in the United States and Canada by Charles Lipson is available at the WOU library.
Suggestions for socializing on US college and university campuses
The most important suggestion is to get out of your apartment and talk to people in English! Many international students live off campus with students from their own country. If this describes you, you will need to make a real effort to go to events on campus and meet new people–but it will be worth it.
- Advice for making friends
- Participate in the Conversation Partners program–see webpage here.
- Use the Health and Wellness Center. Whether it is a game of basketball, a badminton match, swimming, yoga classes, rock climbing, or using the equipment, playing together poses few language challenges and provides opportunities to socialize and make friends.
- Become involved in student Clubs and Organizations. ASWOU offers many opportunities and clubs are always welcoming to new members–see list of clubs here.
- Advice for overcoming homesickness
- Limit time spent online communicating with friends and family back home to a certain time each day (maybe one hour). While it is important to maintain these relationships, you need to get out and form new relationships with people here at WOU–see the tips above for making friends. This pay off in better sleep and study routines as well when students adjust to life in college.
- You can visit the Student Health and Counseling Center where a councelor can help you deal with adjustment issues–see the webpage here, and FAQs here.
- Advice for becoming part of the WOU campus
- Atttend sports and entertainment events on campus. At first you will be unfamiliar with the variety of events that are available, so pay attention to the upcoming events calendar and while you are at events, introduce yourself to other students.
Suggestions for listening better (especially in classs)
- Carefully complete all assigned reading in advance of class meetings, keep a journal of new content vocabulary, and practice pronouncing these words. All of this will make it easier to hear and understand these words when they are used in class. Research into the connection between vocabulary knowledge and listening comprehension has reported that nearly half of your ability to understand what you hear is related to how many words you know. In addition to learning vocabulary, good listeners focus on the main idea rather than specific details (Goh, 2012, pp. 59-60). Pre-lecture study provides background knowledge that plays a “crucial role in listening comprehension” (Goh, 2012, p. 67).
- Sign up for the Conversation Partners program—the best practice for listening and speaking is to listen and speak to a real person. If you are interested click here for more information and send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Ask professors if they will allow you to audio record class lectures. This practice has many benefits: 1) you can listen to the lecture again to pick up any missed content and grasp the overall structure of the discourse, 2) when listening again, you can get familiar with difficult pronunciations that are particular to the course content and professor, thus, making these easier to process in the future, 3) knowing that you can listen again later allows you to stay focused on the overall goal of comprehending class content, 4) knowing that you can listen again leads to less anxiety while listening; research into L2 listening has revealed that the anxiety learners feel because of the pressure to understand a lecture in real-time with no second-chances is a significant distraction from the task at hand: listening for meaning. The recording gives you the freedom to listen for the main ideas and be part of the class because you can go back later and pick up details.
- Be a working listener: come to a lecture ready to employ your vocabulary, knowledge of lecture structure and style, discourse signals, and inferencing skills to draw content meaning about the day’s topic. Research shows that students who employ a bit of self-monitoring (conscious attention to listening strategies) have better comprehension and retention.
- Watch English movies, and experiment with turning the subtitles on or off. Watch a scene without subtitles and see how much you understand, then watch it again with subtitles, and again without. Watch the movie in pieces or the whole thing then later again with or without subtitles. Note: courtroom dramas like A Few Good Men, Presumed Innocent, JFK, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. will have scenes of extended ‘lecture-style’ speech that is similar in formality and logical development to classroom discourse—much more than the informal conversation typical of TV sitcoms.
A note on grammar (syntax): quite a lot of research has demonstrated that for language learners, focusing on the function words (articles, prepositions, conjunctions) and syntax of sentences in lectures is less important and even a distraction from grasping the meaning. Rather, you should focus on the global meaning as emphasized in key words and phrases. (Goh, 2012, pp. 61-62)
On the other hand, you should be directed to pay attention to organizing signals in lectures (“First, let’s look at…” “To sum up so far…” “and, to repeat…” “but more importantly…” etc.). If you have an idea of the overall organization of how academic lectures typically develop, these phrases provide important signals to logical development, emphasis, and meaning structure.
Suggestions for speaking more confidently (especially in classs)
- Don’t be afraid to speak. Your pronunciation and grammar do not need to be perfect for you to be understood.
- As with listening practice, reviewing and pronouncing content-specific vocabulary that is likely to be part of class discussion will improve you fluency and confidence.
- Form study groups with other international students or with native speaker classmates in order to practice academic speaking in a less threatening environment than in front of the entire class. Working with a course tutor can also accomplish this goal.
- Becoming involved in the Conversation Partners program is an excellent way for you to practice speaking in English.
Suggestions for reading better
- Do not look up every new word in a dictionary or translator as you read. You will need to use your own judgment here, but if you are looking up more than one word per sentence, you might not be able to focus on the overall message. It will be better to use the context to understand unknown words and guess their meaning as you go. If it is not too distracting, make a list of new words that you can check on later. As long as looking up words is not too distracting it is a good practice.
- Do keep a written journal of new vocabulary words. If you make a list of new words during or after reading a passage, you can see which ones are repeated and you should be able to decide which ones are most important for understanding the content you are learning. The repeated words and content words are the ones you should study by adding the appropriate meaning, example sentences, and other usage information to your vocabulary journal.
- When you look up the meanings of words, use a monolingual “learners dictionary”—not a translator. Automatic translators are well-known for being inaccurate because they do not consider the context of the English word and many translators may not have high quality translation and definition software. A learners dictionary will provide much more useful information about a word, some of which you should include in your vocabulary journal.
- Use wordandphrase.info. This is an excellent resource for knowing how common a word is. If it is in the top 3000 words and/or common in your academic area, you should learn it. In the wordandphase, you can see many examples of how the word is actually used in real sentences. You can also see synonyms that are more general and more specific and you can look up phrases to find appropriate synonyms for accurately paraphrasing.
- Focus on the grammatical subject and main verb of independent clauses—this is where the core meaning of English sentences is located. Subordinate information (less important details related to the subject and verb) are located in adverbial verb phrases, noun modifiers, and prepositional phrases.
- Preview any reading by looking at the section headings to get an idea of what the chapter or article is about and how the information is organized.
- Write a brief outline and summary as you are reading. Academic texts usually put the main ideas at the beginning of paragraphs, so focus on first sentences.
Suggestions for writing better
- First and foremost, understand the assignment. If you have any doubt about what the instructor expects, ask him or her, and/or take the assignment to the Writing Center for help.
- Writing a good paper requires much more than one night of work. Plan to finish a draft several days before it’s due so that you can visit the Writing Center at least once. Save the last day before the paper is due for editing: read every sentence carefully. Print your paper the day before it is due—never just before class.
- Take a copy of the assignment, any class notes, and any outside sources with you to the Writing Center.
- Carefully compare your paper to any examples that the instructor provides.
- You may have been told that academic sentences are long and complicated. This may be true often and on average (compared to the language of newspapers, fiction, and conversation), but these sentences are produced by experienced writers who understand the connections between all of the information in their sentences. If you tend to write long sentences but are not sure about their grammar and punctuation, your reader may not understand you. It might be better to use shorter sentences to make the meaning clear. On the other hand, if you write nearly all short sentences with no mistakes, you should work on combing the information of some sentences into others so that the writing is more efficient and the most important information is in the subjects and verbs of sentences with extra details in the adjectives, prepositional phrases, relative clauses, and adverbial phrases.
Suggestions for adjusting to the academic culture of classes, professors, and classmates
- Teachers at US colleges and universities expect students to be active listeners who contribute to class discussion and ask questions when they don’t understand an idea. One way for you to focus on contributing to the class is to audio record your classes so that you can focus less on taking notes and remembering details and more on understanding the main ideas and discussion.
- In classrooms in the US, teachers value what students have to say, and that means that you need to listen closely to what your classmates contribute to discussion. This is very helpful because the questions that other students ask will probably be similar to the questions that you have, and the teacher will answer them in class.
- You will often be asked to discuss and work with a small group of students during class and outside of class. It is very important to contribute your ideas to the group and to help produce any work. Most American students know that in group work, at least one person needs to be the leader who keeps you focused on the group’s task; one person needs to take notes or write down information; and everyone is responsible for encouraging others to speak and for contributing their thoughts. For out-of-class meetings, be sure to communicate clearly about when and where to meet, and don’t be late–students here are busy, so they want to begin working at the time that they planned to meet. If you can choose your own groups, try to group with domestic students rather than other international students from your own country.
- Take this opportunity to study a variety of classes. Our liberal arts approach is built on the idea that the knowledge and understanding gained in any subject area can be applied to nearly any other subject and to all aspects of life in and out of school.
- While it may seem that instructors and professors in the US are informal, it is only a different approach to teaching and learning. Because we believe that learning comes through discussion, clarification, and debate, we highly value classroom interaction. This requires you to be an active listener and contributor to classes. This also requires that you are in class on time–without you the class is not complete and many teachers begin their classes with important announcements or collecting work–do not be late to class!
Out of Class
- Check your WOU email daily. Your WOU email account is the only way that your teachers can contact you individually. If your class has a Moodle site, check it at least once per week or more often if the instructor recommends it.
- Look closely at your course syllabus–at US colleges and universities, exams usually account for less than 60% of a course grade. Out-of-class papers and projects are often worth just as much as tests and many instructors assign daily or weekly homework. If you skip any of these assignments, do them poorly, or turn them in late, you may fail a class even if your tests scores are passing.
- Visit you professors’ office hours to ask questions about the materials, your assignments, or your grade. Here, it is considered the mark of a good student to visit professor’s office hours to discuss the class.
- As stated above in the section on group work, if you meet with a group outside of class, communicate clearly about when and where to meet, share phone numbers and email addresses, and be on time.
- The assignments that teachers give will often require critical thinking, personal responses, and finding information in sources outside of the textbook. This type of work may be new for you, so ask your teachers if they can give you an example to look at, and visit the Writing Center for help.
- Never ask a teacher to give you a higher grade. Teachers here base their grades on department, university, and national standards that cannot be negotiated. Teachers usually follow very clear guidelines for grading assignments, and the scores for your work and tests determine your grades. Please visit your teacher if you have questions or concerns about your grades–instructors will be happy to explain you scores and give you advice for improvement. But they will seldom react positively if you ask them to raise a grade.
- If an instructor says that a class is full, even if there are empty desks, that means the instructor should not add more students. So don’t beg an instructor to let you into a class. Academic departments set limits on the number of students who can be in a class, and these should be followed whether or not there is space for more students in the room. Teachers need to grade student’s work and manage class discussions–if a teacher adds more than the class limit, each student will receive less time and attention, and that is not fair to the other students.
- Course selection. If you have any questions about which courses you should take, talk to an advisor in the international students office, in the Advising Center (APSC building), or in your academic major.
- Registration. If you have any problems registering for classes or questions about how to register online or using paper “Add/Drop” forms, visit the Advising Center in the APSC building.
- Campus facilities. Please be patient when trying to find offices on campus. Universities in the US are probably organized differently from the schools in your country, so it will take you some time to find out where everything is. Sometimes you may be frustrated because a person in one office tells you to go to another office and sometimes paperwork or computer records take time to be updated. These problems happen to everyone who is in a new environment. Remember that the faculty and staff at WOU are here to help you, and if you are friendly when you meet them, they will be more friendly to you.
- Student servcies. Universities in the US offer many student support services–please use them. The Office of International Student Academic Support can help you find and use the right services to help you succeed.