Tracking the Academic Progression of Home and International Students: An Exploratory Study

Authors

Abstract

The paper investigates the learning achievements of home and international students by focusing on the dynamic construct of academic progression, rather than relying on the typically adopted performance measures of final achievement. Our data have confirmed that, on average, UK students outperform international students. The observed differential is particularly pronounced with respect to the academic achievements of home students vis-��-vis students from China. This is the case in terms both of the average marks in each year, and the overall average over the three years of the programme. The analysis of the full dynamics of performance also shows that following a moderate to substantial decline in average marks from the first to the second year of study, all sub-groups examined display a significant rise in their average marks from the second to the final year of study. Our results cast doubt on the generally held view that international students, especially those from China, tend to under-perform in their first year of study. On the contrary, we find that the greatest difficulties faced by these students occur during the transition from the first to the second year of study.

Glauco De Vita

Introduction

The vast majority of previous studies on the effectiveness of learning, teaching, and assessment strategies have conventionally used the notion of ���academic performance��� (typically proxied by pass and failure rates, final grades, or degree classifications) as the indicative measure of students��� learning achievements. It is by using this measure that the (still relatively sparse) literature on the learning experience of international students has shown that, on average, they ���achieve less��� than home students.

A variety of reasons have been hypothesised as to why international students perform less well than home students, ranging from difficulties with language to cultural adaptation. This ���deficit model��� has recently shifted onto academic institutions the responsibility to cater for the different needs of an increasingly diverse student population, to promote equality of opportunity, to target support, and hence level the playing field. The extent to which the under-performance of international students relative to home students can legitimately be seen as an institutional liability, however, ultimately depends on whether such under-performance stems from differences in ability levels. A question which, due to lack of precise comparable measures of prior attainment levels and qualifications, has remained largely unanswered.

Given these difficulties, the proposed study aims to take an altogether different approach, comparing the academic achievement of home and international students, and establishing the extent to which an institution affords all students the opportunity to reach their own potential, irrespective of differences in cultural, ethnic, or linguistic background. The basic idea hinges on the premise that if an institution is fulfilling its role, regardless both of ability levels at entry and final attainment levels, all students should display a similar pattern of academic progression from entry to completion of their undergraduate programme of study.

Tracking the dynamics of students��� academic progression over the course of their undergraduate programme may produce some very interesting results. Ad absurdo, one may find that although, on average, home students perform better and obtain a higher degree classification than international students, the progression of the latter is greater than that of the former.

A priori expectations

The absence of theoretical and empirical studies modelling and measuring students��� performance over time means that our initial expectations of students��� academic progression can only be driven by a simple process of intuition. A priori, it would be reasonable to start this process by assuming that as students learn more, improve their study skills, and sharpen their intellectual abilities, regardless of the functional form of their cognitive development, their academic performance as measured by their marks would also improve over time, resulting in an upward-sloping trend that cuts across their average level of performance.

Of course, this would only be the case if the degree of difficulty of the academic demands placed upon students at the different stages of the programme of study remained relatively constant. This assumption is clearly untenable. In many disciplines the structure of the curriculum of the degree programme is in fact designed to ensure a perfectly linear and vertically integrated sequence of modules across the three years of study, with introductory modules in the first year, and increasingly more advanced modules in years two and three (e.g. introduction to econometrics, econometrics, and advanced econometrics). Whilst it would be impossible to quantify precisely the extent to which the increased difficulty and tighter assessment standards of progressively more advanced modules impact upon performance as students move from the first to the third year, it seems reasonable to suggest that, given the progressively more rigorous demands embedded in the structure of the curriculum, a progression pattern characterised by a relatively constant level of performance throughout the three years would, in itself, be indicative of intellectual development and academic improvement.

Here at Brookes Business School the structure of the Business Management modular programme is somewhat atypical in that while ���Stage One��� modules are all basic in nature and are normally taken in the first year, in spite of a system of pre-requisites guiding the composition of students��� programme, to ensure greater choice, most of the other modules (known as ���Stage Two��� modules) can be taken either in the second or third year of study. This means that, in our context, the academic progression embedded in the curriculum ���raises the bar��� after the first year of study but does not differentiate strongly between the second and third year.

In terms of our expectations regarding potential differences in the academic experiences of home (UK) and international (non-UK) students, although difficulties associated with the transition from secondary to tertiary education are common to all, there is a consensus in the literature (see, among others, Ballard and Clanchy, 1997; Andrews et al., 1998) that international students face additional challenges, at least initially, because they need to make adjustments to the requirements of a different culture. These challenges include the practical issues of travelling to the UK (from the nuts and bolts of arranging visas to orientation difficulties), the emotional and affective issues of culture shock (homesickness, isolation, etc.), issues related to language acquisition and competence as well as pedagogic issues expected to arise from differences in teaching and learning styles, attitudes to participation in classes, and conventions on how to structure and reference written work (see De Vita, 2000; 2001). The literature is also unanimous in viewing these initial challenges as being particularly demanding for students from Confucian heritage cultures, especially Chinese students (see, for example, Biggs, 1997; Smith and Noi Smith, 1999; Volet and Renshaw, 1996). Pearson and Beasley (2000) specifically hypothesise that in learning contexts that progressively develop student learning, local students are likely to perform better than Asian students who will take some time to adjust to the pedagogical requirements. On the other hand, for local students ���the time taken may be shorter because of their local cultural knowledge and educational background��� (p.3). These considerations would suggest that international students, especially Chinese students, may well under-perform in their first year of study as they adjust to the UK academic milieu.

Methodology

This study aimed to compare the academic achievement of home and international students by tracking the dynamics of students��� performance over the course of their undergraduate Business and Management programme. Methodologically, it entailed the examination of the variations in the average marks obtained by both sub-groups of students (home and international) at each of the identifiable progression thresholds (year 1, year 2, and year 3). Given the availability of data, the population of international students was further sub-divided into students from China and other students from abroad.

Data were obtained from the Systems Department of the Academic Registrar���s Office of Oxford Brookes University. The original file of the raw data contained information on 197 students that completed their Business and Management degree in June 2003. The data file was anonymised, though student codes were reported to allow for cross-checks with students��� registration records stored in our Personal Information Portal (PIP) system. For each student code, the file reported information on date of registration, domicile, nationality, and start and end date of each module taken over the degree programme, as well as the mark obtained in each module.

The data set was then scrutinised so as to remove information that might compromise subsequent analyses. This process entailed deleting from the sample ���cultural hybrids��� (i.e. bi-national students), who would have introduced severe bias into the sub-samples, credit entry students, and students who, by having chosen to do a sandwich course, were undertaking a longer (four-year) programme of study. Modules on which students had registered but that had not been attended were also deleted. These modules, like the placement module, displayed a zero mark in the original data file, something that would have corrupted the computation of students��� average marks. This process of ���purification��� of the raw data proved very laborious and time-consuming since it involved re-processing the file on a student-by-student and module-by-module basis, but it ensured a final data set in which confidence could be placed. The final data set (comprising 142 students) was split into two sub-samples: one consisted of 90 home (UK only) students and the other of 52 non-UK students. Within the latter group, 18 students were from China while the remaining 34 were from other foreign nationalities.

Annual and overall averages of students��� marks were calculated as the mean mark across all modules taken in each year and throughout the three years of study. Contrary to University practice, according to which the final overall average mark used for degree classification purposes is obtained from a restricted number of selected ���Stage Two��� modules, in this study the three-year average mark was computed by allocating equal weight to the marks recorded for all modules taken during the whole programme so as to obtain an unvarnished portrait of performance and remove any bias stemming from modules carrying double credit. By being expressed in the same units as the annual averages, our mathematical mean measure of the overall performance can be considered the equilibrium level of performance of students, a benchmark against which annual average variations can then be meaningfully interpreted.

To complement the statistical analysis of students��� marks, a survey was also conducted (on the same population) to gather students��� views of their performance and progression. The questionnaire was piloted on five of the author���s personal tutees. Feedback was also solicited from a Research Methods tutor working here at Brookes Business School. Minor modifications to the wording of the questions were carried out as a result of these processes.

The survey instrument was distributed to students at the end of the final session of one of the compulsory ���Stage Two��� modules taken in the final year (M07020). This was done after explaining to students the aim of the exercise, the use that would be made of this information, and that no advantage or disadvantage would result from choosing to take part or not to take part. Informed consent was implicit by return of the completed questionnaire, and anonymity was assured, since the form did not ask students to divulge their names. Out of about 200 students present, 71 questionnaires were returned, a response rate of approximately 35%, which is in line with that expected from voluntary student surveys of this kind.

Results and discussion

What do the data show?

Looking first at the average or equilibrium level of performance of the cohort (see Table 1), there appear to be substantial differences between the sub-groups identified in this study. UK students��� average over the whole programme is 59.2%, 7.4% above that recorded by international students. The latter population can be further divided into Chinese students and other students from abroad (see Table 2), who record averages of 48.8% and 52.9%, respectively. Although the underperformance of international students vis-��-vis UK students is not a novel finding, the magnitude of the gap unveiled by our data, particularly with respect to the performance differential between home and Chinese students, is much more pronounced than what might have been expected.

Another interpretative perspective used to make sense of the data reported in Tables 1 and 2, is to undertake a comparative static analysis of the annual averages of the first and final year of study. However, this analysis does not point to a common trajectory of students��� performance across the sub-groups examined. Specifically, we find that UK students��� annual average in year 3 is 1.4% higher than that which they recorded in the first year, while non-UK students display a decline of 1.3%. Inspection of Table 2 also reveals that the greatest performance differential pertains to that experienced by Chinese students, who in the final year display an average which is 5.2% below that obtained in year 1. This is a fairly disconcerting result which, taken in isolation, would clearly refute any hypothesis of improved performance.

Table 1. Students��� average marks per year and over the 3 years

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Average

All students

57.1%

55.1%

57.5%

56.6%

UK students

59.1%

57.8%

60.5%

59.2%

Non-UK students

53.3%

49.8%

52%

51.8%

Note: N = 142 (90 students from the UK and 52 from abroad)

Table 2. Students��� average marks per year and over the 3 years

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Average

Chinese students

53.1%

45.3%

47.9%

48.8%

Other non-UK students

53.4%

51.6%

53.2%

52.9%

Note: N = 52 (18 students from China and 34 from other nationalities)

Perhaps, the most significant and reliable empirical trend emerging from the evidence gathered, is that unveiled by the analysis of the full dynamics of performance over the three years of study. This interpretative route reveals a clear and distinctive pattern common to all sub-groups of students in the sample, according to which there is a substantial drop in the average marks from year 1 to year 2 (ranging from ���1.3% for UK students to ���7.8% for Chinese students) followed by a recovery in the marks obtained in the final year (+2.7% for UK students, +2.6% for Chinese students, and +1.6% for other international students). The observed differences being statistically significant at the 95% confidence level. The consistency of this pattern across all sub-groups of our sample may well be a reflection of the progression embedded in the curriculum of this degree programme. If so, it portrays a picture that offers both alarming as well as reassuring features.

The most alarming feature relates to the striking decline in marks experienced particularly by Chinese students during the second year of study. Contrary to our expectations, these students appear to cope relatively well in the first year (they display a performance which is line with that of other international students) in spite of all the additional challenges they face during the initial adjustment period. However, the same students appear to seriously struggle in the second year of the programme, where their annual average mark drops from 4.3% above their equilibrium level of performance to 3.5% below it. There are a number of plausible explanations that can be advanced to cast light on this evidence.

First, introductory modules, partly due to large number of students registered, tend to make a more extensive use of multiple choice tests (MCTs) and less use of essay-type examinations than ���Stage Two��� modules. By virtue of ease and accuracy of computer marking, MCTs are seen as the most efficient means for assessing large classes. Although they are not immune to cultural bias (in the form of alternative reasoning, wording nuances, etc.) they are a more culturally fair assessment method than examinations. Indeed, as suggested by De Vita (2002), by requiring students to organise, synthesise, and express knowledge at speed, examinations may well be measuring writing skills in English as much as, or even more than, academic knowledge. It should also be noted that students who are not proficient in writing skills might, with alternative answer options to choose from, be encouraged by MCTs to engage in recall activities. Meanwhile exam questions, with the extra demand of having to put often complex ideas into writing, may actively discourage a response. This is what Harris (1995) calls the ���intellectual self-censorship of second language students: if one cannot express an idea, the idea will not appear��� (p. 89).

A rather different argument is that, in the first year of study, students take introductory modules that entail fairly basic numerical and computing skills. These are generally considered areas of strength in the portfolio of competencies that international students, particularly Chinese students, usually bring with them. Although advanced modules with highly technical content are also available as electives in year 2 and year 3, these ���Stage Two��� modules focus more on, and hence are assessed on the basis of, the interpretation, evaluation and strategic use of data rather than data analysis per se.

It could also be that the academic level of the first year is perhaps too low. This may create a false sense of adequacy and lead to underestimating the challenge posed by ���Stage Two��� modules. However, it is not clear from our data why international students, particularly Chinese students, would be so disproportionately affected, compared to UK students, by wrongly set expectations. The most logical explanation that comes to mind is, again, related to the issue of competence in the English language. As the academic demands shift from understanding, internalising, and applying new knowledge to a more critical and questioning approach to theory, English competence requirements also increase, from the basic technical skills of writing (using correct grammar, syntax, and spelling) to a degree of language competence that entails awareness of academic literacies. As noted by Newell-Jones et al. (2004), the challenges of engaging in academic discourse, of recognising the multiple literacies in use and the power relations connected with them, and of developing the skills required in choosing the appropriate literacy for a given communicative practice, add another dimension to the issue of English competence. This may well leave international students, particularly Chinese students, less equipped to respond effectively to these new requirements.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that the first year of our Business and Management programme is characterised by a very strong academic support system (ranging from the enhanced role of the seminar leader to study-skills workshops and initiatives such as Peer Assisted Learning). That does not carry through, at least to the same extent, to the second and third years of the programme, where it is generally expected that all students have become familiar with ���the way things ought to be done���.

Although it is difficult to quantify the relative importance of the explanations given above, it seems reasonable to suggest that it is a combination of all of them, rather than a single one, that determines the observed trend.

The most reassuring feature of the pattern emerging from our data relates to the significant rise in the annual average from the second to the third year. First, it is reassuring because, if it is true that the progression already embedded in the demands of the curriculum does not differ significantly between year 2 and year 3, this ���terminal trend��� could be the one that most accurately reflects the actual rate of improvement in the learning achievements of students. In fact, it is likely still to underestimate ���net progression��� since by virtue of greater emphasis on the demonstration of independent learning (exemplified by the dissertation) and higher-order cognitive skills (such as the synoptic capacity), the academic demands of the third year are that much greater than those of the second year. There are, therefore, at least some identifiable elements of vertical development taking place in the final year of the programme. It is also reassuring to see that following the stark reduction in marks in year 2, the rise in the annual average of Chinese students taking place in the third year is similar to that of UK students (though starting from a much lower base) and even higher than that of other international students.

A rather cynical interpretation of the ���terminal velocity��� effect discussed above, would be that, by the third year, all students have learned how to ���play the game���, have become more strategic in their choice of modules and have developed a more instrumental or outcome-driven approach to studying. It should also be noted that most, if not all, of the modules taken in year 3 count for the computation of the final degree classification. Raising the level of extrinsic motivation in students may, in turn, incentivise them to ���raise their game��� and put in extra effort when it matters most. However, whatever the reason, the fact remains that by this stage, all students are better equipped to achieve the learning outcomes set in front of them.

Students��� perceptions of their own progression and performance

The analysis of the data can be further enriched by unveiling the students��� understanding of the terms ���academic progression��� and ���performance���, and their perceptions of their own learning and achievement over the three years of study. In particular, we are interested in establishing whether students��� views can shed light on the extent to which lack of improvement in performance can be explained by increasing curricular demands. With this aim in mind, an end-of-course questionnaire was distributed to the same cohort of students.

Student responses revealed a fairly uniform understanding of academic progression as a continuous process of learning and development. More specifically, the term was mostly associated with ���increased understanding���, ���expanded academic ability���, and ���intellectual growth��� over time. This conception contrasts with students��� views of performance, almost unanimously defined as an indicator based on marks describing ���the standard you are at a particular point in time���. Direct comparison of the two concepts led to the following comments (reproduced verbatim):

���Performance is at a single point in time while progression is an on-going process.���

���Progression places more emphasis on development whereas performance is based more on grades achieved.���

���Academic progression is more difficult to measure and is often not rewarded.���

���Progression recognises your past history.���

���Performance is about grades rather than improvements made.���

���Academic performance can remain ���static���, at the same level. Progression shows improvement, a gradual learning process.���

���Progression is about personal development of skills and knowledge. Performance is relative to staff/University criteria.���

These comments are insightful in that in addition to confirming students��� awareness of the dynamic temporal properties of the notion of progression, they also depict it as a construct more closely associated with personal and intellectual development, rather than one merely based on academic performance over time.

Students were also asked to specify what they considered to be the most appropriate criteria for measuring academic progression. The most frequent answers pointed to ���genuine improvement in the quality of the work���not the marks���, ���greater depth of understanding���, ���ability to work critically��� as well as ���the content and presentation of the work���. Other factors cited included ���increased self-confidence��� and ���improvements in IT, problem solving, and communication skills���.

Students were then asked to apply these criteria to their learning experience over the three years of their programme of study. As shown in Table 3, the results indicate that the vast majority of UK students (78.4%) felt they had experienced a ���substantial improvement���. Non-UK students��� perception of their own academic progression was equally positive (though slightly more modest), with only 5% of them claiming that no improvement had taken place.

Table 3. Students��� perceptions of their own academic progression

No improvement Marginal improvement Substantial improvement

All students

2.8%

26.8%

70.4%

UK students

2%

19.6%

78.4%

Non-UK students

5%

45%

50%

Note: 71 questionnaires were returned, 51 from UK students and 20 from international students.

Students��� self-assessments of progression assume even greater significance when cross-referenced to the answers they gave in relation to their actual perceptions of their performance as measured by the marks achieved over the three years of study. As shown in Table 4, only 15% of the home students who felt they had experienced a ���substantial improvement��� thought that this was mirrored by a corresponding increase in their marks. The bulk of them reported only a slight (57.5%) or no increase (22.5%) in their marks. Of those UK students who had reported a ���marginal improvement��� in academic ability, 40% acknowledged an equivalent increase in marks. Another 40% of them stated that their marks had stayed the same, while 20% observed a slight to substantial decline in their marks.

Table 4. Students��� perceptions of progression vs performance over the 3 years

UK Students Non-UK Students

improvement:

None

Marginal

Substantial

None

Marginal

Substantial

Increased substantially

——-

——-

15%

——-

——-

——-

Increased slightly

——-

40%

57.5%

——-

22.2%

10%

Stayed

the same

100%

40%

22.5%

——-

33.3%

50%

Decreased slightly

——-

10%

2.5%

100%

33.3%

40%

Decreased substantially

——-

10%

2.5%

——-

11.2%

——-

This gap between home students��� perceptions of improved academic ability and an at best slight increase in performance (as measured by their marks) appears to be even greater in the case of non-UK students. Of the non-UK students who felt they had experienced a substantial improvement in academic ability none reported an equivalent increase in performance over the three years while a staggering 40% thought that their marks had in fact slightly decreased. Non-UK students who felt they had experienced only a marginal improvement in academic ability had an even more negative perception of their performance over time, with almost 45% stating that their marks had seen a slight to substantial decline.

Overall, the results of the students��� responses seem to corroborate the hypothesis that probably due to the increasing academic demands of the stages of the programme as it unfolds, even performance over time is an inadequate measure of progression, one which fails to reflect the intellectual development and actual improvement in academic ability that students perceive to have experienced.

Finally, in comparing the learning achievements of home and international students, it should also be recognised that the value-added of studying abroad goes well beyond what is identifiable through measures of academic performance or even progression. The benefits of studying abroad are far more wide-ranging than this. They include better labour market prospects, as well as the acquisition of extracurricular skills like language fluency, cross-cultural competence, and a wider social network (Opper et al., 1990).

Practical recommendations

The obvious implication of the findings of this study, is the need to devote greater attention to the difficulties experienced by students, particularly international students from China, in coping with the greater academic demands placed upon them in the second year of study. In what follows, three main recommendations are put forward.

The first recommendation involves sharing these findings with students in an attempt to remove any complacency and give them the opportunity to better prepare for the challenges embedded in the transition from year 1 to year 2 of the programme.

Second, there seems to be a need for a continuous and more purposefully targeted form of academic support. This might require staff and students working together to establish a system whereby explicit and truly formative assessment feedback (see, for example, Nicol and MacFarlane-Dick, 2005) directly informs students��� personal development plans. These plans would provide a dynamic framework for promoting the continuing growth of students��� capabilities and powers, including that of taking greater responsibility for their own learning and development.

Finally, the importance of helping students develop their academic literacies needs to be emphasised with renewed vigour across all the ���Stage Two��� modules of the undergraduate Business and Management programme. More specifically, the explicit integration of exercises in discourse analysis would seem to be a particularly useful approach to help students recognise that, in academic discourse, language is never neutral or merely descriptive. More often than not, language is the product of a philosophical, ideological and political enterprise that generates a framework for analysing, interpreting and promoting particular objects, subjectivities, and power relations. The context-specific nature of discourse analysis suggests that these exercises would best be carried out at module level, possibly as part of the briefings offered to guide students on their assessment tasks, rather than in ���stand alone��� study skills workshops undertaken at programme level.

Conclusions

This paper set out to explore the learning achievements of home and international students by focusing on the dynamic construct of academic progression as opposed to the traditional measures of final grades or degree classifications.

Our data have confirmed that, on average, UK students outperform international students. The observed differential is particularly pronounced with respect to the academic achievements of home students vis-��-vis students from China. This is the case in terms of both the average marks in each year, and the overall average over the three years of the programme. Additionally, a comparative static analysis of the average marks of the first and final year reveals that while UK students��� annual average in year 3 is 1.4% higher than that recorded in the year of entry, Chinese and other international students display a decline of 5.2% and 1.3% respectively. However, the study also offers evidence suggesting that it would be erroneous to take these static snapshots of performance as evidence symptomatic of an absence of academic development. Indeed, our analysis of the full dynamics of performance shows that following a moderate to substantial decline in average marks from the first to the second year of study���which can be rationalised on the basis of higher curricular demands���all sub-groups examined display a significant rise in their average marks from the second to the final year of study. Our results also cast doubt on the generally held view that as a result of the additional challenges faced during the initial adjustment period, international students, especially from China, tend to under-perform in their first year of study. On the contrary, our data indicate that the greatest difficulties faced by these students occur during the transition from the first to the second year of study.

Students��� views have validated the hypothesis that due to the rising standards across the sequential stages of the programme of study, i.e. due to the academic development already embedded in the curriculum, even the construct of ���performance over time��� is an inadequate measure of progression, one which, taken in isolation, fails to reflect the actual improvement in academic ability.

Overall, the analysis of students��� academic progression has also revealed itself as a valuable tool that enables us to evaluate the developmental properties of the curriculum underpinning the programme���s objectives.

With respect to future research, this contribution points to several avenues that could be profitably pursued. Here at Brookes, the newly established semesterisation model has prompted a significant redesign of our undergraduate programme. Once a full cohort of students has completed a Business and Management degree under the new system it would be opportune to replicate this analysis to establish whether changes in the structure, content, and format of the curriculum have led to a smoother transition from year 1 to year 2 and/or to a stronger differentiation between the academic level of the second and third year of study. Analogous analyses focusing on the effect of placements on students��� progression pattern, and on the progression pattern exhibited by international credit entry students would represent interesting extensions to this line of inquiry. Replication studies across disciplines and institutions would also be valuable.

Acknowledgements

The support of Oxford Brookes University in the form of a Teaching Fellowship is gratefully acknowledged. I also wish to thank numerous colleagues in the Department (particularly Catherine Wang) as well as the PLLnet discussion group for their valuable comments.

Biography

Glauco De Vita is a Reader in International Business Economics and a University Teaching Fellow. His research interests include international business education and cross-cultural pedagogies.

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