Chang was a Chinese international student who came to the UK to study for a Master’s Degree in Biomedical Sciences.
As most international students he had had to take the IELTS test before the university accepted him. He took the test four times before he got an average score of 8.0 with 7.5 on the writing component.
Before Chang arrived in the UK, he had spoken with his friends who had studied in the USA and the UK. He also browsed the Internet to find important information about the culture, living, and practicalities of life in the UK.
He was in contact with his educational adviser (the gay who sorted out all application forms and documentation).
Chang also joined an expensive pre-sessional course at his university (8-week intensive course which was to prepare him for studying at the postgraduate level in the UK. Price £6.500). Chang did everything he could to succeed at university.
He was, of course, a bit scared and apprehensive since the Master’s course cost £25,000 per year so it was a lot of money to invest. But it seemed that with his serious attitude and proved English language skills nothing could go wrong.
He started his course in September with optimism and confidence. That changed quickly when Chang failed his first assignments. The feedback he received on the assignment was troubling: problems with structure, poor choice of evidence and academic sources, unsubstantiated claims, referencing issues and lack of criticality.
He read the feedback several times. He rewrote the assignment trying to improve the problematic areas. Then he failed the second and the third assignment. The situation became dramatic, and it was pretty clear that Chang might fail the whole course.
He asked for help his university tutor, friendly guys at the university writing centre, also his British peers. The advice he received was well-intentioned, but it did not help solve any of his problems. Chang was told to improve his grammar, use referencing software, outline the project at the beginning.
His tutor gave him a list of critical questions to improve his criticality and advised Chang to take part in the academic writing course at university. Some advice was misguided, misinformed, unproductive and simply useless but Chang did not know it then. He was clutching every single straw, he was thrown. This way he wasted lots of precious time. All good advice was like a drop in the ocean.
That was the moment I met Chang. About that time, I had already finished my PhD and I had been working with my first students teaching them how to write their master’s dissertations and doctoral theses. Chang contacted me with the hope I could help him with his problems. He mentioned on the phone he needed to improve his academic writing as quickly as possible. We arranged a meeting to see what the problems were. Chang eloquently explained what he was struggling with. I could see he was very stressed. He admitted he had no idea how to get out of trouble.
During the time we spent analysing his assignments, it became evident that Chang had actually several problems.
First, he did not understand the academic papers he was supposed to read for his assignments. Frankly, I did not understand everything in these papers either. I was not familiar with biomedical academic journal articles and I lacked knowledge of the field to understand the academic materials well.
Still, I asked Chang lots of questions and he could not explain to me rather basic concepts, statistical and research terms. It was clear Chang did not understand what he read. Without this basic comprehension, it was impossible for him to read and evaluate these papers critically.
Chang admitted that he had read in English a lot, but read nothing academic and definitely nothing as difficult as the course material. Chang also confessed that bioscience was not exactly the subject he was passionate about. He chose the course because his father had insisted on that. Anyway, it was clear that Chang had the problem with academic (critical) reading which was affecting his written work.
Chang also struggled with knowledge organization. An example. The papers he read were full of yellow highlights.
I asked Chang, why he highlighted the articles he read. My question clearly surprised him. He explained that he had highlighted to emphasize important parts of the text – obviously. I asked Chang why he had used a simple binary way to underline which fragments of text were suitable for his written assignment (highlighted text – important, not highlighted text–unimportant). The way he did it made little sense.
He needed a better method to code important passages. Some passages might have seemed important when Chang was reading the text, but were likely to become insignificant later in the light of new evidence. And the other way round.
He also did not code fragments he did not understand. How was he supposed to return to them to understand the passages better? What about fragments he was supposed to learn by heart for his exams?
As I said, everything was highlighted in yellow. There was no way to distinguish between different types of information Chang collected. Although Chang immediately understood my point and suggested a better method: using multi-colour highlights for different types of information, it still was not likely to solve his organizational problems. For instance, the highlighted passages should be connected to the right place in the project’s outline, other related passages, and keywords. That should happen during the reading. Chang was outlining his project after he read all the materials. By that time, he already forgot the context of the highlights.
I asked Chang how he exported the highlights into his assignment. Chang said that he used scissors to cut them in pieces :). Then he arranged the pieces into the right order. By then, I knew where all the structural problems with his assignments came from.
I also noticed that some studies cited in his assignment were ancient, sample sizes were too small, he mixed quantitative and qualitative studies with no justification, etc. Chang had an obvious problem with a selection of reading materials and their evaluation. In other words, he did not understand the research.
Ironically, the sentences Chang wrote were all in impeccable English (for a second language learner). This positive aspect did not mask the facts that his supporting arguments were unconvincing and unorganized.
There were lots of problems to fix.
Now, I am a good academic tutor. I know how to help my students. However, I am not a miracle maker. I told Chang what the problems were. I told him also the brutal truth that I cannot solve his problems in a short time.
I could have helped Chang with knowledge organization and basic research skills, but understanding the text and critical reading and writing cannot be developed in several hours.
Despite the upsetting diagnosis, the story had a happy ending.
Chang decided to take a break from his studies. He spoke with his academic tutor, and he was able to take a leave of absence – an authorized break from his studies for a year. I don’t know exactly how he did it. I don’t know how difficult it was for him to deal with university bureaucracy and immigration issues.
We worked together for a few months on WeChat. During this time, I gave Chang three assignments to complete.
I explained how to evaluate sources, how to organise knowledge, citations, notes, build an outline. We discussed lots of challenging text (which incidentally Chang started to understand better than me). I explained to Chang how to read academic texts to promote and develop expertise. For instance, I showed how to select ‘easier’ academic texts to get a better overview of the research field, issues, controversies, and concepts. Then I explained how gradually Chang could move to more advanced research. We used a sort of spiral curriculum where Chang read articles with increasing conceptual difficulty. Thus he could revisit issues and themes and build his knowledge iteratively. We used the Feynman Technique, incremental reading, and active retrieval to promote his critical comprehension. During the conversations we had, I was asking hundreds of questions forcing Chang to prove his understanding, choices, etc. During and after writing the assignment Chang got my feedback.
When Chang returned to the UK, he got on his first assignment 80 % and flew through the course with no problems.
He finished his Masters with distinction and received a PhD offer.
Takeaways for international students
- problems with academic writing often have their origin in academic reading
- some academic problems are relatively easy to fix e.g. knowledge organization can be improved quickly if tutors understand how to streamline research, reading and writing process
- some academic skills require more effort and time to improve (research skills, understanding scientific research, critical reading)
- academic support people at university do not always understand how to help international student
- Students should take some academic advice offered by tutors with a pinch/bucket of salt
- If reading is important for students’ academic success, students should make sure before they enter university whether they understand real academic texts
- stress can incapacitate students