Studying Abroad & Academic Challenges – Tom’s Story

In the previous entry, I described the academic challenges I used to face when I was studying in the UK. My personal experience (although relevant) is only an isolated account of academic struggles. Other students’ experiences are likely to be different. So now in the series of several posts, I will tell stories of struggling international students I met or tutored. This will hopefully offer prospective international students a wider perspective on the challenges students face in the UK/USA and other English-speaking universities. The stories are real, however, I have changed names and some minor details.

What kind of stories did I choose?

Most international students graduate and get their desired degrees, therefore I selected only stories with a happy ending (or sort of happy ending). I ignored horror stories in which students failed, returned home empty-handed, with debts, poor mental health, and shattered confidence. I did not want to share stories about students struggling academically due to toxic, negligent, abusive, exploitative relationships with their supervisors. I could have chosen stories that were more dramatic, more interesting, or even shocking. However, I did not want to exaggerate and scaremonger. It does not mean that such situations don’t happen. They do happen rarely. Sharing them would paint a distorted and unrepresentative picture of academic struggles international students experience. That is not my intention.

In the same way, I did not want to tell stories of international students who never struggled academically. There must be some lucky outliers who are more successful than most students. Frankly, I don’t know too many of them. Generally, international students who don’t struggle academically at all are rare.

Still, my sample of students is biased. I am an academic tutor and by definition; I work with students who struggle. So readers of this post should take that into consideration. Many students face academic challenges and solve them on their own. They don’t need any help.

Tom’s story

Tom (first language: Mandarin) had been learning English since he was 6. He had several English language teachers and private tutors, including a few native speakers. Tom’s parents must have spent a small fortune on his English language education, but the investment paid off. First, Tom was a confident speaker. He actually developed a Scottish accent which was surprising since Tom had never lived in Scotland (his tutor did).

Before Tom started his master’s course in Business Administration, he had spent some time abroad (summer language courses) so he was confident he would do well at university at least as far as lectures, tutorials, and seminars were concerned. With his excellent listening, speaking skills, and ability to take part in discussions with native speakers he had no reason to be overly concerned about his academic performance.

It was not all rosy though. Tom did not like academic writing. It was his Achilles’ heel. Poor academic writing skills were the reason he did not get the required score on IELTS. He took the test twice. The first time he got 5.5 instead of the desired 6.5. He did not actually improve much on the second attempt either. Disappointingly, he got 5.5 again. Fortunately, Tom received a conditional offer from a leading university in the UK. That meant that Tom had to take part in a pre-sessional course (10 weeks) which was to improve his academic skills (e.g. academic writing, research skills, note-taking, etc.) and academic writing. During the pre-sessional course, Tom had to write his first real academic project (3,000-word assignment) in English. He also needed to read authentic academic materials and research extensively. If Tom had failed the assignment, he would not have been able to start his Master’s course. Although Tom was told by other international students that almost nobody fails, the stake was huge. So Tom did not write the project himself. The risk of failure was too high for him to accept, so another more experienced Ph.D. student helped him (it was not me).

When Tom started university, he was acutely aware of his problem with academic writing but everybody was telling him that his writing skills would improve with time. Tom was an ambitious student who did not want to wait passively until the improvement would happen so he enrolled in all possible courses related to academic writing: writing in English for university, grammar for academic writing, writing longer documents with MS Word, note-taking, and referencing, grammar and punctuation, advanced writing. He also took a course in speed-reading to improve his already good reading skills. That was to help him spend less time reading and more time writing.

Despite all his considerable effort and initiative, the results were disappointing. There was little noticeable improvement. He had failed his first and second 4,000-word assignments and barely scraped through the third. He spent at least two three weeks on each assignment; he used to work from 5 am to 11 pm and still got poor results. He started to lose confidence and motivation. He truly started to hate academic writing. It was unfair. He worked harder than many of his friends and got markedly worse results. They had time for partying, social life, improving their language. He did not have time for anything even for his girlfriend. Academic writing sucked the oxygen out of his life. So he started procrastinating, writer’s block affected his writing. He was anxious, stressed, and afraid of failure.

Tom found me through the recommendation of another student I had tutored. I asked Tom to send me a few assignments he wrote and feedback he received from markers. I also asked him how he approached his academic writing. I wanted to understand, his process of writing. The first thing I noticed, Tom did not understand tutors’ questions and expectations. He gave answers to the questions which were not even asked. His answers were superficial and rather descriptive (not critical enough). Tom was not aware of the importance of the process words in the assignment task, did not know how to turn the topic in interesting questions, ignored some content and limiting words in the task. What worse, he never clarified and discussed his doubts with the tutor before writing an assignment. His writing lacked in a structure, there was unconvincing evidence, links to the wider research context were missing. Planning problems in writing were obvious. Tom’s approach to writing assignments was deeply flawed. Tom was reading for a week and then writing for a week. When he started to write he had already forgotten what he read. His writing started from the introduction and progressed in a linear way which did not reflect how the production of academic texts works. Surprising (considering low IELTS score) Tom did not have major problems with academic writing and grammar. He did not use hedging, he overused filler words, his sentences were often too complicated, too academic. He used over-complicated sentence structures. It seems like a long list of problems, actually, they were all relatively easy to improve.

I explained to Peter how to read and write simultaneously, how to integrate notes into writing, how to create connections between different texts and parts of the same text, how to prioritize information. We discussed writing challenges and possible solutions. Tom changed his writing process. We developed a productive academic workflow. I helped Tom to write two assignments. I was not writing for him! I was acting more as a mentor. We discussed the assignment, reading materials, Tom was reading and writing. I provided feedback and friendly critique on the stuff he read and wrote.

Tom successfully resubmitted the two assignments he had failed. He wrote other assignments independently with great results. Often, students who struggle with assignments, ask me to help them with a Master’s dissertation. It was not the case with Tom. We discussed methodology and statistical analyses in detail, however, he did not need my help with writing. He wrote a 25,000-word dissertation himself. It took him two months.

From my tutoring perspective, it was easy to help Tom. He had good English, good critical reading skills, good academic language. He had problems with the process of academic writing rather than the language itself. Short coaching helped him learn to write better quality projects. Tom changed completely the way he wrote academic projects and problems with academic writing disappeared.

Take-aways for prospective students

  • good English helps a lot
  • IELTS scores might be a poor indicator of the preparedness for authentic academic writing
  • factors beyond language and grammar can cause problems with academic writing too
  • International students should understand the process of academic writing (research process, selecting materials to read, reading for writing, note-taking, outlining)