Supporting Academic Success of International Students in Online Learning Difficulties in Transition to U.S. Universities

According to a recent report by the Institute of International Education, there were more than 764,400 international students enrolled in U.S. universities and colleges in 2011/2012. This was a 7 percent increase from the previous school year. International student services on campus organize social events to facilitate interaction between international and American students and provide academic support for those from non-English-speaking countries. Despite their efforts to promote diversity, the transition to American universities is still challenging for international students. Many feel homesick and experience emotional stresses due to cultural differences (Campbell, 2007), and have difficulty in making American friends and sustaining long-term relationships (Kwon, 2009).

Cultural conflicts in online learning

Historically, online courses have been offered mostly for remote students. In the current trend, many on-campus students are also taking online courses along with traditional face-to-face classes. The growing number of international students in U.S. universities demands that faculty redesign online instruction. A study shows that international students tend to struggle with online courses, due to cultural differences (Liu, Liu, Lee, & Magjuka, 2010). Liu et al. (2010) examined the perceptions of Chinese online students in a U.S. university and found that Chinese students tend to feel more comfortable with a well-structured lesson than American students do. Their online behavior was also different. In the group work, Chinese students exhibited face-saving behavior, while U.S. students were more assertive and expressed their opinions with confidence. Furthermore, Tan, Nabb, Aagard, and Kim (2010) interviewed international students from different countries. Most participants expressed that online courses helped them increase English vocabularies. However, the use of vernacular phrases and acronyms confused them and often caused misunderstanding and embarrassment. They also mentioned that very few instructors and peers considered cultural differences. Some international students had problems with time management and difficulty with the technology, which was not commonly used in their countries.

A feeling of loneliness is also a factor hindering online learning. Erichsen and Bolliger (2011) found that while international students tend to experience high levels of isolation in both traditional and online classes, they feel even more isolated in online courses. However, students also expressed that they have less anxiety in online classes because they don’t need to worry about speaking in front of their classmates and they can work on assignments at their own pace and review their responses before posting comments on the discussion board. Moreover, Wang and Reeves (2007) examined Taiwanese students’ perceptions of synchronous online learning at a U.S. university. Their study showed that although the delivery formats do not affect academic performance, students tend to prefer traditional face-to-face courses.

A recent study by Yee (2013) provides an interesting insight. He found that perceptions of online learning do not significantly differ between Chinese and domestic students. According to Yee, the Net Generation—students who were born between 1982 and 1991—are already familiar with online communication and a variety of mobile devices. Therefore, regardless of their nationalities, they can adapt to online learning without much difficulty. His finding supports earlier studies on the effect of a student’s technology skill in online learning (Dupin-Bryant, 2004; Sheard & Lynch, 2003). However, it is important to remember that the extent to which students are immersed in technology is also different, depending on the culture.

A summary and suggestions

Educators need to understand international students’ challenges in online classrooms. Both language and cultural differences influence how well they can fit in U.S. universities. To promote international students’ academic success in online classrooms, faculty should not only focus on teaching their subject matter knowledge, but also consider modifying their course designs to make online contents accessible to diverse learners.

Small universities or colleges in rural areas tend to lack resources to support international students, and faculty may not be prepared to incorporate diverse cultures into online classrooms (Harder, 2011). Workshops to promote faculty’s cross-cultural awareness should be encouraged at the institution level. Mentoring programs are also effective to develop faculty’s online teaching skills. Experienced online instructors can assist new faculty with not only the course design, but also psychological aspects in online instruction, such as students’ procrastination and discipline problems (Barczyk, Buckenmeyer, Feldman, & Hixon, 2011).

Some of the issues raised by past studies include lack of interaction and emotional closeness to the instructor and classmates. These problems can be minimized if online instructors present materials in different formats and include a variety of assignments (e.g., individual work, group projects, and a whole-class discussion). In addition to instructions in text, instructors can provide audio and visual supplemental materials to help students understand concepts and improve their English listening and speaking skills (Tan et al., 2010).

Lanham and Zhou (2003) suggest that to accommodate students from different cultures, instructors should use both synchronous and asynchronous communication tools to develop a learning community. Students who are not confident in their English skills may feel more comfortable and less self-conscious with an asynchronous format, such as email or online discussion board, than synchronous/real time conversation. Giving them options may ease their stress and encourage participation.

In addition, instructors should use language carefully and should not assume that all students understand vocabulary words or phrases commonly used in the United States. When instructors introduce new materials or use technology tools, international students may need additional explanations or examples.

Online buddy systems are also helpful in developing a friendship. In the buddy system, students can work in pairs throughout the course. Further, in order to detect a problem at the early stage, formative assessments are particularly important and should be given frequently.

If possible, instructors may discuss course assignments with international students individually at the beginning of the semester. This can be done online or in person. Even for domestic students, understanding the course structure in advance helps them keep up with course work. Although most U.S. universities require that international students take English tests before entering schools, such English tests do not provide information about their actual academic performance in the real classroom setting. By communicating with international students at the beginning of the semester, instructors will know students’ level of English proficiency, which helps instructors determine how much adjustment is needed such as extra testing time and extended due dates.

Finally, cultural differences should not hinder the academic success of international students. Learning in a diverse classroom prepares both domestic and international students to become global citizens. With the appropriate course design, online classrooms can overcome cultural boundaries and bring all students together.


Barczyk, C., Janet Buckenmeyer, J., Feldman, L., and Hixon, E. (2011). Assessment of auniversity-based distance education mentoring program from a quality management perspective. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 19(1), 5-24.

Dupin-Bryant, P.A. (2004). Pre-entry variables related to retention in online distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education 18(4), 199-206.

Erichsen, E.A. & Bolliger, D.U. (2011). Towards understanding international graduate student isolation in traditional and online environments. Educational Technology Research and Development 59(3), 309-326.

Harder, N.J. (2011). Internationalization efforts in United States community colleges: A comparative analysis of urban, suburban, and rural institutions. Community College Journal of Research & Practice 35(1/2), 152-164.

Kwon, Y. (2009). Factors affecting international students’ transition to higher education institutions in the United States—From the perspective of office of international students. College Student Journal 43(4), 1020-1036.

Lanham, E. & Zhou, W. (2003). Cultural issues in online learning—is blended learning a possible solution? International Journal of Computer Processing of Oriental Languages 16(4), 275-292.

Liu, Xi., Liu, S., Lee, S., & Magjuka, R.J. (2010). Cultural Differences in Online learning: International student perceptions. Educational Technology & Society 13(3), 177-188.

Tan, F., Nabb, L., Aagard, S., & Kim, K. (2010). International ESL graduate student perceptions of online learning in the context of second language acquisition and culturally responsive facilitation. Adult Learning 21(1), 9-14.

Yee, S. (2013).  Perceptions of online learning in an Australian university: An international students’ (Asian region) perspective—enjoyment. GSTF Journal on Computing (4), 82-86.

Wang, C. & Reeves, T.C. (2007). Synchronous online learning experiences: The perspectives of international students from Taiwan. Educational Media International 44(4), 339-356.

Michiko Kobayashi is an associate professor in the College of Education & Human Development at Southern Utah University.

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