Supporting the Success of Feoreign Students in Canadian Universities


Supporting the Success of International Students in Canadian Universities

Annie Pilote

Asmaa Benabdeljalil

Département des Fondements et Pratiques en Éducation

Laval University






his article presents the results of an exploratory study of the success of international students in Canadian universities.  The objective of the study was to identify the academic difficulties these students face at the beginning of their studies, with the goal of proposing measures to improve their chances of academic success.  To this end, we interviewed ten international students enrolled in a first degree program at the Laval University in Québec. The data collected through these interviews made it possible to identify the difficulties these students face and how they are connected to the students’ former academic training, their work methods, evaluation methods, and support structures. 





he international mobility of students has increased considerably in recent years.  According to the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture Institute for Statistics (UNESCO-ISU, 2006), at least 2.5 million students at the postsecondary level studied outside their country of origin in 2004, compared to 1.75 million in 1999.  Canadian universities contribute to this mobility by attracting an increasingly significant number of international students.  Nearly 60,000 chose Canada as a destination for postsecondary education in 2001, almost 18,000 more than in 1999 (Citoyenneté et Immigration Canada, 2003).  The presence of these students on campus has numerous educational, social, cultural, and economic advantages.  These students enhance intercultural relations and enrich the education of all students through their diversity of experiences and cultures.  Given these numerous advantages, the majority of Canadian universities are working to recruit additional international students.  These recruitment objectives pose new challenges to universities, which must establish services to welcome and to support the integration and success of these students.  To respond to these challenges, most Canadian universities have established services to improve the experience of international students.  As soon as these students arrive on campus, they can obtain the information and help they need through such orientation services. 

While these orientation services are indispensable, there seems to be little corresponding pedagogical support for these students.  Similarly, very few researchers have investigated the academic success of international students.  One example is the study by Morrison et al. (2005) in Great Britain, which compared the academic performance of international students to that of British students.  The British students were more successful.  However, this study offers little explanation as to the causes of these differences in academic performance.  The report by the Conseil superieur de l’éducation (Julien, 2005), Sur la mobilité internationale des étudiants au sein des universités québécoises, brings additional insight to the academic progress of international students enrolled in Quebec universities, with international students demonstrating higher graduation rates in doctoral programmes.  It is, however, difficult to draw conclusions about the success of international students through these few studies; it is also important to investigate the experiences of these students in terms of the difficulties they experience.  A review of the literature (Coulon et Paivandi, 2003) on the academic experiences of international students in France illustrates the varying obstacles these students encounter, including teaching methods, curricular structure, the use of new technologies, evaluation methods, the university environment, and instructor-student relations. 

It is in this context that we undertook a study of international students at the Laval University in Québec[1].  The problem was put forward by university professors and administrators who were preoccupied by the difficulties that some international students were experiencing in their studies, placing these students at risk of exclusion from their program of study in fields such as business administration or sciences and engineering.  We began with the question of whether it is possible to support these students in a way that will increase their chances for success.  We have attempted to identify the principal academic difficulties these students face at the beginning of their studies in the Canadian educational system in order to suggest to the university community possible avenues to improve the chances of academic success for international students.


Literature and Methodology Review


he first year of university is crucial to all students’ academic trajectory.  The question of success for international students must thus be considered in the context of the problems of integration into the university.  The first year at university is defined by a series of social and academic adaptations that can become impediments to academic success.

            The University of South Carolina (USC) in the United States has become a pioneer in the study of and solution to these problems by founding a movement known as the “First Year Experience” (FYE).  The objective of FYE is to involve educators in a process aimed at improving both chances for academic success, and the adaptation of students to the personal and interpersonal challenges posed by university life. Fundamentally, it consists of a rite of passage to help integrate students into the university community.  FYE is also based on the inversion of the philosophy of social Darwinism, which has for a long time dominated institutions of higher education, and which preaches the survival of the fittest through non-intervention by institutions with regards to academic success.  The philosophy behind the FYE approach instead preaches the “positive prediction” of success, that is, it assigns responsibility to the university for supporting students through the adoption of strategies which improve chances for success, and through identifying the variables that disrupt the process of acclimatization to the university (Gilbert et al., 1997). 

            At USC, the FYE program consists of two components: a first-year seminar, known as “University 101”, and the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, which collects and disseminates information about the experience of first-year students.  “University 101” has become well-known throughout the United States and, to a lesser extent, Canada as a potential strategy for improving integration into the university and academic success rates.  It consists of an optional course designed for students in their first year of university, but also provides a community where students can receive additional information about the university environment beginning in their first year.  The general objectives of University 101 are to help first-year students to: 1) adjust to university; 2) develop a better understanding of learning processes; and 3) to acquire essential skills for academic “survival”.  It also creates a support group for students that disrupts the isolation typical of the first year of university. 

            FYE has recently enlarged its perspective to include students in transition and, more specifically, transfer students who are not in their first year but who are in need of support.  While FYE seems not to have given much consideration to the specific needs of international students, the program’s widening of perspective contributes to the consideration of the experience of international transition and more specific consideration of first-year international students. 

            The experience of transition experienced by international students merits particular attention because of its particular characteristics.  Whether it is a simple change or true culture shock, settling in to a foreign country always requires a period of cultural and social adaptation.  The capacity for students to integrate successfully in their surroundings is tied to their chances of academic success (Kirchenmann, 1996). 

            At the same time, academic factors are also worth considering in order to determine appropriate methods of support for international students.  To what degree did their previous academic experiences prepare them for the requirements of a new system of higher learning?  Of what nature are the principal academic difficulties encountered?  What are the problems associated with advising and mentorship?  Technological difficulties?  Methodological preparation?  In order to succeed in their foreign course of study, students need to learn to detect gaps in their learning and to develop effective strategies for overcoming them.  How can universities assist students in this process?  In the context of globalization and productivity, universities as well as students have something at stake: the recruitment of international students constitutes a potential source of growth that carries with it a responsibility to assure the success of this new clientele. 

            Many European universities have developed initiatives aimed at facilitating the transition of international students, and more specifically those from non-Western countries (Smit et al., 1996).  The academic preparation of international students varies, and their difficulties are tied to language, adaptation to the medium of instruction, to the strength of the school system in their country of origin, and to cultural differences (Thijs, 1996; Uren, 1996).  For example, a study by Freiter (in Thijs, 1996) proposes four developmental stages in global systems of education (poorly qualified, mechanical, habitualized, and professional) each with their own pedagogical techniques; the lower levels of development provide inadequate preparation for higher education in the West. 

            The difficulties of international students, however, do not only stem from developed skills.  Reactions to educational methods can also be affected by cultural differences.  For example, the nature of interaction between teachers and students and between students varies with regards to power differentials and strategies for dealing with ignorance or uncertainty (Hofstede in Thijs, 1996).  Differences in individual students’ educational histories leave universities uncertain of the best way to ensure that students develop sufficient academic skills while allowing for enough flexibility to respond to individual needs (Smit, 1996). 

            A study conducted in the Quebec college system explores the relationship between immigrant status and education (Lapierre & Loslier, 2003), detailing the relationship between recent immigrants and their studies.  One characteristic of this relationship concerns the student adaptation to methods of learning privileged in Quebec. Many recent immigrants were more skilled in memorization as a learning strategy, while comprehension is favoured in their new environment.  Secondly, problems of intercultural communication are at the source of many difficulties, particularly with regards to teamwork.  Many immigrant students prefer instruction through the traditional lecture format with which they are more familiar.  In spite of much scholarly effort, some students experience difficulties tied to inadequate familiarity with different learning methods or to a “sentiment que le milieu est hostile et discriminatoire à leur égard, ce qui mine leur motivation et accroît leur isolement[2] (Lapierre and Loslier, 2003, p. 186). 

Finally, this study establishes a link between success and the degree of integration of immigrants.  Two major stages of integration are established.  The first stage is quotidian functioning (habituating to the climate, to food, to transportation, etc.).  Next, social integration is carried out according to different methods, which vary according to the previous experiences of these students.  These variations are usually tied to national origin, to the level of French proficiency, and to the familiarization with the cultural codes and values that predominate in the society of reception. 

            Possible measures of intervention by institutions are of two types: student-oriented actions to facilitate that student’s adaptation, and actions that improve the organization’s ability to welcome students (Deen, 1996).  Actions on the individual are much more common; organizational changes are more difficult to enact.  For example, many universities offer programs centred on the social and psychological needs of students, training in the language of study, familiarization with the university system, remedial instruction in certain disciplines, and sensitivity to intercultural realities.  These programs may continue over a full year or over an intensive period and the methods vary: lectures, practical laboratories, mentoring programs with domestic students or international students who have gone through similar experiences.  Organizational measures are, however, equally important, and desirable in order to support the reception and success of international students.




his study most directly addresses students of foreign origin who are enrolled in an undergraduate degree program at the Laval University in Québec.  The primary objective of our project was to determine the knowledge and competencies necessary for international students with regards to improving their integration and success within their programs of study, without negating their former experiences and their goals for the future.  Programs cannot effectively be implemented until the most suitable means of intervention are determined: “policies designed with this end in mind will only bear fruit if they are based on a firm understanding of student life” (Gilbert et al., 1997).  The recognition of the experience of students of foreign origin should contribute to improving their transition within our educational system (Lee, 1997). 

            This is why we have set out to engage ten students in the process of analyzing their needs and developing tools for their success.  Participants were selected to represent the typical profiles of newly enrolled international students at the Laval University, taking into consideration country of origin, gender, field of study, etc.  They were generally in their second semester at Laval University (in remedial courses or in the regular program).  They had thus recently experienced the orientation process and had started their process of integration; at the same time, they had experienced a full session at Laval University and benefited from a certain perspective in terms of this experience. 

The purpose of an interview was to document the trajectory of each participant beginning with their experiences of previous education and continuing with their experiences of orientation and integration at Laval University.  Thus, at the beginning of winter session 2004, we met with ten international students (six men and four women) in individual interviews.  These students came from Cameroon, Mexico, the Côte D’Ivoire, Belgium, Morocco, and France.  They were registered (or planned to register) in the following programs of study: mechanical engineering, international studies, business administration, linguistics, biochemistry, food engineering, software engineering, electrical engineering, and agriculture.  The majority were in their second semester at Laval University, except for one student who arrived in January 2004.  The data collected from these interviews permits us to identity some of the problems encountered by the students and to imagine possible solutions.




lthough some students did not seem to have encountered significant difficulties, the majority noted common problems, which we will classify in the following categories: previous education, work methods, evaluation methods, and support systems.  Though these problems affected students of various countries, the intensity of problems for students of African origin is notable.


Previous Education

International students generally come from educational systems very different from those of Quebec (or North America).  Even if the majority completed their previous studies in establishments modelled on the Lycée, the conditions in which their study took place varies tremendously.  For example, one student completed his final year of study during a period of war, which involved the closing of his school, expatriation to France, and significant self-directed individual work before he was able to obtain his diploma.  This student experienced great instability in his life and considers himself to be very ill-prepared for his university program.

            Obviously, not all the students experienced such dramatic conditions, but the difference between their previous education and the common pedagogical methods employed at Laval University were emphasized by the students.  Some said that they were used to more theoretical methods that encouraged reflection, rather than to methods stressing practical applications.  The organization of work through the semester is also very different, since in many cases, the final exam was prioritized.  According to one student, such a system causes students to be “lazy” since they prepare at the last minute and do not develop consistent work habits.  In other cases, the exam was announced only days in advance.  Finally, relationships with instructors were often of a distant and authoritarian nature.



Different work habits

Differences between learning systems involve new teaching methods.  Students thus find it important to familiarize themselves with these methods by learning to detect the instructor’s desires and effective manners of organising their work, from understanding the importance of the syllabus to the method of taking notes (through listening or writing), to the necessary supplies (course notes or handbooks) to the preferred learning activities (theoretical studies or practical work). 

            The main mistake that students felt they had made was underestimating the difficulty of the work and waiting too long to begin to study seriously.  Because the semester advances at a relatively fast pace, and because tests often begin in the first few weeks of classes, some students admit to having fallen so far behind that it was difficult to catch up.  Even if occasionally the falling behind was the result of apathy, in many cases it seemed to be tied to understanding the different responsibilities accompanying adaptation to their new surroundings.  Whatever the reasons, once students encountered an accumulated delay or obtained poor results, student became anxious about their chances for success.  Some students even admitted to being forced to “sacrifice” certain courses, accepting failure in order to recover as much as possible in their other courses. 

            At the end of the semester, most indicated that they needed to better organize their study habits by consulting the syllabus throughout the semester, which had often been ignored after the first session.  They also recognized the importance of practical work in preparing for exams.  Some chose to lighten their workload by reducing the number of courses in which they were enrolled.  At the end of the semester, they seemed more conscious of their responsibilities with regards to their success.

            The difficulties the students encountered were sometimes amplified by insufficient computer skills.  Some students purchased a personal computer, but were unaware of its basic functions.  Furthermore, students were not familiar with certain applications essential to their studies.


Methods of evaluation

The students’ ability to develop effective work habits had important consequences for their performance on exams.  These crucial moments are often times of stress and uncertainty:  How does one prepare for exams?  How must one answer different types of questions?  One student reported having encountered a multiple choice exam for the first time and being so confused by the format (should he check or black out the corresponding letter?) that he lost a significant amount of time.  He had little experience detecting the tricks present in such exams, and the consequence was a resounding failure.  Other students were disrupted by statements from professors who said that they did not want students to reproduce knowledge “by heart” – through the memorization of taught content.  The students thus concentrated on reading their notes without always understanding or memorizing the specific elements that would be essential to success on their exam.  Another student encountered problems by showing his solutions found using a method different from that preferred by the professor.  Each newly-encountered method of evaluation thus requires the development of effective strategies in order to improve chances for success.

            These differences also affected understanding regarding marking work.  Many students were used to a holistic evaluation out of 20 points, and were thus not used to considering the number of points associated with each question.  At the same time, some students noted that it took some time to understand what constituted a “good” mark.  For example, one student was happy to have received 13 out of 20 on a report, since this mark was a good result in her country of origin.  She was thus very surprised when her friend advised her that it was not considered a good mark in our university system.  These difficulties with interpreting results can contribute to a poor understanding of the problems encountered over the course of their studies.


Academic Relationships

Many students feel isolated in their academic problems.  Many have difficulty asking questions in class or consulting the professor for fear of appearing stupid.  Some report having been disappointed in the “efficient” way in which they were treated by their professors.  Others systematically neglect the resources at their disposal (like crisis resolution services) because they are used to doing things independently, which contributes to their sense of isolation.  Reciprocal study relationships with their peers, particularly with native students, take time to develop. Nonetheless, this form of mutual aid appears to be very useful for students who have had the opportunity to take advantage of it by exchanging notes or preparing for exams, for example.

            The difficulties of establishing positive and effective relations with professors, as well as with other students, often emerge from intercultural differences.  Language problems add to this difficulty, since students often have difficulty understanding “Québécois” French (because of accent, idioms, and speed).  This seems to be a particular difficulty when it comes to teamwork, because students have difficulty finding partners, and are not familiar with the methods of collaborative work.  This seems to improve with experience, and students learn they must break the ice and develop relationships with strangers and with native students.  One student confirmed the necessity of finding ways to integrate with students in his program. 




he primary goal of this research was the documentation of a problem left relatively unexplored: the success of international students in Canadian universities.  Our preoccupation with the ways these universities can help such students succeed drove us towards an exploration of the research on the First Year Experience and on international transitions.  Primarily, we noted that certain difficulties experienced by international students are similar to those experienced by the majority of students during their fist semester at university.  However, the experience of international transition risks heightening many of these difficulties.  To this end, we can improve methods of orientation, but universities should also focus on measures that allow for better adaptation by students to the university system.  The University of South Carolina was a pioneer in such measures, leading to the development of courses designed to facilitate the transition to university by addressing various aspects of university life. 

            In addition, the student interviews we conducted established a better understanding of the types of difficulties these students face.  Problems tied to integration and to other dimensions of the international experience should be understood as interwoven with the other difficulties encountered in adjusting to university.  Particularly when the culture shock is dramatic, the experience affects the concurrent academic difficulties that emerge.  This is particularly evident once we note the differences between the students’ previous education and the experiences and methods encountered at the university of reception.  According to their accounts, there should thus be a familiarisation with cultural and pedagogical norms and assistance in adapting to effective study habits in order to help students succeed.  The methodological problems are at the heart of their difficulties, from daily organization of their work to semester-long planning.  This study exposes critical events that can instigate a negative spiral when weak results are first obtained.  Adequate preparation in evaluation methods and development of effective study strategies seems necessary.  Finally, these students generally had a weak academic support structure and were little inclined to profit from available resources.  This results in difficulties in their studies and isolation, particularly when the pressure to succeed is strong.

            The identification of these difficulties will allow establishments welcoming international students to take concrete steps to establish a supplementary academic support structure and to found or reinforce appropriate learning structures.  One of the options would be to offer a course, beginning in the first semester, focused on preparation for academic life.  Such a course does not need to be centred in a particular discipline but may focus on the development of attitudes, strategies, and methods that lead to academic success.  It can also establish a space that allows for reflection on difficulties encountered in other courses, and for sharing experiences with other students to disrupt isolation and improve integration with the university community.  Another solution would be to sensitize all instructors to intercultural challenges to ensure better pedagogical accommodation of international students and thus augment their chances of success.  Australian and British universities have started to develop these strategies with the goal of helping instructors develop methods of instruction adapted to this clientele, which can certainly inspire the development of similar practices in Canadian universities. 




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[1] This study was conducted on behalf of the Direction general des programmes de premier cycle, Université Laval.

[2] Trans: sentiment that the environment is hostile and discriminatory in this respect, which undermines their motivation and increases their isolation

Higher Education Perspectives. ISSN: 1710-1530