Understanding Factors Contributing to the Academic Engagement of International University Students
Studies in educational Sciences 259
This doctoral thesis explored international university students’ academic engagement and factors contributing to its enhancement and impediment. It revealed characteristics of international students’ academic engagement by demonstrating similarities to and differences among various groups of students, including between international student sub-groups and between domestic and international students. The four studies that make up this thesis incorporated two survey datasets on students’ learning experiences at the University of Helsinki – one set for international students at the Bachelor’s and Master’s level, and the other set for international and domestic doctoral students. Studies I and II focused on different subgroups of international Bachelor’s and Master’s level students. Study I especially explored the associations of different dimensions of students’ teaching-learning environment and academic engagement. The purposefulness of the course assignments and the relevance of learning contents were associated with adopting a deep approach to learning and being organised in their studies. Furthermore, the better the students’ perception was of how well their courses were organised and learning contents were aligned with each other, the lower was their stress level. The research further attempted to show whether the association model differed between two major international student cohorts in the same educational context: European and Asian international students. Study I concluded that the impacts of dimensions of the teaching-learning environment on students’ academic engagement did not differ between the student groups. However, the scores indicating students’ cognitive engagement, including the surface approach to learning and organised studying for the Asian students, were statistically significantly higher than those of the European students, but the sizes of the differences were considered to be very small. Study II further narrowed the scope by analysing Chinese students’ cognitive engagement vis-à-vis the other international students, with attention given to the students’ survey extreme response styles. The results suggested that the Chinese students used the surface approach more than the other students with a small amount of difference, but these results warrant additional attention when the students’ extreme response styles are taken into account. Furthermore, the study showed that the Chinese students applied the deep approach and organised study as much as the other students. The Chinese students might take a deep approach and organise their studies even more if the levels of their extreme response styles were equivalent to that of the other students. Studies III and IV shed light on factors associated with international doctoral students’ academic engagement in their studies. Study III used both quantitative measures and students’ open-ended answers about their academic experiences. It addressed influential factors in their experiences of satisfaction with their studies and thoughts about abandoning their programmes. Both positive and negative factors in research supervision and positive factors in the personal domain were significantly associated with student satisfaction. The doctoral students’ levels of academic satisfaction were lower in the Faculty of Arts, and higher among those who had not yet decided on the format of their doctoral thesis: monograph or article-based thesis. In addition, the results suggested that students who had problems in supervision and department-related matters, including financing, research facilities and administrative responsibilities, were more prone to have considered dropping out of their studies. Study IV examined the association of doctoral students’ motivation to undertake doctoral studies and the levels of their emotional engagement. It demonstrated the differences and similarities of the association between international and domestic doctoral students by integrating a data-driven statistical approach. The results suggested that students who started their doctoral studies with low motivation to extend their career prospects were significantly less satisfied. More international students than domestic students were classified in the cluster of students who began their studies hoping to develop their career prospects with moderate levels of research interest. This thesis contributes to our knowledge of the characteristics of international students’ academic engagement by demonstrating that students studying in the same educational context appeared to engage in their studies in a fairly comparable way. The thesis stresses the importance for university teachers to be sensitive about their own understanding of particular groups of students in the current, highly diversifying atmosphere of tertiary education. The comparison of different groups with the use of effect sizes consistently showed only very small or even negligible differences. Therefore, this thesis calls more attention to the practical size of differences between different cohorts, which have often been reported in previous comparative studies, but without a great deal of interpretation. Finally, the four studies could not demonstrate links between the students’ positive engagement in their studies and their academic peers. Hence, this thesis argues that international students may not take sufficient advantage of peer support and collaborative synergy during their university studies.