Building Integrity and Good Academic Practice in the Context of Cultural and Social Diversity: Learning from International Students

by Leila Dawney, Sharon Strawbridge, Annabel Watson, Senior Academic Conduct Officers.

It has been an unhappy revelation to many of us working in student cases and academic conduct that a disproportionate number of the students that we see come from overseas. Sometimes the meetings that we have with students are emotionally challenging. We see how students’ misunderstandings of academic conventions in UK universities, or their cultural understandings and beliefs about how and when to seek help, can lead their academic practice to be referred to formal disciplinary pathways, when some early intervention and support would have prevented this. Being referred for potential plagiarism or poor practice is stressful, and can really mar students’ experiences at Exeter, particularly, as is the case for many of our PGT students, when they are with us for such a brief time.

This Education Incubator starting grant enabled us to embark on a project that aims to better understand the international student experience with respect to academic practice, and to identify how we might improve our support to prevent our much-valued international students from having to undergo such an experience.

It is all too easy to frame these issues as a deficit rather than difference. It is essential to recognise that the expectations we have of good academic practice are not universal but represent culturally specific orientations to knowledge and ownership. One fundamental principle is that the improvements we make to support the academic experience of international students will also have significant benefits for other students. They are likely to particularly benefit students whose educational background does not align so neatly with UK university experience or expectations, or those who for other reasons might not intuit academic conventions.

Our mapping of student support for academic skills, and our focus group conversations with international students revealed some interesting findings:

  • we assume our students have a level of basic knowledge of what is expected in terms of academic conventions at a particular level, which is not necessarily the case.
  • Academic skills education, particularly around good academic practice, is often delivered through front of class talks and web-based textual information and tends to be front-loaded to the beginning of the academic year. Many international students miss this due to travel and visa issues.
  • There is a trend towards providing institution-level, generalised, academic skills support, where the onus is on students to proactively access this.
  • These institutional support services are numerous, and sometimes confusing for students, who do not know where to seek help, and when.

International students can have quite different cultural understandings of academic practice, including criticality, integration of theory and practice, and understandings of the conventions of academic writing. They may not have had experience of the expectation to develop one’s own authorial voice, or how to draw on and integrate sources. They may have previously learned through textbooks and examinations alone. They may also have different expectations of their role as independent and proactive learners, and their relationship to academics and educators. They often have difficulties in expressing their ideas in English verbally, which has an impact on lecturers’ perceptions of their knowledge and abilities. This means they have a greater need for directed, scaffolded, skills-based learning in the classroom.

What can teaching staff do to support international students with developing the kinds of academic integrity skills that are required at Exeter?

Our findings suggested that there is a need to integrate academic skills into core teaching, even at Masters’ level, building on prior knowledge. You can do this by:

  • Learning about the background of your students – build in opportunities to share/discuss their academic histories.
  • Modelling good practice in your own work – show and talk through how you are integrating sources, referencing.
  • Planning opportunities to read, write and review/discuss reading and writing in teaching sessions.
  • Explaining what you are looking for in an assessment – are they writing in the first or third person? What should the structure and layout look like?
  • Making academic conventions clear – are they allowed to reference course materials?
  • Providing extracts of assessments (not full exemplars), annotated to show what is expected.
  • Accounting for different levels of verbal confidence by allowing time for students to plan/rehearse their ideas before sharing them aloud, or using technologies to support interaction in class (e.g. mentimeter).
  • Making use of formative assessments, including informal formative feedback in class.
  • Finding out about the different resources offered by support providers at the university.
  • Asking the Study Zone or Library for in-class or in-module support.

If you would like to see a copy of the report, please email , or .

Discovery Grants 2022-23

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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