Effects of Social Integration on the

Academic Performance of International Students

Brian J. English

University of Southern California

EDPA 508 Spring 1999

Introduction. 1

Social Integration Theory. 3

Supplemental Instruction. 5

Conclusion. 8

References. 8



     As American institutions are reaching overseas and courting international students “there is a growing concern about the ability of U.S. universities to adequately address the cross-cultural problems these students experience once they arrive on campus” (Wan, Chapman & Biggs, 1992).  Data collected by Sandhu and Asrabadi (1994) revealed that international students in the U.S. often feel socially alienated. To compensate for that alienation international students seek out fellow countrymen for social interaction and academic support. Consequently, they are unlikely to make special efforts to reach out to Americans and contrariwise, American students “do not feel the need to go out of their way to socialize with the foreign students” (p.444).  After investigating how feelings of alienation may negatively affect international students, a review of the literature will show that social integration in a controlled academic environment can eliminate alienation and positively benefit both international and domestic students. This paper will discuss how learning communities that focus on supplemental instruction can increase social integration and create a more equitable learning environment for international students “at risk” because of insufficient language skills or other cultural adjustment problems.

     Before discussing the literature, it is important to clarify several terms that will be used throughout this paper. In the literature, different words are used to refer to students who are enrolled in colleges or universities outside their country of citizenship.  In recent years, there has been some controversy about the appropriate terminology.  The expression “foreign student” has been thought to carry a negative connotation, whereas the terms “international student” or “overseas student” do not.  This paper will use all three terms interchangeably.  Domestic students will refer to students studying in the country of their citizenship.

      Supplemental instruction (SI) is used as an umbrella term for several types of additional programs that can provide out-of-class assistance for students.  These programs include peer tutoring, mentoring, learning communities and video supplemental instruction (VSI).  This paper will focus on learning communities, peer tutoring and VSI.  Learning communities and peer tutoring are forms of supplemental instruction that create an environment that promotes social integration for academic purposes. Although both learning communities and peer tutoring have the same goals, they differ in the number of students involved.  Learning communities and peer tutoring are forms of supplemental instruction that provide students with additional academic support.  Learning communities involve a group of students enrolled in the same class that choose to meet outside of class to discuss course content and learning strategies.  Learning communities have a trained group leader that acts as a facilitator to encourage in depth analysis of course content. 

     For clarity purposes, this paper will restrict the definition of cultural adjustment to refer to the adaptation process that international students need to go through when entering a new academic environment.  This adjustment is common to all people entering new environments or beginning new projects (Lysgraad, 1955). Domestic students and language minority students must also go through a similar adaptation process.  This process may be more severe for most international students because their prior educational training has been in academic environments very different from U.S. colleges and universities.  Although data on retention rates of international students are not as available as enrollment statistics, Tompson and Tompson (1996) suggest attrition rates are high.  They reason that international students have added adjustmental stress is because they are making the transition from high school to college while trying to adapt to life in a new country.  The reduction in the efficiency of an institution to graduate foreign students diminishes both the social and private rates of return.

     Cultural adjustment to a new academic environment should not be considered as one dependent variable that affects academic success, but rather as a term that includes several dependent variables.  This group of dependent variables includes prior exposure to a second culture, language ability, personality, educational background, friends, family approval, self-satisfaction, prior knowledge of course material and personal learning style (Mizuno, 1997; Cabrera, Nora & Castaneda, 1993).  Some international students may not have severe difficulties adjusting to a new academic environment because previous experience may result in the above dependent variables having a positive effect on their academic success.  Many foreign students, though, may be “at risk” academically because these dependent variables will hamper their ability to adapt to a new academic environment.  A general hypothesis in this paper is learning communities and peer tutoring can create social integration for academic purposes.  This type of social integration can lessen the negative impact of the above dependent variables, and therefore increase academic performance for “at risk” international students.

     Two additional dependent variables that cross-cultural integration might nullify are perceived discrimination and alienation.  Sandhu’s and Asrabadi’s (1994) found that perceived discrimination and alienation were identified as major contributing factors for acculturative stress of international students. The danger is that rejection or perceived unfriendliness can lead an international student to develop ill feelings toward the host nationals, host country and host academic environment.  Gullahorn and Gullahorn (1963) describe a typical reaction they observed among American students in France:

In order to reduce his dissonance, while remaining in the cultural context, he might maximize the negative component in his ambivalent feelings towards others in his environment and withdraw as much as possible from interaction with them.  To bolster this decision he may join a clique of fellow malcontents (p. 44).


     Tinto (1975) describes social integration as interaction that takes place between students and others in the academic arena.  Pace and Astin (as cited in Maxwell, 1997) used social integration broadly to include leadership roles, campus residence and extra-curricular involvement.  Although their findings indicate a positive correlation between these types of social integration and academic success, this paper will use a narrower interpretation for social integration.  This discussion will focus on the benefits of social integration for academic purposes, i.e., learning communities and peer tutoring.

     Educational institutions can take a proactive approach to creating an equitable environment for international students.  Colleges and universities should try to identify difficult courses, “and put in the resources early on so there is more of a chance to recognize difficulties before they turn into failure rate” (Wallace, 1996).  For international students this means identifying courses that may require additional relevant instruction in content language and academic strategies.  Those resources or proactive approaches include a view of learning that Cummins and Sayers define as “progressive pedagogy.”  Learning is “constructed collaboratively through interaction with peers and teachers” (p. 150).  To understand how social integration for academic purposes can have positive affects on the academic performance of foreign students, it is essential to review the literature and then examine several models of supplemental instruction. 

Social Integration Theory

     There is reasonable evidence to justify policy changes that would promote social interaction between international students and domestic students.  Tinto (1975) considers the need for academic integration and the need for social integration.  He claims that high levels of academic and social integration lessen the chances for academic failure.  Tinto (1998) cites various studies (e.g., Astin,1984; Mallette and Cabrera, 1991; Nora, 1987; Pascarella and Terenzini, 1980; Terenzini and Pascarella, 1977) that support the positive effects of social interaction.  These studies give evidence that the more students are involved with their peers and their educators; the higher the chances they will persist.

     These findings have certain commonalties with cultural adjustment and acculturation.  Social integration can be seen as a way all students ease their “adjustment” into a new environment--the culture of higher education.  The acculturation process must involve the same elements of social integration.  A sojourner living in a second culture must have social interaction with the members of that culture in order to assimilate.  The importance of these commonalties is seen in Schumann’s Acculturation Model (as cited in Gass and Selinker, 1994). This model states that if learners acculturate, they will learn; if learners do not acculturate, they will not learn.  Since Schumann is specifically talking about second language learners, it is can be inferred that academic and social integration could have double benefits for international students.

     This inference is supported by other research on cultural adjustment.  Furnham (1997) cites several studies that reported a significant relationship between social interaction of sojourners with members of their host country and feelings of satisfaction with their sojourn (see Sewell and Davidson, 1961; Richardson, 1974; Sellitz and Cook, 1962; Au, 1969).  More recent studies found moderately strong evidence that social interaction between international students and domestic students had direct correlation to facilitating cultural adjustment and reducing stress (Kagen and Cohen, 1990; Mallinckroft and Leong, 1992; Wan, Chapman, and Biggs, 1992; Tompson and Tompson, 1996).  Socializing or interacting with members of the host culture can lead to a feeling of acceptance into the new group.  International students can learn how to function in new social and academic environments through interaction with host culture peers. (The term social interaction in these studies is consistent with Tinto’s definition of social integration.)

     Social interaction involves making friends and socializing with English speaking domestic students in the U.S. so this interaction should help to improve international students’ communicative ability in English.  This discussion reasons that if the cross-cultural social integration takes place in a learning community designed to promote social integration for academic purposes, the students will also gain a better understanding of course material and appropriate learning strategies.  In addition, learning communities can promote group acceptance and positive attitudes about living in a new environment. This in turn can lead to increased input and interaction which are necessary both to acculturate and increase levels of fluency (Brown 1992; Schumann as cited in Gass and Selinker, 1994). For international students, cultural adjustment support systems or friendship networks can provide an environment for social integration or social interaction to take place. Social support and social networks of foreign students can reduce stress and facilitate cultural adjustment by providing the individual with informational, emotional and moral support (Furnham,1997).

     To be able to have social interaction with members of the host country, international students must be able to communicate in the host language.  As previously stated, communicative ability is important for both academic success and social interaction.  The reciprocal is also true. Social interaction improves communicative competence (Oxford and Ehrman, 1993).  Kagan and Cohen (1990) found that speaking English at home was the single factor that contributed to  cultural, personal and social adjustment.  This was a characteristic of international students that had assimilated into their hosts’ culture.  The study also revealed that students who did not speak English at home were in the resistance level and were described as poor cultural adjusters.

     There are some limitations of social integration for academic purposes.  Although the evidence indicates that social interaction can increase communicative competence for non-native speakers, social integration may not help to improve international students’ writing skills.  Cross-cultural learning communities may not be appropriate for foreign students with writing problems that hamper academic success.  Segregation of these students in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) writing workshops is probably a more feasible solution.

     As previously mentioned, institutions can be proactive and create learning environments that encourage international students to interact with domestic students.  Such programs can benefit academic performance for all participants.  These learning environments are classified as Supplemental Instruction (SI).  Supplemental Instruction has work to reduce student attrition for two decades in institutions of higher education (Burmiester, 1996).  Special SI programs could be developed for international students.



     Supplemental Instruction (SI) programs have been benefiting students for many years.   Although it is not a new idea, educators are continually modifying SI to meet the needs of changing student populations in a world that is itself rapidly changing.  This section will briefly review SI from an historical perspective, discuss the relevance of SI for international students and speculate on how technology can make SI more feasible.

     The popular SI model focuses on integrating learning strategies from material in a content area course.  Deanna Martin, from the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), is credited with designing the model in 1973.  In 1981, the U.S. Department of Education designated the SI Program an Exemplary Educational Program for post-secondary education.  SI was designed to create academic support for all students in "high-risk" courses.  The goal of SI is to reduce attrition.  Extensive research on SI is testimony to the program’s effectiveness in reducing attrition and improving grades for participants.  The rate of withdrawal for SI participants is about half the rate for non-participating students. Average course grades for SI participants were also significantly higher than grades for non-participants  (Arendale, 1993).

     The design of the SI program is simple and cost-effective.  Small groups of volunteer students receive instruction on learning strategies necessary to be successful in the course.  A trained SI leader acts as a facilitator in the collaboration of student efforts that may include reading the text, note taking, memorization and predicting/answering test questions.  The role the SI leader is to keep the group on task with content material and to model appropriate learning strategies that the other students can adopt and use in the present course as well as in future courses.  The leaders are usually workstudy students or teaching assistants so the expense of the program is minimal.

    The relevance of SI for international students becomes obvious after examining the similarities between SI and the English Language Fellows program at the University of Rhode Island (URI).  Blakely (1997) describes this program as an alternative to the usual approach of making non-native speaking students take ESL classes to improve their language skills.  The program is content-based English language study that pairs specially trained native-speaking undergraduates with non-native speakers to study the content of courses that they are taking together.  There are definite commonalties between this program and the UMKC SI model.  In the URI program, the native speaker assumes a similar role to the group leader in the SI program, but focuses more on “the study of language as it is used to communicate and understand the course material” (p.276).  The fellow is paid an hourly wage and the non-native speaking students receive an extra unit of academic credit.

     Although the selection process for the Fellows is somewhat complicated, the results of the program seem to justify implementation.  The Fellows are selected based on recommendations and academic performance and then required to take a semester-long three credit training seminar.   Data collected on the program reveals that the grade averages “for both the Fellows and their non-native speaking classmates in those courses were significantly higher than their overall grade point averages” (p. 288).

     This type of peer tutoring can have other added benefits for international students because it creates a situation that promotes cross-cultural social interaction.  Recent studies found moderately strong evidence that social interaction between international students and domestic students had direct correlation to facilitating cultural adjustment and reducing  stress (Kagan and Cohen, 1990; Mallinckroft and Leong, 1992; Wan, Chapman, and Biggs, 1992; Tompson and Tompson, 1996).  Socializing or interacting with members of the host culture can lead to a feeling of acceptance into the new group.  International students can learn how to function in new social and academic environments through interaction with peers from the host culture.

     The SI model has evolved as various universities have adopted and adapted it.  Some institutions have emphasized the mentoring aspect of SI.  The SI leader assumes a mentoring role and provides students in the group with information and advice that can be useful for surviving and succeeding in their new academic environment.  In this sense mentoring is defined as “telling someone how things really work.  Not just what the rules say, but what the insiders know” (Martin & Arendale, 1994).  For international students the idea of mentoring could be taken a step further.  First-year international students could be paired with volunteer upper-class students who have a proven academic track record.  The pairs could meet periodically during the students first year to discuss problems or coping strategies.  Financially, this type of arrangement would be very low maintenance for the institution, but academically it could be very rewarding.

     Still other modifications to the SI model are the product of technology.  The original architects of the SI model at UMKC have developed Video courses with Supplemental Instruction (VSI). This model is designed to deliver affordable, effective instruction on campus and at remote cites.  Martin’s and Arendale’s (1998) description of the UMKC VSI model is:

In the VSI mode as practiced at UMKC, a regular course instructor’s lectures are video taped.  Students enrolled in VSI sections of the regular course do not attend regular class lectures; instead, for a typical three semester-hour course requiring three hours of weekly attendance, VSI students enroll for a 7.5-hour block of time per week, spread over several days.  These VSI sessions include a variety of activities in addition to viewing the video lectures with frequent stops to discuss the material.  Students engage in writing activities and other learning strategies that foster content mastery and the development of skills that underpin critical thought in the discipline.  The expanded time allocation to the subject captures and manages the time which students normally spend alone studying the course material.


     The VSI courses include manuals for facilitators and students that accompany the video taped lectures.  Even though VSI creates additional sections of the instructor’s course, VSI students must meet the same criteria for evaluation and take the same exams as students enrolled in the regular lecture sessions.

     Like the original SI model, VSI is not designed with the specific needs of international students in mind.  However, the model could be adapted to better address the specific needs of international and language minority students.  One change could be to offer the VSI course as a supplement to classroom instruction rather than an alternative to it.  Manuals could include vocabulary glossaries and visual aids.  Native-speaking students could be encouraged (or required) to attend VSI courses when they are absent from the regular course lecture.

     Technology offers other mediums that can enhance learning for international students.  Webpages can be used by instructors to post lecture notes, relevant articles and examples of assignments.  All students can benefit from visiting the course webpage because it establishes another line of communication between the instructor and the students.  This line of communication can be expanded to include virtual message boards where students can post questions, make comments or exchange information.  Virtual message boards can enrich the academic experience because they enable dialogue to develop about the content of courses which will result in further reflection by the participants.  In this way, course webpages could be used as a form of virtual supplemental instruction.

     The merits of using video as an educational tool have already been mentioned in reference to the VSI program.  Additional uses of video can benefit international students in other ways.  Colleges and universities could include video collections in their libraries that are designed to assist international students.  Such videos could cover topics like orientation to the area, how to do research, how to study for courses, or how to succeed in a new academic environment. 


     Learning communities and social integration for academic purposes can lessen the negative effects of variables related to cultural adjustment for international students attending colleges and universities.  This type of supplemental instruction can improve language ability, facilitate the transition into a new academic environment, create an opportunity to make friends, increase understanding and knowledge of course material, teach learning strategies, reduce perceived discrimination and minimize alienation.  This should result in improved academic success for both international students and domestic students participating actively in supplemental instructional programs.




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