Coping Strategies for International Students


Prior research demonstrates that international students encounter many difficulties as a result of language and cultural barriers, educational and financial difficulties, interpersonal challenges, racial intolerance, loss of social support, estrangement and homesickness (Sherry, Thomas & Chui 2010, p. 34). Language proficiency is the single most important factor that determines the educational success of international students since it does not only affect their ability to succeed by influencing their psychological state of mind (Doron et al 2009, p. 516), but impacts their capacity to interact socially with other students (Olson 2012, p. 27). Valez-McEnvoy (2010, p. 82) reports that language barriers are known to lessen students’ capacity to successfully understand lectures, take notes in class, complete assessments and examinations, and engage in productive communication.

For international students, it is obvious that language is not only an instrument of structuring communication but also a noteworthy aspect that positively or negatively influence their educational achievement (Selvadurai 1998; Simpson & Cooke 2010). Due to these factors, international students with language difficulties often experience stress which acts as a barrier to successful acculturation (Mettler 1998, p. 100), communication competence (Hallberg 2009, p. 188), and educational progression and success (Nielsen 2005, p. 527). Indeed, available literature demonstrates that not only is it increasingly difficult for students exhibiting language deficiencies to do well in their studies, but they often experience too much arousal due to irrational fear of failing examinations and communicating with others, resulting in harm to mind and body (Sanner, Wilson & Samson 2002).

Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) Transactional Model of Stress will be used to investigate the coping strategies used by international students presenting with language barriers. The model utilises two appraisal systems: while primary appraisal refers to the preliminary discernment about a stressful experience (language barrier) and whether it is judged as positive (leading to eustress), negative (leading to distress) or benign, secondary appraisal refers to the coping responses an individual draws on (Gibbons, Dempster & Moutray 2011, p. 622).

The model suggests two types of coping strategies, namely problem-based and emotion based. While problem-focussed coping strategy involves activities centred on changing the stressful situation (e.g. planning), the emotion-focussed strategy involves activities centred on modifying an individual’s reactions to stressful situations (e.g. positive reinterpretation) (Doron et al 2009, p. 516). The justification to use this model arises from the fact that problem-based coping approach has been found beneficial for student learning, performance and wellbeing (Gibbons, Dempster & Moutray 2011).

From the ongoing, it is evident there is a wide body of knowledge on the perceived consequences of the language barrier problem among international students. However, relatively little is known about the coping strategies adopted by these students to deal with the language barrier problem. More importantly, there still exist gaps in knowledge on the most successful coping strategies that international students can adopt to overcome the challenge presented by the problem. It is these gaps in knowledge that this study seeks to fill.

Research Question

The study will investigate the experiences of international students at Flinders University in order to develop a deeper understanding of how they cope with language barriers. The key research question is “What are the coping strategies for international students with language barriers?”


The study will seek to prove or reject the following hypotheses:

  • H: Students who cope with language barriers are happy;
  • H: There is a direct positive correlation between the language barrier and educational level of students living abroad, and;
  • H1: There is no direct positive correlation between the language barrier and educational level of students living abroad.

Research Plan, Methods and Techniques

Research Design

A quantitative research study will be undertaken employing a cross-sectional study research design to investigate the coping strategies used by international students with language barriers. Lazarus and Folkman’s Transaction Model of Stress will be used not only to guide the data collection process but also to understand the coping strategies used by participants.

A quantitative research methodology is justifiable for use in this study as it is objective, time-independent and context-free in its generalisations, thereby successfully eliminating researcher biases (Welford, Murphy & Casey 2012, p. 33). Equally, a cross-sectional study design is feasible for this study because it is quick and requires fewer resources to complete by virtue of the fact that all the important measurements on each participant are made at one point in time. Additionally, using a cross-sectional study design avails the best way to not only determine prevalence of coping strategies, but also to identify associations between the coping strategies and academic achievement (Mann 2003, p. 785). However, as observed by Bono and McNamara (2011, p. 657), it is often difficult to distinguish cause and effect from simple associations investigated in this type of study, leading to generalisations of research findings.

Participants & Sampling

Thirty international students of either gender and between the ages of 18 and 25 will be personally approached and invited to take part in the proposed study. The students will be sourced from Flinders University.

A convenience sampling technique will be used to recruit participants for the study as it is more flexible, less costly, and less time-consuming (Bernard 1999, p. 157). Although convenience sampling provides the opportunity to draw the sample on the basis of opportunity, it bears a greater risk of bias and may not be easy to generalise the study findings (Bernard 1999, p. 158; Castillo 2009).

Data Collection

Primary data will be gathered using a self-administered 12 item questionnaire which investigates the different coping strategies used by international students at Flinders University to deal with language barriers. It will take each participant approximately 30 minutes to complete the questionnaire.

The questionnaire was developed based on the central elements of the Transactional Model of Stress and focuses on the primary and secondary appraisal systems of dealing with stressful events (Gibbons, Dempster & Moutray 2011, p. 622), as well as problem-based and emotion-based coping strategies (Doron et al 2009, p. 516). The questionnaire is feasible for this study because of the low cost involved and minimal training required in administration (Jones et al 2008, p. 16). However, the researcher must guide against incomplete responses (Akbayrak 2000, p 2; Michaelidou & Dibb 2006, p. 294).

Ethical Implications

The proposed study will use human participants and therefore the researcher will not only guarantee informed consent and confidentiality, but also desist from invading the participants’ privacy and coercing them to participate (Fleischman et al 2011, p. 8). The researcher will also guarantee participants are not exposed to harmful activities or deceptive practices that may compromise the integrity of the scientific enterprise (Lambert & Glacken 2011, p. 783).

A Flinders University Social and Behavioural Research Ethics Application will be completed before the commencement of this study. During recruitment, important information contained in a standard verbal script (appendix 1) will be given to participants to enable them make the decision to participate or not. A letter of introduction (appendix 2) will be given to willing participants not only to provide more information about the study but also to assure confidentiality of responses. An information sheet (appendix 3) describing the study, confidentiality and engagement issues, and what would be required of participants, will also be provided. Lastly, a consent form (appendix 4) detailing the rights and freedoms of participants will be availed for signing.


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