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Studies in Higher Education
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Theoretical models of culture shock
and adaptation in international
students in higher education
Yuefang Zhoua, Divya Jindal-Snapea, Keith Toppinga & John
a University of Dundee, Scotland, UK
Published online: 16 May 2008.
To cite this article: Yuefang Zhou, Divya Jindal-Snape, Keith Topping & John Todman (2008)
Theoretical models of culture shock and adaptation in international students in higher education,
Studies in Higher Education, 33:1, 63-75, DOI: 10.1080/03075070701794833
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075070701794833
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Studies in Higher Education
Vol. 33, No. 1, February 2008, 63–75
Theoretical models of culture shock and adaptation in international
students in higher education
Yuefang Zhou, Divya Jindal-Snape, Keith Topping* and John Todman
University of Dundee, Scotland, UK
S0123kPSTCO.03otraSrjuo.0.iycH1tgdfi078loe0eioiE-0pnest8r5y0spsa 00ao FliAif/ 7nrn0eoA 9gd bK3rH2r @ r0(FtRe7uipi7ricgd9earta5lhiusr5enn0yeeTn2ct7a rd3)o2i 0r/sEe.p0c17sehp0d4g0. i8ua7m1incnc07g.at-9uo1ti4k 7oH84n3iXg3h (eorn Elidnuec)ation Theoretical concepts of culture shock and adaptation are reviewed, as applied to the
pedagogical adaptation of student sojourners in an unfamiliar culture. The historical
development of ‘traditional’ theories of culture shock led to the emergence of contemporary
theoretical approaches, such as ‘culture learning’, ‘stress and coping’ and ‘social
identification’. These approaches can be accommodated within a broad theoretical framework
based on the affective, behavioural and cognitive (ABC) aspects of shock and adaptation. This
‘cultural synergy’ framework offers a more comprehensive understanding of the processes
involved. Implications for future research, policy and practice are explored.
Students attending universities in a culture different from their own have to contend with novel
social and educational organisations, behaviours and expectations – as well as dealing with the
problems of adjustment common to students in general. This is difficult enough when the
newcomer is aware of the differences in advance, but even more difficult when the newcomer is
unaware and falsely assumes that the new society operates like their home country. Newcomers
easily become ‘lost in translation’. The collective impact of such unfamiliar experiences on
cultural travellers in general has been termed ‘culture shock’. Student sojourners are an example
of such travellers, increasing in numbers in many English-speaking countries.
There are estimated to be more than a million students and scholars attending institutions of
higher education abroad (Hayes 1998; Taylor 2005). The quality of the psychological, sociocultural
and educational experiences of this large group of people is important, not least in promoting
global intercultural understanding. It is no surprise that the literature has been concerned with
students’ adaptation problems. Student sojourners are probably the best-researched group of
cross-cultural travellers, as they tend to be easily accessed as research participants. Many studies
have explored social and friendship networks (related to culture learning theory), social skill
acquisition (connected to stress and coping theory), and inter-group perceptions and relations
(linked with social identification theories).
This article reviews the development of theories of culture shock, considers their relevance to
the process of adaptation in student sojourners, and seeks to clarify and extend them in relation
to this group.
Historical perspectives on culture shock
The long established literature on migration includes many large-scale (mainly epidemiological)
cross-national studies concerned with mental health. More recent studies on student sojourners
*Corresponding author. Email: k.j.topping@dundee.ac.uk
ISSN 0307-5079 print/ISSN 1470-174X online
©2008 The Authors. Published by Taylor&Francis. This is an Open Access article. Non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction
in any medium, provided the original work is properly attributed, cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any
way, is permitted. The moral rights of the named authors have been asserted.
DOI: 10.1080/03075070701794833
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64 Y. Zhou et al.
tend to be smaller. Systematic research on overseas students only appeared after the 1950s, when
there was a flood of research on their social and psychological problems (Ward, Bochner, and
Furnham 2001).
In describing and analysing students’ adaptation problems, researchers have been influenced
by the traditional perspectives on migration and mental health. In the past, two general explanations
were proposed to account for the association between migration and psychological problems.
The first argued that there were predisposing factors that could lead to selective migration,
such as various characteristics of individuals, grief and bereavement (movement as response to
loss and possibly resulting in further loss), fatalism (abandonment of control or, in contrast, a
reactive attempt to seize control), and selective expectations of enhancement of life quality (that
might be more or less realistic). The second argued that mental health changes might be a consequence
of migration experiences, including negative life events, lack of social support networks
and the impact of value differences. Theoretical components of these two generalities (illustrating
the differences in origins and conceptual formulation) are listed in Table 1. This also includes
reference to a further formulation (’social skills and culture learning’), which goes beyond culture
shock and can be viewed as an intermediate approach with strong connections to contemporary
Many studies in the migration literature highlighted the negative aspects of exposure to
another culture, and this was perpetuated in much of the student sojourner literature. Ward,
Bochner and Furnham (2001: 36) observed that ‘the early theories applied to the study of international
students were clinically oriented and strongly related to medical models of sojourner
adjustment’. There followed a gradual movement away from medical models, and researchers
started to question the implicit assumption that cross-cultural contact is so stressful as to necessitate
medical treatment (e.g. Bochner 1986).
By the 1980s, a different view had emerged that regarded sojourning as a learning experience
rather than a medical nuisance. It followed that appropriate positive action would include preparation
and orientation, and the acquisition of skills relevant to the new culture (Bochner 1982;
Table 1. Traditional theoretical approaches to culture shock.
Theory Epistemological origin Originator Conceptual formulation
Grief and
Psychoanalytic tradition Bowlby 1969 Sees migration as experience
of loss
Locus of control Applied social psychology Rotter 1966 Control beliefs predict
Socio-biology (Neo-
e.g. Wells 1907 Individual fitness predicts
Expectations Applied social psychology Feather 1982 Expectancy-values relate to
Negative lifeevents
Clinical psychology Holmes and Rahe 1967 Migration involves life
changes, and adaptation to
change is stressful
Social support Clinical psychology e.g. Brown, Bhrolchain,
and Harris 1975
Social skill offers a buffering
effect between life-events and
Value difference Social psychology Merton 1938 Value differences lead to poor
Social skills and
culture learning
Social psychology Argyle & Kendon 1967 Lacking social skills may
cause cross-cultural problems
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Studies in Higher Education 65
Klineberg 1982). This new perspective viewed sojourning as a dynamic experience, both for
students and members of the host culture. The social skills and culture learning perspective began
to lay the foundation for the development of the culture learning model, which is explored below.
Contemporary perspectives on intercultural contact
The study of ‘culture shock’ has come to draw more from social psychology and education than
medicine. ‘Culture learning’ and ‘stress and coping’ models have become well established
(Furnham and Bochner 1986), and ‘social identification’ theories have become more prominent.
These three contemporary theories are more comprehensive, considering the different components
of response – affect, behaviour and cognition (ABC) – when people are exposed to a new culture.
Table 2 summarises their differences in theoretical origin, conceptual structure, factors that affect
adjustment and implications for intervention. People in cultural transit are seen as proactively
responding to and resolving problems stemming from change, rather than being passive victims
of trauma stemming from a noxious event. The notion of ‘culture shock’ has been transformed
into contact-induced stress accompanied by skill deficits that can be managed and ameliorated,
and terms such as ‘adaptation’ and ‘acculturation’ have been increasingly used instead.
Culture learning
Furnham and Bochner (1986) strongly advocated the social skills/culture learning model, for its
theoretical robustness and because it also led to training methods. This approach developed into
contemporary ‘culture learning’ theory. It has its origin in social psychology, focusing primarily
on behavioural aspects of intercultural contact and regarding social interaction as a skilled and
mutually organised performance (Argyle 1969). ‘Shock’ is understood as the stimulus for acquisition
of culture-specific skills that are required to engage in new social interactions. The
process of adaptation is influenced by a number of variables, including: general knowledge
about a new culture (Ward and Searle 1991); length of residence in the host culture (Ward et al.
1998); language or communication competence (Furnham 1993); quantity and quality of contact
with host nationals (Bochner 1982); friendship networks (Bochner, McLeod, and Lin 1977);
previous experience abroad (Klineberg and Hull 1979); cultural distance (Ward and Kennedy
1993a, b); cultural identity (Ward and Searle 1991); acculturation modes (Ward and Kennedy
1994); temporary versus permanent residence in a new country (Ward and Kennedy 1993c); and
cross-cultural training (Deshpande and Viswesvaran 1992). This model leads to practical
guidelines for intervention in preparation, orientation and (especially) behavioural social skills
Stress, coping and adjustment
The ‘stress and coping’ approach derives from early psychological models of the impact of life
events (e.g. Holmes and Rahe 1967; Lazarus and Folkman 1984). ‘Shock’ stems from inherently
stressful life changes, so people engaging in cross-cultural encounters need to be resilient, adapt,
and develop coping strategies and tactics. Adjustment is regarded as an active process of managing
stress at different systemic levels – both individual and situational. Relevant variables include
degree of life change (Lin, Tazuma, and Masuda 1979), personality factors (e.g. Ward and
Kennedy 1992) and situational factors such as social support (Adelman 1988). Whereas the
culture learning approach considers the behavioural component, stress and coping focuses more
on psychological well-being – the affective component. Intervention methods are likely to
include stress management strategy training.
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66 Y. Zhou et al.
Table 2. Three contemporary theories of intercultural contact.
Theory Theoretical origin Conceptual framework
premise Factors affecting adjustment
Stress and Coping
Social psychology – stress,
appraisal and coping
(Lazarus & Folkman
1984); life events (Holmes
and Rahe 1967)
Cross-cultural travellers
need to develop coping
strategies to deal with
Life changes are
Adjustment factors involving
both personal (e.g. life change,
personality) and situational
(e.g. social support)
Training people to
develop stressmanagement
Culture Learning
Social and experimental
psychology – social skills
and interpersonal
behaviour (Argyle 1969)
Cross-cultural travellers
need to learn culturally
relevant social skills to
survive and thrive in their
new settings
Social interaction
is a mutually
organised and
Culture-specific variables such
as: knowledge about a new
culture, language or
communication competence,
cultural distance
orientation and culture
learning, especially
social skill training
Social Identification
Ethnic, cross-cultural and
social psychology – self
(Deaux 1996; Social
Identity Theory, e.g.
Phinney 1990)
Cross-cultural transition
may involve changes in
cultural identity and
inter-group relations
Identity is a
issue for the
Cognitive variables such as:
knowledge of the host culture,
mutual attitude between hosts
and sojourners, cultural
similarity, cultural identity
Enhancing self-esteem,
overcoming barriers to
inter-group harmony,
emphasising intergroup
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Studies in Higher Education 67
Social identification theories
Social identification theories focus on the cognitive components of the adaptation process.
During cross-cultural contact, people perceive themselves in a much broader context – ‘little fish
in bigger ponds’. This can lead to anxiety-provoking change in perceptions of self and identity,
especially where identity was previously constructed largely from local social interaction.
Perceptions of and relations with in-groups and out-groups can change radically (Deaux 1996).
Two major conceptual approaches are used in social identification. The first is ‘acculturation’,
and the second is ‘social identity theory’ (Phinney 1990).
Acculturation and identity
Early approaches to identity and acculturation came mainly from ethnic and cross-cultural
psychology, where most of the studies were concerned with defining and measuring acculturation
(e.g. Cuéllar, Harris, and Jasso 1980), and regarded acculturation as a state rather than a process.
There are three models of acculturation: uni-dimensional, bi-dimensional and categorical.
The uni-dimensional conceptualisation of acculturation implied assimilation – immigrants gradually
give up identification with the culture of origin and move towards identification with the
culture of contact (Olmeda 1979). This model sees home and host cultures as opposing rather than
counterbalancing. By contrast, the bi-dimensional approach is a balanced model of acculturation
and identity – immigrants and sojourner and refugee groups develop bicultural identity (e.g.
Ramirez 1984). ‘Cultural mediation’ (Bochner 1982) is the process through which some sojourners
can synthesise both cultures and acquire bicultural or multicultural personalities. This is not
the same as ‘marginality’ (Park 1928), in which they vacillate between the two cultures.
Berry’s (1994, 1997) more complex categorical model specifies four acculturation dispositions
or strategies of how people conceptualise home and host identities – integration, separation,
assimilation and marginalisation. Integration means that sojourners perceive themselves as high
in both host and home culture identifications; separation implies that they perceive themselves as
high in home culture identification but low in host culture identification; assimilation means that
they see themselves as high in host culture identification but low in home culture identification;
and marginalisation suggests that they perceive themselves as low in both home and host culture
identifications. Identity is affected by a wide range of factors, such as individual characteristics
(e.g. age, gender and education), group characteristics (e.g. permanence of cross-cultural
relocation, motivation for migration) and the broad social context (e.g. cultural pluralism,
prejudice and discrimination). These variables are correlates of acculturation and identity
changes, but causation is neither linear nor simple, and some factors may have recursive effects.
Social identity theory
The second conceptual framework – ‘social identity theory’ (Tajfel 1981) – emerged from social
psychology. It considers how group membership affects individual identity and highlights two
aspects. One is the role of social categorisation and social comparison in relation to self-esteem,
coupled with in-group favouritism and out-group derogation (Tajfel and Turner 1986). The other
is the varied effects of specific cross-cultural diversity (e.g. individualism-collectivism) on group
membership, perceptions and interactions (cf. Brown et al. 1992).
Associated research includes work on uncertainty avoidance or reduction (Gudykunst and
Hammer 1988), which requires the ability to predict and explain one’s own behaviour and that of
others during interactions. This highlights the role of knowledge of the host culture (Gudykunst
and Kim 1984), attitudes toward hosts and host attitudes toward sojourners (Gudykunst 1983a),
and degree of cultural similarity (Gudykunst 1983b). Strategies that cross-cultural travellers may
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68 Y. Zhou et al.
use to enhance self-esteem and overcome barriers to inter-group harmony include raising
awareness of the potentially negative aspects of the process, emphasising inter-group similarities
rather than differences, and getting people to imagine themselves in the role or identity of other
persons – ‘walk a mile in their shoes’.
Overall, the cognitive (C) perspective of the social identification theories complements the
behavioural (B) analysis provided by the culture learning approach and the affective (A) aspect
in the stress and coping framework. These three perspectives together offer a foundation for a
comprehensive model of cultural adaptation.
Evaluation and synthesis of traditional and contemporary approaches
So, how different are contemporary approaches from the early explanations? Below we summarise
the main strengths of the ABC model and explore the connections between the eight traditional
explanations (Table 1) and the three contemporary theories (Table 2). Four aspects of the ABC
model have contributed to its usefulness. First, it is more comprehensive than previous models.
Second, it considers acculturation as a process that occurs over time, rather than at one time. Third,
it proposes an active process, rather than passive reactions to a noxious event. Fourth, it addresses
the characteristics of the person and the situation, rather than only those within the individual,
taking culture shock from the medical/clinical field into education and learning, with implications
for intervention (including self-help) that do not necessitate scarce and costly professional expertise.
Thus the ABC model is comprehensive, longitudinal, dynamic, systemic and pragmatic.
In contrast, none of the early explanations offered a comprehensive theoretical formulation
predicting culture shock, although some could explain some aspects of culture shock post hoc.
Nonetheless, most of the early explanations can be incorporated into the contemporary models.
For example, early studies on attitudes and values (e.g. Chang 1973), and expectations (e.g.
Feather 1982) all influenced social identification theories. Another example is Oberg’s (1960)
description of ‘culture shock’, which outlined a number of affective consequences of psychological
reactions to situational stress, such as surprise, anxiety, strain, feelings of loss and deprivation.
However, contemporary theories are not without problems. First, the ABC model is complex,
and it is difficult to research and separate out the relative effects of individual components.
Second, theories and research on the psychology of intercultural contact have not been well integrated
with respect to different groups of cultural travellers. It seems that efforts are still needed
to synthesise theories into a coherent framework.
Acculturation and student sojourners
As was described above, the contemporary theories are particularly concerned with adaptation
and adjustment. They are situated within a broader framework of acculturation theory (Ward,
Bochner, and Furnham 2001). First, the process of acculturation is described, and then consideration
is given to how it applies to student sojourners.
Acculturation model
Acculturation refers to the process of intercultural adaptation, though the definition of intercultural
adaptation is controversial (e.g. Mumford 1998). However, Ward and his colleagues finally
proposed that intercultural adaptation can be broadly divided into two categories: psychological,
mainly situated in a stress and coping framework, and sociocultural adaptation, situated
within the culture learning framework (Searle and Ward 1990; Ward and Kennedy 1992). The
acculturation model presented in Figure 1 (adapted from Ward, Bochner, and Furnham 2001)
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Studies in Higher Education 69
links the stress and coping perspective with the culture learning perspective, and distinguishes
psychological, sociocultural and cognitive outcomes while emphasising their interaction. This is
why we have adapted Ward, Bochner and Furnham’s model to include arrows from cognition in
the responses domain to both ‘psychological’ and ‘sociocultural’ in the outcome box.
Figure 1. The acculturation process (adapted from Ward, Bochner and Furnham 2001). This interactive and dynamic model sees cross-cultural transition as a significant life event
that involves adaptive change. The major task facing individuals in cultural transition is the development
of stress-coping strategies and culturally relevant social skills. This will involve
responses in affect, behaviour and cognition for both stress-management and social skill acquisition,
and should result in psychological adjustment and sociocultural adaptation. The model
incorporates a wide range of micro and macro level variables, with implications for future
research. At the micro-level, characteristics of both person and situation may be important. Individual
variables such as personality, language competence and cultural identity, and situational
factors such as length of cultural contact, cultural distance and social support are all relevant. At
the macro-level, society of origin and society of settlement are also important, and social,
political, economic and cultural factors are included.
This model is quite efficient in explaining the acculturation process. However, the relationship
between psychological adjustment and sociocultural adaptation is still not very clear. For

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Figure 1. The acculturation process (adapted from Ward, Bochner and Furnham 2001).
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70 Y. Zhou et al.
example, how does this model explain a student who fits successfully into a different system of
teaching and learning, but still feels bad about the transition? Furthermore, within Ward, Bochner
and Furnham’s model the cognitive aspects of acculturation seem not well integrated with the
whole acculturation process. Finally, the relationship between students’ pedagogical adaptation
and their psychological and sociocultural adaptation requires further clarification.
Application of the acculturation model to international students
As we have seen, the affective, behavioural and cognitive aspects of adaptation are very much
interrelated, but they are explored in sequence below, with particular reference to the literature
on international students.
Social and behavioural adaptation
Bochner’s functional model of friendship networks (Bochner, McLeod, and Lin 1977; Ward,
Bochner, and Furnham 2001) is still influential in contemporary studies of intercultural contact
for student sojourners. Bochner suggests that such students tend to belong to three distinctive
social networks, and each serves a particular psychological function. Through connections with
their compatriots in the host country and, with increasing ease of long-distance communication,
those remaining in the home country, international students might maintain their original cultural
behaviour and values – this is the primary network. They also have interactions with host nationals,
such as home-based students, teachers and counsellors, through which they might learn a
series of culturally relevant skills to facilitate their academic success. Thirdly, they might also
have friendships with other non-compatriot foreign students, from which they derive mutual
social support and enjoy some social recreational activities. These three are classified as monocultural,
bi-cultural and multi-cultural friendship networks (Furnham 2004).
Overseas students can benefit from interaction with host nationals socially, psychologically
and academically. For example, a greater amount of interaction with host nationals has been associated
with fewer academic problems (Pruitt 1978), fewer social difficulties (Ward and Kennedy
1993b), improved communication competency, and better general adaptation to life overseas
(Zimmerman 1995). Overseas students participating in structured peer-pairing programmes
(Westwood and Barker 1990; Abe, Talbot, and Geelhoed 1998), and spending more informal
leisure time with their local peers (Pruitt 1978), have been found to have better social adjustment
than those who did not. Additionally, contact and friendships with local students is associated
with emotional benefits such as sojourner satisfaction (Rohrlich and Martin 1991) and lower
levels of stress (Redmond and Bunyi 1993), and predicts better psychological adjustment (Searle
and Ward 1990).
Despite the benefits of host–sojourner interaction, the extent of this interaction is often limited
(e.g. Nowack and Weiland 1998). Overseas students are generally most likely to report that their
best friend is from the same culture (e.g. Bochner, McLeod, and Lin 1977). A number of researchers
use the concept of cultural distance (e.g. Furnham and Alibhai 1985) to interpret weak host–
sojourner interaction. For example, Redmond and Bunyi’s (1993) study in a midwestern
American university found that, among 644 international students, British, European and South
American students were the best integrated, while Korean, Taiwanese and South-east Asian
students were the least integrated. Fortunately, positive outcomes also stem from compatriot relationships
and links with non-compatriot foreign students. Greater co-national interaction is linked
with stronger cultural identity (e.g. Ward and Searle 1991), and quantity and quality of interaction
with non-compatriot foreign students is associated with perceived quality of social support
(Kennedy 1999).
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Studies in Higher Education 71
Affective adaptation
Social support also impacts on affective outcomes, although research on friendship networks
places greater emphasis on the quantity and quality of actual support than the mere number of
networks. Social support from both host and co-nationals can contribute to enhancement of
student psychological well-being (e.g. Tanaka et al. 1997). Social support also alleviates ‘homesickness’
(Hannigan 1997). However, the relationship between psychological adjustment and
academic adaptation is not very clear. For example, how much do communication skills learned
in friendly interactions with host students contribute to effective formal communication with host
teachers, where patterns of affect might be quite different? Further research into how the
psychological well-being and sociocultural adaptation of international students impede or
enhance their academic success is needed.
Cognitive adaptation
The literature on cognitive aspects of acculturation in student sojourners has concentrated on
inter-group perceptions and relations. Many international students perceive prejudice and
discrimination during their interaction with host nationals (e.g. Sodowsky and Plake 1992). Some
studies have even indicated that increased contact can in some cases lead to a sharpening of negative
inter-group stereotypes over time (e.g. Stroebe, Lenkert, and Jonas 1988). This is a reminder
that contact theory, which hypothesises that increased contact improves inter-group perceptions
and relations, might only work under certain circumstances.
Bond’s (1986) study of local Chinese and American exchange students in Hong Kong
revealed comparatively positive inter-group perceptions. His analysis included consideration of
auto-stereotypes (in-group perceptions), hetero-stereotypes (out-group perceptions) and reflected
stereotypes (how the out-group is perceived to view the in-group). Bond argued that the stereotypes
accurately reflected significant differences in the behavioural characteristics of the two
groups. Both Chinese and Americans perceived Chinese students as conservative and obedient,
while both also perceived American students as questioning and independent. Such stereotypes
might consistently influence interactions. Pratt (1991) commented that in America teachers are
regarded as facilitators who promote learner autonomy, while in China students see teachers as
authority figures, and are used to accepting academic assertions without questioning them. It
seems that cross-cultural stereotypes, that is, cognitive aspects of the acculturation process for
students, may have particularly important effects on the culture of learning, a concept proposed
by Cortazzi and Jin (1997). The concept includes cultural beliefs and values about teaching and
learning, and expectations about classroom behaviours. These ideas lead on to consideration of
issues specifically concerned with what is going on in intercultural educational settings, and
issues about student sojourners’ pedagogical adaptation.
Culture synergy and pedagogical adaptation
Cortazzi and Jin (1997) argued that Chinese and British students are likely to have different
assumptions about student and teacher roles. In the view of Chinese students, a good teacher
should be a knowledge model who teaches students what and how to learn with clear guidance,
and even a moral model who sets an example for students to follow and takes good care of
students. Correspondingly, a good student in China should respect teachers and learn by receiving
instead of criticising what teachers say. However, from the perspective of British teachers, a good
teacher should be a facilitator and an organiser, helping students to develop creativity and
independence. Students are expected to participate and engage in dialogue, and engage in critical
analysis instead of just absorbing what the teachers say. Cortazzi and Jin (1997) argued against
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72 Y. Zhou et al.
simply expecting sojourning students to assimilate host nation ways, because these aspects of
culture were deep-rooted, and change could be seen as a profound threat to identity. Instead, they
proposed a process of ‘culture synergy’, asking for mutual efforts from both (host) teachers and
(sojourning) students to understand one another’s culture.
The proposed concept of culture synergy has clear advantages. First, many learning-related
problems in intercultural classrooms might result from mismatched expectations between teachers
and students. Second, the introduction of the concept of culture synergy suggests a mutual and
reciprocal process – teachers may learn from students by understanding the students’ cultural
However, merely asking for mutual understanding is not enough without understanding the
processes involved. Recently, as a result of the rapid increase in the number of international
students, both students and host teachers have been becoming more aware of pedagogical
differences in one another’s culture. Further research is, therefore, needed to clarify current
teacher and student expectations in order to learn how mismatches occur, and to begin to
explore how they might be resolved. Figure 2 illustrates one way in which we suggest future
research on the relevant processes might be extended, using the example of Chinese students
studying in the UK.
Figure 2. Relationships between the educational expectations of UK teachers and Chinese students. In Figure 2, the terms ‘match’ and ‘mismatch’ should be understood as implying approximate,
not exact, matching. The process of mutual adjustment by both teachers and students towards a
maximised academic outcome will not necessarily occur to the same degree in both directions. In
some cases, Chinese students might adapt more to the host way of teaching and learning, and in
other cases it might be the other way round. This process of adaptation might be influenced by a
number of factors, such as individual differences in both teachers and students, and situational
factors such as Chinese students coming as a group or as individuals. The focus here is on the
interaction between teacher and student perspectives and reciprocal adaptations. One implication













Figure 2. Relationships between the educational expectations of UK teachers and Chinese students.
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Studies in Higher Education 73
of this approach is that it suggests the possibility of preparations by teachers and students to facilitate
mutual adaptations both before and after departure.
The pedagogical adaptation of international students in higher education is a subset of the ‘culture
shock’ experienced by a wide range of cultural travellers. Early models of ‘culture shock’ were
often based on medical perspectives and focused on mental health issues, including both predisposing
factors and consequences of migration. Later models were based on wider social, psychological
and educational theories, and regarded the traveller as an active agent rather than the
victim of pathology. Component variables and interactive processes within ‘culture learning’,
‘stress and coping’ and ‘social identification’ aspects were identified from many research studies.
These addressed the affective, behavioural and cognitive (ABC) aspects of adaptation. Together,
they offered a more complex but more robust and predictively powerful model, and suggested
practical action that was actually deliverable on a large scale. Indeed, interventions developed
from this model were researched and found to be effective. The current article adapted the culture
synergy model to focus on the pedagogical adaptation of international students in higher
education. Our focus on the match/mismatch of pedagogical expectations has the merit of leading
not only to interesting research possibilities, but also to implications for the pre- and post-departure
preparation of both teachers and students that may lead to more fruitful adaptations by each.
The many variables identified suggest pathways for helping international students and their
teachers to enhance the quality of their overall experiences. It follows that institution-wide policies
for awareness-raising, guiding and supporting international students and their teachers
should be comprehensive, easily accessible and actually put into practice.
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on Chinese students coming to the UK. It seems possible that the experiences of students
from other cultures and/or with different destinations will differ. However, there is some evidence
(e.g. Redmond and Bunyi 1993) that Asian students sojourning in the UK and USA experience
the greatest differences in cultural expectations. For that reason they may constitute a useful
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