Student Voices: Findings

  1. Challenges around learning in a second language
  2. Comparing the University of Minnesota to your previous school
  3. Interacting with University of Minnesota professors and staff
  4. What are the major problems you see for international students who are adjusting to being at the University?
  5. What would help international students adjust more easily during their first year?

Challenges around learning in a second language

Overview and Key Findings

Since many international students have a first language other than English, part of the survey focused on aspects of language that are often challenging for this population. Students were asked both a multiple option question (students could choose all answers that applied) and a short answer question about how their abilities in English impacted their learning. Some of the language challenges students experienced during their first semester included lack of confidence using their English in class, the heavy reading load, and examples used in class drawn only from American culture.

1.1 Which of the following made learning difficult in your first semester due to your English?

Students were first asked about what aspects of using their second language made learning difficult. The percentages of responses to this multiple option question are listed in Table 2. The top five most frequently chosen responses were echoed in open-ended questions later in the survey. Forty percent of the respondents indicated that they were not comfortable speaking in class because of their English. Subsequent comments by respondents indicated that many students lack confidence in their English abilities, which affects their participation in class and group discussions. Over a third of the respondents also indicated that the reading load was challenging for them, and that often the examples used in classes were exclusively from the U.S. context. Over 30% of respondents indicated that unfamiliar vocabulary and their grammatical accuracy were also factors that made learning difficult for them during their first semester at the University.

Table 3. Summary of student responses to Question #1: Which of the following made learning difficult in your first semester due to your English? Please check all that apply even if it was true in only one class.

Answer Count %
I was not comfortable speaking in class because of my English. 92 40%
There was too much reading. 81 35%
Too many examples used in class were taken from U.S. culture. 79 34%
Too much of the vocabulary was unfamiliar. 75 32%
My writing had too many grammar errors. 70 30%
I wasn’t clear about what to do during pair work or group work. 68 29%
Professors/instructors spoke too quickly. 65 28%
I was unfamiliar with the types of writing assignments. 52 22%
I didn’t understand other students during pair work or group work. 51 22%
People could not understand me when I spoke. 46 20%
The professors/instructors didn’t provide enough visual material
(e.g. writing or slides) while teaching.
42 18%
The directions given for writing assignments were unclear to me. 42 18%
I couldn’t understand the reading material. 37 16%
I didn’t have any of these problems. 34 15%
I couldn’t understand my classmates. 29 13%

1.2 What other things made learning difficult?

In addition to the multiple option question, students were asked the open-ended question, “What other things made learning difficult?” Sixteen percent of the respondents (37 students) answered this question. The responses were grouped into the themes below. Some responses were coded into multiple categories.


Adapting to U.S. classroom culture, methods, and educational structure
Several students described difficulties understanding the expectations of the U.S. classroom and adapting to those differences. Students cited types of tests, teaching styles of professors, large class sizes, and the relationship between the lectures, readings, and assessments as being challenges for them.

One student wrote2:

Student quote

Other students noted:

Student quote

Feeling excluded or isolated
Six responses to this open-ended question reflected a feeling of being excluded from class activities or the academic community, which was also echoed in other parts of the survey. Some students cited feelings of isolation due to their own shyness or lack of understanding of how to make connections. Other students felt that because they were international students or non-native speakers they were excluded or marginalized by peers or instructors. Some examples were:

Student quote

Student quote

Student quote

Perception of lack of help/caring/fairness
Several students perceived a lack of help, caring, or fairness from their instructors, teaching assistants, or other staff at the University. Comments in this category ranged from teaching assistants being too picky about grammatical mistakes to peers not listening to them during group work.

Student quote

Other issues
Other language issues that were reiterated in the open-ended responses included a lack of confidence in their language abilities, difficulties speaking up in group work, challenges learning technical vocabulary, and the amount of time it took to complete reading assignments.

On the topic of confidence, one student stated:

Student quote

In regards to completing reading assignments, one student commented:

Student quote

In addition to language issues, students also mentioned the differences in background knowledge between them and their American peers. Some reported difficulty understanding the accents of non-native English speaking or non-American English speaking instructors.

Three students stated that they didn’t have any problems with language their first year on campus in response to the open-ended question. Fifteen percent selected “I didn’t have any of these problems” in the multiple option question.

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 2 Student responses have not been edited for grammar, capitalization, or punctuation.

Report Content

  1. Abstract
  2. Background
  3. Methods
  4. Findings
  5. Discussion
  6. Recommendations
  7. Limitations and Directions for Future Research
  8. References


Beth Isensee
Director of Student Engagement, International Student and Scholar Services