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Academic achievement and quality of overseas study among Taiwanese students in the United States.

Using a multidimensional model and a longitudinal design, the study examined academic performance and quality of overseas study in a group of 155 Taiwanese graduate students at approximately one year after arriving in the United States. The international students' academic performance was significantly predicted by better English writing skills and pursuit of an engineering degree, while the quality of their overseas study was predicted by more relationships with Americans, fewer problems with loneliness, and majoring in engineering or social sciences and humanities. Implications for programs that may enhance their academic performance and quality of overall study are discussed.


As the world continues to shrink, the number of people engaged in cross-cultural living continues to rise. One major group consists of international students who travel abroad seeking advanced knowledge and skills in a chosen field. About half a million international students are currently studying in the United States (Institute of International Education, 1997). Among the five top localities sending students, three are ethnically Chinese: the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (World Journal, 1999). Whether these students choose to remain permanently in the United States or to return to their country of origin upon graduation, their experience of studying overseas will significantly impact their lives in general, and their careers in particular. Yet, very little recent research has examined how international students are faring in the United States. The current longitudinal study focuses on Taiwanese Chinese students, and tests a multidimensional model in predicting both objective academic performance, and subjective quality of their overseas study.

The study of international students is important for several reasons. First is their sheer size. In addition to those studying in the United States, there are approximately another half million international students worldwide (Institute of International Education, 1997; Page, 1990). Currently, there are about 31,000 Taiwanese students in the United States, ranking fifth in size compared to students from other nations (World Journal, 1999). At the time this longitudinal study was launched in 1988, they comprised the largest group of international students in the United States (26, 660 or 7.5%, Institute of International Education, 1989). Some early research examined Taiwanese students in the United States (notably Klein, Miller, & Alexander, 1971, 1980). However, a significant amount of time has passed since its publication. In the interim, Taiwan has joined the ranks of industrialized nations (and become more westernized) and the United States is evolving into an increasingly ethnically and culturally diverse country. As such, the experience of Taiwanese students in the United States two to three decades ago may no longer hold. They are also of special interest, as many remain upon completing their studies (Chang, 1988), making a significant contribution to the growing Chinese American population.

Second, this investigation is significant as it is one of very few studies on cross-cultural living and international students that uses a longitudinal design. Such a design allows for the examination of how earlier (both pre-departure and post-arrival) characteristics predict academic performance and quality of overseas study at a later point in time, and moves beyond mere correlation. The identification of these characteristics holds important implications for early interventions aimed at facilitating successful overseas study and living.

Third, by utilizing a multidimensional model to examine academic achievement and quality of overseas study, this investigation more fully captures the student's overall experience, and allows the identification of factors that may predict one but not the other. For instance, the student's engagement with the American community (as measured by association with native Americans) is likely to be particularly salient for an overall positive experience, even if it does not directly predict academic achievement. The model and study hypotheses are discussed.

Conceptual Framework and Study Hypotheses

International students' academic performance has been found to be generally comparable to that of American students (Marion, 1986). However, researchers have included vastly different factors in predicting this outcome (see Marion, 1986 for a review). Recently, Wan, Chapman, and Biggs (1992) proposed a model for predicting international students' academic distress. Grounded in Lazarus' (1976) work on stress and coping, Wan et al. (1992) postulated that the experience of demand/distress and ability to cope varied by 1) the cultural distance between the student's home and host cultures, 2) role competencies (including English language skills, academic skills, and knowledge of the United States), 3) the student's social support network, and 4) personal characteristics (including demographics and field of study). They provided empirical support for this model in their study of 412 international students.

Wan et al.'s model (1992) was adapted for the current study. However, rather than focusing on stress and coping, the primary outcome variables of interest were academic achievement and quality of overseas experience. The former served as an objective, narrower indicator of academic success, while the latter was a subjective, more global assessment of the overall experience of studying overseas. Marion (1986) suggested that grades alone did not suffice in demonstrating international students' success in the United States. It was plausible that students could be succeeding academically without otherwise benefitting or enjoying the overseas experience. For instance, a recent study revealed no association between academic success and subjective sense of competence among Asian American college students at a prestigious American university (Ying, Lee, Tsai, Hung, Lin, & Wan, 2000).

Returning to Wan et al.'s model (1992), since all participants in the current study were from Taiwan, the first factor of cultural distance was not tested in this study. However, the other three components were-incorporated. Role competence was assessed by pre-departure knowledge of the United States and post-arrival English language skills. Social support network was assessed by degree of association with Americans and Taiwanese Chinese, and the extent of isolation experienced. In terms of demographic characteristics, sex, degree sought, and academic field were assessed. The hypothesized relationships of these variables with academic achievement and quality of overseas study are further discussed below.

Knowledge about American culture and its norms was likely to promote the student's confidence and functioning in and outside of the classroom (Barker, Child, Gallois, Jones, & Callan, 1991; Church, 1982). The earliest literature on international students was concerned with understanding the phenomenon of cultural shock, i.e., the dismay, confusion, and withdrawal that occured in response to encountering a foreign culture and environment (Oberg, 1960). This interest has persisted to this day (see e.g., Henderson, Milhouse, & Cao, 1993). A major contributor to cultural shock was lack of prior knowledge about the host society. In the current study, it was hypothesized that greater knowledge about the United States facilitated both academic performance (as it informed the student about American classroom culture), and overall enjoyment of the overseas experience (as it informs culturally appropriate and effective behavior in the larger environment).

English competence was hypothesized to predict both academic success and quality of overseas living (Barker, et al. 1991; Church, 1982; Ying & Liese, 1991). However, the specific skills that were most salient for each may vary. In the academic realm, the ability to read and write English well may be especially important in completing assignments. In non-academic, particularly social settings, the ability to speak and understand English well may be more salient (Ying, 2002). Thus, it was hypothesized that reading and writing skills would promote academic success, while speaking and understanding would promote overall quality of overseas study.

The existing literature suggested social relationships with both Americans and Taiwanese Chinese were likely to enhance academic achievement and the quality of overseas living (Adelman, 1988; Boyer & Sedlacek, 1988; Church, 1982; Westwood & Barker, 1990). In his review of the literature on international students' adjustment, Church (1982) singled out social relationship as perhaps the most crucial contributor to adjustment, an assertion supported by a recent study (Zimmerman, 1995). In the current study, relationship with both Taiwanese and American students was hypothesized to enhance academic performance. While fellow Taiwanese students may be viewed as more accessible for academic assistance (Kang, 1972), a recent study showed international students paired with American peers had better grades and were less likely to withdraw from school (Westwood & Barker, 1990). With regard to the overall overseas experience, relationship with co-ethnics served the function of supporting a continued sense of self, while the association with Americans facilitated entry, participation, and appreciation of the new culture (Church, 1982; Fontaine, 1986; Ying & Liese, 1991, 1994). Thus, both were hypothesized to promote the quality of the student's overseas experience. In addition to the source of support (American or Taiwanese), general feelings of loneliness and isolation were hypothesized to adversely impact academic achievement, as needed support may be unavailable. They were also hypothesized to lead to a general dissatisfaction with the experience of living overseas.

In terms of demographic control variables, there was no clear, consistent indication of whether men or women, masters or doctoral students fared better academically and enjoyed the overseas experience more. Thus, no directional hypotheses were set a priori. With regard to potential variation of academic performance by field of study, it was hypothesized that engineering students may outperform students in the natural sciences, business and economics, and the social sciences/humanities as mastery of their field relied least heavily on English ability and/or cultural understanding. Thus, they were likely to make the easiest transition. In terms of overall quality of the overseas experience, it was hypothesized that students in the social sciences/humanities may fare better than students in other fields. As students of people, culture, and social contexts, they were be more prepared to engage with and enjoy the new context than students of other fields. Finally, academic achievement was controlled for in the overall overseas study model, as it was unclear whether the two were associated. Recently, Ying and Liese (1991, 1994) found academic difficulty was associated with the initial well-being but not overall adjustment of Taiwanese students in the United States.


Sample and Procedure Participants of this study were Taiwanese students who embarked on graduate studies in the United States in the fall of 1988. They were recruited at a mandatory seminar sponsored by the Taiwan Ministry of Education, that aimed to prepare them for overseas study. The seminar was offered numerous times throughout the year, and recruitment occurred at four such sessions in the months of May and June of 1988.

A total of 634 students at these four sessions planned to embark on their overseas studies in the United States that fall. Of these, 216 voluntarily participated in the initial data collection and completed paper-pencil questionnaires (Time 1 or pre-departure baseline). Using addresses provided by the participants, a subset of 172 students were located in the United States approximately two months later (mean = 65 days, SD = 16 days), and participated in the first (post-arrival) follow-up study in fall 1988 (Time 2). A brief follow-up survey was collected in the spring of 1989 (Time 3), approximately 9 months post-arrival (mean = 263 days, SD = 27 days, n = 160). This was followed by another follow-up in the fall 1989 (Time 4), approximately 14 months post-arrival, (mean = 417 days, SD = 35 days, n = 155).)

The current study focused on the participants with data at baseline, 2-, 9-, and 14-months post-arrival (n = 155). About half of the students were male (n = 80 or 51.6%); and the majority (n = 133 or 85.8%) were single. Their mean age was 25.52 (SD = 2.38). Using Hollingshead's (1957) two-factor index of social position based on a composite of father's education and occupation, the sample's mean socioeconomic level was 30.85 (SD = 13.57), i.e., middle class. The participants pursued graduate education in thirty-one states, with the highest concentration in California (n = 25 or 16.1 %), followed by New York (n = 20 or 12.9%), and Michigan, Oklahoma, and West Virginia (n = 12, or 7.7% in all cases). At 14-months follow-up, two-thirds of the sample (77.4%) were pursuing a masters degree and the rest were pursuing a doctorate degree. The proportion of students by chosen fields were 35% in the natural sciences, 26% in the social science and humanities, 25% in engineering, and 14% in business and economics. Only 10 of the participant had visited the United States briefly prior to their overseas study. A comparison between these 155 respondents and the 61 students who were surveyed in Taiwan but did not participate in the study at 14-months follow-up showed the two groups to not vary on any demographic characteristic.


All of the instruments were administered in Chinese. A questionnaire was administered at pre-departure baseline, 2-months, 9-months, and 14-months post-arrival, that assessed demographics, stressors, resources, emotional well-being, and adaptation. For the current study, the outcome variables of academic achievement and quality of overseas study were assessed at 14-months post-arrival, while the predictor variables were measured at earlier points in time. Specifically, pre-arrival knowledge was assessed at two-months after arrival and incorporated objective reality, i.e., now that they were faced with the reality of living in the United States, how much did they actually know pre-departure? Language skills and social support data were obtained at 9-months follow-up, as the greater proximity to the assessment of the outcome variable (at 14-months) was likely to better predict outcome. The demographic control variables were assessed pre-departure, and of these, degree sought and academic field were re-assessed at 14-months post-arrival to account for any change that may have occurred. All measures were based on subjective report, as previous research suggested subjective reports to be more predictive of international students's adjustment than objective indicators (Ying & Liese, 1990).

Academic achievement was assessed using the objectively indicator of the student's cumulative grade point average (GPA) across all semesters/quarters during the first year of study in the United States. GPA was scored with A = 4.0, B = 3.0, C = 2.0, and D = 1.0. Quality of overseas study was assessed subjectively by a single 5-points Likert type question: "Overall, how well do you like studying in the United States?" Possible answers ranged from "1--dislike very much," "2--dislike," "3--neutral," "4--like," and "5--like very much."

Pre-Arrival Knowledge was assessed by a composite variable that was created by averaging the response to two 5-point Likert type questions, "How well did you understand the United States before arrival" (where the possible responses ranged from "1--very little" to "3--somewhat" and "5--very well"), and "How accurate was your understanding?" (where the possible responses ranged from "I--very inaccurate" to "3--somewhat accurate" and " 5--very accurate"). These two variables were significantly correlated at r = .60 (p = .001, n = 155).

Language Skills were measured using four items, "Your ability to speak English is...., Your ability to read English is....," "Your ability to write English is...." and "Your ability to understand English is...." The five possible responses ranged from " 1--very poor to "3--average" and "5--excellent." Because these items assessed different aspects of language competence that may differentially predict academic achievement and quality of the educational experience, they were retained as separate variables.

Social Network was assessed by the items: "To what extent have you formed relationships with Americans?" and "To what extend have you formed relationships with Taiwanese Chinese?" The five possible responses ranged from " 1--not at all" to "3--somewhat" and "5--very much." In addition, they were asked "Do you have a problem with loneliness?" The possible responses were " 1--no," " 2--some," and " 3--a lot."

Demographics used in the model included sex, degree sought (masters or doctorate), and academic field, including the natural sciences, the social science and humanities, engineering, and business and economics.


The student's mean GPA during the first year of overseas study was 3.50 (SD = 33), falling between the grades A and B. On average, they rated the quality of their educational experience to lie between "neutral" and "well" (mean = 3. 75, SD = .86). Their pre-arrival knowledge of the United States was "somewhat" (mean = 3. 10; SD = .81). In terms of language skills, they rated themselves above the midpoint in all aspects: reading (mean = 3.78, SD = .63),understanding (mean = 3.29, SD =.76, speaking (mean = 3.09, SD =.68), and writing (mean = 3.05, SD =.71). They made some attempts to form friendships with Americans (mean = 3.08, SD =.76), but more with Taiwanese Chinese (mean = 3.71, SD =. 73). On average, they had some difficulty with loneliness (mean = 1.52, SD =.65).

It was hypothesized that pre-arrival knowledge, language skills, social support, and demographic characteristics would predict academic achievement and quality of overseas educational experience. In addition, academic achievement was predicted to contribute to the quality of the overseas study. The hypothesized relationships were first assessed with bivariate tests. A Pearson's test showed higher academic achievement was associated with stronger English writing skills (r = .19, p = .02). In addition, a t-test showed men outperformed women (the mean GPA was 3.56, SD = .3 5 for men as compared to 3.44, SD = .29 for women, t = 2. 3 8, df = 152, p = .02). In terms of the quality of the overseas study, having more knowledge prior to arrival (r = .17, p = .03), greater English competence in speaking (r = .29, p = .001), reading (r = .16, p = .06), and writing (r = .23, p = .006), having formed more relationships with Americans (r = .26, p = .002). feeling less lonely (r = -.23, p = .005), and having a higher GPA (r = .17, p = .03) were all correlated with a more positive educational experience in the United States.

Two multiple regressions were used to test the multivariate models of academic achievement and quality of overseas study. Table I shows the standard beta weights of the predictor variables in each model. The academic achievement model was significant; the Adjusted R-Squared = .07, F(14, 130) = 1.77, p=.05. Using two-tailed tests, those who wrote English better (standardized beta = .21, p =. 03) and were pursuing a graduate degree in engineering versus the natural sciences (standardized beta = .26, p = .02) or business and economics (standardized beta = .22, p = .05) had a better grade point average. The quality of overseas study model was also significant, with Adjusted R-Squared =.20, F(14, 130) = 3.58, p = .00 1. Having formed more relationships with Americans (standardized beta = .24, p = .006), having fewer problems with loneliness (standardized beta = -.21, p = .01), and being a graduate student in engineering (standardized beta =.22, p =.04) and the social sciences/humanities (standardized beta = .28, p = .004) vs. the natural sciences predicted a better overall overseas educational experience.


The students reported high academic achievement during their first year of study in the United States, with a mean GPA of 3.50 (SD = .33), falling between a grade of A and B. This is impressive given the significant transition they just made. The quality of the overseas study approximated "well" (mean = 3.75, SD = .86). As they become more accustomed to life in the United States over time, this may be expected to rise.

The results provided support for the hypothesized contribution of the components of the multidimensional model (i.e., role competence, social support, and demographics) to Taiwanese students' academic achievement and quality of overseas study. With regard to academic achievement, students who wrote English better and were studying engineering (as compared to the natural sciences or business and economics) reported higher GPAs. As hypothesized, English writing skills was necessary for successful completion of written assignments and was particularly salient for academic achievement. Also, as hypothesized, engineering students had the smoothest transition to studying in the United States, as their field was most technical and least language and culture bound. Social support was not a significant predictor of academic achievement, suggesting that the availability of peers to provide academic assistance may not be as important for Taiwanese Chinese students than current research suggests (Westwood & Barker, 1990). In the bivariate analysis, men also outperformed women but this difference was not found in the multivariate model. This was likely to be due to the over-representation of men in the engineering field, and the sex difference was captured by the latter variable.

With regard to quality of overseas study, as hypothesized, students who formed more relationships with Americans and felt less lonely enjoyed themselves more. In addition, students in engineering and the social sciences also reported a better quality than those in the natural sciences. As noted previously, contact with Americans facilitated entry and engagement with American culture, and thus enhanced quality of the overseas experience. In contrast, being lonely suggested an insufficient support network, and isolation was likely to lead to homesickness and a poorer quality of overseas study. As hypothesized, social science students enjoyed themselves better than natural science students, possibly because the former were better versed in American culture. In addition, natural science students also scored lower than the engineering students. This may be due to the relatively easier transition engineering students were making academically, as noted above. Interestingly, academic achievement did not predict quality of the overseas study in the multivariate model, suggesting that future research of how international students are faring should not be limited to the study of grade point average. Finally, the role competence variables, such as pre-arrival knowledge of the United States and language skills (speaking, reading, and writing English) were significantly correlated with quality of overseas study in the bivariate analyses, but did not emerge as significant predictors in the multivariate model. This was likely to be due to multicollinearity; i.e., they were associated with friendship formation with Americans, which did emerge as a significant predictor. In fact, a recent study found knowledge and language skills to be significantly predictive of friendship with Americans (Ying, 2002).

These findings hold implications for programs that aim to enhance Taiwanese international students' academic achievement and quality of overseas study. While field of study is less susceptible to modification, pre- and early post-arrival programs can certainly promote basic writing skills, and, in particular, with reference to a specific field. While many Asian students arrive in the United States familiar with original English texts in their chosen field, few have had experience writing scholarly papers in English. This becomes a major challenge, not only in terms of writing English, but also developing a paper that meets the expectation of an American professor. My experience working with Asian international students suggests, for instance, that their prior education tends to de-emphasize the expression of original ideas, which is highly valued in the American educational system. Thus, while they are comfortable reproducing the existing literature, they experience more difficulty formulating and effectively articulating their own theses. Thus, better writing skills is more than just possessing an adequate vocabulary and using grammar correctly, but needs to incorporate the demands of the American educational system.

With regard to quality of the overseas study, the findings suggested that social relationship with Americans, and the presence of a strong support network are particularly salient. In order to enhance cross-cultural affiliation and the formation of a strong support network, post-arrival-orientation programs should involve American peers. In an exciting study, Westwood and Barker (1990) showed international students paired with American students did better academically and were less likely to drop out of school than those who were not paired with American students. While they did not assess overall quality of the overseas study experience, it is likely that this could also be enhanced.

There are several study limitations. The high academic achievement of the students must be considered with the caveat that students who were less successful academically may have refused participation or dropped out of the study during its earlier stages. As such, this finding may not be generalizable to all Taiwanese students. In addition, the amount of variance accounted for in both models is modest: 7% of academic achievement and 20% of quality of overseas study. Future studies need to incorporate additional variables to more fully capture the variance. Particularly with regard to academic achievement, GPA during college, especially in their chosen field, may be used to reflect adequacy of preparation as the student embarks on the overseas study. Another shortcoming is that all of the participants were from Taiwan, thus the contribution of cultural difference to academic performance and quality of overseas living could not be assessed. Future research should address this. Given the large numbers of Chinese students from the People's Republic of China and Hong Kong, it would be particularly interesting to assess variation among these students in how they fare in the United States. Also, the study focused on outcome at roughly one year after arrival. It is possible that both academic achievement and quality of overseas study may vary over time. Thus, future research should assess variation longitudinally in these outcomes.

Except for academic achievement (GPA), data utilized in this study were derived from subjective reports, and may suffer from reporting bias. However, as Wan et al. (1992) and others have argued, it may not be objective reality but subjective interpretation that determines how one experiences and behaves in the world. To illustrate, Ying and Liese (1990) found subjective assessment of language competence was a better predictor of adjustment and well-being of Taiwanese students than their objective scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The use of single items to measure model constructs is an additional shortcoming of the study. In spite of their face validity, future research should employ multi-item measures with demonstrated good psychometric properties in the study population.

In spite of these limitations, the study makes a significant contribution to the literature by empirically demonstrating the utility of a multidimensional model in explaining variation in academic achievement and quality of overseas study in Taiwanese international students in the United States. As more and more young people will be engaged with international education in the twenty-first century, it is increasingly important to better understand their experience.
Table 1.
The Prediction of Academic Achievement and Quality of Overseas Study

                                                  Academic    Overseas
                                                Achievement    Study

Pre-Arrival Knowledge                               .11         .06
Speak English                                      -.02         .14
Read English                                       -.14         .06
Write English                                        21 *       .11
Understand English                                  .01        -.10
Relationship with Americans                        -.04         .24 **
Relationship with Taiwanese Chinese                 .06         .11
Problem with Loneliness                            -.01        -.21 **
Male vs. Female                                     .09         .08
Doctorate vs. Masters Degree                        .02        -.01
Engineering vs. Natural Sciences                    .26 *       .22 *
Engineering vs. Business and Economics              .22 *       .05
Engineering vs. Social Sciences/Humanities          .19         .07
Social Sciences/Humanities vs.
   Natural Science                                  .05         .28 **
Business/Economics vs. Natural Sciences            -.02         .12
Business/Economics vs. Social
   Sciences/Humanities                             -.08        -.13
Academic Achievement                                 --         .08

* P<.05; ** P<.01, two-tailed tests


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YU-WEN YING University of California at Berkeley
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Date:Sep 1, 2003
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