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Goals and coping behaviours: The development of a model for international students

Nola Purdie
Queensland University of Technology
Thomas A. O'Donoghue and Catherine da Silva Rosa
The University of Western Australia
There is ample documentation of the problems faced by international students. Less explored are the coping mechanisms that students use to overcome these problems, or barriers to goal attainment. In this study, we examine the goal-directed behaviour of seven Indonesian students undertaking an English for Academic Purposes program at an Australian university. From analysis of data obtained from student interviews, student diaries and student letters of advice, we propose a model of the goal process that moves beyond identification and description of problems encountered by international students. In this model, specific academic and personal goals are set, barriers (anticipated and unforeseen) are encountered and coping mechanisms (deriving from personal and contextual sources) are put into place. There are two outcomes from this process: successful goal attainment and unplanned or unexpected outcomes, which in turn assume the status of goals.

An increase in the provision by Western nations of educational services to international students has spawned writing and research in a range of areas related to the teaching and learning of these students (for example, Dunkin & Doenau, 1992; Niles, 1995), the impact they have on the economy of the host nation (Baker, 1993; Smart, 1988) and salient cultural influences perceived to affect the functioning of students in foreign settings (Hubbard, 1994; Sue & Okazaki, 1990). Much of this literature is descriptive in nature or based on anecdotal evidence rather than on more systematic and rigorous attempts to explore the complex array of issues affecting the teaching and learning of students who undertake programs of study in contexts that differ from those with which they are most familiar.

Two issues with respect to the research on international students demand further attention. First, there is a need to move away from the tendency to aggregate findings across nations. The current influx of 'Asian' students to Australian and other Western educational institutions requires us to examine more closely the differences that exist within subgroups of this broad mass of students. For instance, the factors that influence the educational experiences of Japanese students in Australia are likely to be different from those of Singaporean or Vietnamese students. Second, in documenting the experiences of international students, there has been little attempt to examine these experiences in light of established Western theories about learning. We do not really know whether our models of learning processes can be appropriately applied to students from Asian nations, but we apply them nevertheless. In some instances this leads to judgments about these students that are inaccurate, or at the very least, lacking in insight.

The study reported in this paper moves beyond documentation of the problems that international students face, to examine more closely how a group of students with a common ethnic background dealt with these problems. It is an exploratory study that aims to develop a tentative model of international students' academic coping behaviours by combining what we know about some aspects of learning in Western settings with insights gained from an intensive, qualitative examination of the experiences of seven Indonesian students participating in an English for Academic Purposes program at an Australian university.

The remainder of this paper is in four parts. First, the cross-cultural context is considered by way of background to the study. Second, two distinct fields of theoretical literature are reviewed to provide a focus for the study, namely, the literature on goal-related behaviour and the literature on coping strategies and volition. Third, the study is presented. Finally, a tentative model of international students' academic coping behaviour is suggested in the discussion section.


One of the most written about aspects of the educational experiences of international students concerns problems of adjustment. There is ample documentation of the difficulties encountered by students studying abroad (for example, Adelgan & Parks, 1985; Antwi & Ziyati, 1993; Ballard, 1987; Munn, 1992; Samuelowicz, 1987; Wimberley, McCloud & Flynn, 1992). The sorts of problems discussed in the literature most commonly relate to: differences in approaches to teaching and learning; personal and social problems such as feelings of isolation, inadequate second language (usually English) competence; financial burdens; and the high levels of stress that such problems may produce. Walters' (1992) presentation of excerpts from students' writing journals highlighted the problems of Asian students in the United States. Recurrent themes emerged in the students' writing: fear of failure; resistance to the new culture; open rebellion to parents; racial discrimination; humiliation; the search for a cultural identity; and 'paradise lost'.

By far the greater part of the relevant literature has considered international students as a conglomerate. Some studies, however, have focused on particular ethnic groups and it is in this work, seeking first to understand the component parts of the larger group, that we believe we can achieve a more coherent understanding of the issues involved. Pertinent to our study was research involving Indonesian students studying abroad. This was hard to find, although we did locate several studies in which specific aspects of the education of Indonesian students in international contexts had been investigated.

Wimberley, McCloud and Flinn (1992) found that among 121 Indonesian graduate agricultural students attending 27 USA universities, success in graduate school (defined by grade point average and degree completion) was positively associated with Indonesian undergraduate grade point average, English language proficiency and the presence of spouse and children in the United States. Of these three factors, the presence of one's family was the most important factor in promoting the academic success of the Indonesian students.

The important role of family presence in fostering the success of Indonesian students studying overseas is reported also by Fleisher (1984). In a series of intensive interviews with 22 Indonesian graduate students at one USA university, Fleisher found that separation from spouses and children (financial restraints forced students to leave families behind in Indonesia) was perceived by many students to be a major cause of stress which interfered with their academic performance. Unlike their American peers, they were less able to seek support from spouses or other family members to help them cope with the stressful experience of graduate study.

One of the factors examined by Wimberley et al. (1992), the quality of the graduate programs at the various universities attended, was not associated with rate of student success. This finding is surprising in view of the persistent research finding that what teachers do in the classroom does make a difference to the quality of student learning (for example, McGaw, Piper, Banks & Evans, 1992; Rowe, Hill & Holmes-Smith, 1995; Scheerens, 1993). Support for teacher effect is also found in a study which attempted to isolate the professional and personal qualities of Australian expatriate 'experts' in Indonesia and Thailand (Cannon, 1991). The qualities considered to be of most importance by the Indonesians concerned the ways in which teachers relate to their students (for example, their friendliness, tolerance, sincerity and willingness to help) and their professional expertise and understanding of cultural issues. Of less importance were characteristics that had to do with the organisation and presentation of course content.


Two distinct fields of theoretical literature have been helpful by way of providing a focus for the study. The literature on goal-related behaviour has helped us to move beyond an acknowledgment of the problems that these students face, to explore how these problems are associated with students' goal processes: research on coping strategies and volition has provided us with a way of thinking about what students do when attainment of their goals is impeded by difficulties over and above those normally encountered by the locals.

Goal Processes

An individual's goals and all the behaviours that are associated with the selection, maintenance and achievement of these goals, are central to an understanding of academic success. Goal theory analysis and research that has investigated the various stages of goal related behaviour have provided us with an understanding of many goal-related issues. For instance, after a comprehensive review of the literature on goal setting and based on their own extensive research in the area, Locke and Latham (1990) concluded that goals that are specific and difficult lead to a higher level of performance than vague, non-quantitative goals such as 'do your best'. They argued that specific, challenging goals lead to higher performance than other types of goals because they: (a) are associated with higher self-efficacy; (b) entail less ambiguity about what constitutes high or good performance; (c) lead individuals to expend more effort and to persist longer; (d) direct attention and action better and activate previously automated skills; and (e) motivate individuals to search for suitable task strategies. Though there is robust evidence to support the efficacy of goals that are specific and challenging, the evidence does not go unchallenged. Hyams and Graham (1984) found that specific goals improved performance for people low in initiative, but people with high initiative achieved better when they had a global goal to do their best.

As well as the properties of specificity and difficulty level, the effect of goal proximity has been the subject of research. Some researchers (for example, Bandura, 1988; Bandura & Schunk, 1981; Locke, Shaw, Saari & Latham, 1981) have demonstrated that proximal goals are related to better performance and have explained this by the greater motivational quality of things that are closer to us. We more readily see tangible results and positive self-assessment of goal attainment will lead us to set new and more challenging goals. On the other hand, others have found that more distal goals produce better results (De Volder & Lens, 1981, 1982; Kirschenbaum, Humphrey & Malett, 1981), but this may be only the case when goals are intrinsically motivating rather than prescribed by another person (Manderlink & Harackiewicz 1984).

Another line of goal research and theory development concerns the stages through which people progress in the pursuit of their goals (Karoly, 1993; Markus & Wurf, 1987). Karoly (1993) proposed that there are several distinct but interrelated and iterative component phases during which goals are selected, interpreted, acted upon and achieved. Failure to complete all of the phases has been explained in a number of ways: cognition-behaviour inconsistency (Ajzen, 1985); the difficulty of enactment in relation to the efficiency of self-regulatory processes, the amount of internal and external pressures operating against the performance of the intention and the mode of ,control (action or state ) in which the individual is operating (Kuhl, 1994); changes in the environment over which an individual has no control (Ajzen, 1985; Pomazal & Jaccard, 1976); low self-efficacy (Bandura & Cervone 1983, Schunk 1994); and failure to use appropriately the self-regulatory processes of self-observation, self-judgment and self-reaction (Schunk, 1991).

Coping Behaviour And Volition

The concept of coping was introduced by Lazarus several decades ago and since then there has been much research on coping skills and coping processes (Haan, 1977; Seiffge-Krenk, 1986, 1990), styles of coping (Lazarus & Launier, 1978) and environmental influences on coping behaviour (Argyle, Furnham & Graham, 1981; Shulman, Seiffge-Krenke & Samet, 1987). Many researchers have focused their research in this area on the coping styles of adolescence as they confront developmental changes that can be overwhelming and disabling (for example, Compas, Malcarne & Fondacaro, 1988; Frydenberg & Lewis, 1991; Patterson & McCubbin, 1987; Seiffge-Krenke & Shulman, 1990).

Some writers and researchers have specifically targeted the coping behaviour of individuals in academic settings (for example, Bendersky, 1984; Munn, 1992; Ottens & Hruby, 1994). Research into the language learning strategies that students use in English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms provides an insight into the processes that students employ to cope with the problem of studying in a language in which their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills are not well-developed (Leki, 1995). Leki's study investigated the coping strategies of ESL students in writing tasks across the curriculum and reported a set of 10 specific coping strategies that students used: clarifying strategies; focusing strategies; relying on past experiences; taking advantage of the first language/culture; using current experience or feedback; looking for models; using current or past ESL writing training; accommodating teachers' demands; resisting teachers' demands; and managing competing demands. Apart from the last strategy, all are related to writing in disciplinary courses. The strategy of managing competing demands, as well as being concerned with academic responsibilities such as managing course loads, also includes what students did to manage the demands of everyday life: 'However tough or light the demands of personal life may be, they are relentless, sometimes requiring abandonment of all other concerns; thus, the work we look at when examining a students' writing always comes embedded within the context of a full and variously satisfying human life' (Leki, 1995, p. 253).

A finding common to most of the coping research is that action-oriented, problem solving coping mechanisms will lead to more successful goal attainment than will emotion-based coping behaviours such as indulging in self-blame, worrying, or wishful thinking. Active coping also includes strategies which mobilise social resources (such as seeking help from friends or parents) to solve problems.

Research on volition has also highlighted the central role of resourcefulness and sustained effort in the achievement of our goals. Volition theory, however, separates predecisional from postdecisional processes and is more c oncerned with the covert strategies that individuals use to protect their current intentions from competing action tendencies (Corno, 1993). For instance, Kuhl (1985) designated two categories of covert strategies: motivational control strategies which are used to maintain or enhance our original desire to achieve a particular goal (for example, engaging in self-talk, visualising doing the work successfully, providing self-rewards); and emotion control strategies (for example, counting to 10 in your head doing slow breathing exercises) which are used to manage emotions that interfere with doing what we must do to accomplish our goals.

The foregoing general review of two bodies of theoretical literature highlights several avenues for fruitful exploration of aspects of the goal processes and coping mechanisms of students in a non native setting. Specifically, the purpose of our study was to examine the goal-directed behaviours of seven Indonesian students. First, we wanted to know about their goals: Were they specific or ill-defined? Were they achievable in the near future or were they distant in time? Next, we wanted to establish what the students perceived to be the barriers to attainment of their goals. Our final question related to the coping behaviours of the students: What did they do to overcome perceived obstacles or to ensure successful completion of the goal process?


The research was undertaken with a group of seven Indonesian students enrolled in an English For Academic Purposes (EAP) program during the months of October, November and December, 1995. There were 5 female students and 2 male students and their ages ranged from 18 to 38 years. All students came from major cities in Indonesia. Three of the students had recently completed high school and had Grade Point Averages (GPAs) that indicated high levels of academic achievement. The other four students had completed degrees at Indonesian universities in Education, Medicine, Science and Foreign Language Studies respectively. All students now planned to do further studies at an Australian university and were enrolled in the EAP course at a Western Australian university because they needed to improve their English language skills before being accepted into their intended courses of study. Two of the students were married and their spouses had accompanied them to Australia. One of the married students also had two young children living in Australia. Of the remaining five students, only one had a relative in Australia, namely, a brother, with whom she lived.

We used three methods of obtaining data from participants: a series of three semi-structured interviews; students' diary entries on three occasions; and an 'admonition test' in the form of a letter of advice to a sibling.

The three semi-structured interviews were developed around questions that would enable the interviewer to explore the goals of participants, the barriers to achieving these goals and the ways in which these barriers were dealt with. Three questions served as a prompt for each of the interviews:

During the first interview, shortly after students had commenced their EAP course, the focus of the questions was on the anticipated barriers to goal achievement and on how students intended to cope with these barriers. Subsequent interviews explored the barriers and coping mechanisms as students were actually experiencing them.

Before commencing the first interview, the interviewer explained to the participants the purpose of the research and how information would be collected from them at various stages. They were assured that all information provided by them was confidential and would not be used for any purpose other than for the research project. Conversations were recorded with the students' consent and transcribed.

To provide further sampling of the actions and activities of the students as they occurred, participant diaries were also utilised. These diaries provided both substantive and analytic accounts of events that were deemed to be pertinent to the study. Students were asked to write diary entries on three separate occasions. They were instructed to:

Record as much of what happened during a day as you can. Only write about what was of interest to you. Leave out the very ordinary things like what time you had breakfast, unless it was important for some particular reason. Of special interest are things related to your learning of English, the goals you have set for yourself in that regard and how successful you feel you are being. For example, what were your little successes during the day? How did you feel? What were the problems you faced? What did you do to deal with those problems?
The third source of data came from an 'admonition test' (Ninnes, 1992) or letter that students wrote to a sibling or friend in Indonesia. In this letter, students were instructed to use their own recent experience as the basis for providing advice to a sibling or friend who was planning to undertake an EAP program such as the one in which participants were currently enrolled. They were asked to give details of the problems that might be encountered, advice about how to deal with such problems and advice about how to achieve success in their intended course of study.

The qualitative analysis of data was achieved by employing the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). This is an accepted approach to the coding of data of the diary-interview type. It involves an iterative procedure in which data are read and reread until they are reduced to themes and categories on the basis of their similarities and differences.



Without exception, the major goals of all participants were related to their plans for further academic study at an Australian tertiary institution. Students were aware that entry to their chosen courses of study was dependent on their ability to demonstrate certain levels of English language proficiency, mostly as defined by a score on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Required IELTS scores varied from institution to institution, but generally ranged from 5.5 to 6.5 across the four macro-skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. The comments of one student who had recently graduated as a doctor in Indonesia are typical of the clarity of purpose that all students had for enrolling in the EAP program in Australia:
I've already taken the IELTS in Indonesia and I've got an overall score of 6.5. But I only got 5.0 for writing. I want to do an audiology course at Macquarie University (there is no audiology course at home) and I need 6.5 in writing.
She concluded: 'My mother said that English study abroad would help me better so I came to Perth because my brother is here.'

The extent to which students perceived their time in Australia as being 'en route' to achieving their long term goal of successful pursuit of their chosen careers in their home country is captured in the following statement by another student, where a sense of urgency can be detected in his desire to 'return to Indonesia as soon as possible. After the EAP course, I want to complete my Business course at the university as quickly as I can .'

Students were aware of their areas of weakness in English language and were specific about their goals in relation to those weaknesses: 'I'm not good at taking notes, the lecturers speak fast and it's difficult. I want to improve my listening and note taking skills .'

Only one student spoke of goals that were not academic, stating: 'I want to make friends from other countries. I want to know about their culture, their customs.'

In sum, the major goal of all students was short term and quite specific; they had all enrolled in the EAP program for the primary purpose of improving their English language skills to the level at which they could attain the IELTS score that was stipulated by each of the universities in Australia at which they subsequently intended to enrol. Thus, this short term goal was linked closely to their long term goal of being accepted by the university of their choice for further studies. Although this goal derived from the need to meet externally set criteria, students also had a more general and personally derived goal, namely, to improve their English so that they could cope with the rigours of academic study in a non-native language. They were anxious about their listening and note-taking skills in lecture situations and their ability to function as students in a Western educational setting.


During the course of data analysis, it became clear that there were two distinct types of barriers students had to overcome to reach their goals: anticipated barriers and unforeseen barriers.

Anticipated barriers

Although students were excited about studying in Australia, they were aware that some things would not be easy for them. All students had sought prior information from friends and relations who had undertaken similar courses in Australia and although they had been generally reassured about their ability to cope with their proposed studies in a foreign setting, they were nevertheless apprehensive about learning in a language that was not second nature to them and about functioning in a culture that was very different from their own. As one of them put it:

'The language is difficult. I have difficulty listening and understanding the teacher. I also knew it would be hard because I haven't studied for a long time and it's all so different here.'
All of the students knew that some self-management tasks such as managing personal finances, shopping and getting around in a strange city would initially be difficult but they did not expect that these problems would be enduring ones.

Unforeseen barriers

The most significant barriers to goal attainment were ones that students had not anticipated. When they had foreseen possible problems, it was the intensity of the problem that came as a shock. Students began the EAP course knowing that one of the greatest areas of difficulty would be with the English language itself. However, on the whole, it was even more difficult than they had imagined and during the course of the interviews students were able to articulate more specifically just what those difficulties were. They found that native speakers often spoke too fast for them to understand and used vocabulary and jargon that was beyond their comprehension. As a consequence, listening and notetaking in class were more frustrating tasks than initially anticipated. Both in and out of class, students sometimes pretended to understand to cover their feelings of inadequacy. Not only was understanding English difficult, students had not anticipated that their own spoken and written English would sometimes be unintelligible to native English speakers.

All of the students had studied English in Indonesia and had achieved good marks; they came to Australia with a justifiable confidence in their levels of English competence. This confidence, however, was shattered when they had to function in a setting which demanded even higher levels of proficiency. Students grappled with being understood and trying to explain themselves to others. In the words of one student: 'The more I learn, the more stupid I feel. My confidence is lessened. I'm afraid of making mistakes.'

Several of the students also found the absence of set textbooks an unexpected hindrance. Their previous English language studies had relied heavily on textbooks with a focus on grammar and translation and they expected to follow this pattern in Australia. They were not used to writing tasks that required them to explore ideas or present their personal views. One student bemoaned her lack of general knowledge, stating: 'I don't know much except about my area, which is medicine, so when I have to write I don't have any ideas.'

The fact that all students were in the same class, together with students from other countries in South East Asia, was a problem for several of the students.

There are too many Indonesians in the class. This means that it's sometimes easy for me not to have to speak English. When we stick together it's not good for learning English.
All of the students also spoke of feelings of loneliness that plagued their efforts to concentrate on their studies and to maintain motivation. Their homesickness came as a surprise because they had initially believed that the excitement of their venture abroad would provide sufficient stimulus to outweigh separation from their families and friends: 'I was surprised at feeling so lonely, having no mum and dad, being alone. It's hard to work sometimes because I think of home.'

Absence of family also meant that at times some students were overwhelmed with the day to day chores associated with independent living. Whereas most students had previously relied on other family members or servants to do the shopping, cooking, cleaning and other similar tasks, they now had to do these things themselves:

I get tired. There are too many things to do. Sometimes I just eat rice crackers and ketchup or buy KFC because I'm not much good at cooking. When the house was inspected the other day, I had to do it again because the agent told me it wasn't good enough.
One student found the contrast between Perth and Jakarta extreme, arguing that 'Perth is too quiet. I get bored easily' although the other students were not bothered by this and even found it to their advantage: 'It's peaceful here-I can relax and do my work.'

Coping mechanisms

Two broad categories of coping mechanisms were evident in the information that students provided about how the barriers to goal attainment were dealt with. The first of these concerned the personal behaviours exhibited by students as they sought to overcome the problems they faced. Initially, students spoke in broad terms of applying effort. When asked to describe what they meant by effort, students spoke about trying harder, being persistent, concentrating in class, spending more time on a task, practicing what they had learned and trying many different approaches. There was a strong sense of the need for personal action to overcome problems. In the words of one student:
It's no use just hoping that the problem will be solved. You've got to be actively doing something about it .
During the course of data collection it was clear that students believed that their English was improving steadily and that their efforts were paying off. With success, there was a growing confidence to use English, thereby providing opportunity for more practice.

As well as speaking about the general strategy of exerting effort, students were able to be quite specific in describing the ways in which they demonstrated personal effort. One student who felt extreme irritation at the daily, lengthy wait for public transport relieved his boredom by reading English magazines and newspapers. Furthermore, he argued that if he was successful in his EAP course, he had plans to reward himself by buying a car before he commenced his next course of study in Australia. Another student who identified her inability to write in English, despite good IELTS scores in listening, speaking and reading, coped by joining the optional advanced writing course and by regularly asking friends who were more talented in writing if she could read their work. Other students made a conscious effort to listen to the radio, to watch television and to read newspapers to increase their exposure to the English language.

It was evident that students constantly reminded themselves of their goals and used self-monitoring techniques to evaluate their progress.

I examine what I've done, evaluate it. This is co nnected with my goal or target. I think 'What would have been better'. I might change my pattern of study, or how I manage my time.
Indeed, the management of time was a persistent barrier to goal attainment and here, too, students sought specific solutions to the problem. For example, one student proposed:
If I haven't got enough time to do my work because I have to do other things like watering the pot plants and washing dishes and doing housework, then maybe it's better for me to ask my wife to do these things until I can get a better mark.
Self-talk was a common strategy when confronted with a problem.
I try not to care, not to let things worry me. I push myself when I feel lazy. I talk to myself and remember my aim.
I remind myself to concentrate more in class and don't think about other things.
Motivation deriving from several sources was another source of coping that was evident in students' descriptions of how they dealt with problems. Several students spoke of the financial burden on themselves and their families resulting from their studies in Australia. As a consequence, students felt a responsibility to be successful in their studies and when faced with a difficulty, reminded themselves of this fact and strove harder to find solutions.
I must finance and support myself and family-I must stand on my own feet.
I will not get a scholarship if I fail my IELTS, if I get less than 6.5. Then our family will be separated. My husband already has a scholarship and will stay here, but I will have to return to Indonesia.
Several students were also motivated by the desire to provide a good model for other family members, or simply to appear successful in their own eyes, not to let themselves down: 'I must be a good example to my brothers. I have started something and now I must finish it properly.'

The second broad category of coping mechanism derived from the context in which students were striving to achieve their goals. Foremost of the contextual factors was that of teacher behaviour. Students were high in their praise of what their teachers did to help them achieve their goals. Teachers were perceived as highly qualified, competent and willing to devote time to the needs of individual students.

My part was small. It was mostly because of the teachers that I was able to be successful. They explain and give examples, give personal attention to each student - they know what's needed.
The teachers are well qualified and highly motivated. We have enough time to ask and to clarify something which we do not understand.
You will have a lot of exercises in class and sometimes you will have difficulty in understanding. But not to worry because the teachers are very helpful so don't be afraid to ask.
The importance of social support in overcoming problems was evident. Students consciously worked at developing support networks among friends and relations. Most students were in contact with their parents in Indonesia on at least a weekly basis. When students were unable to use their own resources to solve a problem, they were surrounded by other people who were willing to provide support and advice: 'It's sometimes difficult doing my homework. I try and solve it first and if I can't, I come here early in the morning and we all help each other.'

Social support was used not only to overcome specific and immediately identifiable problems. The presence of friends made it possible for the seven Indonesians to engage in leisure activities that they felt were essential to their social and emotional well-being. Evidence for this was most clear in their diaries, which contained accounts of their weekend and evening activities not associated with study. Such accounts frequently referred to the need for relaxation, to forget their studies for a while and to rebuild the energy used up in the mental and psychological stresses of involvement in the EAP program. Students involved themselves in a range of activities with friends - dining out, shopping for fun, rollerblading, bowling, cinema, church attendance, television and video viewing and visiting each others' homes for 'long chats'.

In sum, the seven Indonesian students in this study were resourceful in the methods they used to overcome the obstacles that confronted them. Their resourcefulness may have been a reflection of superior ability (as evidenced by measures of academic achievement in Indonesia, that is, high GPAs and successful completion of university courses), which is not surprising in view of other evidence (for example, Purdie, Hattie & Douglas, 1996; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1990) that students' strategic behaviour in learning is related to level of academic achievement. Students were action oriented in coping style, employing personal coping behaviours such as time management and self-talk. They were also able to extract help from both their social and academic environments.

Unplanned outcomes

What students did during the course of their enrolment in the EAP was directed specifically at achieving their short term goal of a satisfactory IELTS score and in this they were all successful. However, apart from successful attainment of this major goal, students attained other more or less serendipitous outcomes that they valued highly and strove to maximise. In one sense, then, these unplanned outcomes became secondary goals.

They spoke of the personal pride that accompanied their improved competence in the use of English for both academic purposes and in everyday communication. Language proficiency was judged as much by their ability to express their opinions freely and to appreciate the opinions of others as it was by improvements in the technical aspects of reading writing, listening and speaking as assessed by their IELTS score. Personal pride was associated not only with improved English skills in class, but also with a greater self-confidence in a range of other areas. Students felt that the experience of living away from home and grappling with new and sometimes overwhelming problems had led to a greater sense of independence and personal growth.

I must do things for myself now, like the housework and paying the bills.
I've become a real mother. I now take care of my own children. In Indonesia I had people to do that for me. I've become closer to my husband because we share all the work.
Students agreed that their experience in Australia had taught them to be better managers of their time, to be more careful about planning and organising their academic work and their personal lives. The student who had been initially frustrated by the seemingly interminable wait for buses said that he had learned to be more patient in this and other aspects of his life. The inevitable changes in dress and eating habits were also seen to be sources of growth in that students felt such changes contributed to an overall preparedness to experiment with new modes of behaviour and ways of thinking and to adjust their actions to suit circumstances. The comments of one student describe clearly how unplanned outcomes can lead to the formation of another set of goals:
I want to learn more things that will help my personal development. I didn't imagine that I would be doing more than just working for my IELTS score. Because of everything that's happened to me, I can see that there is so much more to aim for.


This study did not seek to replicate studies that have already established a good understanding of the problems of international students, although it was clear from the interviews with students in this study that their problems were no different from those of most international students. Some of these problems, or barriers to goal attainment, were anticipated (such as studying in a second language and performing the essential tasks of daily living within a strange environment), although the intensity of these problems often exceeded expectations. Other barriers came somewha t as a surprise (for example, a decrease in confidence, lack of set textbooks, homesickness, feelings of loneliness, lack of support from family and friends).

More important to this study were the findings related to how students cope with the barriers to goal attainment. All of the students in this study identified attainment of a predetermined IELTS score as their major short-term goal Successful achievement of this goal was essential for the realisation of a broader long-term goal of enrolment in and completion of a course of study at an Australian university. Goal theorists have frequently focused on the actions (problems, barriers) that lead to premature disengagement (goal failure) rather than on the actions that lead to goal attainment (coping mechanisms). Researchers of the experiences of international students also have focused on identifying and describing the problems that may prevent students from being successful in their studies abroad. What is suggested from the results of this study is the need to turn attention away from the problems (we know what these are) and focus instead on how students cope with these problems. It is clear that the seven students in this study were successful in finding ways to pursue their goals; moreover, these led to some unexpected outcomes and these in turn became goals in their own right.

We propose, then, a tentative model of the goal process as it applies to international students. Specific academic and personal goals are set, barriers (anticipated and unforeseen) are encountered and coping mechanisms (deriving from personal and contextual sources) are put into place. There are two outcomes from this process: successful goal attainment and unplanned or unexpected outcomes which in turn assume the status of goals. Figure 1 provides a graphic representation of this process.

Such a model extends our understanding of goal theory by recognising that as individuals strive to achieve their goals, the barriers that they confront lead them to develop coping mechanisms that in turn may lead to unplanned outcomes and the formulation of additional goals. The model reflects Carver and Scheier's (1982) view that the goal process is a dynamic one that is not accounted for in the common stereotype of cybernetic systems which holds that 'they either proceed toward a preset endpoint at which the sequence terminates, or function only to maintain steady states' (p. 128). Carver and Scheier (1982) proposed that such an interpretation of goal-directed behaviour is inadequate because it makes no allowance for changing goals that result from either changes in the present situation or from one's previous actions. It is evident from the results of this study that although students were single-minded in their articulation of what they wanted to achieve from the EAP program (an IELTS score which would enable entry into a course of study at an Australian university), there were a number of unplanned outcomes which subsequently assumed the status of minor goals. These new goals emerged as students developed ways of coping with both the expected and unexpected barriers to achieving the goals that they had initially set.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A model of the goal process for international students

The seven Indonesian students in this study behaved in ways that might reasonably have been predicted from the findings of research with Western students, thereby suggesting the cross-cultural applicability of some aspects of our behavioural and learning theories. Our students were all academically able (as evidenced by past success in their high school and university studies in Indonesia) and according to findings from Western research such students are more likely to engage in favourable goal-related behaviours (Greene & Miller, 1996) and to use more productive coping strategies to overcome the barriers (Parsons, Frydenberg & Poole, 1996). Furthermore, according to Locke et al. (1981), the specificity of the students' goals might also have reasonably predicted engagement in successful goal processes. That is, goals that incorporate specific performance standards (that is, a specific IELTS score) are more likely to increase motivation and activate self-evaluative reactions than such general goals as 'Do your best'.

Other goal literature suggests that there are limits to the capacity of the control system and, when too many complex goals are pursued over long periods of time in hostile environments, it is possible for overload to occur (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Kanfer & Stevenson, 1985). In this instance, although there were aspects of the environment that could be described as hostile (that is, unfamiliar), the limited set of goals of the Indonesian students and the relatively short period of time they had in which to achieve them helped to ensure that they continued to pursue their goals productively. However, international students are typically involved in programs of study that extend over longer periods of time. More goals need to be set and pursued and in the face of goal overload students may find it increasingly difficult to continue to use appropriate coping strategies. It would be beneficial, therefore, for future studies to explore the goal-related behaviours of international students over a more extended time frame.

Despite the limitations of this study with respect to the small sample size and the short span of time in which students pursued their goals, we believe there is at least one major implication of this study. In the past, we have attempted to identify for intended international students the problems they are likely to encounter in their proposed new academic and cultural settings and this seems like a common sense thing to do. However, in being over-zealous in this respect we may be denying students the opportunity to benefit from confronting unanticipated problems that may in turn lead to the formulation of new and valued goals. One danger in focusing on the problems is the likelihood of educators instigating a range of behaviours aimed at helping students to overcome these problems. But, as recent research (Gilbert & Silvera 1996) suggests, overhelping may serve to spoil an observer's impression of a performer by explicitly helping the performer achieve a goal, thereby inviting the observer to attribute the performer's success to the help.

Instead of focusing on the problems, we may help students more by looking for ways to enhance their ability to use coping behaviours. For instance, the students in this study used a range of self-regulatory mechanisms (personal, contextual and behavioural) to deal with the problems they encountered. Amongst other things, they practiced their newly emerging language skills both formally (for example, completing homework) and informally (for example, reading newspapers, watching television); they carefully planned the use of their time, they evaluated their progress and made adjustments in light of how well they perceived they were doing; they engaged in self-talk; and they sought assistance from appropriate sources (for example, teachers and peers). These are all recognised skills of self-regulated learning (Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1986) and students have been successfully taught to develop these skills in a range of academic settings (for example, Corno, 1987, 1994; Harris, 1990; Henderson & Cunningham, 1994; Lindner & Harris, 1993; Mulcahy, 1991; Shapley, 1995). The challenge for those involved with international students, therefore, is not to focus on the problems but rather to ensure that students engage in a process of appropriate goal setting and use effective coping mechanisms or self-regulatory behaviour in order to achieve their goals. For students, one spin-off of this might be the welcome attainment of unplanned outcomes and the formulation of goals that are in addition to those they had originally conceived.


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This study was supported by a joint grant from the Graduate School of Education and the Centre for English Language, The University of Western Australia.

Author details: Nola Purdie, School of Learning and Development, Queensland University of Technology; Thomas O'Donoghue, Graduate School of Education, The University of Western Australia; Catherine Da Silva Rosa, Centre for English Language, The University of Western Australia.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Nola Purdie, School of Learning and Development, Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology, Victoria Park Road, Kelvin Grove, QLD 4059, Australia.
Phone: (07) 3864 3787 Fax: (07) 3864 3987 Email: n.purdie@qut.edu.au

Please cite as: Purdie, N., O'Donoghue, T. A. and da Silva Rosa, C. (1998). Goals and coping behaviours: The development of a model for international students. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 14(2), 29-56. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer14/purdie.html

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