Ingredients of my Academic Success in the UK

In the last blog-post, I drew on my experiences as an international student in the UK to describe some academic challenges I had to face.

These challenges often posed a significant risk to my academic success. They had also some positive sides. They were great opportunities to improve my Academic English, gain new knowledge and improve my learning skills. My academic struggles helped me become a better student and hopefully a better academic tutor too.

Some academic challenges are rather universal and probably affect most international students (e.g. academic writing and reading). So my experience can offer students a foretaste of what is awaiting them at English-speaking universities. It could also serve as a warning sign. Studying abroad is rarely smooth sailing. Academic challenges can trigger anxiety, inability to focus, exhaustion, burnout, lack of control, sleep disturbance. The list can go on and on.

During my studies, I met many smart international students who seemed to have been struggling academically more than I did. Some of these students weren’t able to find the way out of their academic predicament.

When I think about these students, I often ask myself: ‘what were the key ingredients of my academic success?’, ‘what was I doing differently?, ‘why was I able to tackle my challenges successfully?’

This post is an attempt to answer these questions.

Why is it only the attempt? Because these are tricky questions to answer.

First, academic success depends on too many factors e.g. decent English language skills, first language level, subject knowledge, IQ, good academic preparation, work ethic, productivity, resilience, confidence, motivation, social skills, working memory, among others. It is hard to disentangle how all these factors could influence my academic performance. Secondly, analysis of past events by definition produces rather distorted, highly subjective, and biased picture. So, please, take what I have written about the reasons for my academic success with a pinch of salt.

Factors affecting my academic success

1. I had very good English reading skills

I know that probably most international students rate their English reading skills higher than e.g. speaking or writing. Be careful with that! Students often overestimate their reading abilities. It can be attributed to a well-known cognitive bias called the Dunning–Kruger effect. As an academic tutor, I see it frequently. Students come to me and say that their reading skills are just fine. When they have to read a research article and critically discuss it, their confidence suddenly disappears. How do I know my reading skills were good? Some can say, I might be a perfect example of the Dunning–Kruger effect myself. The proof of academic reading skills is in reading authentic academic materials. And I was good at that. When I was doing my Master’s degree, I had to select and read one of five research papers for group discussions. I always read them all. I had also a good lexical repertoire. I knew about 30-40,000 words in English. Even before I started to study in the UK, I had used to read daily lexically demanding newspapers (e.g. the Guardian, the Times). Also, I could read in five other languages which strengthened my English comprehension skills. I also learnt how to read at the frustration level. I could deal (relatively) well with the situations where I understood little of the text I read. I did not get frustrated easily by my inability to comprehend. I knew that reading was improving my vocabulary and knowledge and that was positively affecting my reading comprehension skills. Despite my strong reading skills, I struggled with reading comprehension on PhD level. But not because of my underdeveloped vocabulary but rather due to poor understanding of research methods and statistics. After I had mastered the fundamentals of experimental research and statistical inference, my reading skills went up on a different level. I started to read books and research articles more critically. Crucially, reading skills helped me a lot with academic writing. Good academic writing does not exist without good reading skills. In my case writing became actually a by-product of my reading.

2. I developed excellent knowledge management skills

These are essential skills for assignment writing, crucial for dissertation writing, and indispensable for all PhD/doctoral students. After I had realised that the chaos related to my unorganised research and writing process could be the most serious obstacle preventing me from getting my PhD, I stopped working on the PhD project entirely and spent a month on improving my knowledge management skills. I experimented with different methods of simplifying my reading, note-taking, outlining, referencing and writing. I developed an easy and truly productive workflow which sped up my academic work. Basically, I used cutting-edge technology to support my academic work. It helped me immensely with my critical reading and writing. I automated all tedious processes (e.g. referencing), limited multitasking, lowered cognitive load (limited the amount of information I had to process at one time). I could focus on promoting mental processes which helped gain knowledge and improve writing. I know, it all sounds mysterious and deserves some explanation (it is a topic for a different blog post). In a sentence, I aligned my academic work with the ways human’s mind work.

3. I had a rather high-level of academic self-efficacy

I know some students will ask what’s the hell self-efficacy is. Academic self-efficacy can be described as the belief in one’s capabilities to achieve academic goals. Some students know they are good at maths. Presented with a math-related challenge, they know they can face it because their previous mastery experiences (e.g. good marks on tests) evidenced unequivocally their mathematical prowess. They know appropriate strategies, they know how to use them, they know that math might be hard work, but the voice in their heads tells them ‘you can do it’. It is a self-confidence on steroids. It differs from cocky confidence without evidence of previous success. A student might say ‘I am sure I can learn Mandarin. These are just empty words if the student has never learnt a foreign language in his/her life. Self-efficacy is confidence fueled by the previous evidence that you can do stuff.

So I believed in myself and the source of these beliefs were my previous positive experiences at British universities. Before I did my PhD, I had done a Foundation, Bachelor and Master’s degree. So I learnt to perform successfully small writing tasks (e.g. 1,000-word essay on foundation level) before I moved to longer 3,000-word tasks (BA degree) and then 5,000- word (Master’s level). First, I had written a dissertation which was 25,000 words long and then I wrote to the 80,000-word thesis. I knew I could adequately deal with academic writing tasks even if I faced obstacles and challenges. Challenges I encountered tested my self-efficacy beliefs on numeral occasions. Nevertheless, self-efficacy was probably one of the main sources of my academic success.

Many international students who start their postgraduate degree in the UK are in a strikingly different situation. Let me use a metaphor. They have never flown a tiny propeller plane. They had never been sitting in Cessna and now they are expected to fly Boeing. Of course, it is possible to learn it, but it hard not to be overwhelmed in the cockpit of 737 if they have flown nothing before. Previous mastery experiences do help. That is why I always invite my students to my flight simulator. I ask students to write with me one 5,000-word academic assignment. Students who have gone through the process of writing, know all main research and writing processes, tools, academic writing software, shortcuts and tricks needed to write a longer and more complex academic project. Students confidence and motivation increases. So does academic self-efficacy.

4. I had good independent learning skills

As I mentioned, I started to learn English when I was 25. I learnt the language independently (plus several other languages). I have never attended any classes, I never had a language teacher or tutor. To learn English I had to learn how to organise my learning goals, resources, and time. I also needed to learn creative ways to overcome my limitation. For example, my working memory was never great and I could still learn 100 words a day. I simply learnt how to learn effectively. I was able to select, apply and evaluate my learning strategies, motivate myself, reflect on my learning process, eradicate bad learning habits, assess my progress. Unknowingly, I introduced elements of deliberate practice into my learning process.

What does it all have to do with studying at English-speaking universities?

Independent learning skills are (arguably) the most important skills students need at postgraduate level. They are notoriously hard to develop quickly and only few students possess them. Both in primary and secondary school, students are spoon-fed by teachers. Learning goals, assessments are in the hands of teachers too.

It is not the case at university where students are offered considerable academic freedom. Students choose modules, lectures, assignments topics, books to read, stuff to learn. When I did my Master’s degree I had six hours of contact time with a lecturer weekly, I spent probably about 20-25 hours weekly on independent work. When I did my PhD, I met my supervisor every second month for about 30 minutes. He repeated like a mantra – ‘Bernard, it is your PhD. Your success or failure depends on you’. And I was absolutely fine with that.

When I started to learn English, I took full responsibility for my linguistic success too. I knew that if I did not learn the language, I would be the only person to blame. Assuming the same level of responsibility for academic success was natural to me. So I thrived in an academic environment which promoted independent work.

One example of my learning independence was the fact that I was able to argue with my PhD supervisors (in a friendly and respectful way) about my research decisions. Usually, they were right. However, on a few occasions, I was right, and I did not follow their advice blindly. I knew that I would have to sit VIVA (PhD examinations) with highly knowledgeable examiners who would hate me saying ‘I did it because my supervisor told me so’. One more thing. I also learnt to understand when I hit the wall or reached the plateau with my learning progress. When this moment arrived, I knew I needed to ask for help.

5. I chose the right university course

I studied subjects that were well-aligned with my interests and professional plans. Mostly. It was not the case with my foundation degree. Although I did well and finished my foundation degree with commendation, I had to force myself to write assignments and prepare for exams. Obviously, foundation degrees by definition are easier than Bachelor, Masters or PhD degrees. In my case, it felt the other way round. Studying on postgraduate level seemed much easier. Why was that?

I chose MSc in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, because I was interested in language acquisition, I chose a PhD in Education because I was interested in bilingualism. Learning stuff I was interested in did help.

6. My Masters and PhD time was as a stress-free period

Despite the challenges I mentioned, I had never had a grade or failure panic. I had no special reason to panic. I was relaxed since I had won a lucrative and competitive PhD scholarship and I was receiving a decent (non-repayable) monthly bursary which covered my tuition and living costs. If something had gone wrong, I would not have had a PhD, but I would not have lost my money. It does not mean that I did not feel any pressure. Of course, I did not want to disappoint my family. My PhD meant a better job and a better future for my family. So I was trying hard. Still, the pressure I was under was hard to compare with the pressure and stress experienced by many international students.

7. I was lucky

Generally, I agree with Eliyahu Goldratt who said that ‘good luck is when opportunity meets preparation, while bad luck is when lack of preparation meets reality’. I wish I could say I succeeded academically only because of my hard work, preparation and skills. Of course, these factors were instrumental to my success. However, I have seen bad things happening to good, well-prepared students too. I was lucky. I had never any health issues, family problems, financial issues, I had a great supervisor, nice examiners on my VIVA. It could have been different. My friend with whom I started PhD got cancer (twice) during her PhD. The other friend lost her financial support and had to work 25 hours a week and study after her work. Other friend failed PhD because of an incompetent supervisor. I need to consider myself lucky.

8. Probably, I was doing rather an easy degree

I know, it is hard to determine objectively that one degree is harder than the other. However, PhD Degree in Education (even the one with the focus on advanced quantitative research methods at university with an excellent reputation for research) might be actually easier than PhD in more demanding fields e.g. maths, physics, law, etc. Still, some students who studied e.g. physics said to me they could never do the stuff I did. Probably they were just nice to me.

Conclusion

My reflections on the sources of my academic success might be erroneous.

Still, for two reasons, I believe that sharing my beliefs is important. First, many students think genetic factors (e.g. intelligence) are crucial for academic success. My experience tells me a different story. I did not do that great academically because I was smart, talented or naturally well-organised. I did great because I was prepared for university better than most of the international students I met, tutored or taught. My good reading skills, independent learning skills, well-developed academic self-efficacy and strong interests in the studies subjects provided a winning combination instrumental to success at university at both Masters and doctoral level. Any student willing to change his/her attitudes and behaviour should be able to develop these skills. Skills needed for academic success are highly malleable (can be changed and improved). The second reason is that my subjective observations are actually well-aligned with the research on predictors of academic success. The recent research postulates that academic reading, independent learning and self-efficacy are all important sources of academic success. It is possible that my personal experience might contain a grain of truth.