International students’ first encounters with exams in the UK : superficially similar but deeply different
Although end of course exams remain a key mode of assessment in higher education, little research has focused on international students' experiences of exams. There seems to be a tacit assumption in most literature that exam preparation and strategies are universal, although differences in other areas of learning exist. As an exemplar, this article focuses on international students' first encounters with UK exams and shows that while exams may appear universal, students perceive real differences between the exams they experienced in their home countries and those in the UK. International students' previous experiences shaped their expectations and impacted on how they prepared for, undertook, and made sense of exams. We draw on findings from a questionnaire answered by 168 international students and in-depth "before" and "after" interviews with 21 students. The data show variety in previous experiences and expectations regarding how international students prepared for exams, the exam environment, and, most importantly, in exam answers students produced. We recommend that in addition to exploring differences in other areas of learning for international students, lecturers clarify what is expected in exams early on and use more exam-type tasks to expose and explore contrasts that lie hidden below the surface of exams.