Situated Learning: Reflections on Academic Writing and Graduate International Students

Expert post by
Dr. Laura Colombo


Intercultural Communication

During my graduate studies in the U.S., writing in English was one of the major challenges that I faced. As a graduate student, I couldn’t easily go back to undergraduate level to take courses in writing skills, but on the other hand, I had the luxury of reading about and understanding the issues underlying my academic challenges. Let me use concepts mainly from one reading that I found most useful in order to share with you my experience of academic transition and success as an international graduate student in the U.S.

For one of my courses, I read Lave and Wenger´s (1991) book Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. This reading allowed me to better conceptualize and face the learning process I was going through when trying to produce academic texts in English. This book offers a theoretical description of learning as a process of participation situated in a community of practice (CoP). According to the authors, newcomers learn and become full members of a CoP through legitimate peripheral participation (LPP). That is: performing peripheral yet productive tasks that both contribute to the common goal of the community and help develop the learner’s identity. In this way, they have the opportunity to explore different viewpoints while getting involved in various social relations and their participation gradually transforms both their identity and the CoP itself. As a result, they become part of a new system which defines them and, at the same time, they define it.  Learning, then, implies “becoming a different person” (p. 53).

Reading about theoretical perspectives on academic work/challenges helped me feel comfortable in the process of gradually enacting the role of a new person, as a scholar, as more of an insider in the field, and as an expert voice for presenting the results of my research and study. As any graduate international student, I was expected to both produce academic texts in a second language (L2), and to write them as scholars (i.e.: old-timers) in my field of study did (Casanave, 2002). The more I learned about how “outsiders” enter new CoPs and begin to engage in LPP, the more I was able to get involved in new activities, perform new tasks and functions, and master new understandings.

The first academic texts that I produced in English were final papers for my graduate classes, which I learned to write by the very act of writing them as well as by negotiating my writing practices with peers, writing advisors, professors, and friends. Yet in this process, I also had to negotiate my identity as a L2 speaker. The consciousness that the theoretical literature provided me helped me negotiate and find my identity as a writer.

My writing acquisition process, then, transcended the classroom walls and the master/apprentice or professor/student dyad. As a matter of fact, there was “very little observable teaching” (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 92) for native or non-native speakers about how to accomplish the writing tasks for the courses. Like my native-speaker colleagues, I found opportunities to learn from other masters/professors and from classmates/apprentices; but as an Argentine who had to use standard English, I was a newcomer in an additional CoP—I had to negotiate not only my identity as  a nonnative user of English but also as a student scholar through LPP in a different CoP.

Peers were a very useful support system for me. Peer interaction allowed me to immerse myself in practices that differed from those I was familiar with back home. Discussing the assignments with my classmates helped me understand the contextual expectations and negotiate my writing. Some of my classmates were simultaneously old-timers and newcomers—old-timers when negotiating their way in institutional practices related to writing in U.S. universities, and newcomers when trying to participate in the conversations of the disciplinary CoP. My relationships with classmates, native and non-native speakers alike, slowly but steadily helped me move towards full participation.

However, unlike some of my classmates, I faced situations where my opportunities to get engaged in a “situated negotiation and renegotiation of meaning in the world” (p. 51) were constrained by my inability to fully express myself in English. While occasionally approaching old-timer status in some disciplinary CoP’s back home, I was a newcomer in the U.S., and my inability to leverage my native vocabulary, coupled with a lack of knowledge of the preferred rhetorical structures, hindered my LPP. I felt that my identity as a writer was challenged, and it seemed that I had to re-learn how to properly negotiate meanings in texts when producing them in my L2.

The expertise I had built as a writer (informed by my identity as a student, a professional, and a practitioner), was almost nullified in these new CoP’s, and I had to re-negotiate my methods of participation. This led to a fair amount of frustration, resulting in a strategy I consider characteristic of international students: learn from people who do not participate in the disciplinary CoP, but with whom the negotiation of meanings is more accessible (i.e., speakers of the same language). For example, when producing my first written texts at the university I drew upon my Spanish-speaking friends. Some of them where specializing in other disciplinary fields. However, they were old-timers at forging their identities as academic English as a Second Language (ESL) writers—an identity that I would have to negotiate in order to fully participate in my own disciplinary CoP. By using my native language to discuss the ways in which I would negotiate meanings in written English, I was able to build my identity as an ESL writer faster than if I had been restricted to communicating solely in English.

I also learned from the relationships I established with writing advisors. As with my Spanish-speaking friends, they were not apprentices in the same disciplinary CoP that I was. Nevertheless, they were apprentices in their own CoP’s, since graduate writing advisors at my university are also graduate students. They were old-timers in regards to writing in formal English—enabling the writing advisor position—but they were also newcomers in their graduate programs. Meetings with writing advisors gave me the opportunity to explore, in a more personal way, how to negotiate meaning in my L2. In these situations, my LPP in my own disciplinary CoP was empowering, because I was forging a trajectory, and developing my identity and membership in that specific field. This empowerment helped me re-conceive my peripheral role, moving the disempowering aspect of my LPP to the background.

The empowering/disempowering dynamic implied in my LPP (Prior, 1997) factored into my relationships with my professors/old-timers. I knew that learning how to write academic texts was not strictly formulaic, and therefore, while new to the U.S., I tried to interact with Spanish-speaking professors. In these meetings I was using a means (academic Spanish) that was “transparent” (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 102) to me in order to negotiate my way into practices that implied the use of a new tool (academic English) that I had not yet mastered. This presented opportunities to legitimize my participation as a L2 writer, and to better engage in existing practices, all the while shuttling between two languages (Canagarajah, 2006).

My learning trajectory shows how I learned to write English in spaces that transcended the classroom and university, though it was not smooth. As Lave and Wenger (1991) state, “[l]earning itself is an improvised practice” (p. 93) and every time I faced a different writing task I reinvented myself and my writing. I expended much time and effort simply trying to gain “access to arenas of mature practice” (p. 110) that I might attain LPP in multiple CoP’s. Crafting my identity as a L2 writer in a disciplinary CoP would have been eased by a clearer definition of these spaces of productive peripherality.

Nevertheless, I learned by doing—and this is where I think the richness of Lave and Wenger’s theory lies. By retrospectively analyzing my learning trajectory, I was able to map my LPP opportunities. So, what would I say to international students who have to learn academic writing?

First, keep in mind that writing as a situated activity. This implies that you do not learn to write once and for all. On the contrary, with every writing-task that you face in grad school, your relative position as an apprentice in the CoP changes, making access to old-timers and other apprentices vital. Therefore, you should implement strategies to facilitate this access. A simple one: ask, ask, and ask questions in order to have more tools to negotiate your participation. Another strategy is to use both, formal and informal resources such as writing centers, writing advisors, professors´ office hours, bilingual faculty, students, friends, proof-reading groups, etc. The mere interaction with others can open precious opportunities to exchange not only ideas to revise and improve your writing but also your writing practices.

Second, learning as participation also implies that all the writing you do should promote your LPP in the disciplinary CoP that you are an apprentice. However, this situation does not always happen. Usually, you have to write final papers for your courses where the instructor and (perhaps) classmates are the only audience. You can change this situation simultaneously trying to engage in publishing practices. Think of your final papers as drafts for future journal articles addressed to your disciplinary CoP. You can even share with your professors this intention and ask them to suggest appropriate publishing venues. Better still, you can propose to your graduate program to support a journal which emphasizes student involvement.

These are some ways in which you would be shifting the writing-to-display-knowledge function of your graduate-courses writing to a writing-to- participate-and-learn one. I hope that you have a successful journey toward becoming a confident member of the communities of practice in your academic discipline and professional field. My best wishes.



Casanave, C. P. (2002). Writing games: Multicultural case studies of academic literacy practices in higher education. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Prior, P. A. (1997). Literate Activity and Disciplinarity: The Heterogeneous (Re) production of American Studies Around a Graduate Seminar. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 4(4), 275-295.

Take initiative! Get Connected!! Get involved!!!

Expert post by
Uttam Gaulee


Higher Ed Admininstration

This is something that I wish somebody told me in the very beginning of my academic career in the US—take initiatives. An international student’s academic journey begins with a seemingly disadvantaged situation as compared to that of the local students because you begin with adjustments and settling in process. Inherent in this process is a danger that you may just buy into not being “able” to do certain things. I am writing this post to guard you against that insidious element.

Just keep in mind that life’s adjustments never end. So, it is advisable to start taking steps toward academic and professional development early on. If you want to truly succeed in the university and build for success when you graduate, you must start thinking about more than just maintaining good grades. Of course, as I see in some students’ stories on this site, you may find yourself hardly catching up with coursework (and for graduate students, assistantship responsibilities as well) during the first semester, but how long should you wait? Until the second semester— the third— ? But then the time to graduate will knock on your door before you are ready! So, you should start looking at the bigger picture of professional development right when you join your program. Yes, you may want to gradually increase the time for getting involved, but there is no need to wait in order to start at least thinking about, learning some ideas, and taking small steps.

Also, everything may seem overwhelming in the beginning! You may even feel like an odd person wherever you go, whatever you say or do. But if you think about it, that is also where you are special! So, please do not seek safety in silence. Sure, there will be some risk of making mistakes. But it is by daring to make mistakes that you create opportunities for yourself, for learning and connections at first, and then for contribution! The day will never come when everything will be settled and you’ll start your “big” initiative with confidence. If something goes wrong, you’ll learn a lesson. You’re here to learn after all, aren’t you? By speaking out, you’ll be grateful that you added your unique perspective to the conversations. Be shocked, but do not get shaken: tenacity matters!

Research shows that most important elements of student success as self-efficacy and involvement, which reinforce each other. Even though it may seem like a non sequitur, involvement outside the classroom is extremely important for your success. Such engagement outside not only pays back ultimately but is almost essential to academic success and necessary for professional development in the long run. Student Integration Model developed by Tinto (1975) emphasized a student’s involvement in the community. In his subsequent search and publications, Tinto followed up on the idea of involvement as an important element in students’ academic persistence and success (Tinto, 1993, 2010). Two more researchers highly involved in student learning and development have also highlighted the importance social involvement apart from the classroom activities. They state:

What matters is the nature of experiences students have … the courses they take, the instructional methods their teachers use, the interactions they have with their peers and faculty members outside the classroom, the variety of people and ideas they encounter, and the extent to their active involvement in the academic and social systems of their institutions. (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 642)

While none of these models were specifically developed to account for the international students, evidence suggests that the importance of involvement is vital for various minority groups. There is relatively limited research on engagement in the community on and off campus among international students; however, general research does indicate that international students can greatly benefit by being involved both academically and socially. For instance, Trice (2004) found that interacting to Americans and other international students helped international students succeed in many ways. After an outstanding review of theories and existing literature, Trice established that international students who socialize with host national students are the “most satisfied with and the best adjusted to their experience abroad. Nevertheless, it appears that relatively few international students spend substantial time with Americans” (p. 673).

As Trice tells us, international students tend not to get socially involved. But we know that it is hard to be successful academically and professionally without developing a whole range of “soft-skills” that help you become a well-rounded scholar, professional. It is by such involvement that you begin to gain social and networking skills for leadership. However, if the idea of social engagement sounds a little daunting to you, then just start by working closely with your professors on top of taking the class and completing the assigned work.

Even if you are still trying to focus on maintaining a certain GPA, you can get “involved” by at least trying to get support from the professor rather than waiting until the deadline and trying to address the challenge without support. Trust me: it is okay to show your ignorance to your professor—he or she is there to guide you after all. You can impress him/her by showing how you learn rather than by pretending that you already know a lot. And trust me, your longer journey toward academic, professional, and community/social engagement could be starting in a great way as you build stronger relationship with your own professors. There is a high correlation between academic success and social involvement because, as I previously mentioned, these two reinforce each other.

Conventionally, there are two things that most people pay attention to when it comes to international students: language and culture. These are the “barriers” they know about and they may unknowingly convince you that you just need to overcome these two in order to be successful. But there is a lot more about becoming a successful scholar in a new environment and getting ready for the professional world within a few years. Get involved in the community within and beyond the campus.

Every university has a diverse range of student organizations, each trying to achieve a special goal by bringing together a certain group of students. Based on what support you need, search from the list of student organizations at your university/college. If you do not find one that caters to your needs or interest, find out how to establish a student organization yourself. Design some programs and seek funding, invite members, you’ll love the process, they’ll thank you and you’ll be noticed. Nothing will go in vain! What you do on campus today will go a long way into your future life and career.

Beyond the classrooms and your professors’ offices and within the campus, there are many opportunities for academic and professional development. Start visiting the Career Development Center early on; they will help you plan and execute a career development plan so that when you graduate you are ready to go on the job market with confidence. Use the library, Writing Center, and other academic services in order to boost your learning. Go to workshops, guest lectures, and other events on campus in order to boost your professional growth. All the above services and events may not seem “necessary” for getting a degree but they will help you learn very important skills and more fully understand the broader context of higher education. They will help you prepare far better for when you graduate than if you limit to being a straight A student.

Among other methods of engagement, volunteering is highly effective in social integration because this also develops a sense of belonging with the community, and thus increases a self-recognition and self-efficacy among students (Manguvo, Whiteney, and Chareka, 2013). These experiences can be extremely useful for international students to thrive in the academic as well as social life.

Talking of student involvement in US universities, there is an old culture of fraternity and sorority-life, which often creates an insider-outsider dichotomy.  Few international students go to these conventional places in order to learn American culture. As far as I know, these organizations may not be the best places for enhancing your academic and professional growth. However, you may want to learn whether these organizations can provide you with opportunities that you can benefit from. The point is to seek out places, events, and people in order to create opportunities for you to engage with a variety of people from different backgrounds.

Remember that you should not just assume that you are the outsider who needs to learn about the local cultures, institutions, and people. In today’s world, you should go multidirectional rather than unidirectional. For example, many local students are willing to learn about foreign cultures, so you can share your culture with them. Invite them to your cultural organization.

Let me add at this point that conventional views, even research/scholarship, about international students tend to be based on the idea that they are “outsiders” trying to gradually become insiders, or “legitimate” members of the academic, social, professional, and discourse communities here in the US (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This framework has some value, because we do try to learn how to perform like insiders. However, in today’s world, this view can be quite often inaccurate and unproductive. If you think about it, in a globalized world, you could be the “insider” in a variety of ways, as when you are helping local students understand social issues from your part of the world, add a more global perspective on an issue, play the devil’s advocate when local colleagues seem to consider something local as universal, etc. Even academically, you may be an expert in a subject area due to your past education or experience. In all these cases, the insider/outsider model becomes rather problematic. Indeed, one of the purposes that American universities admit international students is for the cultural enrichment of local students. I’m sure you have a considerable amount of knowledge about the world that can help you flip the outsider/insider positions, which will benefit both parties. Try it and you will like it!

But don’t limit your engagement within your department and the campus. Even if you can spare a small amount of time, find ways to engage with people outside campus whenever you can. Meeting people in places such as local churches, clubs, and cultural organizations will help you understand the local society and culture at large. Being connected to local people and understanding their lives and ideas can be extremely helpful in the long run, not only because the education system you are in is “situated” in that larger society but also because you are very likely to start doing your academic and professional work with the people outside the campus.

Whether it is within your department, in the campus community, or with scholars in your field at large, networking is extremely important. Never eat a lunch by yourself. This is what one of my mentors told me years ago and this mantra has proved to be a blessing. On campus, or in a conference, I approach to people, take interest in them, and find connections. You can save time, enjoy conversation, and build networks—while making your lunch taste better!

The main idea I am trying to suggest here is this: develop professionally, and for that, start early, be strategic, take one step at a time, and actively seek opportunities. Start working on your writing skills, both academic and other types. Start working on your presentation skills. Start finding and attending conferences in your field. Start proposing papers to present. Start networking with experts in your field. Start sharing the experience and expertise that you bring from your previous educational/professional career. Never tell yourself that your professional skills—writing, using technologies, communicating, presenting, networking, and so on—are limited “because” you are an international student. Tell yourself that if they are limited it is because, like any other student, you haven’t seriously committed to improving them yet. Start doing what you can. Plan and reach your goals, however small. With the support, resource, and opportunity that you now have—which you can reinforce with your passion and perhaps anxiety—you can turn any deficit into strength very soon. If you only look at the deficits, you’ll dampen your own aspiration. Look at your positive sides—you are resourceful. Dare! You can!


Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Manguvo, A; Whiteney, S; & Chareka, O. (2013). The Role of Volunteerism on Social Integration and Adaptation of African Students at a Mid-Western University in the United States. Journal of International Students 3 (2), pp. 117-128.

Pascarella, E.T. & Terenzini, P.T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, V. (2010). From Theory to Action: Exploring the Institutional Conditions for Student Retention. Smart, J. C. (ed.). Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, PP 51-89. Springer Netherlands.

Trice, A. G. (2004). Mixing it up: International graduate students’ social interactions with American students. Journal of College Student Development, 45, 671-687.

“Who? Me?” — International Students, Pedagogically Undefined

Expert post by
Dr. Shyam Sharma


Writing and Rhetoric

“How many of you are ‘international’ students?” I asked one of my college writing classes the first day of semester some time ago.

About a third of the twenty or so students raised their hands, including some that were half-raised, so I paused to ask what that meant.

One student responded: “I was born here in the US but studied in Korea, and my English is not good.” Her father had been a scientist working in the US but the family decided to live back home after some time, eventually sending their daughter back for higher education. A second student had migrated to the US from the Caribbean while he was in middle school but he said he still had concerns about language fluency in general. Yet another student had come to the US more recently but was fluent in speech; instead he was worried about his writing skills. None of these students were on student visa status to the US.

At this point, two additional students decided to join the conversation, and one of them said, “I am NOT an international student but a lot of people think I am, because I ‘look like’ one.”
[If you’re on home page, click here to view the full essay]

Even more strikingly, the other student considered herself “international” because of her “family background,” her connection to the extended family abroad, and great interest in international policy studies as a focus for graduate school.

Then I gave up my original attempt to understand how many students were from academic backgrounds outside of US high school systems, or something like that, which even I hadn’t fully thought through at the time.

I had prefaced my question by saying that my intention in trying to find out how many students were “international” was to see who did not have the experience of US-style academic writing so far (this was a freshman class). I had studied about the complexity of language identity (Paul Kei Matsuda wrote about the “myth of homogeneity” of college students many years ago), and from teaching in Kentucky, I had learned not to simply ask students who is a “foreign” student–for that would be none of my relevant business.

However, even the attempt to find out who doesn’t have a US high school background turned out to be almost entirely useless. While I could go into more detail about my desire to understand which students needed academic transition support, I started realizing that in the much more diverse campus that I now teach, the very term “international” meant little for the purpose of assessing language proficiency, familiarity with general terms/concepts and assumptions that students need to know in order to effectively participate in US academe, and prior academic writing experiences.

I started realizing that the more closely we look at our use of the word “international” as a criterion for placement or pedagogy, the more bogus this term begins to look. It seemed to only work as a placeholder, a theoretical convenience, an administrative buzzword that was borrowed from the International Center (the visa section, not even the orientation office) and used without thinking too much about it. The term was almost useless for the sake of assessing language and academic proficiencies in the context fine-tuning my teaching.

The academe has been historically characterized by continuing attempts to define itself in terms of particular sociopolitical and rhetorical borders, and, more significantly, attempts to contain ideas, practices, and people within those “academic” borders. So, when new groups of individuals enter the academe, existing borders are affected in different ways. When a new group of people enters, the most common approach that the academe takes is to try to help the new group become a “legitimate” part of the establishment, often further reinforcing its existing borders. If it seems necessary to recognize the newcomers’ identity or discourse as distinct and “legitimate” as a new variety, the established borders may be expanded for accommodation. However, a peculiar problem arises when a new “group” is internally so diverse that the attempt at accommodation inevitably fails in practice and only serves as a convenience in theory or institutional policy.

International students are the third type: they are internally too diverse to be described in any meaningful way. And yet, they continue to be seen as a pedagogically relevant “group.” The strikingly awkward way in which that is done is to look at what they “lack,” even when it is evident that they come from extremely different educational, social, and cultural backgrounds–and many of them don’t lack what they’re supposed to (although some do) and many others only lack what the “locals” lack as well. With more than 819 thousand students coming from a larger number of places, with the rise of the middle class in Asia and other places, and with the levels of language proficiency and academic caliber diversifying among the “international” student body (if there is one), the very term is becoming less and less useful.

Of course, many international students need extra support with English language, academic skills, and social/cultural backdrops of the academic practices and disciplines here in the US. However, the attempt to define and describe (in research/scholarship, in pedagogy, and in administrative contexts) evidently needs serious rethinking.

In a follow up post, here, I focus on how I tackle this challenge in my classroom and in research.


This post is based on a research-focused version of a paper I presented at the CCC Conference in Indianapolis and a teaching-focused version at the RSA Conference in San Antonio.

International Students Undefined: Teaching and Research

Expert post by
Dr. Shyam Sharma


Writing and Rhetoric

In part I of this post, I discussed the difficulty of “defining” international students. A brief recap: because the word “international” is basically borrowed from the visa section of the International Center, it often means little or nothing when we want to use it for fine-tuning teaching (or for placement purposes). In this post, I describe one main strategy that I use for addressing the challenge.

When I gave up on the term “international” as a convenient way to figure out who needs catching up, I started designing a series of assignments that could help students identify their own challenges. The assignments allow students to study and make explicit the implicit assumptions and expectations of the course and academic work at large, to become aware of their weaknesses and their strengths, and finally, to write about the experiences and knowledge from their past. Such assignments also help students develop a metacognitive knowledge alongside the academic skills that they learn in order to succeed in the new system.

Before I discuss that pedagogical approach and activities and their benefits, however, let me quickly describe a research project that serves as a feedback loop to the pedagogy and helps me address the necessary but flawed logic of deficit, the persistent need to provide additional academic support to the stunningly diverse group of students called “international students.” Please skip to the “teaching section” below if you’re more interested in it.

Translating Success: The Research Project 

This is a participatory action research that I started in spring 2013. Hosted at, it is based on the idea that because “international” students are a very complex and diverse group of learners, they as individuals can best describe their needs, abilities, and progress.
[If you’re on home page, click here to view the full essay]
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