International Student Challenges in Online Learning

Being an international student during COVID-19 restrictions comes with a whole set of unique challenges and adds a new level of stress to academic life. To better understand an international student’s perspective, I thought it was only appropriate to ask one. Meet Leona Khong, an international student currently enrolled in a full online course load at UBC Vancouver while living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Post by Katheryna Khong, assistant, marketing & communications at BCcampus


The challenges facing an international student are unique and universal at the same time. For Leona, major adjustments were needed on her end, and it was difficult during the first few months. 

“The lack of variety activity-wise was draining, as the days blended and merged,” said Leona.

Leona elaborated that, pre-pandemic, there were aspects of physically attending school that she enjoyed indulging in while on campus, such as walking between classes and interacting with classmates in person. Now, the once sensory-rich university experience is confined to the four walls of her bedroom, where she spends six to eight hours a day in front of her laptop, existing in a mere two dimensions.

Many students working from the comfort of their homes feel guilty for not doing more. When university was a physical place they could go, it was easier to schedule time for work and time for play. Since there is no longer this separation, there is pressure to constantly do homework or assignments. Leona and many others feel pressure to study whenever they have free time.

On the other hand, Leona has been surprised by how engaged students are with each other, despite the limitations of online learning. She finds that other students actively reach out to join or create online discussions.

“To me,” said Leona, “people in discussion groups have generally been helpful, and even non-school-related one-on-one online conversations are often easily sparked, and connections beyond those for school purposes are still easily made. I do not feel like I’m ploughing through these courses all on my own, so I’m grateful for that.”

The Beauty of Asynchronous Learning

“On one hand,” said Leona, “it’s tiring for my body and eyes and brain to go through such long screen hours. But on the other, I find myself absorbing course content more thoroughly, and so have reason to hope my overall grades reflect this.”

Leona isn’t the only one feeling this way: better absorption of material is a strong argument for making more room in institutions for conversation about asynchronous learning, which allows students to take breaks when needed. In Business as Unusual: The New Normal for Online Learning, Dr. Tony Bates, research associate at Contact North, mentioned that one-hour lectures are not the optimal method of teaching.

“Students don’t have the cognitive load to focus for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time without being distracted,” said Dr. Bates. “There’s a huge amount of research into online learning and what happens when students have access to online learning whenever they want it. And just like in real life, you have to know how to do both synchronous and asynchronous interactions well.”

A Wish from International Students 

“I wish there were more alternative exam times for international students, and more office hours that catered to students abroad,” said Leona. “I would also suggest for professors to have repeat lectures, which gives the opportunity to participate in live breakout room discussions. I personally find those more engaging and motivating.”

Leona’s Tips and Tricks for Online Learning: 

Playback Speed is your best friend

Leona explains that increasing the playback of her lectures forces her to pay close attention and not miss a beat. With online lectures, it’s easy for the mind to drift off, or pick up your phone, or open a new tab to endlessly scroll.

Handwritten summary notes

She also mentions handwriting notes has been extremely helpful for memory retention. Having a single page with the week’s overarching theme makes it easier to review when the end of term approaches. A cheat sheet is a great way to have information ready when you need it the most.


“I suggest taking part whenever possible,” said Leona. “Trying to participate in lectures, over email, among classmates — the options are endless. Asking questions is a great way to break the ice and allows connection in a time that is so isolating.”

Separate time and space for various activities

Make sure to work from anywhere but your bed. With repetition, the separate places will trick your mind into being productive in one space and allow rest in the other. 

In the end, Leona mentions that she appreciates all the work her professors have done so far in making school life easier. Flexibility by way of multiple office hours and alternative grading schemes has helped make online learning easier and more accessible. The pivot to online has given us an opportunity to reassess our modes of learning and make improvements where possible.

Notable Quotes from Leona

“I appreciate the effort of professors providing multiple office hours and alternative course grading arrangements, but they fail to understand how draining it is to have a full online course load.”

“Through discussions with several fellow students, interestingly, we came to agree that the new all-screen nature of school psychologically pressures or motivates us to put in more working hours and focus than before.”

Learn more