The Contribution of Stress Level, Coping Styles and Personality Traits to International Students’ Academic Performance Tryphena Jacqueline Tan
Australian Catholic University, Locked Bag 4115, Fitzroy Melbourne, VIC 3065 Australia
The purpose of this study was to investigate how stress level, coping styles and personality traits contribute to
international students' academic performance. Participants comprised of 100 international students across
undergraduate and postgraduate levels from universities in Melbourne, Australia. Participants were aged 18 to 40
years old. Using a single sample survey design, all 100 participants completed a background information sheet,
the Coping Skills Inventory, the Social Avoidance Distress Scale and the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire-
Revised for Adults. Ten participants volunteered to be interviewed. The interview was audio-taped. There were
three hypotheses for this research. The first hypothesis predicted that stress level, coping styles and the
personality traits of neuroticism, tough-mindedness and extraversion would explain the variation in grades of the
international students. The second hypothesis predicted that the personality traits of neuroticism, tough-
mindedness and extraversion would explain coping styles. The third hypothesis predicted that gender would
affect coping styles and personality traits of neuroticism, tough-mindedness and extraversion. The results for the
second and third hypotheses were presented and discussed. The discussion considered the difficulties faced by
international students. Key Words:
International students, stress, coping style, personality Introduction
The ability of individuals to function effectively in dealing with life challenges has been a topic of interest to
psychologists (Phinney & Haas, 2003). One life challenge for many of today’s young people is the transition
from high school to university. In general, studying at university is a stressful time for most students. This is the
time when most young adults are struggling with their new found freedom and negotiating developmental tasks,
focusing on interpersonal relationships and juggling that with academic concerns (Beard, Elmore & Lange,
1982). In addition, academic, social/environmental, and personality factors may contribute to adjustment to
university life. According to Russell & Petrie (1992) the adjustment of university students can be organized
according to three factors: academic performance, social adjustment, and personal adjustment.
This transition presents even more challenge to the international student. This is due to the additional adjustment
required to a new environment, culture and language. While international students struggle to keep up with their
course loads, they are also trying to adapt to a foreign culture (Lee and Salamon, 2004). In addition, many arrive
expecting to share their classes with a homogenous Australian cohort and, instead, are surprised to find an
ethnically diverse student population.
The international student population in Australia’s universities is ever increasing, comprising more than 10% of
the total enrolment in some universities. These students contribute towards the cultural richness of these
institutions (Heggins III & Jackson, 2003). The International Student Office in each of these institutions is set
up to support and assist the international students. The needs of these students are varied, ranging from
emotional adjustment to the academic requirements to dealing with cultural differences.
Although the International Student Office personnel are available to help these students to assimilate into their
new societal settings, the problems they face may be greater than such help can address. According to
Robertson, Line, Jones and Thomas (2000), a majority of international students face difficulties understanding
the colloquial language, are burdened by the high cost of tuition fees and feel lonely and isolated. Furthermore,
Burns (1991) found that stress levels are higher among international students when compared to local students.
There are also other problems faced by international students, such as being pressured to succeed by their
families, feeling less confident with their academic skills and being misunderstood by academic staff due to their
accent (Choi, 1997; Mullins, Quintrell & Murphy 1995; Ramsey, Barker & Jones, 1999; Yanhong Li & Kaye,
1998). The lack of social support may be an additional problem with which these students must cope (Moos,
Brennan, Fondacaro & Moos, 1990; Mann & Zautra, 1989; Holahan & Moos, 1987). Stress & Stress Level
Stress is now recognized as an inevitable aspect of life, but what makes the difference in human functioning is
how people cope with it (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Scheier, Weintraub & Carver; 1986; Kim & Duda, 2003).
Most people manage to maintain reasonable health and functioning under stressful conditions (Folkman, 1992).
According to Lazarus (1966), stress is not a variable but a rubric consisting of many variables and processes.
Stress has been classified as a host of potentially unpleasant or dangerous events that include unavoidable pain,
excessive noise and fatigue under strenuous work conditions as well as more routine life changes (Mischel,
1986). Stress could be categorized into different levels. The level of stress depends on how an individual copes
with the given situation. For example, the Social Readjustment Rating Scale scores (Holmes & Rahe, 1967;
Holmes & Masuda, 1974) offer a measure of current degree of stress. This scale indicates that the more change
one is going through, the more stress one is experiencing.
Generally, a significant but modest association has been found between degree of stress and physical illness.
More stressful life events take a somewhat greater physical and emotional toll on most, but not on all people
(Rabkin & Struening, 1976). Reactions to stress also depend on the individual’s psychological environment.
Individuals generally respond better to stress when they have social ties and support, that is, close friends and
groups to which they belong (Antonovsky, 1979). Individuals are able to cope better when they can share their
experiences with others (Mischel, 1986). When individuals are members of a group to which they “belong”,
they can receive emotional support, help with problems, and even a boost to self-esteem (Cobb, 1976). Coping Styles
Specific types of coping resources and strategies that deal with stress have been identified (Lazarus & Folkman,
1984; Lazarus, 1993; Parker & Endler, 1992). One way to define coping is as a response to specific stressful
situations (Moos & Holahan, 2003). Coping is a dynamic process that fluctuates over time in response to
changing demands and appraisals of the situation (Moos & Holahan). Coping is a stabilizing factor that helps
maintain psychological adjustment during stressful periods; accordingly, coping efforts should be most helpful
when there is a high level of stressors (Moos & Holahan).
A second way to define coping is as the changing of thoughts and actions to manage the external and/or internal
demands for a stressful event (Lazarus, 1991, 1999). Pierce, Sarason and Sarason (1996) presented a third way
to define coping. For them the starting point is a specified event that involves personality characteristics,
personal relationships and situational parameters.
According to Pierce, Sarason and Sarason (1996) individuals’ coping styles are reflected in how they habitually
construe and manage complex situations. In general, when personality characteristics, personal relationships and
situational parameters come together to produce a robust coping style, individuals tend to exhibit the following
characteristics. They tend to have more self-confidence; they tend to perceive that they have more control over
stressful situations; they tend to be more persistent and assertive; and they tend to be more likely to expect
success. These individuals will also tend to be less anxious, less depressed and to have fewer health problems
(Heppner, 1988; Heppner & Baker, 1997).
Coping is also determined by two constraints: personal and environmental. Personal constraints include
psychological strengths/deficits and internalized cultural values and beliefs that allow certain ways of behaving.
Environmental constraints include demands that compete for the same resources that thwart coping efforts
(Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Roth & Cohen, 1986). The way an individual copes is influenced by his or her
resources, which include both health and energy (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), social support, material resources
and existential beliefs, such as a belief in God (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Kim & Duda, 2003). Those with
these resources have been found to sustain stress better (Lazarus & Folkman; Kim & Duda).
One consistent finding is that of the positive role of social support in helping an individual to cope with a
stressful situation (Pierce et al., 1996). Social support could be viewed as a resource or as a coping response. As
a resource, social support includes the availability of tangible help, guidance, and emotional support. A coping
response would include seeking help from others (Pierce et al., 1996). Personality and coping are involved
directly or indirectly in the production and maintenance of various kinds of maladjustments (Snyder & Ford,
1987). Thus, personality traits could influence the types of coping style used.
In terms of daily situations and problems that individuals face, judging coping by its effect on outcomes may do
a disservice to the efforts that individuals make to cope with difficult, intractable and unrelenting conditions of
life (Folkman, 1992). The presence of distress may indicate that adaptive coping processes are taking place.
Some situations overwhelm even the best coping efforts of individuals. Personality
Personality traits are distinguishing qualities or characteristics of a person, that is, they are a readiness to think or
act in a similar fashion in response to a variety of different stimuli or situations (Carver & Scheier, 2000).
According to Gordon Allport’s theory (1937),
traits are determining tendencies or predispositions to which an
individual responds. These traits are relatively general and enduring responses that produce fairly broad
consistencies in behaviour. Allport (1937) believed that one’s pattern of dispositions or “personality structure”
determined one’s behaviour. Each individual’s behaviour is determined by a particular trait structure that is
unique within that individual. Cattell (1950, 1965) defined a trait as the basic unit of study in personality, as a
“mental structure” inferred from behaviour, and as a fundamental construct that accounted for regularity and
consistency of behaviour.
According to Eysenck (1970c, cited in Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975), the main traits form two independent
dimensions of personality. One reflects a changeable-unchangeable dimension. This is called the extraversion-
introversion dimension. A second reflects an emotional-nonemotional or instability-stability dimension. This is
called the neuroticsim-normal dimension. These two dimensions have contributed more to a description of
personality than any other set of two dimensions outside the personality field (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1969; Cattell
& Scheier, 1961).
Eysenck (1952) also has hypothesized a third dimension of personality, psychoticism, by which he meant tough-
mindedness. Unlike psychosis, which is a break from reality, Eysenck (1952) defined psychoticism as
possessing traits that make an individual unusual in both a positive and a negative sense, such as a creative
genius or a sociopath. An individual high in this trait may be a loner, may easily show hostility, or may
disregard danger. The factor-analytic studies of personality conducted by Royce (1972) also support the fact that
psychoticism is a third major personality dimension. Aim
The aim of the present study was to extend the work of Lazarus and Folkman (1984) to gain further
understanding of the stress and coping process in a particular context, that facing international students. The
relationship between personality and coping was also considered in this study. The focus of this study was to
investigate how the stress level, the different types of coping styles and different personality traits have
contributed to international students’ academic performance.
Three hypotheses were used for this present study. The first hypothesis predicted that stress level, coping styles
and the personality traits of neuroticism, tough-mindedness and extraversion would explain the variation in
grades of the international students. The second hypothesis predicted that the personality traits of neuroticism,
tough-mindedness and extraversion would explain coping styles. The third hypothesis was exploratory and
predicted that gender would affect coping styles and personality traits of neuroticism, tough-mindedness and
extraversion. Method Participants
The participants were international students from different universities in Melbourne, Australia. A total of 100
international students (62 females, 38 males) participated in the study. Ages ranged from 18 years to 40 years
(M= 23.7, SD= 3.9). A sub-sample of ten volunteered to participate in audio-taped interviews. Materials
Materials included an information letter, consent forms, and a questionnaire pack.
The Social Avoidance and Distress
(SAD) scale (Watson & Friend, 1969) assesses stress level. The scale
contains 28 items with a dichotomous true-false response format. Two subscales, social avoidance and social
anxiety, have 14 items each. The higher the sub-scale score, the higher the social avoidance and social anxiety,
respectively. The Cronbach’s alpha was reported by Watson and Friend (1969) as .90.
The Coping Skills Inventory (Jerabek, 1996) assesses the ability to cope with stress and difficulties. The scale
contains 45 items with a 5-point Likert response format of (1) almost never (2) rarely (3) sometimes (4) quite
often (5) most of the time. The higher the score, the better the coping skills. The Cronbach’s alpha was reported
by Jerabek (1996) as .94.
The Eysenck’s Personality Questionnaire- Revised (EPQ-R) (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975) assesses three main
dimensions: neuroticism (24 items), extraversion (23 items) and tough-mindedness (32 items) with a yes/no
response format. The higher the score, the more the trait is being reported. The Cronbach’s alpha was reported
as .85 to.88 for neuroticism, .85 to .90 for extraversion, and .76 to .78 for tough-mindedness.
A survey design was used as the primary data for this research. In addition, face-to-face interviews were
conducted with a sub-sample with regard to the daily difficulties encountered by international students. These
interviews were recorded on audio-tape. Results Quantitative data
To test the first hypothesis, a standard multiple regression analysis was conducted. The result of that analysis is
shown in Table 1 below. Table 1 Summary of the Standard Multiple Regression Analysis for Variables Predicting Grade Point Average of International students
R2 = .11 (N = 100, p
Table 1 shows that the combined predictor variables of stress level, coping styles and personality traits of
neuroticism, tough-mindedness, and extraversion explained 11% of the variation in the grade point average of
international students. One of the predictors, the personality trait of tough-mindedness, contributed uniquely and
= -2.42, p
<.05. Tough-mindedness makes its contribution such that the more tough-minded an
individual, the lower the grade point average, and vice versa (Beta = -.24). The squared part correlation
indicates the amount of variation in grade point average accounted for by tough-mindedness; after controlling
the rest of the predictor variables, tough-mindedness accounted for 5.2% of the variability in grade point
To test the second hypothesis, a standard multiple regression analysis was conducted. The result of that analysis
is shown in Table 2 below. Table 2 Regression Analysis Summary for Personality Variables Contributing to Coping Styles
R2 = .37 (N = 100, p
Table 2 shows that the combined personality variables of tough-mindedness, extraversion and neuroticism
explained 37% of the variation in the scores of coping styles. This result was statistically very significant, p
.000. Each individual personality trait contributed uniquely and significantly. Beta values indicate the relative
strength of the personality variables in explaining coping styles; in order of strength, these contributions are:
neuroticism (-.45), extraversion (.35) and tough-mindedness (-.18). The negative Beta value (-.45) indicates the
negative relationship between neuroticism and coping style, such that, the lower the neuroticism score, the
higher the coping ability and vice versa. The negative Beta value (-.18) indicates the negative relationship
between tough-mindedness and coping style, such that, the lower the tough-mindedness score, the higher the
coping ability and vice versa. Extraversion, however, has a positive contribution to coping styles, such that, the
higher the extraversion score, the higher the coping ability score; and the lower the extraversion score, the more
introverted and the less the coping ability. The squared part correlation indicates the amount of variation in
coping styles that each predictor variable uniquely explains is 19.0% for neuroticism, 3.3% for tough-
mindedness, and 12.0% for extraversion.
With regard to the third hypothesis, a t-test was used to analyze whether gender had an impact on coping styles
or on the personality variables. None of the t-tests were significant, for coping styles, t(98)= -0.28, p
> .05; for
neuroticism, t(98)= -1.25, p
> .05; for tough-mindedness, t(98)= 1.88, p
> .05; for extraversion, t(98)= 0.33, p
.05. Qualitative data
The qualitative data is based on interviews with seven international students who participated in the study.
Common themes that arose from this content analysis of the interviews were a) difficulties in comprehending the
English language, b) coping with feelings of homesickness, c) difficulties in fitting into the Australian culture, d)
the unfamiliar food / environment, e) support of friends, f) difficulties in time management, and g) racism /
discrimination. Herewith are selected comments grouped by theme. Difficulties in comprehending the English Language
Student A: “I usually don’t understand the whole sentence and so guess the meaning of it, thus I fail badly.”
Student B: “I can’t understand what they are saying; I try to check them with the dictionary, but forget the
meaning of it and can’t get them into my head. I am just trying to cope with it.”
Student C: “The teacher has their own slang so I could not get used to it.”
Student E: “I have a lot of problems understanding English as it is not my first language and I have not
overcome this problem yet.”
Student F: “I had a lot of problems communicating with people in English.”
Student G: “I have difficulties in English so I can’t express myself very well. Not many local students want to be
friends with me”. Coping with feelings of homesickness
Student B: “I do feel homesick all the time. I miss my family very much. I will talk to my friends or write letters
to feel better.”
Student C: “I miss everything at home, from my family, friends to the food and environment." (She will call
home, call her friends or look at photos. All these help to make her feel better.)
Student D: “I feel very homesick and do meditation to help me overcome my homesickness."
Student E: “I feel very homesick as I have to study in English. I thought that studying in Australia would be
easier but I was wrong.” (She deals with homesickness by emailing her family and friends and, at times, by
drinking alcohol to feel better.)
Student F: (She experienced homesickness because of the stress with studies. She deals with it by going out with
friends and watching Cantonese movies.)
Student G: (She said that she felt homesick because she misses her family and felt lonely because she has no
friends.) Difficulties in fitting into Australian culture
Student A: “I have complaints about the way Australians think; their way of thinking is different from Japanese
Student B: “I had difficulty adapting to the culture in Australia as they are more open-minded [than back
Student C: “Students in Australia do their homework in school rather than at home. In Malaysia we do our
homework at home.”(She feels different from the others in this respect.)
Student E: “Studying in Australia is different than back home. Here they use human models to teach, whereas
back home just use textbooks.”(Initially she found this shocking.) The unfamiliar food and the unfamiliar environment.
Student B: “I felt [it was] difficult to adapt to the cold in Australia; it’s supposed to be warmer than Japan.”
Student C: “One thing I don’t like about Melbourne is that the shops close very early so [there is] not enough
time to go shopping and nothing to do at night."
Student C: “There are a lot of different types of food here like Shanghainese food and Vietnamese food.”(She
went on to say that she cannot get the food she eats back home and has to adapt to the food available here.)
Student D: (He said that he is being introduced to different types of food in Australia that he has never eaten
before. Like student C above, he misses his home country food and feels strange eating what is available here.)
Student F: (She said that she enjoys the different types of Asian food that she can get here. However, she still
cannot adapt to western food.)
Student G: “I also feel [that] where I stay is very dangerous because [there are] many drunkards around so I
don’t feel safe.” Many expressed that an important factor was having the support of friends.
Student B: (She said that most of her friends were Japanese and that this helped her to adapt better in Australia.)
Student C: “I go out with my friends at least once a week and this gives me support. I don’t feel so lonely."
Student D: (He said he felt happy that he had friends in Australia as he does not feel so alone.)
Student E: (She felt that if she had more friends it would help her not to feel so homesick.)
Student F: (She said that she has many Asian friends and a few Australian friends and this helps her not to feel
Student G: (Now that she has friends she does not feel so lonely.) The students found difficulties in managing their time
Student A: “I try hard to understand my studies, [to] spend time to achieve something like getting a good grade,
[yet I] need personal time and time to clean the house. I feel [it’s] very difficult to manage my time.”
Student G: (She said that with studying and working, she felt she has difficulty managing her time.) Their minority status elicited unwanted experiences of racism and discrimination.
Student A: “The Australians think I am different.”
Student B: “I felt Australian people discriminate [against] me because I am Asian." She told of an
experience that happened when she went to the post office to collect a parcel. The post office worker
needed her signature and “…when [he] passed the pen to me I felt he treated me like a dirty person.”
Student F: (She reported experiencing racism in Australia.)
Student G: “I am the only Asian in the class. I feel out of place and sometimes I feel they don’t like me
because they don’t talk to me. Even if I have the chance to speak, I can’t express myself very well.” Experience of robbery
Student B: “I experienced [a] robbery. It was a very frightening experience. In the midnight, the guy
pushed open the door. My housemate got hurt. The guy tied my housemate and me up. He stole our
mobile phone and money.” Discussion
With regard to the quantitative analysis, the first hypothesis that stress level, coping styles, and personality traits
of neuroticism, tough-mindedness and extraversion would contribute to grade point average, was supported. The
results supported the second hypothesis that the personality variables would contribute to coping styles. The
third hypothesis that gender would affect coping styles and personality was not supported.
The results for the first hypothesis supported previous research by Russell and Petrie (1992). They reported that
various academic, social / environmental, and personality factors may be considered when evaluating university
academic adjustment. That tough-mindedness contributed uniquely, but negatively to grade point average
suggests that those who tend to be impulsive, to disregard others, to be non-conformist or to be risk-taking tend
to earn poorer grades, and vice versa.. That is, those international students who recognize the need for and
appreciate the support from their friends, classmates, lecturers and others around them to make life more
bearable to survive in a foreign country would tend to earn higher grades.
The results for the second hypothesis supported previous research by Pierce, Sarason and Sarason (1996) that the
role of personality characteristics, personal relationships and situational parameters combined to produce a
robust coping style. According to Pierce, Sarason and Sarason (1996) individuals that reveal such personality
characteristics tended to exhibit more self-confidence, to perceive having more control over stressful situations,
to be more persistent and assertive, and to expect success. In other words, personality traits affected the way
individuals coped in their daily lives. For international students who had the additional stress of adapting to a
foreign environment, culture and language, these results may explain the way international students cope with
The personality traits measured in this study indicate that they contribute to the coping styles of international
students. While all three traits contributed, that of neuroticism and extraversion was greater than that of tough-
mindedness. The contribution of neuroticism to coping styles suggests that the more anxious and worried the
students, the poorer their coping ability. Feeling unhappy, facing problems of adjustment to a new culture and
environment, trying to cope might explain the result that the higher the neuroticism reported, the poorer the
coping ability, and vice versa.
The contribution of extraversion suggests that the more introverted the student, the poorer the coping ability.
Those who are more extraverted would find it easier to socialize, to make friends and to be energized by time
spent with others. These more extraverted students, feeling less lonely and isolated, would have more emotional
energy to invest in their studies and experience more confidence in their coping ability. This might explain the
contribution of extraversion to coping ability.
In this study, tough-mindedness was a negative, albeit small, contributor to coping ability, explaining only 3% of
variation in coping ability. Tough-mindedness reflects a capacity to be different from and to disregard others, to
be a loner and to be risk-taking. This result suggests that to the degree that international students regarded
themselves as tough-minded, they experienced themselves as having less coping ability and vice versa. Those
with more tough-mindedness would tend to value non-conformity. Perhaps, valuing coping ability may be
regarded as insufficiently nonconformist to attract agreement from individuals who tend to have tough-
mindedness. This may help to explain this results for the second hypothesis.
The third hypothesis that gender would have an impact on coping styles and personality traits was exploratory.
The result does not support Eysenck and Eysenck's (1975) finding that males report higher tough-mindedness
than do females. This may be explained by the fact that the males in this sample seemed to suffer homesickness
as much as the females. In other words, they did not show a greater tough-mindedness than their female peers.
Perhaps, they felt themselves to be equally as vulnerable to the pressures of overseas study.
That there was no significant difference between the genders in their coping styles or in the other two personality
traits, neuroticism and extraversion, may simply indicate that there is no difference between the genders on these
variables. In other words, men and women may share more similarities in coping styles and personality traits
than they do differences. While there are clearly differences between men and women, this study did not find
them on these variables.
With regard to the qualitative analysis, the interviews revealed that the personality of each international student
influenced that individual’s coping strategies when faced with difficulties. For example, an individual who is
extraverted reported that loneliness was easily overcome. Another, more introverted individual, reported
suffering loneliness and attributed this to a shyness that made it difficult to approach people and make friends.
Further, the interviews yielded seven themes that represented common experiences. All of these themes
reflected the difficulties and problems they face as international students. These themes represent challenges
they must cope with if they are to succeed in their studies.
To conclude, the purpose of this study was to understand the variables that contributed to international students’
experiences. The impact stress level, coping styles and personality traits on their academic performance was
discussed. The study found that personality traits contribute to coping styles. No sex differences were found.
Qualitative data yielded common themes in international students’ experiences. Students reported that stressors
challenged their ability to cope.
Hopefully, this research will contribute to a better understanding of international students by student affairs
practitioners and personnel. Recognizing the factors that may influence the process of the transition to study by
the international students could increase the awareness of policy makers. This then could lead to the
development and implementation of programmes to facilitate this transition. For example, programmes could
address the interaction patterns between Australian and international students in preparing both for face-to-face
contact. Such policies could augment the cultural horizons of both host and international students, enriching the
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