My exchange student is struggling academically: how can I help?

Students come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds. Two main challenges for exchange students learning in an all-English environment are technical vocabulary words and the amount of homework in their American high schools. Students are required to maintain a “C” average in their courses, so if their grades start slipping, IECs and EF staff will need to provide guidance. You can help, too.

Education around the world

School systems vary greatly around the world and each of our students has had a unique educational experience. In most countries, students are placed in their classes and do not get to choose which courses they take. Outside of the US, it’s quite rare to have elective courses, exploratory options or for students to take classes “just for fun.” They often spend the entire day with the same group of students, in the same classroom, taking a pre-determined set of classes together. The concepts of selecting their classes, choosing electives and changing rooms for each class may be very new to them.

Learning in English

Going to an American high school may be the first time that your student will be learning entirely in English. Even straight-A students have a hard time adjusting to math, science and history lessons taught in their non-native language. Their challenge is doubled compared to their peers; not only do they have to keep up with the new material in class, they must do it while learning a completely new technical vocabulary.

“I wish my host family knew that the American education system is a lot different than in South Korea. In South Korea, the teachers are teaching, students are listening. We rarely ask questions.”

— Seoughun from South Korea

Homework and testing

School systems around the world differ from education in America in a variety of ways. In general, exchange students may not be used to the importance of regular homework, class participation or group work.


In America, it's common to have pop quizzes, mid-terms, nightly homework and weekly assignments. Final grades are determined, in most cases, by class participation, group projects, quizzes, tests and homework. Students may need to be reminded that every assignment is important and could impact their overall grade in the class.

Grading systems in other countries

In Sweden, for example, many grades are based on group projects meant to foster debate and collaborative thinking. Tests are less frequent and rarely have multiple-choice options. In Japan, students learn in a lecture-style format with only the teacher talking. Students are encouraged to be silent during class and graded solely on regular testing. In the Netherlands, students are given a set amount of work that they will be tested on at the end of the semester. They are expected to study independently and be prepared for an exam at the end of the term. Learn about the education style that your student is used to in order to best support them in their American high school.

How can you help

Case study: Academic struggles

Academic success is a crucial part of the exchange program and we want to see every student succeed. Here are some recommendations on helping students improve grades.

Support at school

Suggest that your student meet with their guidance counselor, advisor or teacher to identify where they are struggling. Many teachers offer extra help or study hall periods where students can receive individualized help. Encourage your student to utilize this study time whenever possible.

Support at home

Set appropriate study and homework habits such as specific times and locations. Provide a quiet place for your student to study and get their homework done without distractions.


Help your student get organized. Talk through assignments and due dates to make sure they understand what’s expected of them. Encourage them to focus on one big assignment per day to avoid feeling overwhelmed by many unfinished large projects.

External tools

Talk with your IEC about local support available. Many coordinators are aware of tutors in the area who have experience working with high school students. Please also ensure your student speaks with their parents in their home country about how they will cover the cost of these sessions.

Student perspective

Niko from Austria is spending his exchange in Utah. At his American high school, he is taking chemistry, geometry, English II, American government, ceramics and personal fitness. Niko is struggling to adjust to those classes being taught in English and is having a hard time keeping up with the amount of homework his teachers assign each day. He just had an important test in geometry, but it didn’t go well. He’s starting to worry because he’ll need to bring his American transcripts with him when he returns to Austria.

Host family perspective

Anthony has hosted eight students over the last 10 years. Although Niko is his first student from Austria, he is not the first student who has struggled with grades. Anthony knows that the school system in America is a lot different than what Niko is used to and that he’ll need to provide more structure and guidance for Niko to succeed here.

How they handled it

Anthony got his big whiteboard calendar from his home office and put it in the kitchen. After dinner one night, he had Niko write down all his upcoming test dates in red and his current homework in blue. They updated the calendar every night as Niko got new assignments or learned about another exam. It became a part of their evening routine. To help Niko focus on homework, Anthony told Niko that he would set aside time each night to keep the house quiet while Niko worked. He also said he could get Niko to school early once or twice a week to meet with his geometry and chemistry teachers. After a month of hard work, Niko had raised his grades and got a B+ on his next geometry test!

Find the right exchange student for your family

Does your family have any hobbies or interests that you'd like to share with an exchange student? Are you looking to learn more about a particular region of the world? Consider some of these topics and start browsing student profiles today.

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© EF Education First 2011-2021. EF High School Exchange Year is operated by EF Educational Foundation for Foreign Study, a non-profit corporation designated by the U.S. Department of State to operate a J-1 student exchange program. Note: Featured photo/videos do not include prospective students, and are representative of program participants.