Seeking academic help: A case study of peer brokering interactions

Sherrie Lee1

1University of Waikato

The literature often depicts international students as deficient due to poor English language skills and limited participation in class, thus positioning them as lacking in agency or habitually weak (Marginson 2013). This paper reframes international students as resourceful learners by focusing on their academic learning through brokering, that is, help-seeking social interactions. Understood as part of informal learning practices, brokering interactions take place when students seek assistance with unfamiliar academic texts and practices from brokers, that is, those who are able to bridge cultural and knowledge gaps.

The paper reports on research which investigated brokering practices among ten international EAL (English as an Additional Language) students in their initial semester of study at a New Zealand university. In particular, the paper examines the brokering interactions between two participants, Linda, a first-year student, and her broker Emily, a fellow Mainland Chinese student who provided information and advice about various academic tasks and situations. A conversation-analytic approach that views brokering as asymmetrical knowledge positions is used to analyse twelve episodes of brokering interactions in Chinese which took place through WeChat, a mobile phone application. Initial analysis reveals that the dynamics of brokering interactions between Linda and Emily were characterised by a display of social solidarity, even as seeker and broker negotiated their knowledge positions over information or advice offered by the broker.

The paper concludes that peer brokering between same language speakers provides a collegial space in which students exercise agency by utilising sociolinguistic resources. Thus educational institutions should recognise the importance of international students’ informal academic learning and increase opportunities for EAL students build and enhance their social connections with peers as part of a holistic approach towards academic support.

Keywords: Academic learning, brokering, conversation analysis, informal learning, international students, peers


Sherrie Lee is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education at the University of Waikato. Her doctoral research examines informal academic learning, in particular, brokering practices, among international students at a New Zealand university. She is an executive committee member of ISANA International Education Association New Zealand, and the past president of the Postgraduate Students’ Association at the University of Waikato. Prior to doctoral studies, Sherrie was a business communications lecturer at a polytechnic in Singapore. She writes about her research interests on her personal blog

Contact: University of Waikato, Faculty of Education, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton 3240, New Zealand.  E-mail:


The Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association Inc. (ANZSSA) is a professional association for people with an interest in the role of support services in post secondary education.

For more information, please visit ANZSSA website by


ISANA International Education Association is the representative body for professionals in Australia and New Zealand who work in international student services, advocacy, teaching and policy development in international education.

For more information, please visit the ISANA website at

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