On this page, you can find a brief summary of the main project findings. A more comprehensive overview of the findings can be found in Wisniewski, Lenhard, Möhring & Spiegel (in preparation).

When interpreting the project findings, it is important to take into consideration the special composition of the SpraStu study sample: N = 340 international students, to whom the following characteristics apply, as well as N = 186 students whose first language is German (L1).

  • University-entrance qualifications earned outside of Germany or at a Studienkolleg (university preparatory course)
  • German is not the native language (L1) of the participants
  • Students in Bachelor’s or Staatsexamen (state examination) programmes
  • Students at two universities (Leipzig and Würzburg)
  • Exclusively German-language degree programmes
  • Project participation from the first semester of study

Accordingly, the sample differs greatly from representative surveys. For example, BA students account for a mere 37.6 % of the 21st Social Survey conducted on behalf of the Deutsches Studentenwerk (a federation of 58 German student unions), and the percentage of SpraStu participants who were studying subjects in the engineering sciences was much smaller than the national average. International students from Austria with L1 German were not eligible for participation in the study.

International students as a heterogeneous group

The fact that international students represent an extremely heterogeneous group who not only start their study programmes with widely varying levels of language proficiency but also experience various levels of success was perhaps the primary finding of the SpraStu project and was reflected in all analyses. Any attempt to ascribe stereotypical shortcomings ignores the reality of the international students with respect to their studies.

The Language Skills of International Students

Inadequate time for language preparation

The international students who were studied in the context of the project had only been learning German for an average of just under three years prior to the start of their studies. In light of this short average period of language preparation, it is astonishing how many of the international students in the project were able to demonstrate an excellent command of the German language. The participants who had begun learning German earlier showed higher levels of language proficiency at the start of their studies. This advantage persisted throughout the period of study.

Highly heterogeneous language skills among new students

The admission requirements at both of the universities involved in the project include proof of German language proficiency in accordance with the regulatory framework for German language examinations for programmes of study at German universities (Rahmenordnung über deutsche Sprachprüfungen für den Hochschulzugang, HRK/KMK, 2004|2019/2020). This proficiency is normally demonstrated by means of a language exam, such as the Deutsche Sprachprüfung für den Hochschulzugang (DSH), the TestDaF or the “Deutsches Sprachdiplom” (German Language Diploma) of the Conference of German Cultural Ministers (KMK) level 2 (DSD II). In general, applicants must be able to demonstrate a proficiency level of B2.2/C1.1 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR, Council of Europe, 2001, 2020), or in the case of the DSD II, level B2.

The levels of language skills (general language proficiency, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, productive and receptive vocabulary and writing) diagnosed in the context of the project by means of multiple tests differ drastically among first-semester international students. Many participants failed to demonstrate a B2 level of proficiency on individual language tests, while some were unable to achieve this level on any of the tests. Others exhibited an extremely high level of proficiency in all areas.

Many international students in the project overestimated their own language skills and, in particular, had problems assigning the appropriate CEFR level to these skills. This finding suggests that, in the future, self-assessments should be viewed with caution.

The language skills of international students from various regions and degree programmes

Students who had earned their university-entrance qualifications in the regions of East Asia/Pacific or the Arab States began their degree programmes with lower levels of language proficiency, while others, in particular international students from Central and Eastern Europe, demonstrated very good language skills. Although it was not possible to further explore the reasons for these findings in the context of the project, it was clear that, in general, students with university-entrance qualifications from the East Asia/Pacific region or the Arab States had had few, if any, German lessons at school. Even after one year of university studies, these groups continued to show substantial differences in language skills compared to other groups.

Differences in levels of language proficiency were also observed among first-semester students in various degree programmes – with lower levels for students of mathematics, natural sciences and engineering sciences and higher levels for students of medicine, economics, law, social sciences and the humanities. However, these differences tended to decrease over the course of the project.

Discrepancies among language proficiency tests for university admission

The project findings suggest that some language proficiency tests for university admission are easier to pass than others (see Wisniewski & Möhring, 2021): for example, on average, the international students who were admitted to university on the basis of the DSH performed much worse on the project language tests at the start of their degree programmes than students whose admission was based on the results of other language proficiency tests.

However, within the aims and design of the SpraStu project it was not possible to make a direct comparison of language tests for university admission or evaluate which tests assessed the “right” language skills for university degree programmes.

Improvement of language skills over the course of university studies

During their first two years of study, the participating international students improved most of the tested language skills to a statistically significant extent. The tested skills included reading comprehension, listening comprehension, receptive and productive vocabulary, writing skills and general language proficiency. The least improvement was seen in writing skills.

The aligning of language tests with the CEFR is associated with a certain amount of imprecision so that most of the project analyses are based on raw-point results. Nevertheless, even after two years of study in Germany only 50-60% of the participants achieved the level of C1 on the language tests, exceeding the level of language proficiency required for university admission; in terms of writing skills, 60% had achieved the TestDaF level 4 at this point in time (equivalent to level B2.2-C1.1) – which is actually the minimum level required for university entrance.

In our view, two main conclusions can be drawn from these findings. First, the language requirements for university admission in Germany are already very high. This impression is also confirmed by the situation outside Germany, where applicants must often only achieve a B2 level of language proficiency – even for English, which is taught much more widely as a foreign language at school than German.

Second, without further language training at university it is unrealistic to expect these skills to improve beyond the level achieved prior to admission. Only a few of the participants of the SpraStu project enrolled in German classes over the course of the project.

Language from the perspective of the international students

The vast majority of the international students were satisfied with their own German language skills. However, they also reported having experienced ongoing difficulties, particularly with speaking and writing. What is concerning is that many of them therefore felt unable to actively participate in courses and seemed to view themselves as flawed speakers in comparison to L1 students. The fast pace of the courses in the degree programme can be particularly problematic for many international students.

The Academic Success of International Students

Studies spicked with problems?

University study of international students are often associated with a particularly large number of problems. This fact has been demonstrated by representative studies of the DAAD/DZHW (2019), the 21st Social Survey and other research projects. However, the SpraStu project participants experienced their university studies as much less problematic than their peers, which can most certainly be explained – at least in part – by the uniqueness of the study sample (see introductory remarks).
However, the types of problems that were reported correspond to those identified in larger studies: in both cases, the orientation at university and the search for accommodation represent challenges, as do integration-related factors.

The academic success of international students

Not only the language skills, but also the levels of academic success of international students are extremely heterogeneous, i.e. vary greatly from individual to individual. However, overall, the international students in the SpraStu project were significantly less successful than the German students. For example, after their first semester, they achieved approx. 60 % of the respective academic performance targets, while the German students achieved approx. 74 %. These differences decreased very little over the course of the first three semesters. Both groups remained significantly below the requirements specified in the study documents.

Furthermore, among the international students, quite significant differences in academic performance could be seen between the subject-area groups: for example, students in mathematics, natural science and computer science programmes (as the only engineering science represented) showed weaker performance, while students of medicine, the humanities, law, economics and social sciences achieved better results.

Student dropout relatively rare

In the SpraStu project, it was more difficult to study student dropout than academic success, particularly because the project only followed the participating international students for a few semesters.

Nevertheless, the findings showed a very low rate of dropout. Only 10 % of the participating international students abandoned their studies prematurely during the period of assessment, which is slightly lower than the percentage of dropouts seen among the German participants (12 %). Possible explanations for these findings include the project design and the composition of the SpraStu sample group. It is also conceivable that some international students dropped out after the end of the project period. Nevertheless, the number of dropouts was very low in comparison with the DZHW studies, where the percentage of dropouts in Bachelor’s programmes was most recently reported as 49 % (DZHW, 2020).

Students who dropped out eventually had achieved fewer academic targets in the first semester of study than the successful students. Their academic performance decreased significantly over the course of the second and third semesters, before the student ultimately chose to withdraw from university.

A successful start at university: decisive factors are language skills and intrinsic motivation for the choice of degree programme

New students who had spent more time learning German and started their university studies with a high level of language proficiency and an intrinsic motivation for the degree programme got off to a more successful start at university. In this context, reading skills played a particularly decisive role. By contrast, neither the students’ family and educational backgrounds nor other factors associated with the period preceding university studies played a significant role.

The influence of language skills on students’ academic success in their first semesters of study was also dependent on the degree programme: in terms of early academic success, language skills are most important for students who study law, economics, social sciences or medicine.

Academic success during the introductory phase of university studies is also of great importance for success in future semesters: students who were successful in their first semester remained successful after three semesters.

Factors that continue to influence academic success over the course of a study programme: language skills, integration factors and financial resources are decisive

What factors contribute to the academic success of international students over the course of their university studies? The research conducted on the SpraStu sample group revealed that language skills (in particular listening comprehension, but also other skills) continued to play a decisive role throughout a student’s academic career. Furthermore, strong social integration – understood in this context as strong and extensive contacts to peers and a high level of academic integration – contributed significantly to successful university studies. Participants who reported having sufficient financial resources were also more successful. These combined factors explained just over one-third of the differences in academic performance in the middle semesters of a study programme (36.5 %). Language skills account for just under 20 % of the variance in academic performance both at the start of and later in the degree programme.

In contrast, other possible predictors, such as predictors of institutional or motivational nature or predictors related to the students themselves, only influenced the academic success to a negligible extent, if at all.

In this context, the data showed that integration-related factors were also influenced by language: individuals who had more language contact in German were better integrated, both linguistically and socially.

Special group of students: project participants with refugee backgrounds

Only a small number of students with refugee backgrounds took part in the SpraStu project (n = 33). This is why we are unable to draw generalisable conclusions in this context. However, the research revealed that this group faces particularly difficult challenges in various respects: for example, at the start of their university studies, project participants with refugee backgrounds reported having had very little time for language preparation – and were found to have particularly low levels of German language proficiency.

Project participants with refugee backgrounds also achieved fewer academic performance targets than other international students. However, a comparison between participants from the same region of origin, with and without refugee backgrounds, showed that, in terms of academic performance, the former group improved significantly faster and tended to overtake the latter group in the second semester.

Language Use in the L2 German: Selected Findings

Metacognitive language-related self-regulation

In the context of the project, researchers developed an instrument that can be used for estimating how well international students are able to strategically deal with typical linguistically challenging situations in their everyday lives at university. This scenario-based questionnaire (ScenEx) proved to be predictive for both the improvement of students’ language skills over the course of their studies and their academic success (see Wisniewski et al., 2019; Seeger et al., in preparation).

Corpus resources from the SpraStu project: the learner corpus DISKO and the lecture-note corpus MIKO

A longitudinal learner corpus with nearly 1,000 texts was compiled from the writing output collected in the context of the SpraStu project, along with additional texts (above all from the new digital TestDaF). DISKO also contains texts from German students. DISKO will be accessible in the long-term archive of the Leibniz Institute for the German Language (Leibniz-Institut für Deutsche Sprache, IDS) in Mannheim and searchable via ANNIS on the corpus server of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

The MIKO corpus contains transcribed lectures with video recordings and the respective notes taken by international and L1 students. It is accessible at the Leibniz Institute for the German Language (IDS) in Mannheim via the Archive for Spoken German.

Test-taking during the introductory phase of a university study programme

On the basis of needs analyses, we know that tests are important for academic success and at the same time represent a special challenge for non-native speakers. In order to examine the specific difficulties associated with test-taking – above all at the linguistic level – along with strategies for dealing with these difficulties, researchers investigated students’ experiences with four different tests: for each test, two or three international students were asked to give a detailed account of their test-taking experience (in so-called stimulated recalls). In addition, the responsible lecturers were asked to share their perspectives on possible difficulties and strategies for overcoming them.

The students mentioned a variety of problems, including not only gaps in their vocabulary, but also problems with determining the appropriate text structure and style, as well as the level of detail required for the answers. They spent a large amount of time working on the linguistically correct wording of their answers, which, in the end, was not something that the lecturers considered to be important. As a result, the students did not have enough time to look up unknown words in the dictionary. What proved particularly difficult for the students was not the academic terminology but instead general vocabulary. In a multiple-choice test, the time pressure made it even more difficult to read through the answer options, which in some cases were long and very similar.

Note-taking in lectures during the introductory phase of a university study programme

Taking notes in lectures, a very widespread form of language use, is associated with a large number of preconditions and often assumed to be particularly difficult for L2 students. In the SpraStu project, analyses based on primary data (lectures and notes), along with questionnaires and interviews with lecturers, were used for investigating the practice of note-taking.

In this context, the data showed that note-taking is a highly heterogeneous form of language use that is strongly influenced by individual aims and strategies. A student’s approach to note-taking always depends on the specifics of the respective lecture. If the student experiences the language of the lecture as difficult, particularly with respect to vocabulary, the resulting notes were of lower quality. One of the few trends that was consistently observed was that practically all students tend to copy what they see on the chalkboard or presentation slide.

The notes taken by German and international students are not significantly different, not even with respect to quality. The quality of the notes was dependent on the language skills of the international student (above all, their vocabulary).

Lecturers’ perspectives on the difficulty of their lectures in terms of language and subject-related knowledge, note-taking and international students

Lecturers reported having little contact to international students on the whole; only a small number of international students participated actively during lectures or came to them with questions. Accordingly, when lecturers described difficulties, they often referred to the group of students as a whole and only rarely explained these difficulties on the basis of feedback from international students or concrete experiences. One of the main difficulties mentioned by lecturers was the steep progression of lectures. This progression had an effect on the rate of speaking, which was specified as a key language difficulty, and as a result, the lectures required a high level of concentration. Another difficulty that was described by many lecturers was the challenge of learning academic terminology, owing to not only the large number of terms, but also the fact that the terms are often derived from various languages or similar to one another. Lecturers also mentioned abstract and theoretical topics as a major subject-related difficulty. The students often find it difficult to apply the theoretical knowledge they have acquired, and particularly international students are described as being good at memorisation while having difficulty with the application of theoretical concepts. The assessments that were made as to the best approaches to note-taking were highly heterogeneous but shared a common conclusion: students should only take notes on lecture content that is not written on the presentation slides and cannot be easily found in reference materials. They should by no means attempt to make note of everything that is said during the lecture. In addition, a large number of lecturers emphasised that students should develop their own personal style of note-taking during their first semesters at university.


Heublein, U., Richter, J., & Schmelzer, R. (2020). Die Entwicklung der Studienabbruchquoten in Deutschland. DZHW-Brief, 3, 1–12.