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Learning to be alone: How positive solitude can benefit international students

Xianghan (Christine) O’Dea, York St John University

International students experience loneliness regularly when living and studying abroad (Wawera & MacCamley, 2020), and the situation appears to have worsened during the pandemic. Since loneliness is often associated with negative feelings such as depression, distress and anxiety, existing research in this area tends to give attention to the negative effects of loneliness – for example, its impact on international students’ emotional wellbeing and health (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). Few studies have investigated the benefits or positive side of loneliness (that is, positive solitude) to international students.

A recent (yet to be published) longitudinal qualitative study by O’Dea and Stern offers some important insights into the loneliness of international students by suggesting that spending time alone is not wholly negative. International students, in order to settle in better and live happier in the new academic and social environment, perhaps should look at loneliness from a more positive perspective, and aim to seek out and enjoy positive solitude. Accordingly, their host universities should consider providing appropriate training and support to help international students achieve such a goal.

Our study collected data from a group of 12 Chinese business top-up students repeatedly (three times) throughout their one-year top-up study in a UK university using semi-structured interviews. The authors found that their loneliness was caused by a number of factors relating to the academic settings of their top-up programme, such as classroom arrangement, having too much learning autonomy, and having little opportunity to work with non-Chinese students, in addition to the fact that they were unable to make local friends easily. This study is distinctive in exploring the impact of academic barriers – in particular, the difficulty of high-scale independent learning on loneliness.

‘I am so used to being spoon-fed. … However, the British way of teaching gives me so much freedom, which I don’t like, and don’t know how to handle. I don’t want to manage my studies on my own, and would prefer more support from my tutors.’

Learning alone

It is well known that independent learning is a key learning skill university students need to develop. Statistics (Neves & Hillman, 2019) show that students studying business management undergraduate courses in the UK on average spent a similar amount of time on timetabled, tutor-led sessions and independent studies (10 hours vs 11 hours). In contrast, Chinese students are more used to tutor-led classroom-based community learning, and often spend much more time in the classroom than British students. It is not uncommon for Chinese students to spend as little as four to five hours on independent learning, outside the classroom (Zhao, 2015). Even though independent learning does not necessarily mean learning on their own, students in reality need to spend a significant amount of time alone to plan, manage and evaluate their own learning.

Positive solitude

Positive solitude refers to spending time alone, but without feeling lonely. It is a positive state of mind in which individuals enjoy their own company. Existing research (Nguyen et al., 2017) indicates that enjoying some quality alone time can help improve one’s creativity, productivity and wellbeing. This is because positive and healthy solitude helps individuals adjust emotionally and prepare them for better social engagement with others. For this reason, it has been suggested that people should spend more time alone. Consequently, seeking out positive solitude and making effective use of alone time may help the Chinese top-up students, and potentially other international students, adjust to independent learning and increase their academic achievement in this more learner-centred learning environment.

‘Seeking out positive solitude and making effective use of alone time may help international students adjust to independent learning and increase their academic achievement in this more learner-centred learning environment.’

Learning to be positively alone is likely to be more beneficial to international students in the post pandemic world, since many Western universities are adopting a blended learning approach, and some teaching will be delivered continuously online. Therefore, it is possible that some international students may have to spend even more time learning independently.

How to practise positive solitude

In order to help international students pursue and practise positive solitude, host universities may consider to try out the following recommendations: providing CPD workshops or short courses with a focus on introducing the benefits of positive solitude, and where students can share experiences and ideas; encouraging students to take small steps and learn to enjoy doing small indoor and outdoor activities alone (such as eating out and running alone); and encouraging students to use alone time to reflect (for instance on the things that they have enjoyed and on future goals).


Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. Norton.

Neves, J., & Hillman, N. (2019). Student academic experience survey.

Nguyen, T. V. T., Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2018). Solitude as an approach to affective self-regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(1), 92–106.

Wawera, A. S., & McCamley, A. (2020). Loneliness among international students in the UK. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 44(9), 1–13.

Zhao, Y. (2015, March 5). Assessing China’s academic orbit.