Cross-cultural research on university students' approaches to study has examined the possible cultural specificity of Biggs' Study Process Questionnaire, but the problem of the confounding effect of individual characteristics and contextual variables has received little empirical attention. The present study addressed this issue, by investigating cross-cultural differences in students' approaches to study when the academic course and context are the same for culturally distinct groups. Two matched groups of local Australian and South-east Asian students were compared at the beginning and the end of their first semester at university. The similarities in the patterns of change of the two groups support the view that study approaches are influenced by students' perceptions of course requirements rather than determined by stable personal characteristics of individuals or cultural differences. Although South-east Asian students scored higher on the surface measures than their western counterparts, finer analyses breaking down the surface construct into meaningful sub-components revealed no difference between the two groups in the ‘narrowness’ aspect of their study. South-east Asian students were adaptive to the demands of the new educational context and became more similar to local students by the end of their first semester of academic study in a western institution.