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Yisi Zhan, Member, NACADA Global Initiative Committee

Yisi Zhan.jpgCulture affects student needs and behavior.  From a social-constructive perspective, psychological needs are cultural constructions that reflect variations in social cultural values (e.g., Buttle, 1989; Rist, 1980; Roy, 1980).  Therefore, different values of social culture have been given more attention by researchers and academic advisors based on differences in culture. 

With the expansion of China’s higher education since 1998, more and more academic advisors are needed to work with Chinese undergraduates.  Understanding their sophisticated social culture values is the first and necessary step for advisors in and out of China.  This article will discuss the following three questions: (1) Based on modern Chinese culture, how should students’ success be defined? (2) Can students meet the challenge of China’s new social culture driven by innovation? and (3) From academic advisors’ perspective, how should students be supported for academic success?

Based on modern Chinese culture, how should students’ success be defined? 

In 1949, the People's Republic of China was founded, and Chinese higher education considered a good student one who had all-round development in moral, intellectual, physical, aesthetic, and labor qualities.  Students with these qualities as well as outstanding performance in their specific area of study are considered to be the most successful.  Two aspects of development that were considered higher in importance, moral and intelligence quality, are considered more extensively below.

Moral Quality.  This quality refers to a sense of responsibility for nation, community, and family; a commitment to the world and humankind; and a dedication to solving realistic problems in China and worldwide.  The Tsinghua University Outstanding Scholarship is the highest honor for students in Tsinghua University, an award which only 10 undergraduate students can be awarded each year.  For example, Hongzhi Xu, from the School of Social Sciences, is representative of students who devote themselves to society and reflect moral quality.  He once participated in Columbia University’s summer program where his project, The Comparative Study of Stay-at-Home Children and Migrant Children, was selected as first place by the undergraduate academic research fund and won the special prize of the Tsinghua University “Challenge Cup” Contest.  As the second author and presenter, he obtained the top award in the 14th "Challenge Cup” National College Students’ Extracurricular Academic Science and Technology Works Contest.  A second example is Yuan Zhang, from the Department of Electronic Engineering, who was once an intern in a division subordinated to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.  He also participated in the examination of nine national science and technology major projects and helped to modify the G20 security report.

Intelligence Quality.  Intelligence quality refers to excellent academic performance and achievement in scientific research.  For example, Lijie Chen, from the Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences, has been awarded the Tsinghua University Special Scholarship.  His GPA for specialized courses reached 4 points for every A or A+ (on a 100-point scale) and he won the first place in the International Olympiad in Informatics.  Chen published many papers as the first author in AAMAS, COLT and ISAAC, with another five papers in one submission period.  During his visit to MIT, he solved the open problem which was proposed by famous quantum information scholar John Watrous in 2002 and prepared to contribute to STOC, the top-level conference on computer theory.  In addition, Chen has long been involved in the organization and proposition work of the informatics competition in China.

Among these five qualities, it is worth noting that Chinese culture puts more emphasis on intellectual quality, such as GPA ranking and publication of research papers.  For example, Special Scholarship winners’ GPA ranked almost in the top 5% at the institution.

Other Qualities.  Additionally, physical quality refers to physical health and interest in sports.  “No sports, no Tsinghua” is a popular slogan at Tsinghua University.  Aesthetic quality refers to good artistic accomplishment; labor quality refers to the student being hardworking. 

Can students meet the challenge of China’s new social culture driven by innovation?

In modern society, China advocates a new culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.  Yifeng Liu from the Department of Thermal Engineering is a representative of entrepreneurial talents who has been awarded the Tsinghua University Special Scholarship.  He was selected for the National Students Innovation and Entrepreneurship Training Program and obtained a number of patents.  During his gap year, he developed flexible crystalline silicon solar energy materials that reached the leading 22.09% conversion efficiency in the domestic market.  His research results were put into production, and his products were approved by the United Nations Human Settlements Program.  Finally, he was recognized by the International Ecological Safety Collaborative Organization.  Because the Chinese government supports college student’s creative jobs by founding new companies, more and more students intend to do pioneering work.  Take Tsinghua University as an example: academic policy encourages that students apply for one or two academic gap years to begin their own business.

In this social culture background with conflict between all-round development and innovation, college students face two main challenges.  First, how should they find their own goals for academic success based on their own life values?  Second, how can they achieve their academic goal in a practical path?

The challenge of missing learning goals is reflected in the following categories of Chinese students.  The first group of students are influenced by traditional cultural values in high school.  All along, high school teachers and parents think that intelligence quality is the most important in all-round development (e.g.  Student who can get a higher test score ranking).  However, when they enter college, students find that it is difficult to achieve academic goals (e.g. high GPA ranking), and feel lost, with feelings of frustration and low self-efficacy.  Here is an example: a boy, majoring in engineering physics, with a GPA ranking in the top 10% of Tsinghua students said: “I always think that my learning abilities are lower than other classmates in Tsinghua University.  Some of my classmates took part in Olympiad Competitions in math or physics in high school.  They are so smart.  It seems that they don’t need to study hard, but they can get high marks in the final exams.”

The second group of students are those who dream that college life will be different than high school (not just about the college entrance examination score).  However, the sudden diversity of learning goals makes them lost.  For example, a common student expression is “I lost my passion for learning; my motivation is only to finish homework on time.  But in high school, I could get up early in the morning, full of passion for everyday study.”  Students often share thoughts similar to this student:

“There are so many things you can do in my university.  There are science and technology innovation competitions, community associations, all kinds of inspired lectures, and class activities. . . . I do not know how to choose a variety of extracurricular activities for me to develop my quality and ability.” 

The third group of students strive for excellence through satisfying the expectations of all important individuals, including teachers, parents, peers, and so on.  However, when learning time is limited, and important people have different values, students have difficulty determining their own learning goals.  For example, one chemistry student said:

“I didn’t get my parents’ approval to bid for the chairman of our student union.  To them, it seemed to be a waste of time for me to do so.  After lots of discussion, they still didn’t support me.  Even when I won the election and when I had gained some achievements, they didn’t change their minds.  It was my third year in university; they wanted me to focus on TOEFL so that I could go abroad after undergraduate.  They all wanted to go to foreign countries, but being a chairman made it harder.  They don’t want me to do things related to politics or student organizations.  I was supposed to have a bigger dream and do something that really matters.  At last, I gave in to them.”

After students overcome challenges for setting academic goals according to their own culture value, it is common for them to face technical challenges of how to achieve these goals by training themselves or how to stay focused on these goals.

From academic advisors’ perspective, how should students be supported for academic success?

In a diverse social culture, there are lots of conflicting values between students and their senior generation (e.g.  Teacher, parent, and advisor).  Take the opinion of what defines a good student as an example—from their different points of view, teachers, parents, and classmates will all give different expectations according to their own experience.  Therefore, there is always a conflict between all-round development and outstanding performance in a specialized academic area for students.  If these conflicts cannot be balanced in students’ mind, it will hinder their learning goal setting and might cause academic failure.  Therefore, academic advisors in Tsinghua University try to help students setting learning goals by integrating values of social culture and previous individual values. 

Generally speaking, academic advising will follow three steps: first, academic advisors will inform students of the evaluation system for successful college students as defined by their social culture, especially in their own college.  For example, the challenge they may face is how to balance the requirement of GPA (e.g. students do not apply to graduate school until their GPA ranking is higher than 80%) and individual development in different fields. 

Second, academic advisors will discuss with students how to establish their goals on both academic performance and other fields by asking a series of questions about their future and previous values. Advisors usually use such as Holland's Interest Test, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and Coach Approaches. These counselling tools are effective. Based on the completion of academic goals, academic advisors encourage them to pursue their own individual development.

Finally, academic advisors will discuss with students the path and detailed technical skills needed to achieve their learning goals, such as time management skills, communication skills, learning strategies, and so on. 


By analyzing the value orientation of “good students” in modern Chinese social culture, we at Tsinghua University find that the social values of Chinese student and educators tend to be diversified.  Therefore, after entering the university, college students will face the challenge of integrating multi-value orientation and setting individualized academic goals.  At the same time, they also need academic advisors to provide personalized advice and guidance on specific strategies for success.  Academic advisors of Tsinghua University have found that helping students understand their social culture, assisting them in establishing their individual goals, and helping them find the paths to achieve those goals is a successful way to help students navigate the diverse pressures in Chinese social culture.

Yisi Zhan, Ph.D. 
Associate Director/Academic Advisor
The Center for Student Learning and Development
Tsinghua University
Beijing, China


Buttle, F. (1989). The social construction of needs. Psychology and Marketing, 6(3), 197-210.

Rist, G. (1980). Basic questions about basic human needs. In K. Lederer (Ed.), Human needs (pp. 233-254). Cambridge, MA: Oelgsschlager, Gunn, & Hain.

Roy, R. (1980). Human needs and freedom: Liberal, Marxist and Ghandian perspectives. In K. Lederer (Ed.), Human needs (pp.191-212). Cambridge, MA: Oelgsschlager, Gunn, & Hain.

Cite this article using APA style as: Zhan, Y. (2018, March). The impact of modern Chinese culture on academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 March 41:1


# Wuriyeti
Tuesday, February 27, 2018 3:49 AM
Good topic with plenty of supportive case studies!

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