Author: Wuriyeti (Harriet WU)
Advising Chinese students is a hot topic in many western countries, and NACADA even published a book, Advising International Chinese Students: Issues, Strategies, and Practices, to discuss the characteristics of Chinese students and the challenges they are facing. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Education (2020), the number of Chinese students studying abroad in 2018 reached 662,100, exhibiting an increase of 8.83% compared to 2017. The New Oriental Education and Technology Group (2019), an official study abroad consulting company, also revealed that as of 2019 the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia remain first, second, and third choices for overseas study destinations. The number will certainly keep considerable growth in the future as overseas study education turns to a younger age trend. What kinds of learning behaviors do Chinese students have? Why are these learning behaviors so different from students in western countries? These are overwhelming challenges that academic advisors face when helping Chinese students.
Learning behaviors refer to the ways people study or learn or the series of actions people take to study or learn. Various factors (e.g. biological, psychological, social) could affect people’s learning behaviors (Pop, 2019). Specifically, cultural factors may have a significant effect on learning behaviors because individuals tend to behave differently in different cultures. Therefore, the study on learning behaviors should pay attention to their cultural backgrounds. The following section discusses three learning behaviors of Chinese students and analyzes cultural foundations behind them to provide academic advisors with a new perspective and help them understand Chinese students better.
Behavior 1: Reserved and Quiet Learners
Most westerners stereotype Chinese students as passive and silent learners (Chuah, 2010). In their minds, Chinese students seldom ask or answer questions in class. They respect teachers and never challenge teachers. In most cases, many westerners believe that Chinese students expect to find answers from their teachers. They remain silent even when teachers let them speak their minds freely. However, an understanding of cultural factors helps us to identify and address the limitations of such a stereotype.
In a country shaped by Confucianism for thousands of years, maintaining balance and remaining in harmony is the most important rule everyone should follow. The tradition of honoring and respecting the teacher is a close second. Due to education’s significant role in China’s history—particularly as a tool that served the ruling class—the tradition of honoring and respecting the teacher still influences society. As the old saying goes: Once you are his teacher, you are his father for your life.
Additionally, China’s historically exam-oriented methods are rooted in traditional views of education. Most Chinese people believe in the famous saying: Read a book a hundred times and you will see its meaning. Therefore, memorization continues to be the primary learning strategy in China. Consequently, Chinese students are good at rote learning and could memorize very detailed information such as dates, numbers, or names. These cultural factors can help explain why some Chinese are silent and shy in the classroom.
Contrary to western stereotypes, most Chinese students are very likely to ask questions or even share their opinions after class. An encouraging sign of culturally-informed pedagogy and support would be for professors, or teachers, to stay in the classroom for a while when the class ends and show students that you are ready to answer questions.
Behavior 2: Inexperienced in Critical Thinking
Another typical impression of Chinese students is that they are concerned more about test scores than the knowledge itself. They like standard answers and are not good at thinking independently. They feel awkward and uncomfortable when somebody disagrees with them and expresses different ideas in public. They are not good critical thinkers.
Cultural explanations behind this idea could be summarized from two aspects. First, Chinese traditional culture values induction and entirety more than deduction and analysis. In ancient China, scholars and thinkers usually paid attention to results or conclusions, not demonstration or proof. The whole society ignored the importance of thinking. Second, most Chinese people learned to be moderate, humble, and obedient during childhood. It supports the core element of Chinese traditional culture: harmony and the maintenance of balance. To keep balance, people should try to avoid extremes and hold a moderate attitude.
To help Chinese students improve their critical thinking ability, educators should take the responsibility to teach them independent thinking skills and encourage them to explore the truth. During group discussions or debates, in which most Chinese students are not keen to participate, it is important to create a harmonious atmosphere where they feel comfortable to share and talk. Giving every student a chance to express themselves is also very helpful.
Behavior 3: Relatively Weak Awareness of Rules
Westerners may also believe that most Chinese students do not care about school regulations or about their rights as students. They may not think deadlines are a big issue, believing that there is still room for change even when the deadline arrives. This may lead to plagiarism or cheating in exams. According to the Center for China & Globalization (2017), 32.57% of Chinese students were expelled from school because of academic dishonesty, up 8.01% from the previous year.
Historically, China was governed by ethical relations, not rules. In ancient China, people had to abide by the social norms of “ruler guides the ruled, father guides son, and husband guides wife.” Personal relations were more important than rules or laws in such a society built on networks. Further, Chinese culture emphasized status and rank, which led people to respect official status and power and show awe to authority but ignore ordinary people and rules or responsibilities. As a result, privilege resulted from these social norms and those with it were allowed to break the rules. Gradually, Chinese people became increasingly indifferent to rules and sometimes were not even aware that they were breaking them.
Professors and advisors should keep in mind that Chinese students are not deliberately committing plagiarism or cheating. They just simply do not realize it is wrong. It takes time for students to understand that some common practices or behaviors in China may cause big problems overseas. Professors and advisors would do well to explain the basic codes of conduct and western academic rules to Chinese students before they arrive on campus. Academic officers should regularly emphasize the importance of academic honesty and harsh consequences if students break the rules.
Finishing college is not easy, and you can imagine how difficult it is to complete the study taught in a different language. Chinese students’ learning behaviors influenced by Chinese traditional culture are quite different from western students and sometimes cause many troubles and misunderstanding. This paper explains three common learning behaviors of Chinese students to help educators in western countries think deeply behind their behaviors. Professors and advisors in western universities should give them more understanding and respect, not label them. Every advisor is responsible for sharing the academic moral codes of their university with Chinese students, teaching them effective learning strategies, and giving them academic and emotional support.
Wuriyeti (Harriet WU), MA
Academic Advisor/International Student Program Coordinator
The Center for Student Learning and Development
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The author would like to acknowledge the following scholars and their works who have contributed to the author’s success and this publication:
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