Be sensitive to Chinese minds

June 23, 2000


Pat Leon talks to Yvonne Turner about the classroom culture shocks thatChinese students suffer here.


If Britain wants to attract foreign students, lecturers must understand their education and social background better.


Tony Blair took the opportunity of the first state visit to China by a British prime minister in October 1998 to announce an easing of visa requirements for students wishing to study in the United Kingdom. The decision was more than a sweetener to the Chinese government after the western cold-shoulder following the Tiananmen Square massacre of students ten years earlier. He was staking the UK's claim to the thriving market in overseas students.

China is an obvious target for the UK, with the ruling party's more open-door policy towards the West, the handover of Hong Kong and the near-collapse of the Southeast Asian economies, from which many students were drawn. China has also announced it plans to double the number of students it sends abroad by 2010.

Overseas students are lucrative business for universities and international offices have never been busier. Overseas students pay on average Pounds 6,550 a year in fees, but their very presence in the UK has spin-offs for the local economy. Then there is the question of influence. People educated here are more inclined to look kindly towards their alma mater in forging business, trade and political links.

The number of Chinese students coming to Britain has more than doubled since 1995 from 2,368 to 6,095 in 1999. Most of these are postgraduates but a growing number are undergraduates. This is good news for Britain, but can universities be sure that Chinese students who find themselves in a country they have only read about or seen in films are happy?

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Chinese students often feel isolated and lonely. One reason is because they are used to a higher degree of personal and academic support from academics and administrators.

Yvonne Turner, senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire business school, thinks that the UK needs to realise that educating foreign students is not a one-way process. "The UK's share of the international student market is falling. If we want to attract students from abroad we need to be sensitive to their culture to ensure they get the best out of the learning experience here," she says.

"Many universities are experimenting in orientation and support programmes for Chinese and other overseas students, but they should extend further to the curriculum and to course design."

Turner has conducted comparative research on the Chinese and United Kingdom education system and highlighted a number of differences.

"Pre-revolutionary China had a long tradition of sending its young people abroad to acquire an international education. Deng Xiao Ping and other national revolutionary leaders studied in the United States, Japan, France or the UK. With the closing off of China in the 1960s, academic exchanges were limited to small numbers of the party elite. The beginning of the reform process in 1978 altered that picture."

In terms of teaching practice, the reforms have created a paradox. Whereas the cultural revolution of 1966-76 overturned traditional forms of solitary, competitive and rote learning in favour of the collective, the reform process resurrected them. Even the classroom layout in China, with its rows of desks and a blackboard, is reminiscent of pre-1970 UK. This contrasts with a shift in the West towards group work, continuous assessment, independent learning and open debate. Classroom layout has become circle-shaped with either a single round table or clusters of tables.

Turner and Amy Acker, an English language lecturer from the US who is doing doctoral research with the University of Bristol, are conducting a ten-year project with a small group of students at the private Beijing INTI Management College. The students have been on a UK degree scheme, and the project looks at how the education environment shapes their choices. They are supplementing the information with interviews with Chinese students and other international students who have spent a semester in the UK.

In the first phase, participants in Beijing were asked to tell their education history. They were very revealing about what Chinese students found most disturbing about the UK teaching style. "In seminars and lectures in the UK, students are asked to participate and share opinions. Many of our interviewees were worried about losing face," says Turner. "They are used to the teacher speaking and the students listening. This follows the Confucian master/disciple pattern. Asking questions or venturing an opinion is discouraged. The lecturer may ask favoured students a factual question but in a viva style. Should the student give the wrong answer they will receive some form of rebuke, punishment or ridicule."

Chinese students are used to copying notes verbatim from the blackboard and relying on learning from one text. They can be bewildered by basic skills, such as organising matrix notes or revision aids, that UK students take for granted. Group work presents the students with their biggest cultural challenge. Interviewees saw it as "just playing, not learning" and found the experience intimidating.

In a society where student entry to courses is by selection and streaming takes place every semester, the idea that it was technically possible for all students to achieve equally well or badly went against the competitive grain. Chinese students are used to homework. They are not accustomed to assessed course work, however, and can view it as an obligatory chore that pales in significance to the final exam, which is typically fact-based with lots of multiple-choice questions. "Writing, in the form of how to style, structure and present a piece of writing, is not taught. The emphasis is on calligraphy," says Turner.

Therefore, students are unlikely to have encountered essay-writing to any extent, certainly not the 3-5,000-words typical of undergraduate courses in the UK. Nor will they have had any experience of using references or multiple sources of information. Responses to questions are more likely to be in the form of memorised sections of text.

The pressure on students to perform is very strong and a good student would expect to receive grades of A/B or 80 to 100 per cent, with a pass mark set at 60 per cent. It is extremely hard, therefore, to persuade a student that C is an average grade or that 50 per cent is not bad or average for a piece of work, says Turner.

"As getting into university is so difficult it is virtually unheard of for a student to fail, and should this happen it is associated with a significant personal set-back or illness." Students are allowed multiple opportunities to retake examinations and this does not affect their progress to the next year. Some students in the UK may not take the first attempt at an exam seriously and regard it as a practice run.

In the UK, motivation derives from exam and course work performance. For the Chinese, the pressure is intangible, connected with "face", peer, family and social expectations.

The adjustments that Chinese students have to make to study in the West are many. The British Council has recently launched a campaign selling UK education around the slogan "The best you can be". But if universities are as persuaded as Tony Blair of the benefits of recruiting overseas, they need to get a further message across: that students' experience in the UK is the best it can be.

Yvonne Turner is presenting a paper on Chinese students at the European Learning Styles Information network conference at the University ofHertford campus on June 26 and .

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