Teaching East-Asian Students: Some Observations

Swee-Hoon Chuah
Nottingham University Business School
Published October 2010

Dr Chuah was the winner of the Economics Network's Outstanding Teaching Award for 2009.

The University of Nottingham has a campus in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and another in Ningbo, China, in addition to its campuses here in the UK. As a lecturer in the Business School, which has a presence in all three locations, I have had the chance to teach Malaysian and Chinese students who are here in the UK as foreign students, as well as back home in their respective countries, where they are not foreign to the location, but still “foreign” to the Western system of education. This (plus the fact that I am myself a Malaysian of Chinese descent who has been a foreign student in Western institutions) has enabled me to make some interesting observations, which I share in this essay.

I would like to point out from the outset that by no means do my observations apply to all Malaysian and Chinese students. I have taken the liberty of making broad generalisations, which are difficult to avoid in an essay of this sort.  

Quiet and passive

East-Asian, particularly Chinese, students are often depicted as being quiet and passive in the classroom. This has generally also been my experience of them, although I fully appreciate why they are so. Their learning strategies are very different from Western students, who are encouraged from young to be analytical and critical. East-Asian students learn by listening; they want to fully absorb and understand what is being taught. They don’t feel that they have the “right” to question what is being taught until they have completely understood all aspects of it. Moreover, they avoid being critical out of respect for the teacher, so that the teacher will not lose “face” in front of other students, and to preserve harmony in the classroom, so that everything runs smoothly. There is also an element of preserving their own “face”, in case they are mocked for asking a “stupid” question.

However, I believe that a large part of their reserve is due to their lack of confidence in conversing in English. I have observed that, back home in their respective countries, these students are not as quiet and passive as they are here. Hands come up more often and responses are shot out more readily. When surrounded by their own countrymen, they are more confident and less shy of making mistakes when speaking in English. So, while learning strategies inculcated from birth may take some time to adapt, in the meantime, lecturers here in the UK can try and encourage these students to participate by creating an environment in which they feel supported and encouraged, not only by the lecturer but also by their fellow students, to express themselves in English. Small group teaching is probably the ideal environment for this.

Dependent on lecturers

Compared to Western students, East-Asian students are more dependent on their lecturers. Pursuant to a more individualistic culture, Western children are considered adult when they turn eighteen, leave home and become responsible for themselves. East-Asian children, however, hailing from collectivistic cultures, remain “children” in the eyes of the older generation and are treated as such until the day they marry and move away. So, although they may be of the same age as their Western counterparts when they come to university, in terms of self-perception as well as in experience, they remain child-like. Their dependence on their parents when at home immediately transfers to their lecturers when away from home. They expect their lecturers to be substitute parents and to help them whenever needed and solve problems for them.

For this same reason, they find it a struggle to take complete responsibility for their own learning. For example, more than Western students, they expect the lecturer to tell them exactly which pages to read in exactly which books, exactly what to include in an essay or exactly how to structure the essay. Due to their shyness in the classroom, they usually tend to seek one-to-one attention for the above. As such, they are often perceived by Western lecturers to be rather demanding. But one must appreciate that, in their own culture, it is completely natural to expect these things of a lecturer. In their eyes, a Western lecturer can appear uncaring and unhelpful who tries to enforce independent learning on them. But as they grow more accustomed to the Western education system, these students do eventually learn to stand on their own two feet; it will be one of the most important life lessons learnt during their university years, far beyond the knowledge they came to acquire. However, to ensure that their initial contact with Western lecturers is not too disappointing, their expectations need to be set right from the outset. Perhaps as part of orientation week, a session can be organised for foreign students, to open their eyes to those issues they may find a challenge in their new environment.

Focused on grades

Most East-Asian students who come to Western universities are self-financing. In the UK, universities charge foreign students whatever the market will bear. These fees – around £10,000 per year here at the Business School – are very high, particularly in the context of developing countries such as Malaysia and China. However, in these cultures, education is regarded as the best asset one can have. Parents willingly pour their lifetime’s savings into their children’s education, the expectation being that a Western education will give their children a head start in their careers and enable them to rise quickly in terms of position and income.

In many such families, parents see investing in their children’s education as an investment in their own future. The pressure of these expectations means that these students are often very diligent and work really hard. They actually do all their recommended readings; when you get a student asking you what lines 4 and 5 in paragraph 3 of page 10 means or how to interpret diagram 2 in page 21, chances are, that’s an East-Asian student! They are very meticulous in making sure they completely understand the topic. As a lecturer, I am always struck by how motivated and how singled-minded most of these students are to perform well, that is, to get good grades. But this single-mindedness has its downsides.

One downside is that they seem to think that performing well is a zero-sum game. I notice that they do not readily share information. Once I had a Malaysian student come up to me after a seminar session and ask me a really good question. When I asked why she did not raise it during the class, she replied “…because then the others would also know the answer”. Another downside to their pursuit of good grades is that they ignore their own enjoyment. They do not usually partake in social events, in fact, they almost feel guilty if they allow themselves to have fun, as they would be “wasting” their time and their parents’ hard-earned money. So, although they come for a “Western” education, the only things they actually learn are those taught in lectures. Their worldview remains pretty much the same as before, their horizons not really expanded. Their only priority is to perform well in assessments; everything else takes a back seat. This is such a shame, to have come all this way and paid all this money, only to have the “same old, same old” routine. They should be encouraged to immerse themselves as much as possible in local culture.

Lack of awareness of plagiarism

The pressure to perform has an even darker side: sometimes it can lead to fraud in the writing of essays and examinations. Financial pressures may be one of the side factors causing plagiarism to be more of a problem among these students, but the main factor is an innocent one: they simply do not understand that it is wrong. It is the Western worldview that plagiarism is morally wrong because it constitutes a violation of the author (Kolich 1983). But to these overseas students, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. They want to use an author’s work because it is very good but their English is not good enough to paraphrase what the author has said, so the practical solution is just to copy chunks of it. They do not understand they are committing fraud; they do not mean to.

These students just need time to get used to the idea that a practice which has never really caused a big fuss back home is a big no-no here. Moreover, as their English improves or as their confidence in their English improves, they will move away from this. In the meantime, the most effective method to ameliorate plagiarism is the good, old sanctioning approach. Appealing to moralistic Western principles as to why it is wrong to plagiarise may not be effective as these students may not share these principles. But they will all understand and respond if clearly explained that plagiarism breaks the rules and when rules are broken, harsh consequences will arise, adversely affecting their marks and even their enrolment.

Rewarding experience

Most of my observations above stem from cultural differences and such differences are only to be expected. For Western lecturers, taking the time to understand where these students are coming from (both literally and figuratively) usually leads to a better understanding of their actions, which can help put things in perspective and enable both parties to work something out satisfactorily. Once this effort is made, teaching these students is a rewarding experience.

I admire these students because they are brave and enterprising; how many Western students would go to China and do a degree completely in Chinese? I find them interesting and refreshing; they come at things from different, new angles and can present eye-opening observations or ask really difficult questions that challenge my old, fixed ways of viewing certain topics or issues. And despite paying huge fees, they do not see themselves as paying customers as others are wont to do; they remain respectful and appreciative of their lecturers' efforts.