Chinese Students in the Classroom

April 9, 2014

Chinese undergraduate students face challenges in adapting to American classroom practices and expectations but draw on personal, social, institutional and technological resources to respond to these challenges, according to articles presented by Tang T. Heng, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, at last week’s American Educational Research Association annual meeting.

In her research, Heng seeks to move beyond what she describes as a discourse of “deficit” surrounding international students to one of “difference.” In other words, she argues that much of the rhetoric surrounding Chinese international students focuses myopically on challenges – such as low critical thinking skills, poor classroom participation, or inadequate English proficiency -- without adequately contextualizing the cultural reasons for those challenges and examining how students respond to them and, over time, change their attitudes and behaviors.

“Existing research tends to adopt one-off interviews or surveys that only describe students’ challenges or weaknesses, thus ignoring their contexts or framing their cultural background as baggage,” Heng writes in one of the two papers, titled “Different Is Not Deficient: How Context and Change Influence Mainland Chinese Undergraduates in U.S. Colleges.”

“This approach inadvertently leads to a deficit and essentialist perspective around Chinese students’ abilities, attitudes, and behavior; it also fails to recognize students’ perspectives or take into account their personal histories, sociocultural contexts, and agencies.”

Heng tracked 18 Chinese freshmen and sophomores at three different four-year institutions in New York City over the course of a year. All of the students were unmarried and under 20 years old, with no prior educational experience outside China. Heng interviewed the students at three points throughout the academic year – at the start and end of the fall semester and the end of the spring semester – and also collected four journal entries from each participant throughout the course of both semesters. She identified the following common challenges:

Writing: “Writing was hard to almost half of the participants not only because they had to write in a non-native language, but because they had to grapple with writing expectations different from China's,” Heng writes. “Essays were thrice as long, argumentative (rather than narrative) in style, and required linear argument development and inclusion of original ideas from a U.S. context.” 

Thinking: Students distinguished between thinking like an “Easterner” and a “Westerner,” associating the former with intuitive and contextual thinking and the latter with critical and logical thinking. Students reported that their prior educations, which rewarded memorization over analysis, had left them ill-prepared for critical thinking, and several students described a lack of a specific understanding of logical argumentation -- which one subject defined as the "step by step" development of ideas -- as one of the factors that made essay writing difficult.

Speaking: Students reported needing time to collect and translate their thoughts into English before speaking, and described difficulty with the kinds of quick interjections needed to participate in classroom discussions.  

Grappling with a new sociocultural context: Students reported unfamiliarity with classic texts, popular ideas or major historical events because they didn’t grow up in the U.S. As Heng wrote, quoting one of her subjects, “Many things that might seem like ‘common sense to [Americans] in daily life,’ took immense effort for participants to understand because it was ‘all new.’ ”

Finding balance: More than half the students reported facing a heavy workload, as they spent extra time reading texts “line by line” and consulting electronic dictionaries and writing multiple drafts of papers. Students were interested in making American friends, Heng said, but some lacked the time to do so. As one student told her, “I’m here to study, not simply for a degree, but here to understand the culture. But given my current state, I rarely go out to meet friends and most of my friends are Chinese. I have few foreign friends, I don’t have time to hang out with them.”

Heng found that students responded to these challenges through a combination of personal, social, institutional and technological resources. They put in many additional hours of work, reading and re-reading texts and making diagrams or outlines, with the idea that “practice made perfect.” They wrote down and memorized points they could say during class if the opportunity arose. They observed and imitated their American peers when it came to classroom participation. They relied on Chinese upperclassmen for advice on classes to take and faculty teaching styles.  They used the writing center -- all 18 of Heng’s subjects reported using the writing center -- and approached T.A.s or professors, hoping, Heng wrote, “that one-to-one communication would help make up for the lack of participation in class.” They used exercise at the campus recreational center or extracurricular activities as outlets to relieve stress. They used social media to make connections – another study presented at AERA found that for international students social media is more of a benefit than a distraction -- and learned which websites the savvy student might consult (including a couple, SparkNotes and, that faculty might not be the first to suggest).

In addition to tracking the students' responses to challenges, Heng also tracked their perceptions of those challenges over time, finding, for example, that participants seemed to grow more comfortable with speaking, with only two describing it as a major challenge by the third and final interview. “When I first arrived, I didn’t dare to speak up,” one student said. “I’d make sure I’ve formed an entire sentence with no grammatical mistakes before speaking. But now, I’m better.”

Students also reported gains in critical thinking, saying they were more questioning of the material that they read. 

"Above and beyond, it is pertinent to understand that abilities, attitudes, behaviors, and values are not static but can change in response to different contexts," Heng wrote in the conclusion to "Different Is Not Deficient." 

"Chinese students in this study reveal that they improved their responses accordingly to overcome their challenges. Some ways include: asking peers or professors for help, using institutional resources like writing centers, relying on their own experiences and psychological strength, and investing extra time into their problems. This effort results in many challenges diminishing over time, and also indicates that participants possess agency in actively making sense of their learning; they are not as deficient, passive, or unmotivated as the media and research portray.”

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