As travel restrictions continue to affect the study plans of thousands of students from China, UTS is helping students to continue their studies by providing enhanced online materials. But how can we ensure that they still have a fulfilling learning experience? 

Research published by Rainbow Tsai-Hung Chen from National Chengchi University has focused on Chinese international students experiences of online learning and constructivist, learner-centred pedagogy. Her findings have revealed issues that can arise when transposing seemingly universal teaching concepts onto different cultural contexts. 

Conceptions of knowledge 

Chen’s analysis of Chinese students’ perceptions of education reveals differing expectations of learning. In a Chinese educational environment, students often expect to learn a specific, relatively self-contained body of knowledge with limited connection to their personal experience. In contrast, many Australian courses encourage learners to interpret knowledge through the perspective of their own experiences – building upon their personal experiences to create understanding through personal reflection and interactions with their peers. 

In the Australian context, successful students are ‘active’ learners, interacting on discussion boards and reflecting upon their personal learning journeys. We may forget that some international students need explicit guidance to engage confidently in these practices and achieve academic success. Chen suggests that to be successful in the Australian educational environment, students must emphasise who they are and how they are learning, rather than what they are learning. 

Chen suggests that to be successful in the Australian educational environment, students must emphasise who they are and how they are learning, rather than what they are learning. 

The role of the teacher 

This foregrounding of knowledge in the Chinese context is personified in conceptions of the teacher – the students in Chen’s research saw the teacher’s expertise and interpretations as the key to learning. Students accustomed to the Chinese educational environment may not experience learner-centred practices as empowering. Instead, they may experience this as a teacher absence that, in Chen’s study, resulted in students feeling anxious and lost. 

The role of the student 

This difference in educational approach extends to student perceptions of themselves and their role in the learning process. Students coming from the Chinese education system may downplay their expertise, so as to demonstrate humility. A successful student is seen to study course materials closely, avoiding asking questions or expressing opinions that may clash with standardised responses. Bringing this approach into a Western learning environment could result in being labelled unmotivated or a ‘passive’ learner. 

Helping Chinese students succeed 

Be explicit 

If, as Chen suggests, Chinese international students are sometimes disadvantaged by the assumptions behind constructivist pedagogy, the most simple way to overcome this is to be explicit about what they need to do to be successful. 

The Canvas Get Started module, introductory emails and announcements should tell students what they will be learning. But explaining how they should demonstrate their active learning, and how the subject’s knowledge is impacting them personally, is equally critical. Providing examples of good reflective practice and suggesting tools like CIC’s AcaWriter might also assist them in engaging in reflective writing

Build a relationship 

Although teachers in China are highly respected, students do of course directly address and question teachers throughout the learning process. Chen found that the students in her studies were only uncomfortable asking their teachers questions online when they felt they didn’t really know them. Engaging with learners through short weekly videos, sending personal and friendly emails regularly and scheduling synchronous online video meetings could all alleviate the anxieties that might preclude these students from engaging with you. Check out the LX.lab’s guide to creating community and connection for more ideas. 

Build community 

Learning is social and all students rely upon networks of peers to aid their learning. However, Chen found that the online mode could make it difficult for students to feel connected to a learning community. As international students, many Chinese learners experience an additional barrier due to their English level and lack of familiarity with Western modes of teaching. To overcome these problems, it’s important to foster a sense of belonging among students in an online context. 

Think about your language use 

Finally, it’s important to remember that when students come to university, they learn new knowledge and skills and also a new language to describe and explain the subject fields they are engaged in. This is especially true for international students, so avoid multi-word verbs, colloquialisms and culture-specific references whenever possible. For more guidance on this, see our guide for using clear language

LX.lab support 

Need more help? The LX.lab’s Covid-19 Toolkit is aimed at teaching staff who need to modify their subject’s learning materials for students who have been affected by travel restrictions. 

A selection of Chen’s research 

Chen, R. T-H., Bennett, S., & Maton, K. (2007). The online acculturation of Chinese student ”sojourners”

Chen, R. T-H., Bennett, S., & Maton, K. (2008). The adaptation of Chinese international students to online flexible learning: Two case studies

Chen, R. T-H., & Bennett, S. (2012). When Chinese learners meet constructivist pedagogy online

Maton, K. & Chen, R. T-H. (2020) Specialization codes: Knowledge, knowers and student success

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