Most of the time, students from Asia and Africa tend to move to universities in western countries (USA, UK, Australia, etc) for their higher education. Besides having to deal with acculturation issues and culture shock, students from other cultures eventually find that there are also differences in the education system they have to deal with.
The tragedy, however, is that many students are unaware that most of the problems they start to face are a result of cultural differences. Instead, they think that their lecturers/supervisors are being evasive, unhelpful or even worse, racist! These misunderstandings can eventually lead an international student to feel unsupported and abandoned which then affects their academic performance, leading to worry, depression and fear that they are now unable to meet the high expectations of their family who have invested all their savings in their education.
Universities also lose out as student retention numbers become an issue. Lecturers and staff develop the opinion that international students can be “difficult”, and once again are not aware that cultural factors are in play.
The early work of Hofstede and Trompenaars have given us models of explaining how cultures are different. Here are a couple of the cultural differences that can affect teaching and learning :
Hierarchy vs Equality : Teachers from hierarchical cultures tend to expect students to behave in certain ways so that they show respect for their teachers. Students expect teachers to be the experts and to give them the information they need. Debate and discussion between students and teachers may not be encouraged as much as can be seen as a lack of respect for the teacher to question/challenge what they are saying. This may result in a tendency towards rote learning. In cultures which favour equality, teachers function also as facilitators and expect discussion and debate from students. Students learn more by questioning and discussing.
Individualism vs Communitarianism : The education system in western countries is generally influenced by individualism. Teachers mostly expect their students to be as independent as possible and will only provide essential guidance and information to get them started in their assignments and study. Students are also expected to work independently and not be seen to be collaborating with other students to copy their work or their ideas. Students who come from community-oriented cultures where group collaboration is normal may struggle in western institutions if they are unaware that their teachers/lecturers generally may not be as accessible or supportive as they would normally expect. Some students may also not understand the way tutorial classes run and may be hesitant to speak up and participate if they are not used to doing so in their home country. However, students may be marked down due to lack of participation in tutorial groups as they may not have the courage or skills to put their opinion forward boldly in a group.
Learning styles can also be influenced by culture. Students from certain cultures may learn best by observing and then doing. Other students prefer verbal instructions. Some others prefer visual/written instructions. This can be seen, for example, when lab assistants complain that some international students expect them to demonstrate the experiment for them, and they wrongly assume that the students are expecting the lab assistants to do the work for them. However, it could be that these students come from cultures where they learn by watching their parents or teachers do the task first before they try it themselves.
Therefore the different learning styles can be :
- Show me and I’ll learn
- Tell me and I’ll learn
- Give me the instructions to read, and I’ll learn
What then can universities do to deal with these diverse approaches to teaching and learning? I would suggest the following :
1) Provide support for international students upon arrival and throughout the initial months in the form of induction seminars on cultural differences, the institution’s education system and expectations, etc. Also counselling and coaching can be helpful for students who are struggling.
2) Provide cultural workshops/training sessions for staff and faculty members.
In addition, secondary schools and colleges that have twinning programmes with universities abroad can also provide training for teachers so that they are aware of the cultural differences in the education system and can better prepare their students at home before they go abroad.
What can universities gain from their diverse student population? There is much to learn from how different cultures “do” education. Teachers who balance their roles as experts and facilitators and students who learn to work independently but also know the value of teamwork and collaboration will surely achieve balance and avoid any unhelpful extremes.
Students & teachers need to be able to deal with the complexities of globalisation and life that is becoming increasingly complex. Universities play a key role in the formation of our future leaders and cultural differences need to be understood and also leveraged (see Philippe Rosinski’s books) in order to stay competitive and effective.