Workshop: Supporting our Chinese Learners – Tim Cooper

Earlier this year, in February (I know…I only managed to attend half, then had to teach, then had to catch the rest via a recording when I finally made time to!), I attended a fascinating TD session called Supporting our Chinese Learners by Tim Cooper who works for the university and who delivered this session of his especially for the ELTC. Here are my notes from it(/the recording).

Some statistics:

  • 1 in 5 students at the University of Sheffield are Chinese (!)
  • That’s 2/3 of the international student population
  • 150 nationalities are represented at the university, with the biggest representation being Chinese, mostly from the Eastern Seaboard area of China
  • China is the second largest economy and £100 million per year comes from Chinese students

Then we moved on to some history:

  • The cultural revolution impacted students’ parents and grandparents. People were stopped from being doctors (for example) and relocated to work on the land.
  • For a period of time there was of course also the one child policy

A result of these things is that Chinese students are under a lot of pressure to succeed from parents and family.

The social system in China and how it influences Chinese students’ behaviour in the UK both in and out of class

  • The three main doctrines are Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism
  • Due to the one child policy (in a generation since 1979, most families have been affected by the one child policy, with its consequences of gender imbalance and female infanticide – with the two child policy being introduced in 2016), being an only child, they are used to getting what they want and need. Away from that support system, often they want help, they need help, but they don’t ask for help. Silence does not always mean everything is well: among male Chinese students, the self-harm/suicide rate is increasing.
  • “guanxi” –> it’s not what you know but who you know: Chinese students rarely operate in isolation, especially females. They tend towards groups of three – one who is the best at English, one who is the most confident overall and one friend. Being collectivist, they find it difficult to do things as a single person. “Friendship groups” (like described above) work better for them than 1-1 buddy systems with home students or things of that nature.
  • “Saving face” – with friends, class, family, town, is very important. It is possible to lose face forever and no one wants that! This translates into fear of making mistakes/getting it wrong.
  • Young men tend to be clueless, young women tend to be more resourceful, as, if you are a – much-coveted – boy, everything is done for you while if you are a girl, not so!

 Chinese Education.

The system looks like this:

  • Kindergarten
  • Primary School (7am – 5pm)
  • Middle School (7am – 7pm, meal, homework)
  • High School (as above)

It is geared towards acquisition of knowledge and is heavily test-based, and obviously involves very long hours (poor teachers too!)

  • Entry into higher education is by way of the Gaokao (and a big exam is taken at the end of this high school). You need a high score to get into a good university. (It is a massive thing, parents come to see their kids off on big coaches to the test centre, there are armed police guards etc!)
  • Education is test-focused not critical thinking-focused.
  • Children are tested once a week from primary school upwards, so children always know their position in the class – top, bottom, etc.
  • The final two years of Gaokao preparation = fats, facts, facts + regurgitation of said facts.
  • In some cases, parents send their kids abroad to avoid Gaokao.
  • The Chinese system (all that testing!) may seem brutal to us but it is reassuring to them because they know where they stand.
  • Critical thinking and plagiarism don’t exist. Teachers speak truth, students write down and regurgitate truth.

Impacts on how they learn here:

  • They are unsettled by a (relative) lack of exams/testing here
  • Failure is confusing – a. “How am I failing when I have paid 20k to be here?” and b. “I didn’t know I was doing badly”
  • Regular little tests can be reassuring e.g. there was a big seminar group, issues with student participation; the teacher introduced a little 5 min multiple choice test done at the start of the lesson relating to previous content and the students were happier and more engaged afterwards, having spent a bit of time in their comfort zone
  • The issue isn’t that plagiarism is complex, it just has no meaning as a concept. “It’s not your own work” is meaningless to them. The reason so many Chinese students get done for cheating and there is a lot of collusion/unfair means is that they don’t understand it. One of Tim’s colleagues said “We are also good at cheating” – a consequence of Gaokao being such a big thing is that it’s a case of any means to an end.

With all of the above in mind, given that we have so many Chinese students here, we need to gain an understanding of where we are with them – their feelings and experiences. We have a big job to do, to meet them in the middle.

In 2012, Tim and colleagues did some focus groups and surveys with little samples, with the following findings:

  • Students tend to seek advice from a friend in the first instance rather than officially.
  • A high proportion of students ignore official university/departmental email. Email never got the same kind of traction in China as it did in the West. Email confuses them with regards to levels of formality required, they are not used to using it as a media. Most students (and staff over there!) use Wechat most of the time. So, at a networking event at Nanjing university, Tim noticed there was a lack of business cards being exchanged and instead it was QR codes, connecting via touching phones and usually/often there was a dancing panda involved! (Very different from “Dear Dr Soandso, it was great to meet you…”!)
  • Wechat is very informal but is used as a means of conveying everything. Emojis are used a LOT e.g. Tim sends a message saying “Shall we meet and discuss x” and the response might be a mouse blowing kisses. That doesn’t mean the person is blowing kisses, just the mouse, the person is just saying yes, great.

What does this mean for us?

  • Emails need to be brief and get to the point as quickly as possible, and ideally include a picture where possible.
  • Use transparent language e.g. “the document you need to open a bank account” not “bank letter”
  • Think about using a Wechat group to tell them when you have sent something important. NB Wechat is monitored in China. So in communication terms, great, but increasingly problematic.

Other findings from 2012:

  • Students can be reluctant to provide undeferential feedback – will always nod and say yes to “Do you understand xyz?” or “Is everything ok?” It means “I respect your authority and am listening (but not  necessarily understanding)”. So you need to find subtle ways of checking understanding. (At least this is something we as language teachers are good at generally!)
  • They are used to being monitored/recorded but this causes worries for example if someone suggests counselling to them – they will worry that it will end up on their academic record (MSc in Engineering, with mental health issues!) so you need to explain otherwise.

2015-2016 findings:

  • 60% of a statistically valid sample experienced difficulty with the expectation of expressing their opinions in class
  • 46% experienced some difficulty in complying with university plagiarism regulations
  • 46% experienced difficulty in working with other students in groups
  • Most students were expecting a more British experience or a warmer welcome from home students

=> It’s hard for them to adjust to independent study requirements at university as vs. reliance on teachers and textbooks (there, each subject has THE textbook). However, most students within the course of their studies will have a successful journey and they will get it, and appreciate it (e.g. critical reading etc) – they just need time to understand the system.

Things to consider:

  • Need to manage expectations with regards to support: the majority come here after 4 years of undergrad in China, aged about 22. During that 4 years, they will have had 24/7 access to a “fudaoyuan” (personal tutor/coach) – these are recent graduates on the bottom rung, who are given a work phone, and told be on on call at any time and to check up on charges regularly. E.g. a student forgets the due date of an assignment, they can call their fudaoyuan up at 1am to ask them; a student who is considering suicide might tell their fudaoyuan as the first port of call; a student who thinks they are pregnant and are worried the family will disown them etc will also call their fudaoyuan. So this is very different to “not after 5pm or at weekends”  We need to explain to students how it works, tell them not to panic if we defer availability, we WILL deal with something and deferring is not personal.
  • With regards to students “always going around in groups” and “always speaking Chinese” – they are far from home, they gravitate towards people in the same boat and agents often even put them on the same flight etc (and remember how you coped when you went to work abroad, at least initially!).
  • Need to make sure students get information about contraception etc. sensitively – local NHS here worked out that a spike in number of abortions was a spike in Chinese girls and approached the university about it. There is a lack of sex education over there and when they come over here they are no longer being watched and this is a consequence of that. There was a campaign about this but it got dropped unfortunately.
  • Whatever students’ IELTS score is when they arrive, it can drop/their language level can regress through lack of use.
  • If they are doing something wrong, we need to meet them half way and help them learn how to do things appropriately here.

Focusing on adaptation and integration:

  • social activities based on drinking generally have limited appeal
  • culture shock an issue – prolonged feeling of being an outsider/visitor
  • buddying schemes can be beneficial but “friendship groups” may work better
  • need to keep in mind Chinese vs. Western views of health and the body e.g. access to warm water is paramount for female students of reproductive age (to them, losing warm fluid = must replace it with warm fluid!) and there needs to be sensitivity around health issues
  • silence does not equal all is well (as mentioned earlier)
  • students are used to being given homework, can feel lost without it
  • they are under enormous pressure to succeed, consequences of failure are enormous
  • remember, in China, teachers do learning to you, here you have to do it yourself = a big adjustment to make

You can watch a video of the students themselves speaking here.

Finally, and very interestingly, we were given a photographic tour of a Chinese university campus:

Nanjing University, a top 3 or 4 university which has recently expanded with a brand new campus and is very modern:

  • The old entrance in town has philosophical writing of a big figure of that town. You go through that entrance into a campus, a bubble, a safe place. (So students are baffled by Sheffield, they think Glossop Road/West Street is “on campus”
  • Learning takes place in lecture theatres
  • Self study areas consist of rows of desks and chairs – no sofas etc
  • In luxury residences, there are 4 girls to a room. The room has bunks and desks. A thin curtain on the bunk is the only privacy. (Non-luxury = a dorm)
  • Cooking facilities are not important, you go to the canteen which is huge and has lots of choice. HOWEVER hot water dispensers are VERY important! (Lots of machines for that)
  • It is normal/acceptable to fall asleep in the library

Tim concluded by saying that three years ago, getting a degree in the UK was “the biz”, but this is starting to decline. In the world rankings we have slipped behind Australia to third place. So, we need to do more! 75% of students said they were “satisfied” but their expectations are low, so we do need to do more to improve their experience (- or help them improve their experience?) (and our ranking!).

 

 

 

 

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