Teaching and Learning in the U.S. and China – Jess Hench

Before the trip to China, I interviewed three people affiliated with the School of Education at the College of William and Mary.  Two professors and a student provided insight as to teaching and learning practices in the U.S., how internationalization impacts education, and the collaborative relationships between professors and students.

In China, I observed presentations at the universities about teaching and learning practices, and I also had the chance to interview several students.  I asked them questions about their career foci, their goals after graduation, their preparation for college, and the structure of their courses and studies.  I also asked them about their relationships with their professors.  This information complements what I learned in the U.S. interviews by providing another perspective on teaching and learning practices in higher education.

Higher Education in the United States


Dr. Mike DiPaola observes as students lead a ‘graffiti’ session during his Educational Leadership course.


Collaboration is a key component in most graduate programs in the U.S..  At the College of William and Mary School of Education, professors provide opportunities for students to interact with one another, engage in meaningful discussions, and even lead the class.


Students actively participate in Dr. Kyung-Hee Kim’s Research Methods class.





Dr. Pamela Eddy is a professor at The College of William and Mary School of Education in the Higher Education program.  I filmed clips of Dr. Eddy discussing how internationalization has impacted her teachingShe also described the structure of her classes, use of collaboration and discussion, and why she teaches the way she does. In this video, Dr. Pam Eddy speaks about the use of collaboration in her pedagogy.

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 Dr. Eddy’s teaching style reflects the literature on adult learning theory.  Gergen (1995, p.34) suggests, “One learns through engaging, incorporating, and critically exploring the views of others, and new possibilities of interpretations are open through the interaction.”  The higher education classrooms in the U.S. allow for this engagement, incorporation, and exploration of other views.


Dr. Pam Eddy teaches a graduate course at William & Mary

Some use of lecture is necessary, as professors communicate new information to students.  Students take notes, many using laptop computers, and students also interact frequently with the professors during the lectures.  Students are welcome to ask questions, give examples, and share additional knowledge with the class.



One of Dr. Eddy’s courses is titled Educational Policy: Analysis and Development for graduate students in the Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership (EPPL) program.  In this course, students learn about the ways in which educational policy is created, implemented, followed, and amended in the United States and in the state of Virginia.  Each year, Dr. Eddy schedules a field trip for her class to visit the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C., where students visit the Board of Education, the House of Representatives, and other sites to learn about educational policy from the people who are involved in it daily.  This provides an opportunity for students to establish networks, bring their reading and assignments to life, and to understand how the subject matter translates from what is being learned in the classroom to what takes place daily in the field.




Tehmina Khwaja is a student in the EPPL Higher Education Administration doctoral program at the College of William and Mary School of Education.  She is a Fulbright Scholar from Pakistan.  In our filmed interview, she spoke about the ways in which internationalization has greatly impacted her academic career and her life.

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Dr. Leslie Grant is a professor at the College of William and Mary School of Education who teaches courses in the EPPL program.  In the interview I filmed, she gives details about how her classes are structured.  Dr. Grant uses a great deal of discussion, collaboration, and practicing what is taught during her courses.YouTube Preview Image


Dr. Grant agrees that this is a global world we are living in, and our teaching and learning must reflect this trend.  She has visited China on multiple occasions and had the opportunity to observe classrooms.  Dr. Grant described the very large classrooms that consist of mostly lecture, but also some integration of group work.


Dr. Leslie Grant interacts with students as they participate in small group discussions.

She especially likes the idea of demonstration lessons as she saw them used in Chinese teacher preparation programs.  “A student or master teacher may demonstrate a lesson in front of a group of children, while other pre-teachers observe.  Then they come back and talk about that lesson.”


Dr. Grant with a PhD student during an awards ceremony

In the U.S. students have field experiences, so they work with university faculty, learn about methods for instructing students and assessing students, then they go work with someone in the schools and see that person teach.


Dr. Grant described the role of university faculty in the U.S. as being focused on teaching, research, and service.  Part of all three of those areas is engaging students here at the university in each of those areas. She believes it is important to interact with those students, learn about their interests, and help connect them to opportunities.  She says, “One of the characteristics of a really good teacher is one who has a good relationship with their students.  This is very important at the higher education level, to have positive, productive relationships with one another.  As faculty, it is our responsibility to cultivate those relationships by getting to know our students.”



Higher Education in China


Beijing Normal University

Chen Jie, a student at Beijing Normal University (BNU), was quite surprised to learn that we call our professor by his first name.  She said they would never do that in China.  She also explained to me that the relationship between students and faculty is very formal.  Professors teach the courses, and the students are subordinate to the professors.  In our culture, on the other hand, and particularly in the Higher Education program, we interact with professors on quite another level, as my U.S. interviews suggest.

It is evident that education is highly valued in China.  Many people have referred to Confucius and other early teachers, and it is clear that learning and intellect have been an integral part of the culture for all the thousands of years of China’s history.

Dr. Linyuan Deng told us that they are changing the way they teach counseling and teaching to more closely resembles western education.  Still, the most common teaching method is mostly lecture.  The Ministry of Education has a lot of control over universities. Also, the school has three functions:  teaching, research, and service; these are the same three functions of higher education in the United States.  Dr. Deng also expressed that students often feel depressed in their first year of college.  They do not have clear aims, and they do not know what they will do when they graduate.

Shaanxi Normal University has a rich history but is also growing rapidly and attempting to modernize its curriculum.  The new campus demonstrates the desire to be larger and more prominent and to serve more students.  By speaking with students, however, I get the sense that maybe the university is growing quickly but might not have a clear vision of where it is going.


Students at Shaanxi Normal University

My classmate, Debi, and I interviewed four female graduate students who are working on master’s degrees in Higher Education.  They seem to enjoy their program and their university.  The problem I observed, however, is that the higher education program is quite new and may therefore be somewhat underdeveloped.  These four girls are studying higher education, but they could not articulate a clear reason for studying this field or a sense of what their careers might look like in this field.  In fact, they really had no idea what types of jobs might exist in higher education, as their institutions are primarily run by the government.  They seem quite lost as far as what will come next after they graduate.

The students also have very vague ideas as to what they will study for their master’s theses.  I asked if their professors help them to figure out topics or help them learn about what types of career opportunities they might aim for.  There is hardly any help in these areas from the professors.  They will likely research whatever their professors research, and there is no guidance or practical experience for them to gain career knowledge.


Our group sat in on a sociology class at Shaanxi Normal University

One of the students I spoke with in the Sociology class said she studied Russian as her undergraduate major.  I asked her what made her interested in Russian. The truth is, she does not like Russian at all and has no interest in the language or the country.  She wanted to study English, but her test scores were not high enough, so she was left with Russian.  This suggests that there may be millions of students in China who are studying subjects that do not interest them and that they may never pursue further after college.  The girls at Shaanxi Normal are studying higher education, but it sounds likely that they will not be able to get into careers in the field.

It seems odd to me that students work so hard to earn high scores on the college entrance exam to get into the best universities, but then the universities do not seem to be seriously preparing them for real-world careers.  It seems to be education for its own sake.


East China Normal University’s new campus

East China University of Political Science and Law also gives the impression of great progress and development and a strong focus on education, yet I wonder if the large buildings and perfect landscape mask some possible flaws in the education system.  Students at East China Normal University (ECU) also expressed the concern that they might not be prepared for the working world once they finish their programs.  Chinese higher education is growing rapidly, with about 30 million students enrolled (Wang & Liu, 2010).  While universities are expanding and enrolling more students, the curriculum seems to remain shallow and underdeveloped.  What looks impressive on the surface may be missing substance underneath.

I think that China has great potential for education, but there are key elements missing.  Namely, the practical side of education is lacking.  As the students shared with me, they spend time in their graduate programs learning about theory in education, but they do not have practical experience to prepare them for careers in the field.

An Fangqi is a graduate student studying Educational Economy and Administration at ECU.  She said to me with frustration, “What you have learned in university is not related to what you are doing.  You find you are


Li Peiwei, An Fangqi, and Liu Xiuxia at East China Normal University

wasting your time in university.  We just sit and listen to the teacher tell us blah blah blah, and we take notes and remember and take the exam.  Then we find what we have learned can’t solve problems in the real world.”

 Liu Xiuxia is earning a masters degree in Human Resource Development.  She has had more practical experiences than her peers in education programs.  She was able to take part in a national conference, do field research in local companies, and even have internships.

Li Peiwei is studying Pre-School Education at ECU.  She explains that advanced schooling is not necessary for teaching the early grades.  “A bachelor’s degree is enough to be a kindergarten teacher; it is easy to be a kindergarten teacher.” She, however, wishes to continue her schooling.  She explains that most of her lessons are theory based.  “Theory is very beautiful,” says Peiwei, “but it is hard to apply theory to practice.”



Eric, the Chinese student I met in the EF course, says he has been learning English for ten years, yet his conversational English is still developing.  We have learned that, although Chinese schools begin teaching English in the early years, students are only taught through reading and writing.  Teachers do not speak English, and students are not given an opportunity to hear the language or practice speaking it.  Now there are many adults who speak in broken English, even though they have spent years studying the language.  {Click here to learn more about English language learning in China.}



Jian Hua, our Chinese tour guide, gave us an amazing description of studying from 5am to 11pm during high school, which is entirely different from the U.S. structure.  Chinese students focus entirely on passing the GaoKao, the College Entrance Examination, which determines their entire future.  Students also decide earlier which field they wish to pursue, and they are essentially locked into that decision from that point forward.  Test scores determine everything, yet as Jian Hua told us, he barely remembers anything he learned.  It was strictly rote memorization for the test, but not practical knowledge to be applied to life and the world.


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Photo courtesy of Beverly Wang, Chinese student at W&M


Here, high school students in China spend long hours in the school.  They wear uniforms and have regulated haircuts.  Their stacks of books and papers reflect the rote memorization and rigorous studying of material that characterizes Chinese education.





I met a student on the plane on the way home, and we had a Graduation_Thinker_LuMaxArtgreat conversation that further enhanced what I learned in China.  Yan Feng, from China, is senior at Michigan State University.  He was a student at a university in China for one year before transferring to the U.S..  Yan Feng noted that students in the at MSU seem more serious than his classmates in China. “Students work really hard.  In China, the work is not as serious, not as demanding.” He also explained that there is more practical experience available in the U.S..  “Students in China do not come out prepared for work,” he told me.  Yan Feng’s friends who attend Chinese universities have no idea what they want to do when they finish.  “The students in Michigan mostly know what they want to do when they finish.”

In sum, there are many differences between the higher education systems of China and the U.S., yet we can learn a great deal from each other.  An interesting idea from adult learning theory suggests that “the ways in which one learns are determined to a large extent by the nature of the society at any particular time” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p.5).  It is clear that societal influences in China and the U.S. are quite different from each other.  China is led by the Communist Party politically, and it has over 5,000 years of history as a nation and as a culture.  The way lessons are taught in schools largely reflects these aspects of the society in which they take place.  In contrast, the United States is only 237 years old as a nation, is run by a democracy, and was founded on change, freedom, and innovation.  With China and the U.S. having such vastly different societal contexts, it is no wonder that education looks quite different as well.

One pair of authors argue that Chinese education is based on the philosophy that people are innately bad (Zhang & Zhou, 2011).  For this reason, the educational system reflects suspicion rather than trust, contempt rather than respect, inhibition rather than encouragement, and criticism rather than praise in order to keep students subordinate and professors in control (Zhang & Zhou, 2011).  This does resonate with what I observed in the Chinese classrooms, yet I can also see that a shift is taking place.  The education system in China has a long history of functioning under the premise of the Instruction Paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995), by which the role of education is to pass knowledge from professor to student.   Under the Learning Paradigm, however, “a college’s purpose is not to transfer knowledge but to create environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves” (Barr & Tagg, 1995, p.15).  As we learned from Dr. Deng, Chinese universities are beginning to make this shift toward the learning paradigm.

As the world becomes increasingly globalized, there are more opportunities for interaction between the countries, like our visit to Chinese institutions.  We were able to share our ideas on teaching and learning with them, and they were able to share their ideas with us.  Over time, our educational systems will continue to blend and take on elements of the other in ways that will, hopefully, lead toward the best education for all world citizens.







Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995).  From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education.  Change, 27(6), pp. 12-25.

Gergen, K. J. (1995).  Social construction and the educational process. Hillsdale, NJ:  Erlbaum.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007).  Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco, CA:  Wiley & Sons.

Wang, X., & Liu, J., (2010).  China’s higher education expansion and the task of economic revitalization.  International journal of higher education research, 62(2), pp. 213-229.

Zheng, Z., & Zhou, X., (2011).  Developing effective learning and teaching in higher education.  Journal of language teaching and research, 2(3), pp. 709-713.