The Joys of Learning the Micro Level Viewpoint: Interviewing Graduate Students in China and the U.S.

The Joys of Learning the Micro Level Viewpoint:

Interviewing Graduate Students in China and the U.S.

 As a former ESL teacher of international students, many of them Chinese, I experienced teaching students who had attended Chinese secondary schools.  I heard my Chinese students talk extensively about their secondary experiences: the teacher-focused classroom, the rote memorization, the cram schools to get ahead for the college entrance exam, and the late nights studying.  Their stories were quite different from their American counterparts.  Why so different?  Culture is reflected in the classroom. The Chinese way of learning in many institutions is attributed to Confucianism.  Confucianism sets the teacher as the focal point of the classroom—teacher-focused—teacher as the authoritative figure (Wenfeng & Gao, 2008).  As a result, Chinese learners have often been described as reserved or passive.  This is no wonder; a person experiences culture through the home country’s “control mechanisms—plans, recipes, rules, instructions” (Geertz, 1973, p. 44).  I thought we would be likely to hear, therefore, stories from the university students we would meet in China about their traditional Chinese classrooms as teacher-centered, text focused, heavy on rote memorization (Littlewood, 1999; Rao, 2002), a reflection of the values of Confucian China.  However, I learned that this kind of classroom is more likely seen primary and secondary levels.  During our educational trip to China, many of the students told us that the Chinese higher education system is quite different from secondary, or at least there are efforts to be different—to focus on communication and critical thinking.  Following are comments from a variety of graduate students from Beijing Normal University, Shaanxi Normal University (Xi’an), and East China Normal University (Shanghai), as well as comments for comparison from the College of William and Mary (Virginia, USA).

 Students’ descriptions of their learning in Chinese higher education.

At our first university visit (Beijing Normal University on March 1, 2013), I was fortunate to meet Miao Miao as my first Chinese conversation partner, because she provided a general overview of the difference in teaching and learning approaches in secondary and tertiary institutions in China.  First, we discussed the philosophy of secondary school teaching and learning.  Miao Miao pointed out that the teacher-focused Confucian philosophy of education is true for secondary schools.  She explained the practical reasons for this: in secondary, a good grade on the exam will dictate your university choices!

Miao Miao (Daisy) at Beijing Normal University; photo taken by Sean Bates


In the secondary and primary schools…the teachers have more knowledge than the students.   Also, the school leader wants the students to get a higher score on the exam…  If you have a high primary school score, then you can get into a better secondary school…so you can get a higher score in the university exam [to get into university] (see clip “Miao Miao (Daisy) discussing the transition”).

 YouTube Preview Image

The competition is steep because only a certain score will get you into university.Miao Miao agrees with the teacher-centered approach to learning: “The effective way to teach the students is to let the students know so much knowledge – the teacher talks and the students listen. That’s my experience”.

Yet, Miao Miao explained that the teacher-centered approach is true for secondary, but painted a different picture of tertiary education.  The goals of teaching are different between secondary and tertiary levels: in Chinese secondary school, a student’s job is to listen and do well on the exam; in tertiary, the student’s job is to think.  She explained, “The university atmosphere is different from secondary and primary school. The professors will let you learn by yourself…In the universities, the teacher wants the students to think and to express their ideas.”  I was surprised to hear about the critical thinking and collaboration that the professors ask university students to conduct.  Miao Miao explained that in her university classes, professors provide the topic, and the students find material on the topic and devise talking points and questions to discuss in class (that sounds like our classes!). In her classes, she also collaborates with other students to give class presentations (see clip “Miao Miao on secondary and tertiary teaching and learning in China”).YouTube Preview Image

I asked Miao Miao about making the transition from secondary silence to university participation.  She said,

 I don’t know for others, but for me, it’s a good way. Maybe the first time you are nervous and you can’t do a good job, but the next time, next time, next time, you feel better. And it’s good for you to find a job because if you have an interview, you also want to express yourself.

 At our second university visit (Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an), two students, Jiang and Bo, told Meredith and I that yes, they had a lot of discussion in groups and were particularly talkative if they knew enough to respond to the discussion!


Jiang and Bo at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an; photo by Leslie Bohon

YouTube Preview Image

It was interesting to hear about the participation these graduate students are engaging in during their classes and the encouragement their professors are giving them to think, as Miao Miao stated.  Students in the U.S. are likely to be required to participate as teachers are expected to encourage critical thinking K-16.  In our schools, we hear much about learner-centered instruction, thus we do not experience a drastic shift into the Learning Paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995) that it appears some of these Chinese university students experience.  One of our William and Mary graduate students, Sharon, describes a learning paradigm –how professors draw out learning from students (see clip “U.S. thoughts on teaching”).  Her description of a professor’s role as the facilitator who draws out student learning through discussion, knowledge of the student, and environment, reflects Barr and Tagg’s (1995) description of the college’s aim—to “create a series of ever more powerful learning environments” (p. 15).  From the students’ stories, it appears Chinese higher education aims to make that shift in the environment from secondary level.  However, students at East China University, Alice, Sabrina, and Novella, temper this claim (see clip “Paradigm Shift”).  They say that although it is the Chinese government’s goal to promote critical thinking in higher education, university professors receive pressure from parents to focus on test scores.  My question is: to what extent are the government’s efforts to infuse more critical thinking in higher education influenced by the media, Western ideology, and internationalization?

 YouTube Preview Image

YouTube Preview Image

Effects of internationalization on learning.

 The culture of teaching and learning in China must be considered in context – one of a rapidly changing society influenced by foreign and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers, internationalization, and exchange students returning home from Western higher education (Jin & Cortazzi, 2006; Wenfeng & Gao, 2008).  We heard about the paradigm shift from secondary to tertiary education, but students from East China University in Shanghai told us that their university makes a great effort to internationalize.  International professors and students are part of the plan (see clip “Internationalization efforts”).  The East China University students also cited international conferences, videos of foreign lectures (one from Harvard University) in class, and interactions with international students as ways their university promotes internationalization (see clip “Additional comments on internationalization (2)”).

 YouTube Preview Image

YouTube Preview Image

East China University in Shanghai

With grad students from East China University in Shanghai; photo by Sean Bates

Greatest challenges in teaching and learning from the students’ perspectives.

As far as challenges, the students often cited finding jobs as a major concern during their higher education careers.  Given that they noted jobs are difficult to obtain, I asked if they thought the university and classes were giving them the skills that they need to get a job.  Bo was not so sure: “just a little,” while a classmate elaborated on Bo’s assessment by adding, “this class maybe helps us how to think and how to do, but if you get a job, you must have a major of professional knowledge”.  I took this as meaning that they may not have practical experience in the field.  This comment was interesting in light of the Chinese higher education reforms that Dr. Liu, professor of Comparative Education at Beijing Normal University, shared with us—that Chinese higher education aims to build their business-university partnerships to provide students with practical experience through internships.  As connections and networks (guanxi – 关系) are so important in China (Ostrowski & Penner, 2009), students from rural areas or families who do not have “friends in high places,” these internships would serve two purposes: providing students with practical experience as well as professional contacts.  Hopefully, more internships will make pathways to jobs for these students.

Tradition also drives students’ orchestration of their higher education experience and looking for a job.  On more than one occasion, the students told us that the need to find marriage partners would influence their university studies.  For example, Bo said that although he would like to continue on to pursue his Ph.D., in order to find a wife, he needs to have a job and a house (see clip “Jiang & Bo on question of wife or Ph.D.?”).  We had heard this before when our guide, Robert, told us there are three things a man should have before looking for a wife: a job, a house, and a car (he said in the old days, the latter requirement was a bike)!

East China University in Shanghai with Alice & Mercy walking

East China University in Shanghai; photo by Prince, student

YouTube Preview Image

When reflecting on the rich information I gained from my interviews with American and Chinese students, there were definitely some surprises.  The surprises for me in the Chinese system were the different philosophies of teaching and learning between secondary and tertiary education.   There is a paradigm shift between the two levels, according to the students I interviewed.  In secondary, the focus in China is on teaching, especially on having the students score high on the Gaokao.  There is little to no classroom discussion and the focus is on rote memorization.  However, the students I interviewed in China pointed out that in tertiary education, the professors want the students to think.  I was surprised to hear about group work, presentations, exploring topics to discuss in class, and other critical thinking exercises.  True, as a whole, my interviews along with my classmates’ interviews (see Allred, Bates, Butler, FredericksonJoe, Hench, and Sperandio) revealed that lecture is still a prominent part of the Chinese students’ college experience, but it is infiltrated with exercises promoting critical thinking.  It is also important to note that these students were graduate students, so their classroom experiences, according to them, were even more focused on discussion than their undergraduate experiences.

In the American interview (see above) points were made about professors being the facilitators of learning, using strategic questioning and much critical thinking.   This interview was conducted before our trip to China.  I believed that I would not hear any evidence of this philosophy in the Chinese interviews, but I did.  I believe there is evidence of a move toward critical thinking happening in tertiary Chinese education.  Yes, the students indicated that more was needed, but there is a change.  If we think back to the lecture that Prof LIU conducted at Beijing Normal University (see comments in the Beijing summary), we are reminded that critical thinking is a goal of Chinese higher education.  Chinese students in the past have been characterized as excellent at rote memorization and lacking in critical thinking (Jin & Cortazzi, 2006), but I see evidence of the changing paradigm in Chinese higher education.



Jiang and Bo and other students in class at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an; photo by Leslie Bohon

All of us enjoyed talking to the Chinese students.  For me, these conversations were the highlight of the trip.   Taking a cultural macro view of Chinese higher education, shaking it up with the U.S. view, and then engaging at the micro level of the individual student was quite rewarding.

East China University in Shanghai3 with Prince & Mercy



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

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Jin, L., & Cortazzi, M. (2006). Changing practices in Chinese cultures of learning. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 19(1), 5-20.

Littlewood, W. (1999). Defining and developing autonomy in East Asian contexts. Applied Linguistics, 20(1), 71–94.

Ostrowski, P., & Penner, G. (2009). It’s all Chinese to me: An overview of culture & etiquette in China. Rutland, VT: Tuttle.

Rao, Z. (2002). Bridging the gap between teaching and learning styles in East Asian contexts. TESOL Journal, 11(2), 5-11.

Wenfeng, W., & Gao, X. (2008). English language education in China: A review of selected research. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 29(5), 380-399. doi:10.1080/01434630802147908


videos in this post taken by Leslie Bohon, March, 2013.