Observations on Teaching and Learning in China

In interviewing students about teaching and learning, I was curious to see how practices and pedagogy used compared in the United States and China. Before arriving in China, I expected students there to tell me that teaching and learning was done completely through lecture, and that students were expected to be passive members of class (sitting, listening, and taking notes). I was able to find out more about teaching and learning by interviewing students with experience in the Chinese education system; one student is from China, and is now completing graduate work at William & Mary. The other students I interviewed are Chinese and currently enrolled in graduate programs in Beijing, Xi’an, or Shanghai. I approached the interviews with three main questions in mind that were provided by our professor, Jim Barber (2013): “How would you describe your approaches to teaching and learning?; What are the greatest challenges in teaching and learning from your perspective? and How has your teaching and learning been affected by internationalization?” (p. 3). Since I interviewed students instead of instructors, I tweaked the questions a bit to focus on the teaching methods they experienced, how those methods affected their learning, and what a normal day in class was like for a student at a Chinese university. My original expectations turned out to be somewhat inaccurate; while lecture is still used heavily in China, and those involved in teaching and learning continue to rely on traditional methods, it seems that class discussion is making its way into Chinese classrooms, and China is truly on the cusp of change in how they approach education.

My first interview was with Luyao Yan, a master’s student in the Higher Education Administration program from China who earned her undergraduate degree at Renmin University. In discussing teaching and learning styles, Luyao emphasized the expectation of class participation in the United States, and noted that it was hard for her to adjust to this style of instruction. Luyao studied English as an undergraduate, so I asked if she had opportunities for discussion in her classes since they were focused on a foreign language; she explained that there was discussion, but students would relate their comments to the texts read and the authors instead of to their own experiences or opinions as she noticed that American students tend to do. In China, students had more class discussion in English classes, but general education classes were typically lecture style, and students would not ask questions during lecture because it would be insulting to the professor. However, Luyao noted that when she had classes taught by a visiting professor from another country, there would be more class discussion in small groups built into the course structure. It seems this style of teaching is distinctly Western, and is at least partially being introduced to the students via visiting professors who bring their own pedagogical practices with them. In contrast, Luyao explained, Chinese professors maintain the traditional teaching style of lecturing and focusing on the final exam.

I was really interested to hear Luyao say that she observed American students asking more basic questions; in her opinion, Chinese students tend to think more before they pose a question, and the questions are deeper. I imagine this stems from the more formal relationship between professor and student in China, and this formality is manifested in the preparation students do before speaking up in class. (For more on student-faculty relationships in the U.S. and China, see Jess Hench’s blog here.)

YouTube Preview Image (Allred, 2013)

In Beijing, I interviewed a student over lunch at Beijing Normal University. Ann is earning her master’s degree in comparative education, and specifically looks at the most effective ways to teach science. She said that during her undergraduate years, when she studied science, her classes were a mix of lectures and labs; during lectures there was no opportunity to ask questions and students could only follow up with questions after class or sometimes during office hours. The teaching style was very traditional, and Ann is looking to the American style of education to make science classes more active (and interactive) for students. Ann mentioned a new model called Problem-Based Learning, which came about in the 1950s and 1960s as a new teaching tool for medical schools (Allen, Donham & Bernhardt, 2011). As the amount of medical knowledge expanded, educators wanted to shift problem-solving methods to more closely align with those used in clinical practice; students worked in teams to solve real or realistic problems, and learn in the process of solving (Allen, Donham, & Bernhardt, 2011). Problem Based Learning is a more student-centered pedagogy, and allows students to learn how to study by doing research; in this model, the teacher is more of a guide. Ann is working to implement this model at a local middle school, but mentioned that it is difficult for the teachers to shift to the role of guide instead of lecturer. Even though moving to a more Problem Based Learning methodology was one of the six main objectives in China’s 2001 educational reform (Dai, Gerbino, & Daley 2011), actually implementing this teaching and learning style is very unusual in China. Ann is only able to do so at the school where she works because it is a fairly experimental school.

Jess and I with Carrie, another student at Beijing Normal University. Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture with Ann!

Jess and I with Carrie, another student at Beijing Normal University. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture with Ann! (Allred, 2013)


As echoed by Ann in Beijing, the implementation of Problem Based Learning requires a paradigm shift for instructors, as the role of the teacher changes “from presenter of information to facilitator of a problem-solving process” (Allen, Donham, & Bernhardt, 2011, p. 23). The instructor acts more as a guide. I imagine a shift to Problem Based Learning would come about slowly in Chinese education. The methods currently used in teaching and learning reflect both the respect held for the instructor (the instructor lectures because he/she has knowledge and the students need it), as well as external pressures felt by instructors and students.

The difficulty in shifting from traditional lecture to Problem Based Learning in science classrooms is related to the shift explained by Barr and Tagg (1995) in moving from an Instruction Paradigm to a Learning Paradigm. In the former, the role of the instructor is to provide knowledge, and there is not necessarily any responsibility for ensuring that the student truly learns the material. In the Learning Paradigm, however, the role of the instructor is to make sure that the student learns the material by whatever means are necessary (Barr & Tagg, 1995). While implementation of the Learning Paradigm does not necessarily mean lecture is out of the question, it becomes the college’s role to “create environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves, to make students members of communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems” (Barr & Tagg, 1995, p. 15). The use of Problem Based Learning aligns directly with this role, as it provides a setting in which students must work as a community and discover the root of the problem presented to them in order to find a solution. However, a shift to the Learning Paradigm and a more student-centered pedagogy in China will be slow if ever completely implemented because of exterior pressures, as was revealed to me in a later interview conducted alongside Leslie Bohon.

A student in Shanghai named Novella underscored this hesitation to shift when she mentioned that teachers feel a lot of pressure from both principals and parents to prepare students for the National College Entrance Examination (the Gao Kao); even if new teaching styles would lead to more lasting learning, parents are not willing to take the risk of lower performance on the Gao Kao because the test results determine so much of the student’s future. It seems that a serious shift in teaching and learning style would require a significant change in the college admissions process, as well as the way employers consider the university attended by a prospective employee.

YouTube Preview Image (Allred, 2013)

Novella and her classmates were also talkative about the teaching and learning methods used in English instruction. Alice, a student at East China Normal University who studies higher education but who majored in English in her undergraduate years, noted that English instruction really begins with memorization. She explained that she has been learning English for 14 years, and that her teachers really focused on building vocabulary and understanding grammatical rules to build a foundation. However, Alice explained that it was not until college that she was able to really focus on the communication aspect of English, and that she had to do quite a bit of self-teaching in order to be able to communicate with native English speakers (including watching episodes of the American TV show Friends). Novella echoed this point, explaining that Chinese students have a real problem in that they can pass an English exam, but they cannot actually speak the language. She further explained that the Chinese education system realizes this deficiency, and is moving towards a paradigm shift from an exam-oriented paradigm to a quality-oriented paradigm (reminiscent of the Instruction Paradigm and the Learning Paradigm). Novella’s insights reminded me of what Luyao said in our interview before the trip, mentioning that English classes tended to include more discussion, while general education classes continue to adhere to the traditional Chinese teaching style of lecture. However, even the discussion in the English classes is limited.

YouTube Preview Image (Bohon, 2013)

Ming-Li Luo (2012) expands on the issues in the way English language is taught in China, and the students’ resulting abilities to pass an examination but not to use the language practically. Referring to the issue as “Mute-Crux in English learning” (Liu, 2012, p. 1140), the author explains that teachers’ methods of focusing on grammar, vocabulary and rote memorization “means students can somehow understand what their teachers or tapes say, but are hard to express themselves or talk with their teachers or native speakers in English” (Liu, 2012, p. 1141). Liu (2012) attributes much of this adherence to ineffective teaching methods to the structure of the the Gao Kao, which only requires students to show proficiency in writing and understanding spoken English. Students are not required to speak English in order to succeed on the Gao Kao, so teachers do not update their teaching methods to include this skill. As a result, students complete years of English classes without the ability to speak the language. Liu (2012) suggests that English language instructors should update their teaching methods to teach English in English (rather than in Chinese) and to require students to speak the language in class.

Novella and several other students at East China Normal University in Shanghai validated my observation that teaching and learning is on the cusp of change in China, but is really only happening at the university level. They explained that people are only comfortable trying new teaching styles after the Gao Kao is done because of its huge influence on students’ futures. However, Chinese universities are interested in being competitive on a global level, and are implementing more interactive styles of teaching and learning, including more discussion in class instead of just lecture. It was especially interesting talking to students from East China Normal University, because I could tell that being at a university with so much focus on international exchange had an effect on their awareness of the changes happening in education, as well as (I believe) the culture of the university. The students were quick to speak up when Leslie and I asked a question, and seemed more comfortable expanding on their answers than did the students in Beijing or Xi’an. I wonder if the combination of living in such an international city and attending such an internationally focused university means that international teaching methods are being implemented more, meaning the students are more familiar and comfortable with sharing their opinions because they are used to discussion being expected of them.

Leslie and I with students we interviewed at East China Normal University.

Leslie and I with students we interviewed at East China Normal University (Allred, 2013).

Alice and me as we toured East China Normal University after our interview.

Alice and me as we toured East China Normal University after our interview (Allred, 2013).

The shift in teaching and learning styles was also mentioned in an interview with students at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an. This interview was less fruitful, since the students struggled with their English, but they mentioned the shift to more discussion in class, as well as bilingual courses in the higher education program (as we observed in the sociology of higher education class). Students from Shaanxi Normal University, Cherry, Song and Li Wei, noted that the first hour of class might be lecture while the second hour might be reserved for discussion. The students explained that the professor wants the students to share their ideas, “whether they are right or wrong” (Cherry, personal communication, March 5, 2013). The students noted that this type of discussion is a change, and the emphasis on students sharing their opinion differed from Luyao’s experience wherein students referenced the text or the author more than bringing in their own opinions or experiences. From these interviews, it seems there is a general reverence for American higher education institutions in China, so I wonder if some of the shift in teaching styles comes from that interest and desire to perform at the same level.

Cherry, Song, and Li Wei also highlighted the focus on global higher education issues within their program, which they study in a course called “hot topics in higher education.” It was interesting to hear that they focus heavily on issues coming up in higher education in countries outside of China. Students are required to read news sources on higher education and give presentations on the topic they cover. The students explained that they receive feedback on their presentation immediately after they give it, but that there is only one presentation per student per semester. I found this to be a sharp contrast to American teaching methods, where students often have a chance to perform a similar task after receiving feedback to show improvement. It seems that the Chinese teaching and learning methods are shifting toward more discussion and expression of opinion but do still retain an element of the single chance to show mastery.

Students studying higher education at Shaanxi Normal University--Cherry, Song, and Li Wei.

Students studying higher education at Shaanxi Normal University–Cherry, Song, and Li Wei (Allred, 2013).

Leslie and I with students at Shaanxi Normal University. We interviewed them in the second half of sitting in on their Sociology of Higher Education class.

Leslie and I with students at Shaanxi Normal University. We interviewed them in the second half of sitting in on their Sociology of Higher Education class (Allred, 2013).


From my student interviews and observations, I realized there is not an exclusive focus on lecture at Chinese universities. Instead, more western teaching practices (especially class discussion) are beginning to make their way into Chinese classrooms, and students are being given more opportunity to express their reflections and opinions. However, this change is gradual, and is not happening at all levels of Chinese education. While teachers and students are moving toward more classroom discussion in graduate programs, it may be even less in undergraduate classes, and seems very unlikely to happen much in primary, middle, or high schools. The focus on the Gao Kao, and the stakes the students are up against are too high for teachers, students or parents to “bargain” with new teaching methods that focus on anything but an ability to succeed on the exam. This observation is supported by the findings of Dai et al. (2011), who surveyed Chinese instructors about their attitudes toward inquiry-based learning, and what perceived constraints might keep them from implementing this pedagogy. Survey results suggested that Chinese instructors supported the idea of inquiry-based learning, but were constrained in moving to this teaching style because of pressure from high-stakes tests, content coverage, class size, professional development, and resources (Dai et al, 2011). Novella echoed these thoughts in our interview at East China Normal University, where she explained that the pressure people feel to succeed on the Gao Kao is too great to try any methods that have not been shown to get students a high score. Unless the college entrance system changes, it seems the Gao Kao will continue to dominate the educational landscape, and will prevent deep and lasting change in teaching and learning methods.

There is some focus on the college entrance exam in the United States, as well, as high school juniors and seniors typically feel stress in approaching the SAT or ACT. However, the critical difference is that American students have opportunities to present themselves through methods other than their exam score; colleges consider high school grades, courses taken, extracurricular activities, and student background. In China, the admissions process is very black and white: you either have the score to be admitted to a certain college or you do not.

As the world has become more connected in past decades, it seems Chinese educators are changing their teaching styles to become more interactive, and students seem excited about this, and seem to find it more enjoyable (at least at the university level, where I was able to gain first-hand insight). The increase in classroom discussion is noticeable, and the students I interviewed were pleased at these new opportunities to share their opinions about topics and readings. However, the students explained that the change is not all-encompassing. Lecture is still prominent in Chinese university education, and students may only be allowed to participate in discussion in certain parts of the class. It seems evident that the teaching and learning shift has started, but will be quite gradual. It is also possible that the teaching and learning we saw was somewhat skewed since we visited Normal universities, where there is more likely to be an emphasis on effective pedagogy. However, I cannot imagine China backtracking on the educational reforms it has already accomplished, especially at the university level, and I expect the emphasis on interactive learning will continue to grow.



Allen, D. E., Donham, R. S. & Bernhardt, S. A. (2011). Problem Based Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Special Edition, Winter 2011(128), 21-29. doi: 10.1002/tl.465

Barber, J.P. (2013). EDUC 500 global studies: Teaching and learning in China. Retrieved from https://blackboard.wm.edu/webapps/blackboard/execute/content/file?cmd=view&content_id=_859924_1&course_id=_25338_1

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

Dai, D.Y., Gerbino, K.A., & Daley, M.J. (2011). Inquiry-based learning in China: Do teachers practice what they preach, and why? Frontiers of Education in China, 6(1), 139-157. doi:10.1007/s11516-011-0125-3

Liu, M. (2012). The problems of senior three students’ “mute-crux” in English learning in China. Sino-US English Teaching9(5), 1139-1144.