Teaching and Learning in China

China Trip 3-11-13 1603

I took this picture of a student taking notes during in the Sociology of Higher Education Course at Shaanxi Normal University.

 The 1995 article, From Teaching to Learning – A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education by Robert Barr and John Tagg, served as a resource and the bases of many class discussions.  It describes the shift from “providing instruction- teaching to producing learning” (Barr & Tagg, pg. 13).  The traditional form of instruction is noted as the “Instruction Paradigm” and “Learning Paradigm” the new paradigm, where the focus is placed on the student or leaner and finding the best method to assist students in learning (Barr & Tagg, pg. 14).  In the new paradigm, focus on the teacher is less important knowledge comes from many avenues, in many formats, changes over time, and the student can be the teacher.  When I first read the article, I found it extremely relevant to today’s classrooms.  I was surprised to see that it was written in 1995. It was interesting to see how far we have come and still have to go.To perform the study on the views of students on teaching and learning in China and the United States, I interviewed current students from both master’s and doctoral programs.  A convenience method determined the interviewees.  The goal of having an even distribution of both master’s level and doctoral level students worked well in the US, however the number of doctoral students available in China was limited.  Interviews conducted in the US were individual, while in China, a group interview format was adopted.The students’ areas of study varied across the school of education and counseling.  All students in the US had previous experience in counseling, higher education teaching and administration, or K-12 teaching.  Students were asked about his or her undergraduate and or graduate experience.  In addition, interviewees in the US were asked three primary questions: “How would you describe your approaches to teaching and learning?  What are the greatest challenges in teaching and learning from your perspective?  How has your teaching and learning been affected by internationalization?”  While I planned to asks the same questions to students in China, the nature of the interviews were more conversational and the students focused on their undergraduate and graduate experience.  We also covered different topics relevant to teaching and learning. 



China Trip 3-11-13 1733

Taken while on a tour of the campus at East China Normal Unviersity

China – Summary of Interviews

Students from Beijing Normal University, Shaanxi Normal University, and East China Normal University gave accounts of having different experiences in their undergraduate versus graduate education.  Chinese students in the three groups of students recalled that classes were all lecture.  The professors are highly respected in China and students refer to them using their professional title or “teacher.”  When asked about their interactions with the professor, the students felt that they could approach their professor, but rarely asked questions or request clarification on material they did not understand.  They did not ask questions in class nor did the professor ask them any questions.  Professors are only concerned with teaching and students must figure out how to learn the material.  Learning is up to the student not the teacher.  Therefore, students viewed class as a time to receive information and taking notes that they would later study and memorize for the exam given at the end of the semester.

I was trying to capture the magnitude of the library on the campus of Beijing Normal University

I was trying to capture the magnitude of the library on the campus of Beijing Normal University

For Chinese students, the graduate school experience varied.  Professors primarily presented information in lecture format, but in some courses, professors asked questions based on assigned readings, students were required to complete group assignments, and in class presentations.  Class was still a time to get the information for the exam or research paper at the end of the semester.  The students interviewed were studying in the School of Education where only a final paper was required.

China Trip 3-11-13 1610

Taken during the Sociology of Higher Education course at SNU

While in Xian, we had the opportunity to sit in on a course at Shaanxi Normal University, in the School of Education.  The Professor taught the course in English, incorporated the use of PowerPoint and engaged the students by asking questions.  A few students answered questions, but it was obvious that they were not use to this method.  Most students just listened while a few took notes in a small notebook.

By the students’ account, graduate education is very different from undergraduate education in China.  It is important to state that this is a bias view because we only interviewed student in the School of Education.  Students in other disciplines may have different experience.  One student in the Adult Education degree program stated that her classes were all lecture with little variation from that format.  The major difference between undergraduate and graduate that students related was the student tutor relationship.  Each student is assigned a tutor, a faculty mentor/advisor, the student meets with his/her tutor once a week.  This relationship is less formal than those with their in-class professors.  Each faculty tutor has a group of students who all attend the weekly meeting.  During this time, they can discuss the readings from their courses, further clarify concepts, and assist students with developing their master’s thesis.

The video below was recorded during our student interviews at Shaanxi Nourmal University.   Jess Hench and I interviewed with four graduate students from the School of Education at SNU.    In the video, the students respond to Jess’s question about the teaching style of their professors.

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The comments of the students at SNU demonstrated to us that the professors here operated primarily in Barr and Tagg’s (1995)  “Instrcution paradigm.”   One of the characteristics of this paradigm is the use of lecture as the primary method of delivery. There is not much variety in teaching and learning structure.   As I observed teaching and learning in the classroom and listened to students’ responses in China, I thought of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  If lectures are the only means to transfer knowledge, how are students expected to achieve the higher levels of learning, such as Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.  The variety in methods of teaching and learning employed by those who practice from a learning paradigm provide avenues to increase students’ level of learning.

United States – Summary of Interviews

There was one common theme between both Chinese and US students when describing their undergraduate experience.  Students in the US also recalled their undergraduate experience as being mostly lectures.  In smaller courses, in addition to lectures, students discussed and answered questions about reading and assignments.  However, most students did not feel they were left to themselves to figure out the material.  Unlike China, US professors are concerned with student learning.  All courses had exams and assignments throughout the semester, designed to measure learning and provide the professor and the student, a sense of how they were doing in the course.  How effect these measures are is another story, one not addressed here.  Student spoke of making appointments to speak with the professor during office hours, signing up for Teaching Assistance (TA) sessions, seeking assistance from TAs, and using academic support services such as tutoring.


Students working in groups in a graduate class at William and Mary

Students working in groups in a graduate class at William and Mary

Student presenting group activity in class

Student presenting group activity in class

In graduate programs, students stated that there is a variety of formats used by their professors.  Professors take a student and learning centered approach.  Some lecture takes place when covering new concepts, but classes are mostly discussion.  Small groups, writing reflections/journaling, group projects, case study analysis, guest lecturers, and learning outside of the classroom are other ways learning take place.  If the student were having difficulty understanding the material in class, they would seek assistance from the professor.  Access to faculty is not difficult and they are willing to support students in gaining a better understanding on the material.  Similar to China, each student has a Faculty Advisor, although the focus here is advising on program requirements and plan for completion.  Students also receive guidance on developing their research.

W&M student speaking with faculty during class break

W&M student speaking with faculty during class break

The student teacher relationship is another area that differs in China and the US.  In the US, students reported that they were comfortable approaching their professor.  When asked about undergraduate, they recalled always referring to their professors by his or her title.  In graduate school, students felt comfortable interacting with their professors.  College programs offered many opportunities for social interaction with professors.  Some students used professors’ first names while others, felt a level of respect is due, and used titles.

The videos below are clips from my interview with Hua Ma, a School of Education Ph.D. student at the College of William and Mary.  Hua’s interview provided great insight because he has first hand experience and knowledge of teaching and learning in higher education both in China and the US.  Hua also taught in K-12 and currently teaches undergraduates at William and Mary.

How would you describe your approaches to teaching and learning?  

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 How has your teaching and learning been affected by internationalization?

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 The future of teaching and learning

Dr. Pam Eddy and students discuss issues for educator changing from the instruction paradigm to the learning paradigm.

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Dr. Eddy is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at William and Mary.

Here is a video I came across on youtube that I found relevant to teaching and learning and changing education paradigms. 

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The most important take away from this assignment is that educators, both in the US and China, operate from both paradigms.  Structural elements of the instruction paradigm are present in both US and China.  The US system has more elements of the learning paradigm, but still present are the “50-minute lecture and 3 credit course; class start and end on time; and covering material.”   Some students in the US feel that both paradigms are important and the type of course determines which one is employed.  There are  elements from the learning paradigm found in both countries.

Barr and Tagg list “quality of students entering” under the instruction paradigm  and “quality of students exiting ”  under the learning paradigm as a criteria for success.  Both China and the US look at the “quality of students entering” as evident in their competitive admissions process.    Also, “quantity of students exiting” in contrast to  looking at the “quality of students exiting ”   is valued more because of the emphasis placed on graduation rates in the US higher education system.

The US is ahead in making a shift, but there is more work to be done.  China is changing, but slowly.  Like change in most organization, there are facets to consider and in this case, culture, social norms, and political structure restrain the process.  Dr. Liu Baocum, a Professor at Beijing Normal University, spoke about the need for Higher Education reform in China and reference these considerations.  He also reiterated that universities need more autonomy from the Chinese Communism Party (CCP) which plays a major role in the education system in China.


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