Cultural Differences To Learning Among Chinese And African Students Uk

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Learning is an on-going process in life. People begin to learn from childhood up until death. According to Bransford, Brown and Cocking (1999; xi), most of what is learned is informal. However, 'highly systematic and organised information systems' such as reading, sciences, mathematics, study of the history of societies, literature and so on, need formal training which are usually offered in schools. While learning in schools, it is argued that people approach learning in several ways (Biggs, 1987; Bligh, 2000; Richardson, 2000).

Culture is defined by Kalman (2009; 4) as the way people live. It is defined by the clothes, food, language, stories, art, music, writing, roots and belief of a people. He states that culture is what makes one society different from another society. This means that the way a particular society learns may vary from the way another society would learn as a result of the kind of cultures those societies have. Prashing (2008; 47) argues that the 'educational system varies from one country to the other.' Students travel from their countries to another to have learning experiences. They are referred to as international, overseas or foreign students studying outside their countries by enrolling full-time into universities or colleges (Biggs, 1999; 121; Fulton, et al., 1981; 193). Chinese and African students are examples of such students.

Bowen (1980; xxi) defines 'Higher Education' as education that goes further than the secondary level conducted in certified institutions usually called colleges and universities. 'The higher educational system' refers to these institutions altogether.

This dissertation will seek to find out how the cultural and educational backgrounds of these Chinese and African students affect them as they learn in British Higher Education.


Do all cultures share the same ideas on the approaches to learning?

According to Richardson (2000), the research on the approaches to learning in higher education started in the 1970s. Experiments were carried out in different countries like Sweden, UK, Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Hong Kong. These experiments showed that the different ways in which students approached learning were Surface, Deep and Achieving approaches. Also, Biggs (1999; 124) argues that the learning process is a universal and not only a cultural issue.

The aim of this dissertation is to find out if all cultures share these same ideas of the Surface, Deep and Achieving approaches to learning. The starting point will be to conduct interviews with a number of Chinese and African students about the way they study in their different home countries and to also find out if their learning experience differs from, or is similar to the way they study in the UK. Comparisons will be made with research that has already been carried out in the past. This will enable this study to classify the type of learning approach each culture seems to adopt. It should be noted however, that there are two categories of Chinese students. Hong Kong used to be a British colony until it returned to China's sovereignty in 1997. China is a country with two systems; socialism is practised in China while capitalism is practised in Hong Kong (Marton, 1999). This means that the way a person from Hong Kong approaches learning may differ from the way a person from Mainland China would approach learning. This would be put into consideration while looking at the type of learning approach adopted in the Chinese culture.

What sort of learning problems do these international students face?

According to Biggs (1999; 122), there are certain students who do not present any teaching problems yet they are international students. He gives instances of American students studying in the UK or New Zealand students studying in Australia. He states that the problems are usually with students from "African, Middle Eastern or East Asian countries. The problems are said to be 'cultural' in origin." Biggs further states that there are three kinds of problems that international students face; socio-cultural adjustment, language problems and learning/teaching problems due to culture.

This dissertation aims to find out the kind of learning problems these international students face as a result of cultural differences by making comparisons with research that has already been carried out in this area. Observations will be made on how Chinese and African students adjust to a new kind of learning culture in the UK. Interviews will be conducted to find out how they cope with the language barrier if they have any of such problems. Also, questions will be asked about how they cope with the teaching methods that is if these teaching methods are different from the kind they are used to.

What sort of problems do teachers face when dealing with international students?

According to Biggs (1999; 123) a study showed that Asian students are more likely to rote learn. Rote learning is repeating words over and over; it is learning without meaning (Blakemore and Frith, 2005) in other words, such students depend on memorising what they are being taught and may not have an understanding of what they are memorising. Biggs also argues that study show that these Asian students "tend to look on lecturers as close to gods. Often they are very reluctant to discuss, criticize reading and express an opinion." This reveals a sort of passivity on the part of the students who are expecting to be 'spoon-fed' by the teacher.

This dissertation will examine how both Asian and African students study. This can be achieved by interviewing people who have had experience teaching and assessing these students. It seems as though there has been no research done on the difficulties teachers face while teaching African students, so this dissertation will seek to fill the gap

Do teaching methods also contribute to the kind of learning approach international students adopt?

According to Prashing (2008; 6) there are different methods of teaching. There is the traditional method of teaching which is very formal and void of communication between teacher and student. There is also the introduction of contemporary teaching methods that help create "more co-operation, more exchange of ideas, better communication among colleagues" (Prashing, 2008; 55). She argues that when the students' learning styles are harmonized with the right teaching styles then there will always be a successful interaction between teachers and their students which will produce enhanced learning result (Prashing, 2008; 231).

This dissertation will find out if teaching methods contribute to the kind of learning approach Chinese and African students adopt and compare its findings with the research already carried out. If teaching methods such as the traditional or contemporary do contribute to students' learning approaches then how can they be improved upon? Are teachers really aware of the needs of the international students? Are language support classes really sufficient in helping these international students? Should teachers be given training opportunities to have better understanding of where these students are coming from; the kind of learning culture they practice, to be able to know how to personally relate with the challenges international students like Chinese and African students are likely to face while studying abroad? These are the sorts of questions that would be asked to fulfil the aim of this dissertation.


It is obvious that the UK gives equal learning opportunities to people from different countries of the world to come into the country to study especially in the Higher Education level. These students come from different cultural backgrounds and one of the aims of this dissertation is to examine how culture influences the students approach to learning. Chinese and African students were selected for study because they seem to be largely found studying in the UK. The primary aim of this dissertation is to attempt to find ways in which learning and teaching can be improved upon for international students as well as teachers in British Higher Education. It will attempt to proffer solutions to problems faced by both students and teachers based on its findings.


Do all cultures share the same ideas on the approaches to learning?

What sort of learning problems do these international students face?

What sort of problems do teachers face when dealing with international students?

Do teaching methods also contribute to the kind of learning approach international students adopt?


There are lots of theoretical approaches to learning but this dissertation would focus on three of them. According to Beard and Hartley (1984; 47) there are two main sets of learning theories; behaviouristic and cognitive, and a third less prominent group or set; motivation theory. They state that behaviouristic theories are based on "organisms actually did - how they responded to stimuli - and not with what they thought." Also, to the behaviourist the learner is seen as passive and automatically responds to stimuli. As earlier stated, this dissertation seeks to find out what kind of learning approach Chinese and African students adopt while studying in the UK and in applying this theory, it will attempt to find out why these students behave the way they do (Biggs, 1987; 2). It will attempt to find out if these students are just automatically responding to the learning situations they are facing abroad or if they are mechanical beings automatically responding to the learning culture they have been used to from their various home countries?

The cognitive theorists on the other hand do not agree with the behaviouristic theory (Beard and Hartley 1984; 48). They do not agree that organisms are just passive beings who automatically respond to stimuli rather, they argue that learners are seen as beings that "select out specific information, process it and act upon it, perhaps in different ways in different circumstances." Beard and Hartley further state that theorists also place emphasis on the importance of previous or existing knowledge to the learner and how this learner is able to add new learning to previous or existing ones with the help of teachers. This appears to relate with the 'Deep Approach to learning' (Biggs, 1987; 11) which will be used to closely examine the kind of learning approach international students tend to adopt while studying in the UK.

The third is the motivation theory. According to Beard and Hartley (1984; 50) the "simplest level of motivation is to want something." The learner desires praise from teachers and colleagues and therefore works at attaining good marks. This relates with the 'Achieving Approach to learning' (Biggs, 1987; 12) which will also be closely examined to determine the kind of learning approach the Chinese and African students adopt while studying in the UK.

These theories will help in assessing the findings of this dissertation.


This dissertation will be split into five chapters. The first chapter will state the subject being researched, define key terms and provide background information on the subject. It will also state why it is worth researching, state the research aims or questions and briefly indicate the methodology adopted for the research.

The literature review will be done in the second chapter. Academic arguments on the approaches to learning will be explored and experiments carried out to prove different approaches to learning students adopt in higher education will be closely examined. Gaps in literature will be identified and finally stating how this research is expected to add to existing knowledge.

The third chapter will examine the theoretical approaches to learning and analyse how they relate with the research. This will lead to the fourth chapter which will provide the findings of the research, analysis, opinions and comparisons with experiments already carried out as mentioned in the second chapter.

Finally, the fifth chapter will provide conclusions. The findings will be summarised, limitations will be identified, solutions will be proffered and recommendations provided for further research.


Interviews: March 2011

Draft Literature Review: May 27th 2011

Final Draft Work: July 29th 2011

Dissertation Submission Date: 26th August 2011