Practical approaches for creating inclusive learning environments for Chinese students

Both academics and students may face ongoing challenges due to the diverse experience students bring to tertiary classrooms. Chinese international students in particular often experience academic stress and struggle to adjust to Western learning environments, and to successfully transition from the Chinese educational system into Western tertiary classrooms. Western teachers can also encounter difficulties when addressing Chinese students’ learning needs and concerns, and often categorise Chinese international students as rote learnerspassive learners, and a ‘problematic’ group.

This article highlights practical approaches to create more inclusive and supportive learning environments for Chinese international students in Western higher education, based on insights from two recent articles: Chinese Commerce Academic Development (CCAD) group; A Practice-based Study of Chinese Students’ Learning – Putting Things Together and Memorisation is not rote learning: rethinking memorisation as an embodied practice for Chinese students.

While the approaches discussed below focus on supporting Chinese international students, they can also be applied more broadly to support all international students. To find out more about the international students you teach, check out your unit’s Knowing Your Students report.

Practical approaches for supporting Chinese international students in higher education

There are a variety of practical strategies that all educators can implement to support Chinese international students studying in Western institutions, and which will likely benefit all learners. Engaging with these approaches can also help to challenge and upend deficit assumptions of multilingual learners in higher education.

To get you started, here are eight practical things educators can start doing in their own classes:

1) Help your students to get prepared and understand your expectations

Chinese students expect teaching that involves receiving explicit, clear, and factual ‘content-based’ information from their lecturers and tutors, and that they will be assessed on their ability to understand and reproduce the material covered in class.

In Western institutions Chinese students can often be unclear about:

  • The degree of independence required,
  • The volume of reading required,
  • The number of assessments set.

What you can do:

In the first lecture and greeting emails,

  • Provide an explicit explanation of your expectations,
  • Outline some of the key challenges students may face when studying at university (e.g., the above-mentioned) and some suggestions on how to overcome them (e.g., use a calendar or personal diary to help manage their time and allocate the tasks/to-do list for the whole semester).

Your explicit expression of understanding the difference between the Chinese education system and the Australian education system can offer some comfort to your students.

2) Encourage students to reach out to you when they need help

Your students may find it confronting to ask teachers questions face-to-face. There is often a preference to reach out to you via email when they need help.

This is due to various reasons:

  • Different levels of language proficiency and knowledge of the English language,
  • Concern about losing face/embarrassment if they express not understand the concepts you taught them,
  • They need time to think about how to ask questions and understand the logic in their questions due to the different syntax of two languages.

What you can do:

  • Encourage your students to email you if they have any questions,
  • Try to answer your students’ questions in a timely manner.

3) Provide time outside of scheduled teaching to answer questions

Chinese students may have difficulties talking directly with you due to the respect they have for you as a teacher with authority because of the influence of Confucius culture. In Confucius culture, teachers are seen as authority figures who require respect from their students. Students may also experience low efficacy due to a lack of confidence and personal modesty.

They tend not to ask questions in class but rather in private, preferring to come to your office after class or talk to you in the corridor outside of the classroom so that clarification and support can be provided in a private and less confronting context.

What you can do:

  • Spend some time after class to answer questions in the corridor,
  • Post your availability for meetings on your office door or on Canvas,
  • Make students aware of your office hours and invite them to meet you during these times for support.

4) Build teacher-student connections

International students often experience culture shock in a new environment, particularly as they face new pedagogical practices in the classroom. They tend to seek social support to cope with the cultural shock. It is important to actively build teacher-student connections so you are best placed to support your students, and to offer comfort to those who may feel unsure and anxious in their new learning environment.

What you can do:

  • Run a survey to get to know your Chinese students – e.g., you might ask them how students prefer to learn or where they grew up.
  • Learn how to pronounce their Chinese names (you may find it hard to pronounce Chinese names, but showing your interest and care to your students can be powerful in connecting with them) – you can use technology to help you with this.
  • Send a welcome email (or video!) to your students – briefly introduce the unit goals, some available resources, where to find support services, etc. – again, you can use technology to write a personalised welcome email to all your students.
  • Send a message of congratulations to students after a major assessment is completed (e.g., mid-term assessment/exam) – a short and simple congratulatory message would instantly stimulate a sense of accomplishment in your students.

5) Understanding students’ language challenges and offer options for support

You may find:

  • Your Chinese students have different linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
  • They use diverse communication styles to express themselves.
  • Some students have limited knowledge, experience, and time on campus due to competing commitments.
  • The cultural diversity represented by international students is undervalued and under-utilised by domestic students in group learning.
  • Some students may engage in accidental plagiarism due to a lack of familiarity with academic writing

What you can do:

  • Reduce the use of slang and jargon when communicating.
  • Speak more slowly and give students time to think.
  • Tell your students explicitly that their responses do not have to be grammatically accurate.
  • Tolerate some memorisation (when they produce the lecture and textbook content word by word in the exam).
  • Provide clear, detailed written feedback to show how you would like them to improve.
  • Discuss academic honesty and plagiarism in class and explain how to use references appropriately.

6) Include diverse case study examples to help explain key concepts

Chinese students may encounter difficulties with their English language skills and may need some assistance in their discipline-specific, academic English language. They may not be familiar with the Western examples and contexts used in the teaching.

What you can do:

  • Include examples or case studies that feature Chinese voices, situations or experiences in teaching and learning materials – this can help students ‘see’ themselves in the unit’s content and make learning complex concepts more relatable. For example, if you teach social media subjects, you may use Taobao, WeChat case studies or examples to help students to connect with the context.

This approach can help to tackle the challenges Chinese students have related to the norms and conventions that are embedded in Western cultural values and beliefs.

7) Encourage (and support) group work between domestic and international students

It can be challenging for Chinese students to work with their domestic peers due to a variety of reasons, not just because of language barriers. Lack of common ground between domestic and international students is often due to differences in academic priorities and learning experiences, and to limited interaction between domestic and international students in higher education. These should be supported more systematically.

Your Chinese students may:

  • Feel nervous about joining a tutorial discussion because they do not know when the best time to join the conversation is, and also because they are not used to constructivist teaching methods.
  • Struggle in joining the conversation immediately because they need some time to think through their ideas in Chinese first and then translate thoughts into English to verbalise them.
  • Wish to develop friendships with domestic students, but find that domestic students’ unwelcome attitude prevents this.
  • Feel more comfortable having a small group discussion rather than in the whole class.

What you can do:

  • Allow for small group discussions in your tutorial or class to encourage your Chinese students to participate in the conversation.
  • Provide pre-class material before your lectures, so they can get prepared for the topics to be discussed in class.
  • Try and include some class activities that encourage your Chinese students to share their stories.
  • When groups are discussing, walk around and listen to your students’ conversation and express your encouragement and confirmation to them.
  • Allow some time to your Chinese students to ‘think’ in their language first and then join the conversation.

8) Provide options for out-of-class group work communication

To facilitate group work effectively, suggesting options such as a WeChat group or other locally-accessible social media platforms to communicate can help domestic and international students to communicate on group tasks.

You may find your students:

  • Do not have access to Facebook messenger (especially if they are overseas).
  • Are much more comfortable using WeChat. This is because it is the largest platform in the Chinese community and is commonly used to connect with other Chinese students in Australia.

What you can do:

  • Once the groups are formed, encourage groups to communicate via an agreed-upon channel. Standards for communication could be embedded in a group charter so all are engaged in the process and clear on expectations.
  • Encourage students to share study materials including documents, videos, and audio files. WeChat and other platforms can often also facilitate video and/or voice chats between large groups.

More resources are also available for group work. The Canvas site Collaborating with Differences is a self-directed course that aims to support students in developing cultural awareness and improving intercultural communication skills in collaboration with students from different backgrounds. The site was specifically designed for Interdisciplinary and Community Project units, but all students and teachers are welcome to access and work through the content. It also provides strategies to support students in working through challenges in group work.

Want to know more?

Contact me if you wish to chat about this, or more about how to support your Chinese international students.

These other Teaching@Sydney articles may also be helpful:

Written By
More from Jinqi Xu