Academic clash of cultures a tough challenge
Why are so many Chinese masters’ students not ready with their theses? Eva Kätting and Anette Wickström travelled to Beijing as part of a teacher exchange.
Each year, more Chinese students come to LiU for the international Master’s programme in Outdoor and Environmental Education. But as it happens, a number of them often do not complete their education, despite their ambitiousness and experience with time-consuming studies. The element of independent work and, most of all, the master’s thesis are thought to be the greatest stumbling blocks.
Why? Eva Kätting, head of the programme, and Anette Wickström, head of the course on methods and thesis writing, have long wondered about the answer to this question. It was obvious to them that there was a cultural clash between the Swedish and Chinese ways of studying:
“We’ve now had a fourth round of master’s students in outdoor pedagogy. Many have managed splendidly; others needed a lot of support. Sometimes we felt that what we said didn’t really hit home, and it was not just related to language problems. We really couldn’t understand the differences between the academic cultures,” Kätting says.
So in May, they travelled together on a teacher exchange to two universities that have agreements with LiU: Beijing Union University and Capital Normal University. They talked on-site with Chinese university leaders, teachers, and students.
“It was a bit surprising for them that we were so open in talking about the problems. It’s more usual to discuss only the positives in international exchanges,” she continues. “It could have been perceived as a breach of etiquette, but we were lucky and got good help from a really good ‘door opener’ in one of our former exchange students from LiU, Shiwei Zou, who studied at Beijing Union University.
The week in Beijing delivered many valuable insights. Besides educating themselves, Wickström and Kätting had the opportunity to attend a number of lectures (pictures at right). And there were many chances for informal conversations about the various expectations the Swedish academic system has of the students. At Chinese universities, there are many more teacher-led lectures, and for students it’s a matter of ‘learning correctly’ – that is, reproducing the teacher’s instruction or texts from the course books.
“In Sweden they work independently and think critically. They are to formulate questions, and look for acceptable scientific literature. No wonder there’s a clash,” Wickström says.
Participants in Swedish seminars are expected to ask questions; from a Chinese perspective this could be perceived as rude, or if you’re a lower-level student, actually a little arrogant.
“The idea of a seminar is to test ideas, there is no ‘right’. All opinions are equal, which can be hard to understand if you’re used to a hierarchically-governed system.”
In addition, the Chinese students are often unused to communicating and discussing in English. And for them, it’s rather self-evident that established researchers should be quoted word for word instead of recasting their texts. Plagiarism is not allowed in China, either, but it’s nothing teachers discuss with their students.
“It doesn’t seem to be relevant since people rarely look up literature on their own, but quote more from textbooks,” Wickström says.
The differences in views on teaching come to a head when it comes to writing theses. At the bachelor’s level in China, this means two weeks of work on campus with constant teacher support. Everyone must have their 3-5,000 word thesis approved.
A Swedish bachelor’s thesis is certainly four times more comprehensive; the writing time is ten weeks and supervision is limited.
“Our system, with a lot of independent work and little teacher contact, is probably not the ultimate if you think about the fact that we learn in teamwork with others. It doesn’t suit all Swedish students, either,” Wickström points out.
Students sometimes perceive the long Swedish writing time as nothing more than time off, dispensing with the supervision and taking the opportunity to have a look around Europe...
“It’s also possible that the journey itself, the contacts, and the training in English are the most important parts of the exchange for some,” Wickström says.
But the point of the studies, after all, is for the students to get their degrees.
“We need to meet with our international students and provide them with reasonable conditions. LiU is now being promoted in China to bring more students here. We have nothing against that, of course, but we hope that university management realizes that this requires extra effort in the form of academic writing, seminar discussions, evaluation exercises and argumentation techniques,” Kätting says.
“The Chinese university leaders and teachers are requesting summer courses with an introduction to Swedish education. They’re willing to pay – but we also have to have teacher resources here.”
Technologists get support from each other
Are there similar cultural clashes in other directions at LiU?
“I don’t really know of many,” says Kerstin Hawkins, study adviser for a half-dozen master’s programmes at the Institute of Technology.
“Although our student groups are much bigger, and here at LiU there is a good tradition of supporting each other. Over the past few years we’ve taken in upwards of five hundred master students a year. The majority come from India and Pakistan. Most of them manage their studies superbly,” she says.
“If they have problems, it’s often connected to a lack of prior knowledge in an individual course.”
On the other hand, the study situations can’t be properly compared; technical courses are scheduled with an entirely different lecture density. The reports that technology students write are often based on the results of laboratory practicals; discursive texts are more rare.
“But we can still observe that exchange students are more used to being fed information and to greater teacher-student segregation. For many of them, it’s not possible to recast a text that a notable researcher wrote.”
An introduction to degree work is provided for students to become acquainted with the Swedish system. And there are course elements that discuss communication in English for students who believe they need it.
“In the future, this will be mandatory,” Hawkins says.
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Last updated: 2013-05-22