Thursday, March 22, 2012

Are Chinese students respectful and well behaved? How do I deal with problem Chinese students?

In an on-line forum an American college ESL educator recently commented,  ""I think that it is interesting that many people say that Chinese students "adore their foreign English teachers". I wonder what happens to them when they come to the USA to study? I have had some very good students who do respect me and the other nationalities in their American classrooms, but I have had others who show no respect. They don't come to class because they figure they can stay home and study for the TOEFL and hope that they pass. They don't think that homework assignments should be completed on time. I have had some females who refuse to speak in a Speaking and Listening class."

I replied as follows,
What you are seeing are some cultural differences and differences in expectations between Western and Chinese education. I teach graduate students at a major university in China and these are all things I struggle with. I am definitely NOT saying that you should tolerate these things but that you should not necessarily interpret them as disrespectful. You specifically mention students who: 

1) do not attend class 
2) instead focus on home self-study for the TOEFL exam 
3) do their homework late or not at all 
4) students, female students, who refuse to speak in class. 

Been there, done that, in all these cases.

First, some background.

In Chinese higher education, the emphasis is on taking tests to enter institutions. Once one is in the institution what is important is your relationship with your advisor (they sometimes mistranslate this as "tutor") and this is more important than class performance. Most Chinese students, by the time you see them, have had many years of mediocre to awful English classes with the primary purpose being to pass the tests and move up the educational ladder. Any actual learning or ability to use English from these classes almost coincidental and tangential to their focus which is test passing. Therefore many students do not attend class and a surprising number arrive late. I teach graduate student and tell them attendance is mandatory unless they talk to me about it.  No one has ever come to me and said "Your class is so easy I don't think it fits me."

OTOH. once  I make attendance expectations clear I do get a flurry of e-mails each week claiming doctor's app'ts, funerals, requests by their advisor that they skip my class and instead attend a meeting or host foreign visitors or whatever, or statements that they cannot come to my class due to all day laboratory experimental work requirements. In America, I would not accept some of these as valid excuses (and might call some of their advisors and question their judgement). Here I just accept it as the norm. (I tried to get them to meet my expectations.They tried to accom0odate me. Chinese norms got in the way. Fair enough, I figure.) I grade on attendance and homework. Then every semester I have a couple students who show up at the very end of class and say "Can I take the final?" and I say "No, you already failed the class." --and they get very surprised and upset. I say it was explained several times in class and on the syllabus that attendance is required. And they say something like "But I had a job during class and I had to go to work." And I say, "Well, you should have talked to me first,not afterwards."

And these are graduate students at the #3 university in China. Of the Chinese colleagues I've talked to some say they would fail them, others say they would not if they could pass the final. so if we accept the premise that class is optional, and the test is the imporant thing, then why should the students come to class instead of studying for the TOEFL test?--additionally, your class probably emphasizes communicative competence instead of the TOEFL test-- To a Chinese student this indicates that your class is focused wrong and is not preparing them to be competitive at the time and place they need it. Many standard activities in Western classrooms strike Chinese students as a waste of time. (i.e. conversation practice activities or "free talking." --they prefer being lectured and repeating things back.) 

I mentioned students who don't attend class. Often when I tell them that they failed the class, mentioning that they did no homework, they ask if they can do it now. I always say "no, it's too late," and this shocks them. (perhaps reinforcing their stereotype that Westerners are lacking in humanity and compassion). When they say "Why?" I shock them again by saying "You didn't attend the classes on how to do the homework. How will you do it?" and they say "I will have my friends help me." (which generally means they'll get their friends to do it for them.) But many Chinese professors, even at the best schools in China, do accept absurdly late homework. A fellow foreign professor was telling me not too long ago that he needs to e-mail a student who was e-mailing him homework from the semester AFTER the final exam and tell her not to bother. Finally, you mention female students (you specified female, not me) who refuse to speak in class. I make it clear that all students must speak in class and they do. I start the class with public speaking in front of the class. I call on everyone at some point in class.
Again, this is not a personal attack or a sign of disrespect. "Shyness" and insecurity are common among Chinese students, and issues of "face" and public performance are common as well. Also, honestly, a lot of Chinese students have been subjected to so much academic pressure in their lives, with this pathological intensity, they are often both somewhat damaged and very insecure and often do not know how to function in many social situations or other environments. This sounds very harsh and judgmental but I've seen it many times. If you have the time and aptitude try to deal with the student one-on-one privately in a caring manner and expect at times to get several answers that sound as if they are coming from someone much younger than a college student. Some Chinese students are essentially test takers who cannot function in any other setting, --and these students often know something is wrong but don't really know how to cope with the many problems they are suddenly facing. Additionally, it should be said that many Chinese students prefer to isolate themselves among Chinese students and therefore don't see English language as something they need for anything more than classwork (and probably assume passing the class, like in China, is focused more on passing the test and "breaking the code" than actually interacting and understanding professors).

Anyway, hope this is some help. There's several complex issues thrown in here,but please understand the behaviors you describe are not seen as disrespectful to the professor by a Chinese student. . As for students who refuse to speak in class. I recommended dealing with them one on one. Be prepared, when you do this, what some of these people will do is try to come across as so pitiful and helpless that you will make an exception for them. This is not socially appropriate in an academic setting in the USA, but this tactic has worked for these people many times in the past to achieve their goals which is one reason why they still do not know how to speak in class without feeling great discomfort. Be sympathetic but repeat several times that the university, like all universities in the USA, has rules and these rules cannot be broken, even by you, the professor. They are very important rules established by the university and all students must follow them to pass and the rules say that all students in your English must speak in class and not even you can change or ignore those rules or you could get in big trouble with the administration. Repeat this sympathetically until they realize you actually do mean it. Then promise them that the more they speak in class the easier it will get. But the important thing is that they try. Tell them that in your class if anyone laughs at them, then you, the professor will make sure that the student is told not to laugh at them and will be punished if they do it again. (i.e. simultaneously emphasize uniform expectations and that the classroom will be as safe a place for communication as you can make it.) Tell them participation in class discussions is expected in universities in the USA and can be as important to their grade in some classes as actually taking tests.

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