Helping Chinese Students Transition for Academic Success

A number of reports in the past months have highlighted rising numbers of students from China, and rising efforts by US institutions to recruit them. A recent article in USA Today profiled some of the challenges faced both by the universities and by the students transitioning into an American institution.

Mark Parker, assistant provost at University of Maryland University College, offers advice on helping Chinese students who are new to your institution navigate some of the intercultural challenges they may face.

First, Let Them Know What to Expect

"The most efficient and cost-effective thing that a university can do is to build on the model of the ESL program that institutions typically offer to international students. In addition to addressing the language barrier, add material to address specific cultural challenges."
Mark Parker, UMUC

While English proficiency might be the most obvious challenge, subtle cultural barriers may prove to be larger obstacles. For example, in a US classroom, it is expected and valued that students will challenge the professor, ask provocative questions, and participate actively in the learning experience. Students from other educational systems, however, may bring different expectations to the classroom. For instance, in a more collectivist culture like China, it may be expected that the student will reiterate the professor's words, and that learning occurs through a process of repetition and memorization.

Parker recommends designing programming to brief international students on:

  • Expectations for a student's role in classroom learning
  • Expectations around intellectual property and academic honesty
  • Other academic policies around degree completion, incompletes, etc.
  • Unpack all the jargon (credit hours, semester hours) and to the greatest extent possible "unclutter" the terminology for students who are new to the American system

"The earlier you start familiarizing these students with these expectations, the fewer issues will occur down the road," Parker remarks. This could mean beginning with a new student orientation designed specifically for students who were educated in other cultures and are studying at your college for the first time. It could mean creating an online student orientation.

Make It Mandatory

It may be tempting to offer much of this material as an elective seminar, but Parker advises making at least the initial orientation (whether in-person or online) mandatory.

"This ensures that students begin at your institution with a shared, base understanding of the expectations at an American institution. This is the best way to set them up for success."
Mark Parker, UMUC

Make the orientation mandatory, but also design it carefully, and not as a lecture. Set the right tone. "You want this to be low-stress, low-pressure, an orientation, not a course with grades. As soon as your students are in a classroom with someone with a doctorate degree, whether online or in a physical classroom, cultural conditioning may kick in. American students would know they can be informal; your international students may not."

Provide an Academic Integrity Lab

Cultures differ -- sometimes in jarring ways -- in their approach to intellectual property. "Our idea that a person owns her own thoughts and words," Parker warns, "would be considered ridiculous in some parts of the world, in which your words belong not to you but to your society." Students from China may not be used to our expectations around citation and the appropriate use of sources.

Parker recommends offering a virtual academic integrity lab. Your information and library services office could assemble free online training programs that lead students step by step through both some clear guidelines and case scenarios, helping them see how to avoid committing inadvertent plagiarism.

"Build this into your existing curriculum. For example, this could be a component of your first-year English program, in which students complete the lab, receive an electronic certificate, and are then assigned credit by the instructor."
Mark Parker, UMUC

Form a Mixed International Student Group

Besides an orientation and an academic integrity lab, Parker recommends being very intentional about the design of an institution-sponsored international student group. This opportunity to help students connect, transition, and learn solutions to common challenges from each other can be an ideal strategy for increasing the chances of Chinese students for success at a US university, but there are less effective and more effective ways to do it.

Parker notes that there are three general approaches that universities take:

  • The "sink or swim" approach
  • The cultural cohort approach
  • The middle ground approach: a mixed international group

The first approach involves simply throwing Chinese students in with their US counterparts and forcing them to thrive as best they can. The second approach, in which students are encouraged to draw heavily on the support of their own cultural group, "deprives them of the enrichment of interacting with representatives from other cultures."

Between these extremes, the "middle ground" and more effective option involves bringing together students from diverse nations and cultures. Consider forming a structured group that provides a "safe space" for Chinese students to interact with other students from different cultural backgrounds who may be facing the same challenges in their transition into an American university.

"Some universities actually take this idea to the extent of providing a dormitory or living hall in which visiting international students reside, thoroughly "mixed" in terms of their nationalities. A Chinese student might be assigned to a room with a student from sub-Saharan Africa."
Mark Parker, UMUC

If yours is not a residential campus or if your institution is not prepared to make that level of investment, you might consider a year-long co-curricular activity for international students. Reading programs and other structured first-year activities for traditional freshmen are now fairly common. The same principle could be adapted to the needs of a more specialized student group.

Words to the Wise

When asked what to be careful of, Parker offered some thoughts on opening better lines of communication within your institution:

  • Even as you provide orientation for Chinese students, make sure there is an opportunity to educate your faculty about the expectations students from that culture may bring to the classroom
  • It can be easy to rush to the judgment that a student who is not a native speaker will have many barriers to academic success; "encourage faculty and staff to avoid the assumption that a student for whom English is a second language will not be able to master the material"
  • Review your academic honesty and plagiarism policies

Plagiarism policies rarely differentiate between intentional and unintentional plagiarism. Parker recommends studying your plagiarism cases -- how many of them are from students whose nation of origin took a collectivist approach to knowledge and learning? Try to determine, if you can, whether a high rate of plagiarism may have social and cultural causes. This data may lead you to develop a more aggressive academic integrity orientation, or to make the academic integrity lab mandatory.

Send the Right Message

Finally, make sure to stay focused on the benefits of having students from China at your institution, not the obstacles. "Don't be scared of your international students, welcome them, focus on how their participation at your institution will enrich the academic experience for all of your students and for the faculty." This recognition needs to inform both the design and the message of your orientation and other efforts. Preventive measures such as an orientation or a virtual academic integrity lab need to send an upbeat message to your students and staff. Keep the focus on setting students up for academic success, not on fixing "problems" or "barriers."