Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Considering the cultural context in teaching and learning for Korean tertiary students by western teachers

Marianne Cronin
Student Academic Support Unit
Edith Cowan University
As a result of increasing economic progress in South Korea, more Korean students are travelling abroad for academic purposes. Until recently, knowledge about Korean students has been limited and sometimes subject to narrow and sometimes, unduly restricted and biased views. Though not readily apparent, Korean students display some fascinating and unique culture-specific behaviours and psycho-social nuances, the knowledge and understanding of which can facilitate and enhance the quality of teaching and learning.

This paper will report on an action research study focusing on work at Edith Cowan and Chung-Ang universities, examining Korean tertiary students' and Western teachers' conceptions of learning and instruction. These conceptions will be closely linked to cultural constructs. Evidence of a mismatch between Korean students' expectations and those of Australian teachers will also be discussed. To highlight this, several examples of the cultural specific behaviours will be described, and these will be linked to appropriate teaching methodology. The research is theoretically based on humanistic-affective and socio-cultural paradigms and aims to dispel any notions of stereotyping and value judgments.

Teaching in Korea expanded both my experience and my world view. As Friendrich Nietzsche explained;

Ultimately, no-one can extract from things, books included, more than is already known. What one has no access to through experience one has no ear for.
On one of my first days of teaching an English class in Korea to tertiary Korean students, I randomly divided the students into groups of four and set a discussion task. To encourage spontaneity I stepped aside for a few minutes and then returned to their progress. Moving from group to group I heard the following; "My name is... I'm studying ... I come from.... My family... I enquired about this and was told, "We don't know each other." Even though we had practised introductions in other group activities there were now new group configurations and they "needed to introduce each other first." I discovered that by Confucian tradition it is extremely important to establish status and that until formal introductions are made, the students are considered to be non-persons (Hur & Hur, 1988, p.37). Thus here my students were accommodating both my instructions and adhering to their important Korean tradition.

Another situation occurred shortly afterwards. I provided a choice of debate topics and then asked the students for their decision. One by one the response was "I don't mind... I don't care." I delved further. "No professor has ever given us a choice before. The professor is the expert." I took note. My world view was expanding. I began to reflect and read about the captivating and complex background of my Korean students.

This paper focuses on three areas;

  1. Aspects of an action research study at Edith Cowan and Chung-Ang universities, examining Korean students' and Western teachers' conceptions of learning and instruction
  2. Reflections of cultural implications in teaching Korean tertiary students
  3. Discussion of ways to address the cultural issues and ideas to facilitate the teaching and learning process
One of the reasons for an in-depth exploration of my teaching experience was that I found that teaching Korean students was a very different experience for me that teaching Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian or other Asian students. There are significant differences in the expectations and learning styles which are influenced by the unique cultural background of the Korean students. Certainly there are similarities to other Asian students but it would be unsatisfactory and deleterious to the quality of learning for Korean students to consider them in an identical way. This is supported by Volet and Kee (1993, p.1) who, in a comprehensive study of Singapore students, also recognise the importance of acknowledging individual differences and reject a stereotypical view of overseas students.

A strong feature which still influences Korean society and which contributes to a distinctive cultural flavour is Confucianism. It is beyond the scope of this document to describe fully this philosophy and its links with Korean behaviours in the classroom, however, awareness of the frequent close ties is important. The philosophical tradition persists despite many economic, political and sociological changes occurring in Korea at present.

In addition, though some Korean students may express complete disinterest in Confucianism, they still remain bound by its approach to disciplinary habits of work and study, life and play (Korean Overseas Information Service, 1993, p. 128). For instance, after returning to Australia I received a letter from one of my students stating that he would like to be my friend. He said he had felt uncomfortable about the idea whilst I was in Korea because the Confucian tradition prevents persons with a large age difference, as well as being teacher and student, becoming friends. This links with the strongly perceived hierarchical status in most relationships. Only between two friends, usually of similar age, is there a sense of equality (Macdonald, 1990, p.16). Furthermore, given names are rarely used, reserved for family and close friends. Hence this is probably why I am receiving letters with "Hi Cronin!"

Several cultural factors of significance became apparent during my teaching experience in Korea. Some, such as bowing, personal questions and smiling became evident during social situations. Others such as introductions, class status and gender differences were identified during class activities. Psycho-social traits such as noonchi, chemyon and uri were ones which I explored further through research, particularly by two Korean academics, Choi Soo-Hyang and Choi Sang Chin, as well as informal discussions to broaden my understanding of specific behaviour manifested by my students. Noonchi refers to "reading another's mind" and then using tact accordingly. Chemyon relates to "social face" and uri to the collective aspects of Korean society.

In order to increase my knowledge of ideas which would improve my teaching and enrich the learning environment of my students, I interviewed Korean students both in Korea and in Australia, seeking information, particularly on initial difficulties in learning English from Western teachers. Their main areas of concern related to a mismatch in expectations between student and teacher, initial language difficulties, misunderstandings relating to cultural differences and some adjustment difficulties in requirements to participate and employ academic critical thinking. The following are difficulties experienced by a sample of students at Edith Cowan:

  1. Understanding accent and intonation of the foreign teacher, and interpreting body language
  2. Adjusting to new modes of thinking and ways of presenting material
  3. Having fear of making mistakes and lack of confidence in speaking
  4. Experiencing unfamiliarity with decision making and requests for critical thinking
  5. Wanting to respect inherent Confucian status differences of both peers and teachers
  6. Being unaccustomed to independent academic thought with the teacher regarded as expert and learning experience as rote
  7. Overcoming traditional discouragement of participation and being able to ask questions in class
  8. Feeling concern at lack of understanding of Korean ways by foreign teachers
  9. Wishing to relate to the teacher on a more familiar basis but not knowing how
  10. Experiencing a mismatch between their expectations and goals, and those of the teacher
As well as interviewing some Korean students I also talked with some Western teachers who had Korean students in their classes. Most of the teachers with whom I had a discussion spoke of the students' respect for the teacher, politeness, enthusiasm, good nature, diligence and sense of humour. However, some of the teachers indicated that there were differences between teacher and student in understanding and expectations in the learning situation. They expressed aspects such as the situation of some students not being happy with seemingly "low level" or fun activities, the students were not used to being interactive and that, "We teach learning to learn but they have a different learning ethos."

What can be done to improve these situations? First and foremost I believe awareness, respect and practical consideration for particular Korean cultural behaviour is very important. This may reduce the incidence of misunderstandings and in addition, increase rapport. Secondly, sensitivity towards the behaviour and attitudes demonstrated by Korean students is necessary. Thirdly, making teaching and learning situations explicit by discussion and negotiation is also paramount.

Knowledge about some of the fascinating and unique features of Korean behaviour means that the learning environment can be established accordingly in classes of Korean students, or accommodations made in respect to individual Korean students. Moreover, in the planning of lessons acknowledgment needs to be made of student participation and decision making. Time needs to be taken before commencement of lessons to discuss common and disparate expectations, with a view to reaching a consensus and shared view of the goals of learning. Teaching learning strategies that enable students to monitor their own learning places the focus on the student to have responsibility and ownership.

Into the classroom we bring our world view; our personal perspective based on our experiences, beliefs and values. This world view may be inappropriate or inadequate in another culture and require adaptation and broadening. A prior knowledge and understanding of some Korean history, culture; including language background, and some knowledge about the psychological makeup of Korean people can facilitate the interactive process in teaching and learning with Korean students. However, it is also important to have a willingness to reach out and adapt to others in addition to this understanding. A cultural sensitivity is paramount for enhancing quality of communication conducive to learning.

Finally, to quote a Korean proverb; it is undesirable and limiting to be like a frog in a well . A broad, open-minded world view is far more enriching.


Hollingdale, R. J. (Ed.) (1977). A Nietzsche Reader. New York: Penguin.

Hur, S. V. & B. S. (1988). Culture Shock: Korea. Singapore: Times Books International.

Korean Overseas Information Service (1993). A handbook of Korea. Seoul.

Macdonald, D. S. (1990). The Koreans: Contemporary politics and society. (2nd Ed.) Oxford: Westview Press.

Volet, S. E. & Kee, J. P. (1993). Studying in Singapore-Studying in Australia: A student perspective. Perth: Murdoch University.

Please cite as: Cronin, M. (1995). Considering the cultural context in teaching and learning for Korean tertiary students by western teachers. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p53-56. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/cronin.html

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