Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Can the different learning expectations of Australian and Asian students be reconciled in one teaching strategy?

Francis Conlan
Department of Language Studies
Edith Cowan University

The move towards communicative foreign language teaching at the tertiary level necessitates student involvement in the learning process - participation in task-solving activities, information gap activities and interactive exercises such as interviewing fellow classmates etc. The recent phenomenon of accommodating large numbers of "international" or "overseas" students, for the most part Asian - by and large oriental - and then mostly Chinese (either overseas Chinese or mainland Chinese) students with variant levels of command of the English language and the kanji syllabry, in Japanese language courses means that the instructor is presented with a cultural dichotomy in terms of pupils to be taught. Without question thought has to be given to differences in explicit cultural views and attitudes when approaching language teaching in the communicative setting. McLoughlin (1995) has made this point emphatically in relation to student assessment.

The appearance of significantly increased numbers of Asian students in classrooms is a universal phenomenon in tertiary institutions in Australia. It is incumbent on all instructors to consider the cultural background of all students when devising teaching and assessment strategies.

One aspect of this relates to different learning styles. Ballard and Clanchy (1991) suggest that generally speaking, Asian students tend towards using a reproductive approach to learning. This is dependant on memorisation and rote learning. By contrast students with a Western upbringing, including traditional Australian students, often rebel against memorisation as a teaching strategy, favouring an approach which encourages questioning, understanding concepts rather than knowing facts, analysing rather than rote learning. Australian students are often encouraged to search for new ways of looking at things or at the very least to grasp an overall major concept even if this is at the expense of detail. Australian students, I have found, generally show less reluctance to accepting student-centred participatory instruction than do Asian students.

This would tend to support the view held by Ballard and Clanchy (1991) who, in acknowledging the Eastern/Western distinction in terms of conceptualising teaching/learning attitudes, explain that the differences in approach are due to different basic attitudes towards knowledge and its function in society. Whereas to "know" something, for Asian students, often means "to remember it" or "to be able to repeat/reproduce/recite it", for Australian students it means "to have grasped its concept" or "to have analysed its workings and to have understood its place in relation to other disciplines". Asian students learn knowledge through correct ways of studying texts and studying correct texts. There is a "right" and a "wrong". The duty of the student is to obtain knowledge and acquire wisdom and it is expected that the teacher will impart the required knowledge fully and clearly. Australian students are encouraged to develop as independent learners for whom understanding (questioning, analysing, evaluating, criticising) is more important than remembering facts in isolation. ("This is what we have. Let's analyse it. What is it? How does it relate to other learning?")

Certainly with foreign language training Asian students display a tendency to learn by rote in order to acquire information thoroughly. Chalmers and Volet (1995) suggest that later on, having rote learned relevant facts, they put their energies towards analysing the information which then leads to a deep understanding. This is not to say that their learning strategies are shallow or ineffective. On the contrary, in certain areas of assessment they consistently pull in very good results. Western (in the Australian context) students, by contrast, if unable to grasp basic concepts in a discipline, are apt to fall by the wayside with no facts remembered and nothing else to prove they were ever even enrolled in a course of instruction.

Reconciling the pedagogical needs of the teacher and the learning expectations of students can prove a thorny area at the best of times. The problem is compounded when the teacher is faced with the additional task of attempting to reconcile two variant sets of learning experiences - those of Asian students and those of Australian students.

Is it indeed a case of acknowledging that "East is East and West is West" when formulating teaching strategies, thus applying separate strategies in one teaching area, or is it possible to formulate a common teaching strategy which can be successfully applied to a heterogeneous class of Australian and Asian students? The dilemma I face as a foreign language teacher is that of, after establishing different learning requirements and sets of student expectations, finding a way to attain the teaching goals, as stated in unit outlines, with all class members while applying a common teaching strategy.

My teaching philosophy is that there is no teaching without learning and that the teaching/learning environment should be enjoyable for both instructor and pupils. Lessons should be professionally satisfying for the instructor and stimulating and challenging for the pupils. In terms of designing a course to suit a heterogeneous class it is necessary to aim to present varied lessons providing elements of both the "chalk and talk" approach to teaching and the interactive student-centred approach.

Fine tuning the balance between these two approaches can be the key to successful course design in my opinion. By stating this I acknowledge that it is evident that certain students (noticeably those from mainland China) appear uncomfortable when being placed in the position of being expected to be active in class by participating in interactive exercises. Equally importantly I acknowledge that the discomfort of such students, if not controlled, can have an effect on the overall execution of the class. Combining the teaching methodology of the "traditional lecture" (teacher-centred) with the teaching philosophy of the "traditional tutorial" (where participation is the key word) allows a satisfactory level of success to be obtained when looking at the overall execution of the lesson. What may well be happening, however, is that both the Asian and Australian blocs (formed in different sections of the classroom) in the class may be having their teaching expectations and learning requirements met from different sources. It could be possible that each bloc values certain different aspects of the lecture presentation and that certain other aspects of the methodology employed are not so highly valued. Thus it is that in planning a course design the instructor who deals with a mixed class of Asian and Australian students should be constantly aware of the possibility of alienating either the pro-active learning or the pro-passive learning protagonists. Even more importantly the course presenter should be acutely aware that in attempting to strike the happy medium the reality often is that you run the risk of falling between 2 stools and in the worst scenario at times pleasing no-one and alienating everyone. Alternating teacher-centred explanations with student-centred activities seems to strike a balance.

As in all teaching situations individual differences do occur and it is necessary to avoid making sweeping generalisations in relation to cultural background and attitude to study. It is necessary to acknowledge and recognise individual differences amongst students in the "Asian bloc" and likewise in the "Australian bloc". There are some naturally taciturn Australian students who shy away from the opportunity to use the target language in a communicative setting, although such students are few. Likewise amongst students from the "Asian bloc" in the classroom there are individuals who take to communicative activities as readily as they do to taking notes and listening to explanations. Generally speaking, however, the "Asian bloc" of students is less homogeneous than the "Australian bloc". For example Chinese students from Singapore and Malaysia certainly display different basic attitudes to foreign language studies compared to students from mainland China. In communicative classroom settings the Chinese students generally, and the mainland Chinese in particular, seem to display a natural hesitancy in terms of reacting to the situation being acted out. For some Asian students there is an evident reluctance to make verbal responses and to participate actively. When mainland Chinese students eventually are forced into the situation where it is clear to them that the teacher's expectation is that responses will be given, a tendency towards "expressing taciturnity" is sometimes manifest. This impasse can be approached by the student in a number of ways:

  1. response by either gesture or body language
  2. response by facial expression (smiling) and doing nothing much else and
  3. response by using Chinese or English as the situation might demand. The teacher's desired outcome - response in the target language - can remain an elusive goal.

a. Response by gesture

Responding by gesture is better than giving no response at all and in some situations it is quite sufficient for a gesture alone to constitute an acceptable response. In many more situations the gesture would normally be accompanied by a linguistic response (an utterance), or vice-versa. In most situations the linguistic response alone is the most natural form of response and indeed the most appropriate. Thus, while the instructor must be prepared to accept gesture as a meaningful and useful tool in assisting and facilitating communication when observing pair work in a role play situation, he should not allow it to substitute for the spoken word in a foreign language teaching situation.

b. Response by facial expression

In the case of response by silent smiling, it is sometimes felt by the lecturer that the smile could be masking embarrassment or perplexity. This supports the findings of Gudykunst and Young (1984). More often, however, the feeling is that the smile is used to cover or express an inability to answer. I suspect that foreign language instructors could easily succumb to the idea that the smile (during role play exercises) is being used as a natural expression or response by the student to the social situation he is supposed to be in rather than to the pedagogical predicament he is actually in. To misinterpret the facial expression response to a role play situation as being a fully fledged social response which can justifiably take the place of an oral response in too many situations is to allow students with very little or no linguistic communicative competence to move ahead in a course without them proving their ability. The problem here is one of detection. With only one instructor circulating amongst many pairs of students working on a given task it can be the case that for the short period the smiler/nodder is observed, the lack of any meaningful spoken utterance can pass by almost unnoticed. Facial expressions, while a natural part of communication, are no substitute for words in language classes. Here it should be pointed out that Asian students sometimes seem to believe that during role play exercises in the target language their "listening ability" (aural comprehension) is what is being tested and that demonstrating they've understood what has been said is the sole point of the exercise.

c. Response by resorting to a familiar, common tongue

It is sometimes observed that students, when pressed for a spoken response to a role play situation, appear ruffled at the instructor's insistence that the spoken response should be in the target language. Resorting to a familiar tongue to respond is a convenient 'short-cut' for a proportion of Asian students in the situation outlined above where desire to immediately prove one's listening skills is more assuring than attempting to use the target language to respond.

I have identified 3 strategic phases in terms of endeavouring to homogenise mixed classes where interpersonal relationships are necessary for the successful execution of communicative exercises, including role play. To give the argument an appropriate practical setting I will outline a classroom scenario recently witnessed. I believe this scenario is not atypical.

The instructor, always mindful of the professional requirement not to appear to favour or disfavour any individual or group in the class, knows that it is necessary for all students to realise that all are being offered equally the opportunity to capitalise on the learning opportunity being presented. To this end, phase one of the strategy to introduce a common teaching plan was introduced. During language classes I initially allowed students to freely select their partners when "information gap" exercises were being conducted. This usually meets with only limited success in the first week or so as all students have natural inhibitions when it comes to striking up conversations with new people. Very soon most students lost their inhibitions and the exercise proceeded smoothly for most of the class members. The few students who didn't readily find a partner were encouraged to partner themselves with their friends or the person sitting next to them. With East being East and West being West the European and Asian faces were, for the most part, congregated on different sides of the room. The result was that European partnerships and Chinese partnerships were established. This indicated successful application of the teaching strategy in the short term. The problem was that these partnerships would become unbreakable.

The second phase of the strategy to encourage a student-centred learning environment based on student interaction was now to be ushered in . This was because the Chinese students, who were not openly enthusiastic about student centred learning, managed to join like-minded partners. In some instances the more hesitant or reticent one managed to influence the partner in such a way that they were happy to sit with each other smiling and looking at the front of the room. Typically hands would be clasped and placed on the lap or the desk. It was now necessary for the instructor to specifically give the request that students should seek a partner with whom they didn't normally associate. The Australians moved around the room prepared to exchange partners. Several ventured across the room and approached Chinese groups only to return to their own half of the room unable to find a partner.

The third phase of the exercise designed to find a common teaching strategy that all would feel comfortable with was embarked upon. As instructor I took it upon myself to nominate pairs, paying attention to the combinations with an eye to achieving an appropriate balance between teacher-directed and student-centred strategies. An uneasiness with the situation, when perceived, is the cue to move on with another aspect of instruction.

The real life situation referred to above illustrates fundamental differences between Asian and Australian students in perceived educational needs and student expectations and attitudes in terms of level of preparedness to co-operate in new approaches to teaching.

For the teacher who enjoys his work engendering enthusiasm for any particular approach to teaching is usually easy enough with a homogeneous student population which shares common expectations. Satisfying the academic needs of one's students is important in terms of obtaining personal job satisfaction. Satisfying the requirements of the syllabus and meeting the course objectives while satisfying the expectations of all students should be the instructor's goals. Making all students realise that they are both learning and getting value for money is important. Whether these goals can be met in a heterogeneous class employing a single teaching strategy is a question which more and more academics will face in the future with mixed classes becoming the norm across disciplines.


Ballard and Clanchy (1991). Teaching Students from Overseas. Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.

Chalmers D. and Volet, S. (in press). South East Asian Students Learning in Australian. Higher Education Research and Development Journal.

Gudykunst W. B. and Young Yun Kim (1984). Communicating with Strangers - an approach to Intercultural Communication. McGraw-Hill, New York.

McLoughlin C. (1995). Assessment in Multicultural Settings. Teaching and Learning Committee, Murdoch University.

Please cite as: Conlan, F. (1996). Can the different learning expectations of Australian and Asian students be reconciled in one teaching strategy? In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p41-45. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/conlan.html

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