Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Assessing cross-cultural variations in student study approaches - an ethnographic approach

Joanna Tan and Jonathan Goh
The University of Western Australia
The influx of international students to Australian universities over the past decade has produced numerous studies on the cross-cultural issues concerning students' study and learning approaches. In the quest for improved understanding of student study approaches, educational researchers often encounter several major obstacles: (1) They are ignorant to the specific kinds of benefits the multicultural student demands, (2) they do not have reliable and valid instruments for student study approaches, and (3) they continue to overlook cultural variations, preferences and sensitivities of its members, including students, who possess distinct cultural identities. Ignoring the call for more robust research from a cross-cultural context, many studies have continued to conduct research on student study approaches without fully understanding or verifying the underlying cultural values that influence attitudes and behaviour. Consequently, explanations for student attitudes and behaviours are usually based on findings from other studies, stereotypes and assumptions. Acknowledging these problems in cross-cultural educational research, the aim of this paper is to explore the interaction of cultural values with student study attitudes and behaviour. In the endeavour to explicate multiple and unarticulated layers of interpretations of emergent and precise meaning of study approaches that tertiary students consider important across cultures, the authors propose an interpretive ethnographic approach in a naturalistic environment. Findings from a pilot ethnographic study will be presented and briefly discussed.


Australian universities today continue to celebrate cultural diversity among its members, including students who possess distinct cultural identities, and whose customs, practices, speech forms and values distinguish them from other groups. These educational institutions provide an excellent 'cultural laboratory' for researchers to investigate and explore the impact of culture on students' learning and study approaches. Though in recent times, there have been a number of researchers who have taken up the challenge in addressing cross-cultural issues concerning students' learning and studying approaches, there has been a lack of integration of educational research with that in the psychological and anthropological fields (e.g. Barker, Child, Gallois, Jones, Callan 1991; Christie 1985; Forgarty and White 1994; Niles 1995; Volet, Renshaw and Tietzel 1994). As a result, there is little systematic effort in investigating the impact of cultural values on the study approaches of international students, or examining the extent to which cultural values may be incompatible with current teaching curricula, methods and orientations (cf. Albert & Triandis 1985; Forgarty & White 1994). As a case in point, in the attempt to investigate the learning motivation and strategies between Australian and overseas students, Niles (1995), attributed the findings to cultural differences based on findings from other studies, stereotypes and theoretical assumptions without fully examining the cultural orientation of the student samples.

In recent times, one of the more popular formal models used in educational research to evaluate student motive and learning is the Biggs' (1987) Study Process Questionnaire (SPQ hereafter). The theoretical foundation of the SPQ instrument is accredited to the works of Ausubel (1968), Marton and Saljo (1976), and Pask (1976). Biggs' (1987) formulation of student study approaches are determined by three types of motivational elements (i.e. instrumental, intrinsic and achieving) and three types of learning strategies (i.e. utilising, internalising and achieving). Using student samples from Australia and the United Kingdom, Biggs found that there is generally a congruence between types of motivation and strategies. That is, students who endorse a particular type of motivation would employ a congruent learning strategy.

Problems associated with the Biggs' Study Process Questionnaire

Despite the wide application of and considerable empirical support for the Biggs' (1987) SPQ instrument, it contains several theoretical flaws. Firstly, the SPQ, like many psychological research instruments, is structured in ways that inadvertently exclude or distort cross-cultural outlooks. This instrument focuses largely on conceptual issues and underlying processes, while paying less attention to the more pragmatic task of measuring and improving student learning. In doing so, it fails to elucidate the multiple and unarticulated layers of interpretations of emergent and precise meaning of learning motivation and approaches across cultures.

Secondly, the development of the Biggs' (1987) SPQ instrument was based on Western views of student learning approaches, and has been used as an etic (cultural general) measurement of study approaches. From an anthropological perspective, this approach is inappropriate and inadequate in trying to understand how underlying emir (cultural specific) factors can affect student learning approaches. For instance, the SPQ questions relating to 'achievement' might generate misleading results as students from different cultures view achievement from different perspectives. It is similar to asking two students to sit for two different tests, and conclude that the one with the higher grade is the smarter of the two. A number of researchers who employed the SPQ instrument for cross-cultural validation of student learning approaches across Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Nepal, the Philippines and the United States, have overlooked cultural variations, preferences and sensitivities when enumerating the challenges and problems in understanding student study approaches (see Ballard and Clanchy 1984, Biggs 1990, Bradley and Bradley 1984, Gow and Kember 1990, Samuelowicz 1987; Volet and Kee 1993, Volet, Renshaw and Tietzel 1994).

In many of these studies, it was consistently reported that majority of Southeast Asian students are surface motivated and rely heavily on surface-level processes such as rote learning and memorisation. High surface motivated students are believed to be less critical, and would seldom question authority sources or work independently. On the other hand, Western students were found to score highly on deep motivation which imply that they were more likely to achieve for themselves and others and thus were more involved and absorbed in their studies. However, what does it mean when we make reference to 'Southeast Asian students,' 'international students,' 'overseas students,' 'local students' and 'Western students'. For instance, 'Southeast Asian students' may constitute students from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, Philippines, and Vietnam, who have different cultural backgrounds such as the Chinese, Malays and Indians. It is inconceivable to provide a valid discussion on the 'global' concept of Southeast Asian cultural values. Similarly, 'local students' in one study may constitute students from Australia with various cultural backgrounds such as British Australians, Greek Australians, Italian Australians, Chinese Australians, Vietnamese Australians and Croatian Australians.

In recent years, attempts have been made to redress these problems; however, explanations are still based on the items on the SPQ (e.g. Biggs 1996; Watkins & Biggs 1996). As a result, programs introduced to improve the teaching curricula through such studies are unlikely to work because they are based on a failure to take on the perspective and attitudes of the individuals served (Denzin 1989). This may prove damaging in terms of missed opportunities, undermining the universities' effectiveness and increased costs because without proper knowledge of different cultural rules, educators are unable to apply themselves appropriately as they move from one cultural scene to another (Spradley 1979). In light of this, tertiary educators who may be highly competent in their own cultures, would find sudden inadequacies in understanding and handling students from other cultures.

A proposed ethnographic approach

It is time therefore that educational researchers employ an interdisciplinary framework in identifying more clearly the different types of values that might provide the impetus for study approaches of students from diverse cultures (Albert & Triandis 1985; Kluckhohn 1951,1956). For this reason, we propose using ethnographic techniques which not only consider the perspectives and attitudes of people being studied, but also interpret behaviours and interactions in the context being studied to reveal participant meanings and perceptions. This approach renders access and encourages us to view our subjects as individuals, rather than individuals as subjects, who live fully contextualised lives in which one is human all the time and a student only part of the time. The aim of this paper is to improve the understanding of the impact of culture on student learning attitudes and behaviours from a cross-cultural context. We strongly posit that this technique can supplement quantitative methods, and provide a more in-depth analysis of how cultural orientation affects learning processes and reveal themes and problems quantitative methods are unable to elicit.

What do ethnographers study?

Ethnographers describe and interpret culture by reconstructing observed realities (Spindler 1982, Yates 1987). An ethnographer is interested in understanding and explicating patterns of action that are cultural and/or social rather than cognitive from the emir, or insider's, perspective (Denzin 1989; Fetterman 1989). Ethnography not only establishes the context and subjective experiences for particular groups of people, but also seeks to convey the comparative and interpreted etic cultural significance of this experience (Denzin 1989). Thus, it is evident that an ethnographic approach allows multiple interpretations of reality and alternative interpretations of data throughout the course of the study.

Culture and education are inextricably linked

Culture can be defined as the shared and learned meanings of a group of people, which are inferred and abstracted through similar values, beliefs, knowledge and other meanings held by these individuals (Haskett 1989; Homans 1950; Hudson 1980; Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1963; Newcomb 1961; Triandis 1972; Whyte 1959). Essentially, culture is the set of values and beliefs individuals employ to interpret and react to situations (Haviland 1990). It is important to note that this set of 'ideals, values, and standards' is the learned and shared behaviour (thoughts, acts and feelings) of a particular group of people. Behaviour is learned because it is transmitted socially rather than biologically; and shared in that it is performed by the whole population or part of it (Kneller 1965; Linton 1947). The key point to note is that although no two individuals of a society behave in exactly the same way, their behaviour would 'fall within a range of variance' that would constitute their culture as unitary and bounded (Palmer 1994:156). The focus here is that culture has an important effect on behaviour so that students belonging to the same ethnic or cultural (as opposed to national) group (Glazer & Moynihan 1975) and speaking the same language are more likely to share similar perceptions of their social realities and subjective cultural values.

Since the 1930's, cultural anthropologists have given a prominent place to the study of values as part of a comparative science of culture (e.g. Benedict 1934; Kluckhohn 1951). Values have been variously defined as the unconscious canons of choice (Benedict 1934), cultural themes (Opler 1945), the unconscious system of meanings (Sapir 1949), a worldview (Redfield 1953, Hsu 1981), and the central core of meaning (Kluckhohn 1956). Values are seen as the result of traditional ideas being transmitted historically, and the essential core of culture (Kroeber & Kluckhohn 1963; Sapir 1993; Schwartz & Bilsky 1987; Schwartz & Sagiv 1995; Schwartz 1992). As a result, every culture has a set of values that guide its peoples' actions and perceptions of what is good and bad. These cultural values serve as the criteria which the individual uses to select, justify and evaluate people (including self) and events (Kluckhohn 1951).

Essentially, culture and education are inextricably linked. Education, broadly understood, is seen as the means by which individuals are recruited to be members of a culture, and by which culture is maintained (Spindler 1974). In other words, education should be viewed as a process through which members of a society ensure that the behaviour necessary to continue their culture is learned (Spindler 1963:43). Therefore, the quintessential objective of the school is to produce individuals who can successfully function in their respective societies upon completion of their studies (Albert & Triandis 1985). As a result, in order to be able to cope with their pupils academically and socially, it is crucial for educators to have an understanding of how cultural values can affect students' study approaches. This will allow academic staff to provide culturally relevant educational materials which will not only assist the students in their academic progress (Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition 1986), but also help them function successfully in their culture upon return to their home country.

What are the techniques of ethnographic research?

Ethnographic educational evaluation is the process of applying ethnographic techniques and concepts, like fieldwork, participant observation, key informants, informal and semi-structured interviewing, to educational evaluation. However, ethnography is not just a form of data collection as ethnographers seek to maintain a cultural perspective. In other words, the 'ethnographic intent' is to make sense of the ways culture simultaneously constructs and is constructed by individual's actions and experiences (Wolcott 1984).

(A) Fieldwork and participant observation

Fieldwork in the form of participant observation may or may not be continuous. That is, in traditional Anthropological fieldwork, it usually involves the ethnographer staying at a field site for a period of a few weeks to a few years where they immerse themselves in the local community. The researcher not only learn the language(s), geography and social norm of the culture they study, but also join their hosts in their daily activities, learning the mundane details of everyday life, in order to achieve the native view of reality and establish the reliability of observations (Bernard 1988; Eggerton and Langness 1974; Hammersley and Atkinson 1983). In observing and participating in specific activities for a period of time, the researcher becomes more 'aware of the complexities and contradictions in what people say and in what they do' (Eggerton and Langness 1974, p. 30), and is able to make contextualised observations (Spindler 1982).

Not all fieldwork situations however permit extensive or prolonged participation observation, especially in applied research such as this, to live and work with students or have close, long-term contact with them. Nevertheless, frequent interactions with students can produce some interesting findings (for example, joining them for their tutorials, having lunches with them and attending group project meetings). This is because prolonged and repetitive observation in a situational context also increases the possibility of spontaneously encountering important moments in people's daily lives (Fernandez 1986). This helps counter the problem of reactivity where the researcher' presence in the field might affect what informants say or how they behave (Eggerton and Langness 1974), because over time, people will find it more difficult to conceal behaviour that reflect actual beliefs, values, attitudes, perceptions, and expectations. In addition, some of the cultural knowledge affecting behaviour and communication may be implicit or tacit, not known to some of the natives and known only ambiguously to others. For that reason, asking informants to comment about what they think they usually do or say as in interviews, or asking them to generalise about their behaviour as in survey research, would prove futile. Instead, by focusing on naturally occurring patterns of behaviour, ethnography provides a perspective in action that manifests internalised cultural norms, values and beliefs (Snow & Anderson 1987). In other words, ethnography makes what is implicit to informants explicit.

Ethnographic research also produces interpretations of behaviours which the cultural groups being studied and the intended audience find credible (Arnould & Wallendorf 1994; Lincoln & Guba 1984). Informants rarely view their behaviours that are described in ethnographies objectively. That is, they consider their behaviour as personal and subjective rather than analyse them as social or cultural phenomena. Despite this, ethnographies may be able to convince the people studied of their credibility (Lincoln & Guba 1984) and the intended reading audience of their trustworthiness (Wallendorf & Belk 1989). According to Sanjek (1990), there are three canons which researchers can use to assess ethnographic reports: (1) theoretical candour, (2) transparent representation of the researcher's path through data collection, and (3) congruence between ethnographic interpretations and field note evidences. Essentially, ethnographic research credibility is most likely to be achieved by pluralistic interpretations (e.g. triangulation) that embrace and explain cultural variations (Tedlock 1983). Instead of employing multiple data sources to achieve convergence in interpretations, ethnographers use them to generate varying perspectives on the behaviours and context of interest. Thus, ethnographic interpretations tend to account for the coexistence of divergent perspectives identified in data discovered using multi-layered methods within a cultural context (Arnould and Wallendorf 1994).

(B) Interviews and the collection of live data

Participation observation alone, however, cannot provide a rich portrait of the cultural phenomenon. Researchers must also acknowledge the expressive power of language through interviewing. For instance, a researcher does not observe a student reading a textbook in order to understand the techniques used in reading or how a student absorb information. However, the researcher might be more successful by interviewing students and asking them about the reading and studying techniques. In this sense, such ethnographic information is obtained second hand because the ethnographer is unable to observe directly what is happening, but rather people talk about something that has happened. This would indelibly affect the validity of the research. To overcome this, ethnographers talk to a number of people about the hidden behaviour, anticipating to elicit recognisable explanatory factors from these informants (Spindler 1982).

There are four general types interviews: structured, semi-structured, informal and retrospective. Although these various types of interviews have been discussed as isolated and separate data collection techniques in the anthropological and sociological literature, in practice they actually overlap and blend (Bernard 1988; Fetterman 1989). Formally structured and semi-structured interviews are verbal approximations of a questionnaire with categorical and specific research questions on student learning attitudes and behaviours. Typically, ethnographers employ a semi-structured interview technique where open-ended questions are asked to elicit emir meanings of how the informants construct their world and structured questions are asked to gain information on readily quantifiable phenomena that are statistically analysed such as demographics, and grades (Bennett & Thaiss 1970). Spindler & Spindler (1987) caution that when conducting interviews, the researcher should keep in mind that the informant is one who has the emir, native cultural knowledge, and not predetermine responses by the kinds of questions asked. Spindler & Spindler (1987) further recommend that the interview be conducted in ways that promote the revelation of emir cultural knowledge in its most heuristic, natural form. Unlike structured and semi-structured interviews, informal interviews have a specific and implicit agenda - mixing casual conversations and embedded questions (Fetterman 1989). The objective is to have natural conversation with people and solicit answers. The informal interviews did not involve any specific types or order of questions and could progress much as a normal conversation. Finally, there is the retrospective interviewing. Even though this technique does not elicit the most accurate information, it was necessary to ask informants to recall recent learning approaches. It was posited that the manner in which individuals shaped the past highlighted their values and revealed the configuration of their world views (Fetterman 1989).

In order to collect 'live' data, the ethnographer also uses aids such as note-taking, tape recorders, video cameras, and cameras. These aids allow the ethnographer to record carefully and systematically the informant's behaviour and explanation for that behaviour. First, with the use of tape recordings, researcher and informant(s) are able to engage in lengthy informal or semi-structured interviews without the disruption of manual note-taking. They effectively capture long verbatim quotations while a natural conversational flow is maintained. Second, video recordings provide the opportunity to analyse and uncover new layers of meaning through visual and verbal patterns of communication. Finally, photographs allow for the retrospective interpretation of events, producing information that were unnoticed at that time and according a sense of immediacy.

A case in point

The results in the following discussion are from a study in a university setting using ethnographic techniques to explicate rich and 'thick' descriptions of how culture affects the learning behaviour of students (Geertz 1973). In this particular study, we concentrated on three groups of students, the Singaporean Chinese, the Malaysian Chinese and the Anglo-Saxon Australians. Over a period of three months, the authors observed undergraduate student behaviour in their various naturalistic settings at the University of Western Australia, including tutorials, lectures, group project discussions and interactions in the refectory. Besides discretely observing the actions of students, we participated in activities when and where appropriate, such as tutorial and project group discussions or having a meal or drink at the library coffee shop. Students volunteers were also interviewed to find out their views and experiences on learning.

In ethnographic research, research problems are defined at the start but judgement on what may be significant to study in depth is deferred until the orienting phase of the field study has been completed and emergent themes are observed (Spindler & Spindler 1987). Therefore, we did not specify a sample a priori. Instead we employed an emergent sampling design with a serial selection of sample units that has been called judgmental (Bailey 1978; Fetterman 1989), theoretical (Glaser & Strauss 1967), and purposive sampling (Lincoln & Guba 1985). Each sample unit was selected on the basis of our experience with students previously sampled. The students are generally people who are stratified by their genders, cultural backgrounds and ages. This approach required us to ask simple questions about what the students think or do. The emergent design permitted continuous adjustment of the sample to focus on those issues that are most relevant for developing or testing an interpretation until repetition of information is achieved.

The research generated some interesting insights into the different perceptions and behaviour of students. Here, we offer an indication by focusing on tutorials and group work. With regards to tutorials, we found that the Chinese students had a strong need to belong to the in-group in that they generally attempted to sign up for the same sessions. One of the recurring reasons was that our informants felt more comfortable speaking up because they would have ka ki lang (literally translated to 'own people') in their groups. These students had also learned either from past students or through their own past experiences that Australians are generally lazy and do not come prepared for their tutorials or show up for group project meetings. One of our informants (M'sia 11) said that she felt more comfortable speaking up in a class consisting of majority Asians because the Australian students are very aggressive and that she felt intimidated because she perceived that even though the Australian students did not come prepared ('Their note pad has nothing written on them'), they could still '...rely on their general knowledge and answer off hand'. Although, some of our informants concede that this might be a misconception resulting from different styles of studying - 'Asians are more rigid; Australians are more interactive' (S'pore 10), they feel that it is 'difficult to break the established norms' (M'sia 7)

The need to conform within the in-group is also reflected in their preference in choosing people they know and an emphasis on group harmony when conducting group projects.

'I'll pick people I know because I'm more comfortable with them.' (M'sia 5)
'Security is of key importance to us Asians.' (S'pore 7)
'Unity is power (Confucian Chinese saying).' (S'pore 5)
Where there is disagreement, these students would rather employ an indirect approach to put their point across in order to maintain harmony within the group. We also found that in group project discussions, decisions were usually made based on consensus rather than through the debating of ideas. The following comment generally represent the non-confrontational attitude of the Chinese students toward group dynamics:
I'll say 'Yah, your view is good, but probably we can consider this too?'(S'pore 2)
'I'll say "Is that so?...I must admit I don't know about this topic as much as you do, but M-a-y-b-e we should consider this instead."' (S'pore 3)
These findings reflect a Chinese orientation which emphasises the need to conform to tradition. In many Chinese societies, where in-group solidarity and acceptance are highly valued, individuals are taught from a young age to conform to social norms and social standards because their behaviours will ultimately reflect on the in-group (Ho 1988).

Comparatively, the Australian students are quite comfortable working with people that they do not know in group projects. They seemed more interested in getting people with the knowledge and skills in certain areas, rather than asking friends to work in the group. The most important thing with group projects is to get the assignment done, '[with reference to the group members] I don't really care if we become good friends but getting the 'right' people to do the job is more important than getting friends who cannot work!' (Oz 3).

We also found the Chinese students tended to feel comfortable with a more structured form of learning whereas the Australian students preferred a more interactive mode. One example is the reliance on textbooks and reference books. In one tutorial observation, when the tutor asked students to explain a concept, the Chinese students started flipping the pages of their textbooks while one Australian student voiced that he was not able to provide a definition but would be able to give an illustration of the concept. In project discussion sessions, we also noticed that the discussion was based according to the textbook or reference book. The Chinese students also tended to delineate their responsibilities very clearly and took turns to talk about their area of work. In addition, they view neatly written or typed out notes as an indication of the amount of effort expanded on the task. One Chinese student even commented that her Australian group member was always not prepared as she had her notes written on pieces of recycled paper.

The role of the tutor and lecturer was also viewed differently by the different groups of students. Many of our Chinese informants viewed the tutor as someone who imparts knowledge and instructs and should take the initiative to direct students in tutorials and assignments. In addition, even though the Chinese students in this study appreciated approachability and friendliness, they generally viewed academics as figures of authority. One particular informant frequently referred to us as Mr. Goh and Ms. Tan even after repeated requests not to do so. These findings could be attributed to the fact that many Chinese societies are based on a clearly defined hierarchical structure, requiring the young to respect and learn from their elders (Yau 1988).

In contrast, the Australian students said they perceived tutors as people with the knowledge to guide them through their education who are not necessarily better than them. These students were more likely to de-emphasise compliance and obedience, while placing higher importance on self-direction and internalised values (Hsu 1971) and thus less hesitant to question what was being taught to them. Similar findings were discovered in Feather's (1986) study, where it was found that Australian students did not relate to such values as respect and self-restraint.


In this paper, we have outlined the shortcomings of current cross-cultural research on student learning and have in turn suggested the engaging of ethnographic techniques to enhance our understanding of student learning from the insider's point of view. This type of multi-layered qualitative research would assist education practitioners and researchers at two levels. First, it provides a rich understanding of the structures and consequences of learning approaches, as well as the texture, activities, and processes occurring in the day-to-day operations in a educational setting. Second, ethnographic narratives allows researchers to discover issues and problems not evident at the quantitative level.


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Please cite as: Tan, J. and Goh, J. (1999). Assessing cross-cultural variations in student study approaches - an ethnographic approach. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 409-416. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/tan.html

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