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Chinese International Students and Social Cultural Learning

Whit E. Peters

Colorado State University

Adult Teaching and Learning

EDAE 624

Karen Kaminski

April 24th, 2018



Mainland Chinese students studying in western countries often report great difficulty in

adapting to western educational system, both academically and socially. Besides the culture

shock experienced in simply living in another country, this group is also faced with assimilating

into an educational system with entirely different values, expectations, methods, and hierarchies

than which they have previously experienced. The transition between these two educational

systems is often reported as jarring and overwhelming (Yan & Berliner, 2013, p. 62). Students

often report having difficulty in; comprehending lectures, participating in group work with

domestic students, utilizing effective time management skills, self-motivation, socializing with

domestic students, and maintaining good mental health while living so far apart from their family

and friends (Zhu, 2016). Despite this, Mainland Chinese students are the largest group of

international students studying at western universities in various countries, including the US,

where they make up about 31.5% (Farrugia & Bhandari, 2016).

A great deal of time and money is spent in preparing this demographic for study abroad.

Most students tend to focus greatly on the language aspect of preparing for a degree abroad,

some enrolling in the plethora of companies that have cropped up domestically in China to assist

them in taking various English-language proficiency tests, such as IELTS and TOEFL. As well

as to provide them with western classroom experiences prior to departing for their western

country of choice. Yet, despite the expense and effort taken, the problem of adaptation still runs

high in Chinese international students. This paper will examine the methods in which the

growing pains of Chinese students in western countries can be aided in their transition, through

the synthesis of Sociocultural learning theory into an application tailored to the very unique

needs of this important demographic.


Sociocultural Learning Theory

Sociocultural Learning theory was developed by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky

to try to explain the way children learn. He postulated that learning happens through social

interaction, and that our interactions play a crucial role in the development of our cognition.

Vygotsky believed that the learning process happens on two levels within the mind, first through

our interactions and secondly through integration into our mental organization.

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the

social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people

(interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies

equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of

concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between

individuals. (Vygotsky & In Cole, 1978)

He took ideas from both Social Cognitive theory and Constructivism to create a new

learning theory that would explain the ways in which socialization fuels growth and learning,

and how learners make meaning from those interactions. According to Vygotsky all vestiges of

the self are derived by the processes and social structures surrounding and experienced by

individuals, “the social dimension of consciousness is primary in time and in fact. The individual

dimension of consciousness is derivative and secondary” (Vygotsky, 1979, p. 30, cited in

Wertsch & Bivens, 1992). Sociocultural Learning can be explained in three main themes that

describe the triangular relationship between the learner (in which is included both their inner

self, and outer behavior), ‘more knowledgeable others’ or MKOs, and knowledge itself.

Background of Lev Vygotsky


Lev Vygotsky was born in 1896 to a non-religious Jewish family in Belarus, which was

then occupied by the Russian Empire. In 1913 he was admitted to Moscow University under a

program designed to increase the number of Jewish students at the institution. Vygotsky showed

inclinations very early on towards the humanities and artistic endeavors, however because of

parental pressure he went the more traditional route of studying medicine and eventually law.

While pursing the studies his parents desired for him, he also attended the Shaniavskii Moscow

People’s University in his spare time. It was a privately funded non-degree granting institution,

where he spent time attending lectures attuned to the work that would become his legacy after his

early death in 1934 from Tuberculosis. He graduated in 1917 with a law degree, while

simultaneously beginning a dissertation on the psychology of art. After leaving University, he

worked for a time as a teacher in the town of Gomel, where he was raised, making observations

about his students and gaining valuable insights into the human mind.

He completed his dissertation in 1924, and was invited to become a research fellow at the

Psychological Institution of Moscow. Between 1924-1934 he published numerous works

outlining a new way to study human development, paving the way for vast numbers of

academics to build upon the foundation he created. Studying Marxist philosophy in his early

years, he came to truly embrace Marxism in the 1920’s and 30’s, attempting for the brief time he

was allowed to do so, to create a new school of psychology, which he and his colleagues hoped

would elevate their field into a modern age (Newman & Holzman, 1993, p.5).

Though his work was suppressed under Stalin’s rule, it would be rediscovered and

popularized in 1978 after a second publishing of his book ‘Mind in Society; Development of

Higher Physiological Processes’, translated by a team of western academics hoping to reignite

interest in Vygotsky’s work. The 1970’s and 90’s ushered in a wave of study and writing that

referenced, built off and criticized the work of this radical Marxist psychologist that ended up

having a huge impact upon our society as whole. All of this is quite impressive considering his

humble beginnings as a minority Jew in Czarist Russia.


Vygotsky believed that language and thought develop independently of each other,

however around the age of two they merge together creating mental thought. He postulated that

initially, language crops up first without thought, as is evident by a child’s early pre-intellectual

speech. Thought develops as a post cursor, as the child begins to make sense of the world around

them, and the language- or languages around them. Eventually mental thought begets verbal

thought as the child develops language skills by mimicking the behavior of those around him,

and by learning through interacting with MKOs. This early development period shapes a

person’s sense of self, which remains intact throughout early childhood. He believed that around

the age of seven, the self experiences a division into inner and outer, (Langford, 2013, p.3). The

development of the inner self, and vicariously inner speech, is not independent of what the child

experiences outside of the mind, rather, the inside of the mind is greatly influenced by

interaction. Vygotsky wrote in his book, ‘Mind in Society’, that “by giving our students practice

in talking with others, we give them frames for their own thinking,” (Vygotsky & In Cole, 1978).

Language, and through it, interaction, shapes us through learning via the development of the

inner and outer selves.

This inner self neither suffers from a full-blown dissociation from the rest of the

personality nor is it an entirely hidden and unconscious self, although it is normal

for it to be somewhat dissociated from the external self, as well as from other, less

central, selves. The main role of the inner self, which retains a large element of

picture-like thinking, is to keep the personality in touch with the concrete realities

of life. (Langford, 2013, p.66-67)


Vygotsky believed that cognitive skills and patterns of thinking are not primarily

determined by inane factors, but are the products of the activities practiced in the social

institutions of the culture in which the individual grows up. Though differences in culture

permeate the educational ecosystems of various places, the ways in which we as people

internalize culture is fundamentally similar, if not the same. To separate, or to not take culture

into consideration when teaching, is to misunderstand a key aspect of the development of human

beings. Culture shapes the way we as people interact with one another, and under this theory,

culture is a tool for understanding how to behave in our societal spheres.

As opposed to animals, humans live in an artificial environment, the environment

that is loaded with social or cultural objects and tools. And children’s adaptation

to this environment requires that they learn and master the use of these objects

and tools. Therefore, if we separate a newborn child from the social environment,

he or she will never develop into a normal human being. (Karpov, 2014, p.15)

However, the concept of a ‘normal human being’ is quite a general term, and cannot be

painted uniformly on all aspects of human culture. After all the term, ‘normal’ is not objective.

Using language, observation, and other tools at our disposal, we learn to mold ourselves into a

cast of what the others around us, primarily authority figures and parents, show us to be nominal.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

The concept of the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD was developed in the early

1920’s by Vygotsky and built upon consistently until he died in 1934. He defined it as “the

distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving

and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult

guidance or in collaboration with more capable peer” (Vygotsky & In Cole, 1978). The concept

helps the facilitator understand the relationship between the material and the learner’s ability to

retain it. Using the tools at hand, there are some pieces of knowledge or skill that the learner can

understand alone, some that the learner needs the assistance to gain, and some that they are not

able to obtain at the moment- even with assistance.

A term synonymous with the concept of ZPD is ‘scaffolding’, however it is important to

note that Vygotsky never actually used this term in his own work. The term began with Wood et

al (1976), in an article about using this learning theory in the context of tutoring. Scaffolding is

best explained by conjuring the image of a building having repairs done to its exterior. The

construction crew build a structure around the face of the side they are working on to have better

access to the area of their work. In the same way, the educator assists the learner by holding up,

“those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to

concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence,”

furthermore the term itself came from the line where they speak about the fact that tutoring (or

teaching), “involves a kind of ‘‘scaffolding’’ process that enables a child or novice to solve a

problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts’’ (p.

90). At the end of the learning process, the educator ‘removes the scaffolding’ allowing the

learner to practice the skill or knowledge point until mastery.

Another term necessary to understand Vygotsky and Sociocultural learning theory is the

concept of Mediation. The term ‘cultural mediation’ has been ascribed as a key premise for the

understanding of Vygotsky’s work. Alone, mediation refers to individuals placing tools between

themselves and their environment in order to modify it, and gain control over a piece of it at a

time, in order to better comprehend and participate within that environment. Cultural mediation

refers to the process of using culture to interact within one’s society, using pieces of culture as a

means to interact comfortably with others, “the use of cultural artifacts, tools and symbols,

including language… in the formation of human intellectual capacities,” (Moll, 2000, p. 257).

Numerous activities under this umbrella term can be interpreted as mediated activities or

activities used in an effort to culturally mediate an individual into their environment, such as

writing, or many other forms of self expression that attempt to convey meaning to those who

interact with them. Having this buffer enables the learner to interact in more meaningful ways

that simple speech and to have wider spread communication than one-on-one interaction or that

group interaction would allow.

In order to provide an example of cultural mediation in sociocultural theory, I would like

to present a phenomenon particular to Chinese culture. In many texts core to Vygotsky’s theory,

the example of a birthday cake is most often used. However, in China, a more prevalent

occurrence for young children is the practice of giving ‘red envelope’ or lucky money. During

birthdays or holidays, such as Chinese New Year, relatives and friends give children and young

adults small red packets with specific amounts of money. In Chinese culture, certain numbers are

very important, and send a message to the receiver. Numbers considered to be lucky tend to be

2,6,8, therefore its quite common to see variations like 888.88, or 666.66. They also contain

certain messages, such as ‘I love you,’ in the numbers 521 (it the pronunciation of the numbers

sound like ‘I love you’ in Mandarin). While the class of the child in question determines how

much is put into a packet, the amount of money gifted tends to increase, as the child grows older.

The number of envelopes a child receives for their birthday or a holiday instills the child with a

sense of importance and belonging in their culture and community. It is a key tool for people to

establish relationships with each other, and with their children. Red packets let children know

that others are invested in their success and well-being. The number that makes the amount of a

packet, plays an important role in the facilitation of cultural mediation between adult and child.

Numbers can be used to send messages that might be uncomfortable to verbalize, such as ‘I love

you.’ Or a particularly large number beginning with an 8 or a 6 can convey feelings or hopes the

parent has for the child’s future life. Red packets are used as means to thank another person, to

give an apology, or simply to convey the importance of the relationship between the giver and

the receiver. They are a meaningful and practical way to convey meaning, and build social bonds

between people. Receiving and giving red envelopes allow members of Chinese society to

communicate to each other. They do this by using money as a tool solidify relationships and

internalize the shared knowledge of Chinese culture, particularly within children, who are most

often recipients of the largest red packets.

Chinese Education & Characteristics of Chinese Learners

Readers of this writing are most likely to have been educated in the west, and may be

unfamiliar with the goals, methodologies, and practices undertaken by educational institutions in

China. As mentioned previously, there are a great many differences between the western and

Chinese systems, as well as variations within each at different institutions. In no way is this

writing meant to insinuate that one system is inferior to the other, however, for the purposes of a

student transitioning between one to the other, a great dilemma presents itself in trying to

acclimate to the polar demands of both systems. Chinese education is often praised for its ability

to produce results in examinations, but heavily criticized for “curbing students’ deep learning”

and in it’s ability to develop “well-rounded individuals,” (Yu et al, 2016, p. 177). By contrast,

western systems are capitalized by their ability to provide students with a well-rounded skillset.

A university professor tasked with learning about the abilities and weaknesses of an incoming

freshmen class would do well to aim his methodology at students with “a well-rounded

education” were they tasked with teaching a class of American domestic US students. In

assuming all international students, particularly Mainland Chinese, would be anywhere near the

same page, that professor would be making a potentially problematic error in their teaching plans

in terms of being aware of the prior experiences of at least some of their students. Within

Chinese education, I feel it is important to make a distinction between students from one of the

four large cities in China, and a student educated in other locations. The four largest cities in

China are Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. Of those four cities, the most

prestigious would be Shanghai, where student success in the fields of mathematics, sciences, and

Reading performance have ranked first consecutively by the he cross-national Program for

International Student Assessment or PISA, (Yu et al, 2016, p. 178). Students here experience

some of the best education offered in the entire country, and are given preferential treatment

when applying to local Universities which take a larger percentage of students from the same

province than they do students from other provinces. A good example of this phenomenon is best

observed in Beijing, which houses the top ranking institution in China, Tsinghua University. The

school reserves 84 spots out of 10,000 applicants solely for students who are registered within

the same province, while out of the same 10,000 it only reserves 3 seats for test takers from

Anhui province (Yinqin, 2013). This system seemingly is set up to encourage students to remain

close to the region where they were educated, giving select spot to the top test takers from other

provinces within China. Leaving those whom do not get the top spots with the choice of either

going abroad, or attending a less prestigious University than a big city student with similar

scores. In a system, which concentrates the bulk of its highest quality resources in 4 large areas,

there are bound to be sharp differences in the ability levels and behaviors of people who go

through these perpendicular yet unequal institutions.

Ease in decision making may well have it’s roots in culture, as in comparing

individualism and collectivism, where in the latter it is important to take into account the council

of others in decision making before your own. However, choices in education are pertinent

differences between western and Chinese education. It is rare to find much choice for domestic

Chinese students; however, they do get one large decision that many western students do not. In

contrast to American high school, (though not so different from British schools), in the third to

last year of high school, students choose whether they will take a social science or natural

science written essay section on the Gao kao (the Chinese national college entrance exam), and

promptly end their studies of the superfluous subjects on their timetable in order to better prepare

for the test. Class discussions are statistical blips in the Chinese classroom. Teachers feel they

have too much material to cover, and find review lectures and additional written exercises as

more useful preparations for the Gao kao (Qiang, 2017). This choice between social and natural

sciences is one of the few they experience however, as they do not get to choose which courses

to take throughout their secondary school career. It can be theorized that by going through a

system where students are given such little say in the content of what they study, the sudden

introduction of a great many choices may be overwhelming to some.

The final differences that must be brought up are in class participation, and confidence

building. The overall consensus in this area is that some professors experience difficulty in

getting Chinese students to participate in class. In the Chinese system, founded on strong

principles of Confucianism, discussions in class take a backseat to instructor speaking time.

Coming from that Confucian based-culture, where filial piety transfers easily over to authority

figures, such as teachers, engaging in a public conversation with a teacher or a classmate in the

presence of a teacher, or even asking a question publicly is a stressful situation.

When asked the reason for Chinese students’ unwillingness to present problems to

their advisors, most of the respondents attribute that characteristic to the Chinese

culture. In China, those workers who express the fewest problems are valued

more. They are seen as more intelligent and hardworking. (Yan & Berliner, 2013,

p. 942)

Under this system, it is natural to see more people choose to ask questions privately. It is

natural for problems to at least attempt to be solved privately before seeking the council of an

authority figure such as a teacher or counselor. In viewing the differences between the

expectations of student behavior, it is clear to see the discrepancies between the two. A student

preparing for study abroad may well know of these differences, or perhaps have an incomplete

knowledge of the challenges ahead- but regardless, their dilemma remains the same; ‘How do I

make myself into a student capable of regular discussion in a foreign language while still

operating in a system that asks me to do the opposite?’

Challenges at Western Institutions

The challenges that Chinese students face at western universities are notorious among

anecdotal discussions in university staffrooms all over the world, but can be melted down into

three general dimensions. Sun and Chen (1999) outline them as 1) language ability, 2) cultural

awareness, and 3) academic achievements. A later study by Yan and Berliner (2009) explored

the causes of stress in this demographic, finding very high levels caused by unproductive

interactions with administrators and professors, ignorance and inexperience with the demands of

the American classroom, cultural differences, poor spoken English abilities, maladaptive

perfectionism, financial concerns, worry over visa uncertainty, and pressure from their family to

find a romantic partner for marriage. For the purposes of this writing, I have chosen to focus on

three aspects that I believe can be alleviated by the application of the sociocultural learning

theory in a particular context.

Spoken Language Abilities

Though there are regulations and standards set for English language proficiency tests set

by various governmental institutions, those that test well enough to gain entry to western

University sometimes are perceived to have inadequate spoken English skills. Some of that is

self-perception, as explored by Yuan (2011). However, it is partly observed that Chinese students

are unprepared for the rigors of a class discussion in higher education (p. 148). The focus of their

studies, while still in China, relies heavily on preparing students to read and write using formal,

academic English. In qualitative studies describing the preparation and experiences this

demographic has in study abroad (Chen 2017 / Heng 2016/ Irudayam 2016/ Selvarajah, 2006/

Wang & Moore 2007/ Wang 2018/ Yuan 2011), students give several dimensions the language

challenges they struggle to adapt to.

Interactions between native speakers of English are frequently causal in tone and nature

making many students feel that, “the vocabulary and phrases learned in China were overly

academic or arcane and inappropriate within a conversational context” (Teng, 2016, p. 26).

Being able to communicate appropriately, at a level equal to those around you is an important

step in establishing yourself in the social environment of any group. Not being able to do so

easily and comfortably due to a lack of either knowledge or practice with casual language is a

major barrier to some students.

Classroom and out-of-class interactions often occur at speeds that make it very difficult

for ESL learners to respond in time for the purposes of discussion. In classes designed

specifically for second language speakers, teachers often give prolonged pauses, allowing

students time to formulate responses. However, native speakers rarely require such pauses to

have meaningful exchanges, and unknowingly exclude second language speakers with lower

spoken abilities by denying them the chance to participate in these exchanges, (p.26).

It is also important to note a difference in logic between eastern and western academia,

particularly China. In Chinese language, both in written and spoken Mandarin, there is a less

strict cause-and-effect logical thinking process. Mandarin emphasizes on drawing from historical

contexts, or the use of language tools, such the use of metaphors. As one student puts it in the

Teng (2016) study, “I feel that in China, there’s more emphasis on the beauty of the

language…teachers care about the terms, proverbs, or pretty phrases you use...over here, they

focus on how you argue,” (p. 27). There is a period of adjustment for anyone immersing him or

herself in another culture, much less a totally different educational system. If Chinese students

are to have any chance at a more comfortable transition into western education, both students and

teachers will need to be more aware of how their behaviors may affect international students’

ability to participate in discussion in terms of linguistic barriers.

Given time and persistence, the majority of Chinese students overcome the obstacles inherent in

classroom discussion. As one student puts it, “My English is a little better than previously, so I

dare to speak more. And because I dared to speak up, my English has improved. It’s a positive

cycle” (p.26).

Cultural Differences

To say that language is the most important factor in Chinese student’s difficulties in

adjusting to western education is to ignore the elephant in the room. Among the many

nationalities represented in western countries, Chinese stand out from the crowd in this respect,

even from among other Asians (Wang & Moore, 2007, p. 33). Forming bonds with co-nationals

abroad is a common trait among expatriates globally, student or not. Factors that play into the

prevalence of this behavior, quite common in the demographic, stem from deeply different

cultural values. As well as an overall unfamiliarity with the cultural nuances that are important to

domestic students in a particular host country.


Western students, particularly undergraduates, enjoy drinking alcohol much more than

Chinese students, whose controlled upbringing often did not afford them to develop inclinations

or provide them with the opportunities to socialize in the same way westerners do. A Chinese

student typical socializes with friends by shopping, going out to karaoke, or perhaps some kind

of game like bowling or tennis. Outdoor activities, bars and nightclubs, or house parties centered

on the consumption of alcohol do not appeal to them in the same ways (Mikal, Yang, & Lewis,

2015, p. 216-218). While there are groups of students on college campuses that do not participate

in activities with large amounts of alcohol consumption, those students are often members of

religious groups, such as ‘college Christians’ or ‘Hare Krishna.’ Some Chinese students do chose

to participate in the social activities of said groups, but largely China is a non-religious country.

It can be quite difficult for them to find a crowd with enough similarities as to allow natural

integration, and natural friendships to form. This difference in preference of settings or habits is

only the beginning of the cultural differences that often divides the demographic from forming

relationships with non-Chinese students.

Before they came to the United States… Chinese students expressed a desire to

experience American culture and to develop friendships with Americans to

increase their cultural knowledge. However, due to academic stresses, financial

burdens, cultural differences, and discomfort in social situations, they retreat to

their comfort zone, live with Chinese peers, listen and watch Chinese music, and

watch Chinese videos on the Internet. As time goes on, they find their social

network limited to co-nationals. (p.218)

In China, the government strictly controls Internet usage, blocking many popular

websites and news sources. Chinese students prior to coming to western countries have an

eschewed view of the west from this censorship. Even if a student were to be inclined to research

more about cultural topics important to Americans, what they would be able to access on

Chinese Internet is quite limited. Also, their experience with social media, is generally limited to

Chinese approved social media, so sometimes, groups will find that they lack the knowledge as

to what to talk about outside academics with domestic students (p. 216).

Western students are also perceived to be less reserved when meeting new people.

Speaking with a stranger in the hopes of forming a new friendship is not a necessarily a nerve

racking event for a large portion of westerners. Conversely, this behavior is not shared by many

eastern students, who come from cultures with large different patterns of behavior. China doesn’t

have an emphasis on ‘selling yourself’ to others, this kind of behavior is seen as shameless by

Chinese society, which much prefers individuals to behave in a ‘low-key’ manner, particularly

when meeting new people or interacting with figures of authority (Selvarajah 2006/Teng, 2016,

p.26). Westerns who encounter this behavior often misinterpret it, and find it to be a huge barrier, making

it difficult to connect with Chinese students deeply enough to form a friendship.


Chinese learners are trained from an early age to accept and thrive in a passive teaching

environment. They rely on teachers to provide heavily outlined learning points, which stands out

in great contrast with Western students, who are instead trained to be heavily involved in their

own learning, and who mostly enjoy learning through discovery (Wang & Moors, 2007, p.32).

Understandably, this expectation of calm compliance in Chinese education creates a normal

behavior pattern for Chinese students. The same behavior preformed in western countries is not

viewed as ideal both by other students and by educators, who approach the problem directly,

sometimes interacting with Chinese students in uncomfortable ways. However most of these

Chinese students do not speak up for themselves when facing adversity. Some do not even

approach their professors after class hours to seek answers for their questions or solutions for

their problems. “Frequently, non-Western students coming to Western universities find

themselves silenced and marginalized, socially and academically,” (Selvarajah 2006).

Increasingly, newer or more nuanced learning methods are finding their way into the

western classroom, whether that simply be more group or lab work, or learning models such as

problem based learning or PBL. Models such as PBL are rare in China possibly due to cultural

roots stemming from that fact that most Chinese seek to avoid conflict or disagreement.

Academia is China is much more straightforward, “humanities lessons like history ‘required

memorization and no analysis’,” however, this aspect may also stem from a practical standpoint

in terms of larger student populations, “given the large class size and dense curriculum material

to cover, teachers transmitted knowledge and rewarded students for quiet and cooperative

behavior” (Teng, 2016, p. 29).

Current Methods of Preparation

In order to attend an undergraduate or graduate program in western institutions of higher

education, all international students from non-native English speaking countries are required to

either take the IELTS or TOEFL examinations in order to gage their abilities to study and

interact in English. Different countries have different requirements for scores on these tests, and

some institutions require a higher or lower score based on what kinds of programs that particular

school offers to acclimate incoming students with less than fluent English language abilities. In

addition, many US Universities require those examinations in addition to the SAT, ACT, GRE,

GMAT…etc.… as they would require of a domestic applicant. Most preparations for western

higher education begin with studying for any of those standardized examinations. There are not

many formal studies out which outline the exact procedure for preparing for western higher

education, however, as an educator in China, I can anecdotally attest that the amount of

businesses domestically in China that cater to improving English abilities are great in number.

For-profit ‘English Training’ schools such as English First, New Oriental, Berlitz, and countless

smaller firms will offer tailor made one-on-one classes, or larger group classes that simulate the

demands of a western classroom for students willing to pay for their services.

A number of parents and students choose to work with agencies that help bridge the

language and knowledge barrier between the students or parents’ language ability or access to

information. These agencies often make deals with English trainings schools, where they

reciprocally send business to each other. In addition, agencies will often encourage students to

attend certain universities in order to make a relationship with said universities. Some agents will

even earn commission from institutions, which successfully convince parents to send their

children on the agent’s recommendation. There have been many cases where agencies have led

students to enroll in programs that do not fit their needs. Some institutions have a mistrustful

relationship with agencies, as there have been numerous cases of agencies doing applications for

their clients rather than simply advising or guiding the client through the application process (Li,

2016/ Beasely, 2012).

In cases where information in an application is exaggerated or falsified, or in cases where

students do not think holistically about the kind of institution which best suits their educational

goals, Chinese students may well find themselves ill-prepared for the world of western higher

education. Many parents, agents and even some students feel that cultural preparation isn’t as

important as language preparation, and believe that they will be able to cope with the challenges

ahead of them by making the majority of their preparations book study (Hunt 2015/ Li, 2016).

Incongruities Between Sociocultural Learning & Chinese International Students

It is important to note that Vygotsky’s research into how humans learn was focused

largely on pedagogy, while the demographic that this writing focuses on would largely be

considered to be adults, and therefore more in tuned with the study of Andragogy. However,

under the general definition of Andragogy, adult learners are described as self-directed and

responsible for their own learning. The problem is that not all adult learners meet these criteria in

all circumstances, particular Mainland Chinese international students.

China’s education system is a largely teacher-focused pedagogy. Volet and Renshaw

(2006) suggest that this system has socialized Chinese students to indiscriminately accept

information given to them by their textbooks and from lectures attended. At times this can lead

to a shallow understanding of concepts, especially given the language barrier. This behavior of

passivity doesn’t really fall in line with the idea of Andragogy, as it puts the demographic in a

more dependent situation within academic settings compared to their domestic peers. Though

there are a great many definitions of what constitutes an adult learner, a pertinent definition in

this case would be the 4 principles of adult learning by Knowles (1984).


(Pappas, 2017)

Chinese students come from an educational system which rewards passive learning, and

arguably discourages active learning by focusing on examination results over deep learning of

the content of a given course (Yu, 2016, p.191). Thereby logically making it likely that students

from this system wouldn’t be comfortable involving themselves in the active evaluation and

planning of their own learning. In addition, a problem-oriented class, such as a case study, would

be a delicate obstacle course of a task for someone that values collectivism over individualism.

Chinese people in general experience great stress over making mistakes in public (Zhu, 2016). In

China, the concept of ‘face’ is central to the individual’s self-perception. Face is a complex

concept, but could be determined by one’s economic status, relationships with others, and

perceived public opinion within their community (Yuan, 2011, p. 148). Stress over losing face

most likely plays a major factor in many Chinese students orientation towards being more

comfortable in a content-focused environment. Due to these factors, I feel the application of a

learning theory based partly in the concept of pedagogy isn’t inappropriate in seeking learning

solutions for the integration of Chinese international students studying in western universities.

Application: Reconstructing Knowledge

Students of all ages have individual learning styles, but demographically, groups of students by

category of nationality also tend to share similar learning traits as well. These traits are not inane

to students by nature, but rather are learned traits, that are ingrained in them throughout their

lives via the culture or cultures from which they have had the most exposure.

Typically, this education in how to learn, how to acquire new information, how to behave in a

learning environment, and how to understand their role in a school environment serves students

throughout their formal education. Students normally acquire theses skills early in their

formative years. However, in cases where students find themselves in vastly different

educational systems or in a brand new educational cultural ecosystem, students often find

themselves in a somewhat uncomfortable situation where they need to be re-trained in this

fundamental yet seemingly simple way.

Numerous researchers, most prominently, Yan and Berliner (2013), call for more support for

Chinese international students in the form of mentorship, and more guided opportunities for the

demographic to network with domestic students (p.81-82). An application of Sociocultural

learning theory in the context of transitioning this population would include the introduction of

well adapted or intergraded senior students as mentors for newly arrived students. Ideally, these

new students would receive not only a co-national as a mentor, but also a domestic student to act

as bridge between the student and the new cultural environment. As a mediator, this tandem

mentorship team could act as MKOs in regular workshops designed to alleviate common

problems with the demographic. In order to introduce students to the idea of a student-centered

classroom, workshops would be facilitated by the mentorship teams themselves on a turn-by-turn

basis, including the mentee in the process of planning the learning of not only themselves, but

also their fellow freshmen. Both mentees and mentors would need representation and power over

the content of their workshops. This would ensure the workshops and the pairing system to be

autonomous, freeing university faculty to do little more than oversee the program, and ensure

fairness in it’s operation.

Any regular event designed to acclimate Chinese students would need to have a language focus

at the heart of its design. Vygotsky’s earliest work delved deeply into studying the formation of

verbal thought in infants and young children. While considered mostly mature in their own

cultures, the beneficiaries of this program could benefit immensely from a timetable based on

games, and overall fun- allowing more of the principles of Vygotsky’s learning theory to play a

crucial role in their spoken language development.

Ideally, games designed for this event would tap into the areas of research chronicled in

Vygotsky’s works, such as pre-intellectual speech. An example of adapting this phenomenon

into a tangible activity may involve a kind of drama game, where domestic mentors would have

mentees guess the meaning of certain slang impressions through the use of garbled speech, or

gestures, drawing upon the mentees’ deep buried memories of learning this way in early



Vygotsky’s theory of Sociocultural learning has a lot to offer in terms of creating a more

comfortable path for Chinese international students to integrate into a study abroad experience at

a western university. In order for a smooth and effective synthesis of this learning theory to be

put into practice, the roster of MKOs must be made in large part by student mentors of both co-

notational and domestic decent in relation to the participants of this proposed solution. Creating

safe social environments for incoming Chinese students, who understand their needs, prior

experiences, and the principles of Vygotsky’s learning theory will at the very least, ensure a safe

taste of the home country’s cultural ecosystem in the presence of potential connections. Given

the financial importance of this demographic in western higher education, there has never been

amore apt time to mend the disconnect between international and domestic students, thereby

providing a more desirable college experience for all.



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