Individualism VS Collectivism
In U.S. culture, individuals are important, privacy, competition and ownership are highly valued.
Many of NC State’s international students come from a collectivist culture, in which the individual is of lesser importance to the collective good. One way in which the difference between collectivism and individualism can become apparent is in relation to academic integrity. Giving credit to each individual whose written work has taught you and contributed to your research is a standard in American higher education. In other cultures, this is not always the norm. For instance, in some cultures, certain works are considered to be so well known and standard in a particular field that citation is not considered necessary. A person may even bring shame on the author of that work if they cite them, because they are implying that their work is unknown to others.
New international students should hear directly from their instructor at the beginning of the semester what the expectations are. Putting the policy in writing in the syllabus will not get the message across to most students (see “Direct Communication” below).
Students from many Asian, African and Middle Eastern cultures will consider it their obligation to help struggling class mates. It is seen as more important for everyone in the class to do well than it is for one individual to excel and leave others behind. In American education, collaboration is only allowed up to a point – beyond that it is often considered cheating. For students from cultures in which collaboration is the norm, it can be counter intuitive that they could be punished for working with class mates on projects.
Direct Communication VS Indirect Communication
In U.S. research communities, open and direct communication is preferred and most often adhered to.
For many international students, communication is largely indirect, and includes reading between the lines and recognizing meaning only conveyed through body language. At many foreign universities, policies will be put in writing as a formality, but are not actually enforced. In reality, students have to read between the lines and learn from indirect communication what the actual policy is. Therefore, it is very important that in addition to putting your policy in writing on the syllabus, you reiterate and explain your expectations at the beginning of the course. If the only way the students receive your expectations is in writing, for most of them the message will not be received. Students must learn directly from you what your expectations are, that you will enforce your policy and that there can be serious consequences to not following the policy.
– In cultures who have an inherent ‘bargaining’ aspect built into their culture, this bargaining may also apply to their grading system. The foreign professor will assign a grade which has room built in for negotiation. When in the U.S., a student will soon find that grades are not negotiable, however they may have already offended an American professor by trying to obtain a better grade. From their perspective, they were simply using a strategy completely acceptable for bargaining learned in their home country’s educational institution.
– International students who are used to highly authoritarian education often find the communication style in a typical American (graduate) classroom disturbing at first. They are used to learning everything directly from their teacher, not from other students. So, they are not used to using a class discussion as a way to teach the course material. Many new international students indicated on course evaluations that they hoped that other students could be more quiet in the class, so the teacher could talk more. Some also indicated they feel uncomfortable because of the (in their eyes) disruptive behavior of other students, who continuously ‘interrupted’ the teacher to ask questions or give their opinion.
Low Power Distance VS High Power Distance
People are regarded as equals. Respect is not necessarily automatic, but has to be earned by each individual.
The relationship between a professor and a student is for many international students a relationship of ‘one-way communication’, meaning there is a high power distance between the student and their teacher. This entails that the teacher is not to be questioned, going against this notion would be a sign of complete disrespect. The majority of international students are not used to being asked to express their opinions openly in class or participate actively in class discussions. In general, they are not used to their opinion being valued or being appropriate in a class setting.
As a result, they will hesitate to approach you or ask you to explain your expectations. They will need time and guidance to learn that it is okay to have a discussion with you and communicate directly with you about a problem they are facing.
– In many cultures, the teacher receives respect automatically due to their position: in these cultures this results in a high power distance between the teacher and the student. In addition to the existence of this high power distance, if the student does not perform well academically it is a reflection on the teacher. So, when an international student is asked whether or not they are doing well in class by someone other than the professor, they may automatically indicate ‘yes’ so as to make sure the professor does not lose face or is shamed. Americans would most likely view this as the student misrepresenting the truth, because they are unaware of the international student’s motives.
– Another effect of teachers being authoritative figures in many cultures is that students expect to hear exactly what to do from their professor or academic advisor. This becomes mostly apparent in the academic advising setting in which the American professor assumes that the student will make decisions on their own about which courses to take and the international student waits for the academic advisor to direct them. This goes back to the student’s belief that such an academic decision belongs with the professor. American Faculty may view this as a lack of initiative being shown by the student and may not wish to work with them. The student will then in turn be confused because they had shown great respect and confidence by allowing the professor to make this choice.
– The high status of the professor also comes into play when looking at discussion participation in the class room. Many international students will be hesitant to participate in class discussions, especially when their teacher is present. Out of respect for their teacher, they will not offer their opinions, because they are afraid to question their teacher’s knowledge. The same goes for responding to questions in class – students may feel they are not in a position to give certain answers. In addition, for many first semester students, the language barrier will add to their hesitation. They would feel they are losing face if their answer is not given in grammatically correct English.
Collaboration VS Competition
In American universities, healthy competition is seen as the (main) means to promote creativity. The focus lies on the individual to prove their worth on their own merit.
Many of NC State’s international students have spent their entire life in a learning environment which sees collaboration as the means to promote creativity. Collaboration with others is highly valued, expected and is seen as more important than individual achievement. International students will therefore not see any fault in working with others on their research and projects. It is very important to explain the American teaching methods and that they are expected to work individually so they can be assessed appropriately. In this light, also consider the different testing methods that American instructors use to evaluate their students. A take home test, a research paper, essay, or a group project may be testing methods used in other countries, but given the cultural differences may be interpreted in a variety of ways.
– Due to being taught in an educational system which values collaboration over competition, international students need guidance from instructors to grasp the individual nature of the American education system. Unfamiliarity with American testing and assessment methods can cause confusion among students. This confusion is often not blatantly obvious, for instance many international students see no harm in doing their assignments together and figuring out the answers together. They assume that if they still each provide the answers, they are each fulfilling their obligation in completing the task. They worked on it together and each wrote their reports on the subject matter.
– This second example covers common confusion with regard to the American grading system:
Many European students (and students from countries whose educational systems are modeled after the European system) have a different perception of grading scales. In Dutch universities, for instance, the traditional grading scale in higher education has always been a grade between 1 and 10 (10 being the highest). It is understood that no student will ever receive a 10, because that would mean the student had reached absolute perfection. Students understand the grading system as follows: ’10 is for the professor, 9 is for the Gods, 8 is for the best student.’ When students from a system similar to this come to the U.S. and obtain 80%, they may consider this is as very good when in the American system this is not the case.
Innovation VS Imitation
Innovation is prized in American higher education – it is key to academic success.
In other cultures, innovation can be regarded as trying to overshadow your teacher. In these cultures, (perfect) imitation is seen as the key to academic success at the student level. Innovation is not considered appropriate at this time in their education. Not until they are further along in their academic careers, are they allowed and expected to express their own opinions and present their own findings.
In many Middle Eastern cultures, the definition and purpose of higher education is to pass along the truth. Altering these truths by rephrasing, summarizing, and expanding as is customary in the American education system would be seen as tainting the existing knowledge. This different approach to higher education mostly comes forward in academic integrity questions. A student may study a written document and feel they cannot rephrase, summarize or alter this in their own research, so they will copy it word for word so as to not alter the truth of that written work. At an American institution, this can be construed as plagiarism. In these cases, it is important to learn the student’s motivation for their actions, so that they can understand what they did wrong here in the U.S.
– Arthur, Nancy. Counseling International Students: Clients from Around the World. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2004. Print.
– McIntire, David, and Patricia Willer, eds. Working with International Students and Scholars on American Campuses. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, Inc., 1992. Print.
– Nuri Robins, Kikanza, Randall B. Lindsey, Delores B. Lindsey, and Raymond D. Terrell. Culturally Proficient Instruction: A Guide for People Who Teach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin P, Inc., 2002. Print.