To Study overseas part 3

For many centuries, Asian students are taught to be passive and follow a strict discipline in class so many find it difficult to adopt the new active learning method.

That is why many students do NOT read anything BEFORE class as they want to be told rather than actively learning by themselves. Many students would NOT volunteer to discuss anything in class for afraid of saying something wrong and be laughed at. Many students may NOT read anything beyond the assignments to make sure that they will pass the exam. Many students may NOT go into any subject deeply or “internalize” their knowledge but only memorize some facts to meet school’s requirements. Many students ONLY do what is necessary to obtain a degree rather than develop their own knowledge and skills. This attitude has significant negative consequences.

Image: Internet

I noticed this issue in the past several years with numbers of Asian students in my classes. Most of them were good students who came from top schools with best grades but often struggled to follow class instructions and could not compete with other students. Many professors believed it was due to their English deficiency and suggested that they took extra English classes but I disagreed as they all had good TOEFL scores and had no problem in reading and writing. Since admission to Carnegie Mellon is very selective, if they qualified to meet the strict standard then it must be something else. By having several discussions with them, I found that it was their attitudes and study habit that preventing them from reaching their potential. The fact is that they have NOT been able to adopt the learning methods often taught at U.S University and it hurts them both academically and professionally.

A student told me: “I have studied much harder than when I was in my college. I did not even have enough sleep but I still could not do well in your weekly test.” I found that he had memorized the whole chapter in the text book over hundred pages but could not answer questions in the test. The reason was I did not ask about facts but wanted them to solve problems by applying their knowledge. He complained: “Why don’t you ask me to write some sentences in the text book or certain definitions since I have memorized them all?” It took me awhile to realize that he was a victim of the traditional education when memorization is encouraged. Another student complained: “Your test questions did not even came from the textbook since I know them all.”

The reason many of them are having problems because they continue to use the same learning method that they had used in high school or college such as passively listening to what teachers said but not put in any effort to “internalize” it. Their view of learning is about receiving information and giving it back without understood that it must be reconstructed from their own understanding. They often associate learning with memorization and knowing all the facts from textbooks. This archaic learning method will not work in today’s environment and will negatively affect their future.

In western schools, a student who does not want to talk much and not participate in class activities is considered “Weak”. A student who hesitates to express his view in front of the class is viewed by both teachers and other students as “Dull and unwilling to learn.” Since most teachers prefer active students to make the class discussion livelier, they often ignore the passive ones and never call on them to discuss anything. This misconception often has significant negative on students’ performance and the final grade. It also being viewed very negatively during job interview by hiring managers as quiet people is considered “Incompetent”. Last year a hiring manager asked: “How come some graduates cannot say anything positively during the job interview? They only answer questions but never ask anything?

Of course, as Asian I know their problems very well because over forty years ago, I had the same problems. From the outside, Asian students seem to be passive but their minds are very active. They work hard and always thinking but it is the old habit from the archaic learning method that preventing them from being active. A student told me: “When I was young, if I said something in class I was punished for class disruption so I learned to be quiet.” Another student explained: “In my college, if I said something different from what the teacher wanted, I got bad grade so I learned not express my own opinion anymore.”

To encourage these students to engage in active learning, in the first day of the class I always explain the differences between the two methods. I clearly explain to them why it is important to participate in class actively to build good habit and develop soft-skills. I change the grading system by giving 20% of the grade to class participants to encourage them to engage more in class. I also explain that there is no right or wrong answer but only different opinions so they do not have to worry about saying something wrong during class discussion. Of course, it is not easy for them to change as it takes time to change an old habit.

There is another aspect about the maturity of students. Western students, especially American students, learn to be independent very early but many Asian students are still immature even when they go to college. Asian culture considers education highly and parents often sacrifice everything to get their children the best education possible. This custom has led to the development of children who are pampered and have their every need met by parents without have to do anything. A student told me: “I have been told to study as everything will be taken care of by my family so I burry myself in books and not thinking of anything else.” This attitude has led many students to the lack of awareness of what is happening in the world around them since they do not know anything but school’s works. Many only know what are taught in school but seldom read about anything else outside of their curriculum. That is why so many of them are having problems when they have to face the realities of life. Many are frustrated after they get the degree but could not find jobs and many reversed their anger toward their family and their society.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

You may like