An American Teaching in China on behalf of Canada (a cross-cultural tale)

My position at UBC is unusual. First, as a member of the Educational Leadership Stream, my position is tenure-track, but 100% teaching. The really unusual part of my position is that one-third of my UBC teaching load involves traveling to China to teach Chinese students at partner universities.

The UBC Faculty of Forestry has partnerships with a number of Chinese forestry universities, four which participate in the ‘3+2’ program. Chinese students take three years of courses at their home universities and then, pending sufficient grades and IELTS scores, transfer to UBC, take two additional years of classes, and graduate with a UBC degree.

As part of this program, a number of UBC faculty members travel to China to teach condensed, intensive versions of UBC courses. The aim is to teach students material from first- and second-year UBC courses, help them practice their English, and expose them to a western style of instruction.

As I begin writing this post, I’m on my 5th such trip to China. I visit for 2-weeks at a time, teaching two courses, each with ~25 contact hours. In these courses, I cover roughly 1/2 the material I would in a semester-long course at UBC.

Before I go deeper, I will give two caveats:

  1. I’m not an expert on the Chinese education system. I’m drawing from my observations and experience teaching Chinese students in China and at UBC and from conversations I’ve had with Chinese students and faculty about the differences in educational systems and the challenges that Chinese students face.
  2. My aim is not to critique or criticize Chinese (or Canadian) instructional styles or students. My career goal is to be the most effective instructor for my students, so I approach this topic in an effort to reflect and improve my teaching practice.

The brief, intensive courses I teach in China take place in a challenging teaching and learning environment. First, learning half a semester’s course content in two weeks is difficult under good circumstances. (This clearly violates the principle of distributed practice). In addition, students face two substantial challenges: language and culture.


I’m conversant, but not fluent in a foreign language (German), so I appreciate the tremendous challenge of taking a course taught in a foreign language. German and English are at least related; English and Mandarin are not. I’m trying to learn some mandarin which makes me painfully aware of the tremendous difference between these languages and the difficulty in learning one as a native speaker of the other.

Though Chinese students have had many years of English instruction, language difficulties are far and away the largest hurdle when I teach in China. I’ve spoken to a number of (Chinese) students and faculty about the issue. I’ve been told that English instruction is heavily focused on reading and writing (though not long-form writing). Students receive comparatively little practice in listening or speaking, and I’ve been told the speaking instruction is often based on rote recitation. In my classroom experience, I find that students struggle to speak extemporaneously.

From the framework of cognitive load theory, these language challenges impose significant extraneous cognitive load. In other words, much of the students’ cognitive bandwidth is occupied with language and translation, reducing their ability to process and learn the material.



All students feel embarrassment when they incorrectly answer a question in front of a group, but in China, this loss of ‘face’ is more significant and carries a larger social penalty. This also includes the embarrassment or reluctance students feel when speaking English (especially extemporaneously).

Style of instruction

Though not universal, university instruction in China more closely follows the “Sage on a Stage” model with minimal two-way interaction between instructor and students. The learning model is one of knowledge transmission rather than knowledge construction.

One solution (and one best path to reaching the solution)

Problems are often presented to students with one, clearly correct solution, and this solution can be reached through one best approach. In an ecology-focused research methods course I teach, some of my Chinese students struggle with the idea that we can never really ‘prove’ something in ecology, we just continue to assemble evidence and arrive at an understanding based on that evidence.


Social hierarchies are strong in China. Students are very reluctant to challenge or disagree with an instructor.

Collectivism vs. individuality

Chinese culture places great value on unity and conformity (while Canadian and American culture more strongly value individuality). Students don’t feel comfortable doing things that make them stand out from the group (such as answering a question).

Facts, not opinions

Students are not encouraged to express their opinions, or to cultivate a range of opinions. This relates to the emphasis on collectivism.

Field instruction / experiential learning

In my experience, forestry students in China spend significantly less time learning outdoors than forestry students in Canada or the US. On my most recent trip, I took one of my classes to the campus arboretum to do some tree identification. My Chinese co-instructor said he would like to take his students outdoors more, but that if someone checked his classroom and they weren’t there, he would be reprimanded. I also once had some Chinese faculty observe a lab that I taught in China. Afterwards, they said it was interesting, but it seemed much less efficient than just telling the students the information.

Part 2, how I adapt my teaching practice in China…

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