Chinese Learners


Larry, a local teacher with 8 years of teaching experience in secondary school, went to a professional development workshop and learnt ideas about students' approaches to learning. In particular, he was introduced the differences of surface approach and deep approach to learning. The former focuses on memorization and the latter focuses on understanding the materials, so that the latter is key in quality learning. The rest of the workshop highlighted the aspects of learning environments teachers can change in order to foster students' use of deep approach to learning. It includes the use of constructivist approach to teaching, assessment for learning and collaborative learning strategies and so forth.

Larry felt illuminated but at the same time puzzled. He was wondering why his students seem to have use surface approach -- memorization and rote learning -- however have performed somehow very well in public examinations. He was thinking whether the research findings he learnt cannot be properly applied to local Chinese context or simply, his observation was not accurate. If so, can those learning environments that yield positive impact on students' learning in the West be used in Chinese context to produce similar impact on students?

Aspects of  Confucian Heritage relating to learning and teaching:

Researchers and educators from the West were long intrigued by Asian's positive attitude towards education, their level of motivation and achievement, and also the determination in such pursuit.

However, research regarding students' learning were mainly founded from the West, and the applicability of these findings to other cultures are often questioned. In particular, most of the Asian countries are heavily rooted from the Confucian heritage, which is thought to be very different from the Western Socratic tradition (Tweed, 2002).

 Chinese educators and psychologists (Lee, 1996) later discussed the fundamental doctrines in Confucian teaching relevant to education:

Human educability

  • Everyone is teachable, and will improve through learning and practice.
  • Individual differences (genetic endowment, such as intelligence), therefore do not inhibit one's educability, but the incentive and attitude to learn does
  • One's discipline and attitude in learning is therefore emphasized in the process of learning
  • Positive learning attitudes and persistence are considered virtues

Human perfectability

  • Everyone can become a sage through sufficient effort and hard work
  • The role of effort and will power are highly emphasized
  • The role of ability is down-played as it can be overcome by sufficient effort and willpower
  • Significance of the environment and education that is provided in the process of personal development matters most

Paradox of Chinese Learners:

A series of Western-based studies suggests that deep approach to learning, the intention to understand, ability to inquire, and to relate newly-learnt materials to oneself all relate to better learning outcomes.


Under this Western lens, Chinese Learners are thought to be good at rote learning and memorization, rarely actively seek meaning and inquire in classroom setting, and therefore may not be able to have high quality learning outcomes or performance.


However, according to empirical research, Chinese learners consistently scored high on the use of deep approach to learning, display good subject-matter understanding, and demonstrated strong academic performance in cross-national studies, which all contradict the previous assumptions of Chinese Learners, therefore, this phenomena is known as 'paradox of the Chinese learners' (Biggs & Watkins, 1996).


Unveiling the Paradox of the Chinese Learners:


With the paradoxical phenomena found among Chinese learners, researchers suspected that the dichotomies (deep approach to learning vs. surface approach to learning; understanding vs. memorization; competition vs. collaboration) used to explain students' learning and attainment may hold different meaning among Chinese students. The following findings may shed light on our understanding of Chinese students' way of thinking:


  • Surface vs. Deep: It was found that Chinese learners use deep and surface approach simultaneously to address both learning and examination needs, or adapt to novel demands (Biggs & Watkins, 1996).


  • Memorization vs. Understanding: It was found that Chinese learners use rote with a very different meaning in language learning. In particular, they explained that the use of memorization is a means to achieve understanding; and at the same time they acknowledged that understanding can facilitate their memory on information. Furthermore, memorization and the other higher order cognitive processes are considered integrated and recursive for achieving deep learning(Marton et al, 1996; Marton et al, 2005).


  • Competition vs. Collaboration: Another aspects of the paradox is that, previously, in Western-based research, it was found that competition in classroom setting hampers whereas collaboration promotes learning and performances. However, it was found that Chinese students interpreted competition differently, in particular, Chinese students see competition and collaboration as less polarized, and can be equally conducive to learning (citation). 


  • Didactic vs. Constructivist: From the series of local research in the use of innovative pedagogy (Knowledge Building) that were previously found to be effective in Western classrooms, it was observed that Chinese students did benefit from such pedagogies; however, they assigned different meaning to the new pedagogies experienced. It suggests their sensitivity and consciousness to cues and context demands, and flexibility in jiggling between the need to learn and the need to excel in examination (Chan, 2010).


Implication on learning: Integrating dichotomies:


  • Neither learners' characteristics nor context of learning is static. We should understand Chinese Learners with reference to the ever-evolving educational landscape.


  • In particular, understanding Chinese Learners involves the integration of dichotomies found in Western-based findings, such as Deep Approach vs. Surface Approach, Understanding vs. Memorization, Collaboration vs. Competition; Constructivist vs. Didactic.


  • Empirical studies informed us that Chinese learners assume very different meaning to these polarities and they have the capacity to integrate these seemingly-opposing ways of learning to suit learning demands.


  • When certain assessment demands and classroom environment are appropriated, Chinese learners are capable of strategically swinging between the dichotomy to best meet the contextual demand in order to excel.


  • Chinese students are attuned to contextual influences, and they develop various approaches to meet their learning needs. It is found that Chinese students can change their strategies when faced with new tasks and demands.


Summary of dichotomy in learning:

Chinese Learners and Western Theories

Dichotomies and Polarized Differences

Surface Approach


Deep Approach




Extrinsic motivation


Intrinsic motivation




Attribution to ability


Attribution to effort

Innate ability


Malleable effort



Q: What underpins the beliefs and behavior of Chinese learners?

It is tempting to assume learners' characteristics are trait-like qualities, like personality and naturally endowed caliber, so therefore they are, too, very difficult to change. However, this is largely a MISCONEPTION. Learner characteristics are NOT personality traits!

Educational psychologists have found that many learners' characteristics are malleable, sensitive to learning demands and context.

The same student being placed in different learning contexts with different learning demands will manifest drastically different learning characteristics. This implies that we can shape learner characteristics by constructing proper learning contexts and learning demands.

Elements of learning environment and demands that are found to influence learners' characteristics include the teacher’s conception of learning, epistemic beliefs, use of pedagogy and instructional styles, and the nature of the assessment and criteria used just to name a few.


Q: What are the take-home messages after understanding learners’ characteristics?

When students fail to learn, it is common to blame the student, the teacher, the parents, the curriculum, the examination system, and society.

Educators need to be attuned to learner characteristics because these influence learning, and most of them can be controlled to some extent.

To understand learning fully, we have to acknowledge the importance of factors other than learners' characteristics and how they interact among themselves as a dynamic system.

Biggs (1996) proposed the 3P model (see diagram below) to capture these factors, which the 3Ps stand for:

  • First P - Presage factors
  • Second P - Process factors
  • Third P - Product of learning

The different factors interact in multiple ways producing varied kinds of backwash effects. Teachers do face constraints and challenges, but they also have many opportunities to bring about effective learning in the classroom. We cannot just blame the students for not producing optimal results!

Figure 1. Antecedents of Students' Outcome. Source: