Culture shock is a real risk for anyone travelling to a foreign place, but there is also a kind of academic culture shock that can affect students who aren’t used to what’s expected of students in western countries, according to research by doctoral candidate Linda Yu.

Currently in the third year of her PhD with the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work, Linda experienced this herself when she travelled from China to do her masters in the UK. As an English major she didn’t think she would have much trouble acclimatising, however when her first essay was handed back barely scraping a pass she was shocked and unsure what to do.

“That was the lowest mark I have ever got in my educational history and I was really sad and I doubted myself. There are very high expectations in Chinese culture and I was worried about my parents criticising me and losing face,” Linda said.

She sat down with the academic who marked her essay to understand what had gone wrong and he explained that while her writing was fine, there were different expectations around critical thinking.

“He said I did a very good literature review but I wasn’t showing my own opinion about what I had researched – there was no critical thinking being displayed and I needed to justify why I went with one choice over another.”

“It was like the difference between a cook and a chef. A cook follows the recipe, but a chef understands the elements and can recombine them because he understands why each ingredient is there. I was writing like a cook when there was the expectation that I’d be a chef.”

By understanding this she was able to change the way she approached her studies, but it made her wonder if other Chinese students experienced similar jarring moments. One part of her doctoral project explored the emotional writing experiences of Chinese international doctoral students studying at the University of Auckland, identifying the triggers for both negative and positive experiences, as well as learning about the coping strategies students used.

Linda surveyed 73 out of the 95 students in the University who met her criteria, and interviewed 22 of them in person. The students, who came from a range of faculties, answered questions about positive writing experiences and what made them positive, as well as what made for negative experiences, what it felt like and how they reacted.

“I discovered that I very much wasn’t alone. There are a lot of Chinese students arriving here and having negative experiences because they didn’t understand the environment they were coming into. The result is that they have bad experiences, and if they keep having those experiences it can have a big impact on them emotionally.”

“Some of the students I spoke to are depressed, some are speaking to counsellors or want to leave their study. Understanding their experience is important, not just for helping them succeed academically, but for protecting their mental health as well.”

She found an area of potential emotional distress for students was their relationships with their PhD supervisors, where understanding cultural differences is important in avoiding confusion and unhappiness.

“One example is that Chinese students often believe they should keep a distance between themselves and their supervisors, hiding issues they’re experiencing to maintain a strong image. At the same time, New Zealand supervisors often think that if they’re not hearing anything then everything must be fine when often the opposite is true.”

She hopes her research will help supervisors and students work together more effectively, saying that by better understanding the relevant parts of each other’s cultures from the outset and having open discussions students can have more positive experiences.

“I think it’s really important for students and supervisors to make sure they sit down and talk about what their expectations are for each other. It’s not just a formality – that relationship is key for helping students to develop in the areas they need to through specific, positive feedback.”


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