Perceptions of Chinese Scholars at Concordia University Chicago

Nov 13th, 2018 | Category: Lutheran Education Commentary, Secondary Education
By Yongmei Song and Margaret Trybus

The exchange of professors between Concordia University Chicago (CUC) and Hebei University of Economics and Business (HUEB) in China was made possible by a joint program between the two institutions. The goals of the program were to improve Chinese teaching by exposure to Western curriculum and design development, and to further research in the academic fields of business, economics, law, cultural communication, and linguistics. Nine scholars from (HUEB) came to CUC for six months, during which time they conducted research, attended graduate courses, and experienced cross-cultural exchanges with CUC faculty. A seminar series on teaching and learning in higher education, classroom visits, interacting with an academic mentor, and engaging in cultural experiences made this program enriching to all participants.

Mentor program

Each Chinese scholar partnered with a CUC faculty mentor assigned to him or her based on their common academic field.  They met on a weekly basis to discuss academic development in the courses they taught and current international trends in their respective fields.  According to Hansman (2001), cross-cultural mentoring relationships where a person with more experience works with a less experienced one enhances both personal and professional development. Over the course of six months, mentors and mentees not only developed professional friendships but discovered that over time, they formed close relationships as colleagues and friends which can be expected to continue after the time at CUC (Johnson-Bailey & Cervero, 2002).

What is apparent is that the context of student learning in Chinese universities is changing from a focus on the teacher as the expert to the teacher as facilitator.  During classroom observations, the Chinese scholars were able to see how their mentors approached facilitating learning and then discussed the impact of that approach and ways to model the same techniques in HUEB.  One scholar said, “The instructor first generalized the lecture, then facilitated discussion by walking around the classroom and getting involved in each group’s discussion.” Most scholars felt that American students are active in class activities, and they are ready to express themselves. One scholar said, “Although my class is much bigger than American classes, after I go back to China, I will try to listen to each group and engage in their discussion.”

Additionally, several Chinese Scholars conducted research and field investigations with their mentors, which resulted in writing papers and giving presentations to CUC faculty and administration.  Each scholar, together with his/her mentor, delivered a slideshow on his/her research, addressing topics of particular interest and need in their fields. Table 1 represents the variety of topics related to the academic fields of the Chinese scholars.

Table 1

Chinese scholar presentations

Academic field

Title of the presentation


Critical Literacy in a Chinese EFL Reading Class


The Comparison of Agriculture in China and the United States

Innovation Management

Innovation and New Thinking in Decision-Making


Comparison of Copyright Law System: China and the United States


Case Study Research Project 2018 on Asian films

Human Resources

Reshaping the Cultivating Mode of International Talents Based on Competency Model

Financial Management

Financial Decision System of Shared Models based on the Study of Sharing Bicycles


Two-Way FDI in China and the United States: Prospects of Past, Present and Future

The presentations were a significant outcome of the mentoring relationship. Research areas were discussed and the mentors coached the scholars to help them with the content and delivery of new ideas.  For many scholars, their partnership and friendship with the mentor may continue cross-culturally across the ocean even after the program. One of the scholars felt that “Our joint case study could reap the harvest when the program drew to an end, but I will restart another cooperation with my mentor after the program.”

Classroom visits

The scholars not only partnered with their mentors in research investigations, they also visited and observed undergraduate and graduate courses at CUC.  Sitting in the classroom as students, the scholars listened attentively, while observing the teaching style and strategies the mentor used. They were also curious to know how CUC faculty assess student performance and learning outcomes in both formative and summative assessments. This included reviewing CUC course curriculum and assignments, online discussions, and assessment documents. As observers of the class, the scholars found both similarities and differences between Chinese and American curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Similar to Chinese classes, observations indicated that some American students are quiet in group activities, and some American instructors lecture throughout the class. However, different from Chinese students who do not volunteer responses without being asked (Pine, 2012, p. 85), their American counterparts freely volunteer to express ideas and insights. Different from a quiet Chinese class, most American classes observed were dominated by group discussions and group presentations, which required pre-class preparation and in-class effective engagement. In China, the professor usually elaborates in great detail for fear that the students might not understand. However, their American counterparts seem to generalize the topic without elaboration in detail, which may be due to requiring the students’ pre-class preparation often including online discussions based on required readings. This method indicated that American professors’ instruction was much easier for undergraduate students to grasp the content, compared with Chinese scholars’ experience teaching in the same field. The Chinese instructors felt that their own levels of understanding may go deeper when teaching their subject matter, especially in business classes.

Different from Chinese professors who “primarily help students dig deeply into the meaning of a text but seldom help the students express what they might think or feel about the text,” their American counterparts help students understanding by drawing the students and their experiences into the learning process (Pine, 2012, p. 93). Chinese teacher-student relationships are greatly influenced by Confucian ideology which requires the student’s respect for the teacher (Li, 2012, p. 51-52). The American professor seems more like a friend than a teacher to the student. As one scholar said, “What impressed me deeply was the good atmosphere of interaction between the professor and the students resulting in a friendship.” Another apparent difference in the two systems was regarding assessment of student learning. In China, universities place more weight on summative assessment, most commonly a paper and pencil test. American professors attach more importance to the students’ formative performance which requires the students’ to engage in online discussions and classroom activities. The Chinese scholars are working toward expanding their understanding of different types of assessment in order to shift from traditional methods to more diverse ways to evaluate student learning.

Weighing the similarities and the differences during the class observations revealed different class sizes in China which are often are 50–100 or even more in a lecture hall. A second difference is also seen in student performances where in China students are quiet and inactive perhaps due to the cultural value of respect for teachers and their prior learning experiences. Finally, the teaching methods in CUC are flexible and faculty adjust the delivery of instruction to meet student needs. In China, instruction is delivered based on the textbook material and consequently teachers lack the motivation to make changes. The classroom visits benefited the Chinese observers, and helped to improve their confidence to enhance instructional delivery in order to improve student achievement in China (Grimm, E. D., & Kaufman, T. & Doty, D., 2014). One scholar said, “Since the instructor and I teach similar courses, I can borrow a lot from how he crafted the lesson and how he facilitated the class.”

Seminar courses  

The scholars attended two courses. One was a weekly Seminar. The intent was to further individual writing based on reflections of different perspectives the scholars were reading in relationship to their own teaching or research. For instance, they learned the importance of generating problem-posing education in comparison with traditional banking education, so that students are engaged in higher-level thinking. This supports making education more relevant and meaningful to students, as well as going beyond knowledge attained through a textbook. As a result of this Seminar, the scholars began to examine their positionality bias which may impact their thinking and expectations about student learning (Takacs, 2003). The Seminar enabled the scholars to discuss, debate and rethink their way of teaching through a different lens. At the same time, the Seminar helped the scholars develop ways to improve their academic writing in their disciplines. One scholar felt, “The instructor recommended a couple of useful academic books, some of which are of great help to my paper writing.”

The other course the scholars took was a doctoral course in Curriculum Theory and Design which provided scholars with advanced teaching theories and lesson design. All the scholars agreed that they learned about models of teaching which are applicable to different curriculum structures, and different student needs. For example, the theories presented included constructivism, multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction, and experiential education, all of which the scholars were not familiar with. The theories were also the basis of instructional strategies which included inductive and deductive reasoning, concept attainment, role play, advanced organizers, and cooperative learning, to name a few. The CUC faculty member worked to teach the course in a constructivist manner so that the scholars were very engaged and active. Guest speakers, members of the graduate faculty, also enhanced the course by sharing their expertise in related topics. As they learned about Bloom’s taxonomy, the scholars realized that higher levels of learning require application and synthesis of knowledge in order to be understood and developed (Bloom, 1984). According to one of the scholars, “I’ve got a systematic understanding of the teaching models in this course, which will help me improve my teaching in
the future.”

During the doctoral course, the scholars were able to produce engaging presentations that demonstrated the connection between the theories they were learning and the practice within the curricular field. Table 2 shows the model of teaching and the content focus.

Table 2

Presentations in Curriculum theory and design

Models of teaching

Content focus

Role play

Chinese son working on problem solving with family members

Deductive and inductive method



Relationship between Deductive and Inductive method

Advanced organizer

Foods at Chinese Spring Festival

Concept attainment

Stereotypes – Gender differences

Cultural experiences

In addition to the research and study on campus, the scholars went off campus exploring the United States ranging from museum visits, sporting events, a jazz show, and a visit to a manufacturing plant. The cultural experiences were intended to capitalize on the Chicagoland area, and several scholars also toured other geographic regions of the U.S.A. This enabled the scholars to get a sense of culture living in a western country.

Since Chicago is home to world-class museums which make up the best attractions, the scholars visited the Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, and Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. It was no surprise that the museums, with rich collections in Chicago, do cater to diversified needs of people in different walks of life. For example, children can enjoy the Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, fans of science will find Museum of Science and Industry of interest, and art enthusiasts the Art Institute of Chicago. The Chinese found the museums a great resource for understanding civilization that appeals to people of all cultures and ages. This experience enriched their understanding of the global community and the importance of documenting the past and exploring the future.

The United States is seen as a sporting power to the outside world, including China. Seeing a National Basketball Association (NBA) game was unique to the scholars since basketball is not as popular in China as in the USA. The excitement of the crowd and the frenzy of the atmosphere provided a unique experience. However, the nation’s sporting culture is not only featured in the high-profile NBA, but it is best reflected in low-profile daily sports that the average citizen participates in. For example, CUC has its own baseball team with an excellent record, children play baseball after school with the company of their parents, and local residents jog in the streets. Such is a nation of sports. In China, sports are seen as a way to promote healthy living through exercise such as square dancing, yoga, and tai chi. Organized sports in China are very similar to high schools and colleges as in the USA, but in China, academics are more valued than sports.

Chicago is undeniably the city where jazz is thriving and evolving, so the scholars could not miss the Blue Man Group show which epitomized pop culture in the USA. The use of light, sound, and movement created an atmosphere that was bold and loud to the scholars. Pop culture can also be found on a street corner in Chicago where a band plays their music and where a solo singer performs with the beat of a drum. Such is a real American pop culture, which was eye opening to the Chinese scholars.

The United States is also home to hundreds of Fortune 500 companies in the world, one of which is Kohler located in Wisconsin. The scholars made a two-day trip to Kohler visiting the Design Center, its factory, and the factory-town community. Kohler provided a good lesson to the scholars, particularly to the business professors. Of interest was learning about the core values of Kohler that create beautiful living spaces for families. Kohler stands out as not just being concerned about its employees, but also guaranteeing the quality of its products to its customers.

From HUEB in China to CUC in Chicago, from East to West, the six-month experience for both the Chinese and American university professors established personal and professional relationships. In the short sojourn in the United States, language and cultural differences are always the two major challenges for international scholars and students (Li, W. D. & Chen, S. S., 2017). Due to the acculturation process, the scholars had to adapt in order to integrate into the culture of the university and the community. The language challenges were apparent for both groups of educators. In the classroom, some scholars found it hard to understand what the instructor delivered. In a bank, it was similarly difficult for some of them to open a bank card. However, over time and through hard work and study, these barriers were minimized and the scholars, working with the Americans, helped each other.

Communication was also a clash. For instance, it’s common for the Chinese to make a call or use WeChat to reach each other, whereas Americans prefer emails. There was a sense of frustration from the scholars in the beginning, since these differences required a change in communication practices. Another observable difference is that it’s common for today’s hospitable Chinese to treat their friends in a restaurant instead of at home. Several of the Americans preferred treating friends, including the scholars, at their home. Even if at home, it’s common for the Chinese to prepare a hearty table of hot meals for a party and all sit at the table chatting without moving around, whereas their American counterparts may be more social—walking around, chatting with one another, etc.

Although differences existed between the two cultures, the scholars could still feel the American people’s hospitality. “I was impressed by the party at the mentor’s house and I could feel the hospitality of average American families,” recalled one scholar. The CUC faculty was very concerned with the comfort level of the scholars, and realized the importance of bridging any cultural divides in order to make this a positive experience for all.


The six-month program built good relationships between Chinese scholars and their CUC mentors in order to realize the research cooperation between the two groups. Although the scholars are no longer on campus, their cooperation will continue as co-authored papers will further research goals. Additionally, this program built confidence for these Chinese scholars in that their English language was elevated and their practices improved by learning systematic teaching theories. This program also built international perspectives for these Chinese scholars in their acculturation into American way of life. Finally, this program intensified cooperation at the undergraduate level between the colleges of business at the two institutions. LEJ


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Li, J. (2012). Cultural foundations of learning: East and West. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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Takacs, D. (2003). How does your positionality bias your epistemology? Thought & Action 27. The NEA Higher Education Journal. 27-38.