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Cultural nuances in applying universal principles of good teaching and learning

6 December 2011

Professor Carmel McNaught, Director and Professor of Learning Enhancement at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Visiting Professor in Higher Education at UCL’s Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching, asks whether ‘good teaching’ should mean the same thing wherever you are.

Audience at the Chinese Ambassador's visit to UCL

I recently had the privilege of joining staff in the UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) for a week in my role as Visiting Professor in Higher Education. Each time I join a group of colleagues in a fresh institution, I am struck by both the universality of the principles that underlie the work that academics do and the diversity of the nuances in the details about how these principles play out in practice. I’d like to share a few of the experiences I’ve had over the past decade in Hong Kong that highlight the universality of principles of good teaching and learning and the ways in which these are enacted in the context of a university in Hong Kong.

When I came to The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in 2002, I was given the fascinating task of ‘proving’ that ‘Western’ active learning was relevant in the context of a Chinese university. I decided that an appropriate approach would be to investigate how the very best teachers at CUHK operated – what their beliefs about teaching and learning were and how these beliefs were translated into action.

My colleagues and I conducted interviews with 18 teachers who had been awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Exemplary Teaching Award at CUHK. The details of the project are available in Kember et al. (2006) and Kember and McNaught (2007), but a brief summary of the results is that the grounded analysis of the transcripts of the 18 interviews yielded 17 principles that clustered into five main areas: planning teaching, what is taught, how it is taught, motivating students and developing oneself as an academic teacher (read more about the five areas here). There is, of course, overlap between these areas, and between the principles themselves.

In order to see how universal our set was, we examined the literature on principles for good teaching from various countries. A few examples include Australia (e.g. Ballantyne, Bain, & Packer, 1997; Ramsden et al., 1995); the UK (e.g. Gibbs & Habeshaw, 2002; Elton & Partington, 1993); and the US (e.g. Bain, 2004; Chickering & Gamson, 1987). The stories that were illustrated in this literature showed very similar threads across a diverse set of contexts. This project confirmed my belief – which was based on previous teaching experiences in Africa, Australia and New Zealand – that there is a compelling argument to be made for viewing academics in reputable universities as an international community with respect to quality in teaching.

At CUHK our set of principles form the foundation of our Teaching and Learning Policy, and are accepted as being sound. However, we are a Chinese university and the process of the enactment of these principles has its own nuances. In order to understand this, it is important to recognise some broad features of Chinese culture.

There is a tendency to talk about Asian learners as if they are part of a homogeneous group. This is clearly no more sensible than talking about Western learners in the same way. Watkins and Biggs, in their seminal books on the Chinese learner (1996) and the Chinese teacher (2001), illustrated the complexity of cross-cultural observation. They described the ‘paradox’ of the Chinese learner: despite being educated in large classes, within a rigid curriculum with a predominance of norm-referenced assessment, Chinese learners often outperform Western students. The general culture outside the classroom impacts on academic learning. Briefly, these cultural impacts are:

  • Memorisation and understanding: Chinese learners use memorisation as a strategy to explore meaning and not just as a reproductive process.
  • Effort versus innate ability: The message within Chinese culture is that effort is paramount and so all students have a reason to strive.
  • Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation: These are not mutually exclusive; pragmatic rewards reinforce interest and vice versa.
  • General patterns of socialisation: Respect for elders, groups norms and the need to invest time in learning are emphasised from early days in Chinese culture and hence repetitive school tasks are not seen as boring.
  • A social, rather than individual, view of achievement motivation: The centrality of family in Chinese culture provides a social framework which encourages all children to succeed and honour the family.

Chinese teachers are able to work with these cultural characteristics to design orchestrated environments within which students can achieve deep levels of understanding. The ‘paradox’ only exists when Chinese classrooms are viewed with totally Western filters. This is not to say that Chinese pedagogy is superior to that used in the West: there are clearly problems with the rigidity and pressure that exists in schools in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. However, changes need to be made with an understanding of these cultural factors.

An example might make this clear. I have always been a fan of learning designs that involve authentic tasks – the use of cases, multidimensional problems – that are solved in some form of collaborative fashion. While there were some learning activities of this sort at CUHK a decade ago, this was often only evident in higher years or in postgraduate courses. First-year courses were seen as needing to be didactic, teaching the ‘basic’ vocabulary and conventions of the discipline. Achieving a balance between providing information in a form that students can use to build their own understandings and designing tasks where students also develop skills in independent learning is challenging, but I believe that the process of honing independent-learning skills must begin early in degree studies – certainly in the first year.

A number of my colleagues were prepared to investigate case-based learning in foundation courses in science and business discipline areas. While these courses were a new experience for students coming from school education in Hong Kong, they engaged well with the problems. However, the ‘rules’ for group work were much more structured than I would normally have in an Australian class. In Hong Kong, one group of students can debate with another group but individual students disagreeing in a public situation would be seen as too confrontational. The teacher needs to plan ahead and carefully structure ways in which multiple perspectives can be comfortably explored. The end result – good engagement with authentic, open-ended tasks – is the same, but the strategies are subtly different.

In universities world-wide, including UCL, we have students who come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. In universities such as CUHK, where almost all the students have a shared cultural heritage, it is relatively easy to understand how best to devise teaching strategies that facilitate learning. The challenge for our more diverse (excitingly so) student populations is to build in strategies that nudge all students towards lifelong growth and exploration at an optimal pace – indeed, to use the diversity as a positive driver for learning. As I said at the outset, it is a privilege to be invited to engage in a small part of this ongoing process at UCL.

Professor Carmel McNaught

Professor Carmel McNaught is Visiting Professor in Higher Education at the UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) and Director and Professor of Learning Enhancement in the Centre for Learning Enhancement and Research (CLEAR) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Ballantyne, R., Bain, J. & Packer, J. (1997). Reflecting on university teaching: Academics’ stories. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Chickering, A. W. & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

Elton, L., & Partington, P. (1993). Teaching standards and excellence in higher education. Developing a culture of quality. Sheffield: The UK Universities’ Staff Development Unit.

Gibbs, G. & Habeshaw, T. (2002). Recognizing and rewarding excellent teaching. Milton Keynes: TQEF National Coordination Team, The Open University.

Kember, D., & McNaught, C. (2007). Enhancing university teaching: Lessons from research into award-winning teachers. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge.

Kember, D., Ma, R., McNaught, C., & 18 exemplary teachers. (2006). Excellent university teaching. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

Ramsden, P., Margetson, D., Martin, E., & Clarke, S. (1995). Recognizing and rewarding good teaching in Australian higher education. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Watkins, D., & Biggs, J. B. (Eds.). (1996). The Chinese learner: Cultural, psychological and contextual influences. Melbourne and Hong Kong: Australian Council for Educational Research and the Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong.

Watkins, D., & Biggs, J. B. (Eds.). (2001). Teaching the Chinese learner: Psychological and pedagogical perspectives. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong.

Page last modified on 06 dec 11 15:52

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