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The Chinese learner abroad

The paradox of the Chinese learner

The past 50 years have witnessed increased research interests in Chinese learners in general and in particular Chinese students abroad. The primary reasons for this include the rapid growth of the Chinese population and their economic success overseas (Cheng, 1994; Chan, 1999).

A rich body of research in the higher education literature has reported Chinese students' approaches to learning, focusing on common features.

Numerous studies reported what teachers in the host countries (mainly English-speaking countries such as the UK, the United States, Australia, New Zealand) found: that is, that Chinese students they encountered tended to be passive learners (Chen, Bennett, & Maton, 2008) and have an inherent focus on memorisation (Samuelowicz, 1987; Watkins, Reghi, & Astilla, 1991; Volet & Renshaw, 1996). Educators in the host countries also reported that Chinese students excessively focused on concrete information, lacked abstract thinking development, overemphasised concrete examples and specifics rather than universals, were dedicated to practicality, and lacked creativity (Redding, 1990; Pieke, 1991; Warner, 1991; Chan, 1999).

Scholars also suggested that more research is needed to understand the common traits of Chinese learners before Western educators can fully appreciate their different approaches to learning (On, 1996; Chan, 1997, 1999; Du & Hansen, 2005; Selvarajah, 2006). In his work in the early 1990s, Biggs (1994) formulated the concept of 'the paradox of the Chinese learner', which indicates that despite how Westerners viewed Chinese students as mechanically learning massive amounts of information in examination-dominated educational systems, these students actually surpass their Western peers who are educated in student-centred environments. Since the late 1990s, major advances in research have been made in revealing the paradox of the Chinese learner to be a myth. A few studies (Kember, 1996, 2000; Cooper, 2004) have provided evidence that although surface approaches to learning can be associated with rote learning, the Chinese tradition of memorisation through repetition leads to understanding and high levels of academic performance.

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