Features > Scholarly Pursuits

Learning a New Way to Learn
Yin Hongbiao finds that Chinese students benefit from ‘negative’ attitudes to class

September 2021

Enter an American university, and you may find students arguing over ideas with their professor, and encouraged to chat through their thinking in small groups. Enter a university in mainland China, and there may be silence. Current educational strategies favour the obvious engagement of talkative students, but that may be a mistake with Chinese students, who learn in a very different way.

At university, Chinese students have very varied motivating forces from their cohorts in other nations, according to new research by Prof. Yin Hongbiao. The findings suggest that institutions need to tailor their instruction accordingly.

Professor Yin studied 2,013 students at 12 universities in mainland China, mainly in Beijing and Shandong province. Seven are ‘elite’ colleges, while the other five are teaching-oriented. His work won him a Young Researcher Award for 2019-20 from CUHK.


He and a team of collaborators surveyed students using questionnaires, also conducting in-depth interviews to generate case studies. In fact, the research is ongoing since it is a ‘longitudinal’ study collecting data over time.

Professor Yin specializes in studying the psychology and cultural context behind education, analysing the importance of teacher emotion, the effects of curriculum change, and how university students best learn. Other research over the last two decades tends to focus on student behaviour, in other words how students act in response to instruction.

This work looks at what drives them. Professor Yin considers how the students feel about their education, what they believe about their learning, and how that contributes to their university experience. The results show there can be discrepancies between how students think and feel, and how they respond. The cultural expectations surrounding education also differ.

A key finding of Professor Yin’s analysis is that certain ‘negative’ psychological drivers that produce poor learning outcomes in the Western world can produce positive learning patterns for Chinese students. Motivations such as anxiety, the desire to avoid failure, and the urge to control uncertainty all drive the typical Chinese student to engage in class, study hard and achieve positive learning outcomes. Those drivers cause students from many other cultures to perform poorly.

There can also be a disconnect between how mentally engaged Chinese students are, and how they behave in class. Educators at American universities hope their students will be behaviourally very active in class, talkative in discussing their ideas. This, the university educators believe, shows they are engaged in the material. They also believe students should be independent.

A Chinese classroom may be quiet, bar the professor lecturing. The students listen, perhaps influenced by Confucian ideals of education and student behaviour. Those in turn may foster a certain shyness about sharing your thoughts with others in public.

‘We have to look at the influence from specific cultural traditions,’ Professor Yin, the chairman of CUHK’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, says. ‘It doesn’t mean these Chinese university students don’t think. But they tend to express their ideas after a long period of thinking and reflection.’

Professor Yin was inspired by a theoretical framework developed by Andrew Martin, who has studied student motivation in Western contexts. A professor of educational psychology at the University of New South Wales, Martin gathered a small fraction of his research in China but the bulk came from Australia, the US and Europe.

Martin, who is also a licensed psychologist, believes there is positive ‘adaptive’ motivation and engagement, as well as ‘maladaptive’ negative engagement. Anxiety, fear avoidance and uncertainty control are all factors he considers maladaptive. They impair the active engagement of Western students.

Besides quantitative analysis, Professor Yin is looking to broaden the topic. Martin’s main focus so far has been student engagement at high schools rather than universities. The Australian professor also uses only quantitative analysis, whereas Professor Yin also considers qualitative methods, and studies students over a long period of time, a ‘three-wave’ approach.


In Professor Yin’s eyes, the mainstream research on student engagement at universities has actually studied student behaviour more than their mental engagement. The relationship between those ‘maladaptive’ traits and the educational outcomes for Chinese students is often positive. Encouraging the students to be independent, meanwhile, may result in them feeling less confident, a different outcome from in the West.

In Shandong, the students had no significant effect from these ‘maladaptive’ kinds of motivation. In Beijing, there was a positive reaction. In both cases, there was nothing negative about the outcome.

Chinese students have a very strong belief that they should work hard and be diligent, the results show. Even if they do not understand course content, they tend to believe they should try harder to comprehend it. However, the downside is that they may find the process of learning that way dull and unattractive.

‘University educators need to know the Chinese cultural and educational traditions are more like a double-edged sword,’ Professor Yin says. ‘They should take advantage of the propensity for diligence and emphasis on introspection and self-cultivation. But at the same time, they also need to upgrade their content and innovate in their teaching, to make university education ‘‘interesting, attractive, and joyful’’,’ he adds.

Professor Yin encourages Chinese university educators to be innovative. Fostering independent critical thinking may be more important, since those attitudes have not been traditionally encouraged in Chinese education.

Professor Yin calls on university educators to understand the Chinese students’ cultural and educational traditions, and their unique way of learning

There are also implications for future research on education. Psychological and cultural aspects of student behaviour should be considered, too, rather than just student behaviour patterns.

Professor Yin is now starting to study students in Henan province, to broaden his analysis. There is some variability between the results in Shandong and Beijing but he is as yet unsure why. Intuitively, he suspects that students in other East Asian nations such as South Korea and Japan behave the same as those in China, but that has not been addressed.

There’s room for further investigation into mainland Chinese students who leave China to study in other nations. He has noticed that mainland students become more active in Hong Kong, which may be a result of the acculturation process. These findings suggest international educators may need to give Chinese students time to settle into a new educational climate and tradition.

‘Chinese students are using a different way of learning, one that’s very different from what’s prevalent in a Western social context,’ Professor Yin concludes. ‘They have a different understanding about what an engaged learner should be.’

By Alex Frew McMillan
Photos by Eric Sin