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Problems When Studying Abroad

Collectivism Versus Individualism

Collectivism Versus Individualism


Studying abroad can be very different from studying in China. You need to understand these differences and prepare yourself for a distinct and unfamiliar approach to learning.

One of the most striking differences between studying in China and studying in an English-speaking country is the attitude of individuals to other people and to society at large. In China, the long-held and highly valued Confucian tradition emphasizes collectivism and promotes the establishment of harmony within groups. Asserting one’s own opinion is less important that maintaining good relationships with other people: maintaining face (面子 miànzi) is all important, and leads to the establishment of connections (关系 guānxì).

But in English-speaking countries, and in the West more generally, individualism is king: everyone expresses his or her own opinion, and if, as a result, there are divisions between groups and there is friction within society at large, then so be it – the view is that it’s a price worth paying. Whereas not to care about appearances, not to care about what society may think about you (不要脸 bùyào liǎn) is considered unacceptable in China, in English-speaking countries it is often viewed as admirable behaviour, it is worn as a badge of honour, it is extolled as a case of being one’s own man. And whereas ostentatious displays of wealth are considered quite acceptable in China, they are vilified in the West, as such behaviour causes others to lose face (丢脸 diūliǎn). In the West, social status is something that is forged by individuals through their own efforts; in China, it is something that is granted to individuals by society based of their merits and behaviours (给面子 gěimiànzi). In China, many little white lies are told to maintain harmony: whereas okay means acceptable in the West, in China the equivalent word may well mean not acceptable.

So, you can see why studying abroad can be both deeply perplexing and acutely stressful: it can seem as though everything is upside down! It will help considerably if you can find a discreet, native English-speaking friend who can explain Western cultural norms – so that you don’t put your foot in it in some circumstances and you avoid being unnecessarily and profoundly offended in others.


Degree Classification

When you look at the websites of overseas universities what do you see? Web pages filled with images of smiling students. The implication is that attending an overseas university is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Well, they lie!

Studying at a university overseas is more stressful than studying at a university in China: for Chinese students studying in the UK or the US the experience can be between 50% and 100% more stressful, depending on the metric selected (however, studying at a university abroad is likely to be less stressful than studying for the gāokǎo!). For the most part, the increased stress levels arise from differences in the way universities operate, in the way courses are organized. However, the increased anxiety and depression associated with studying overseas is not exclusive to Chinese students, as domestic students studying at these universities report similar levels of stress.

Everywhere in the world, high school students are instructed according to a similar paradigm: the teacher presents the facts, the students write them down, memorize them, and later restate them by way of answers to tests, by way of answers to examination questions. Chinese universities tend to continue with this very efficient high school paradigm, but at overseas universities the paradigm is often very different, depending in part on the university and in part on the course of study. So, you need to understand this overseas paradigm. And you need to embrace strategies to mitigate the anxiety, distress, and depression that it may generate.

The aspects of life overseas that prove most stressful will vary between students. But when Chinese students who were adjusting to life in the UK were asked to select the three most stressful activities from among a set of sixteen, the relative percentages were as follows (Wang, 2018):

  • Expressing ideas clearly in class: 46.3%

  • Writing up papers that lead to good grades: 36.6%

  • Participating in class discussions: 36.6%

  • Understanding lectures: 32.9%

  • Getting used to teaching methods: 28.0%

  • Going to social events/gatherings/functions: 23.2%

  • Getting used to studying independently: 20.7%

  • Getting used to being grouped with British students: 17.1%

  • Understanding the local accent/language: 10.9%

  • Getting used to local food: 9.8%

  • Understanding cultural differences: 9.8%

  • Making friends with British people: 7.3%

  • Adapting to local accommodation: 7.3%

  • Understanding tutors’ comments on coursework papers: 7.3%

  • Keeping good relationships with tutors: 3.7%

Several years later, when the students were pursuing postgraduate courses, the percentages had altered as follows:

  • Writing up papers that lead to good grades: 64.6%

  • Going to social events/gatherings/functions: 46.3%

  • Getting used to studying independently: 39.0%

  • Getting used to teaching methods: 30.5%

  • Making friends with British people: 29.3%

  • Keeping good relationships with tutors: 20.9

  • Getting used to being grouped with British students: 17.1%

  • Expressing ideas clearly in class: 12.2%

  • Understanding the local accent/language: 10.9%


  • Participating in class discussions: 9.8%

  • Understanding lectures: 8.5%

  • Adapting to local accommodation: 4.9%

  • Getting used to local food: 2.4%

  • Understanding cultural differences: 2.4%

  • Understanding tutors’ comments on coursework papers: 0.0%


While the stresses associated with classroom interactions – expressing ideas and participating in discussions – decreased over time (probably due to an increased emphasis on personal assignments), the stresses that impact academic performance – such as writing papers and studying dependently – increased.

Degree Classification

In China, the focus is on working very hard at high school in order to get into a good university – once at university the pressure is off. But in English-speaking countries, in addition to the pressure of getting into a good university, there is also the pressure of maximizing the degree classification attained: it’s not only the university you attend that matters, it’s also the degree classification you receive that matters.

For example, Chinese students studying in the UK will receive the following degree classifications:

  • First-class honours / 1st / Class I – 70% or above

  • Second-class honours, upper division / 2:1 / Class II, Division I – 60% to 69%

  • Second-class honours, lower division 2:2 / Class II, Division II – 50% to 59%

  • Third-class honours / 3rd / Class III – 40% to 49%

The degree classification system varies considerably between countries; for example, a UK honours degree is typically considered equivalent to a US master's degree – due to the much greater emphasis on degree specialization in the UK. Larger employers, particularly international employers, are well aware of these differences, and the acquisition of specialist knowledge during a course of study is highly valued, as employers can utilize the skill sets of employees with this specialist knowledge without further training.

Most employers will be looking for candidates with degree classifications towards the upper end of the range. Awareness of this expectation can lead to a relentless pressure throughout the years spent at university, a pressure to perform as best as possible, a pressure that can be a source of anxiety and apprehension.

Personal Assignments

Personal Assignments

... Introduction



... Motivation

In China, university education adheres closely to the traditional lecture format, but universities in English-speaking countries take a very different approach: the amount of time devoted to lectures is often comparatively small relative to that spent on personal assignments. You might receive a lecture that introduces you to a particular topic; but then you’ll be given a reading list of books, research papers, and web articles; you’ll be asked to read, understand, and analyse this material; and then you’ll be asked to write an essay or dissertation that answers some wide-ranging question, referencing the material as appropriate in your answer.

The grade you receive for your course will often by based to a large extent on your success in completing these assignments, rather than on your success in some final examination – the importance attached to personal assignments varies by institution and by course of study, being more common in the humanities than in the sciences.

You need to decide how well you can adapt to this different approach to learning. To succeed, you’ll need to develop new skills. However, these skills will serve you well in later life, so there is much merit in mastering the personal assignment approach to university coursework. (It’s not the future benefits to students that motivate universities to pursue this approach: rather it is the imperative among universities to maximize their rankings – time spent by faculty members on research does far more to improve a university’s ranking than does time spent on teaching.)

Chinese students find adapting to the personal assignment paradigm particularly difficult: while their academic performance is similar to that of domestic students and overseas students of other nationalities during the first year at university, their performance declines thereafter as courses become more complex and the emphasis placed on personal assignments increases.

Whereas close to 70% of students graduate with a degree classification towards the upper end of the range, this is true for just over 40% of Chinese students. This discrepancy and the difficulty in adapting to the personal assignment paradigm seem to have a common cause: Chinese students, being highly motivated, push themselves far harder than most other students, by taking greater pains to gain access to high-ranking universities and, once there, to pursue more demanding courses (note that the discrepancy is not related to national differences in ability, as China with an average IQ score of 105 comes well ahead of the scores for the English-speaking countries in which Chinese students most often study: United Kingdom, 100; Canada, 99; Australia, 98; United States 98).

Given the impact that a poor degree classification can have on your career prospects, you should carefully assess the demands of a prospective university course before you commit yourself; if you’re struggling on your course at present, consider taking tuition to help improve your study skills.

One of the biggest problems with adapting to personal assignments is a lack of motivation. Gone are the days when you spent your time moving from one class to another, when there was a teacher looking in your direction to ensure that you were listening, when there was a teacher who set homework each day and marked it the next. You are no longer incentivized to study: you no longer receive those little shots of dopamine that reward you when you correctly answer this question and then that, when you receive a good grade for yesterday’s homework.

You may have many weeks to complete an assignment. And it’s entirely up to you whether you decide to work on it or not. In order to succeed in this environment, you need to be sufficiently self-motivated to work on a task for a comparatively long period. This is not a trait that every student – domestic or overseas – possesses, and for some the temptation to watch TV or check their Facebook updates or go clubbing with their equally dissolute friends proves far more attractive. These students will only start to work on their assignments as deadlines approach, with the result that the quality of their assignments proves substandard and their grades suffer.

So, it’s important to choose a subject you are interested in, a subject you want to read about and study in depth. Even then, there will be occasions when you will have to force yourself to spend time doing tasks that you find uninteresting. However, mastering this level of self-discipline will serve you very well in later life.

... Time Management

Time Management

Even if you are motivated to study by yourself, you still need to manage your time. You will have different assignments and presentations that you will need to prepare for, and so you will have to decide well in advance how to allocate your time, when to start working on one assignment, when to stop. There will be little by way of an externally set timetable to follow; your time will be your own apart from attending the occasional lecture or seminar.

So you need to write down all the tasks that you need to carry out, to break them down into subtasks, to decide how long each is likely to take, and then to draw up a plan that allows you to get each subtask and each task completed by the relevant deadline. It takes some getting used to, but, as with motivating yourself to complete those tasks you find uninteresting, learning how to manage your time will also serve you very well in later life.

... Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking

Studying at high school – anywhere in the world – follows the same paradigm: your teacher tells you the facts; you memorize those facts; and then you restate those facts by way of answers to tests and examination questions. Studying at a university in China often follows this simple, but highly efficient, high school paradigm.

But studying overseas is often very different: you start ploughing through the reading list for an assignment; you make notes from each source with the intention of regurgitating the relevant information; but then you find that different articles on your reading list are making contradictory claims, antithetical assertions – you’ve entered a world inhabited not by dependable facts but, instead, by capricious, specious, meretricious opinions. When you ask your tutor about these discrepancies, you’re told that a key factor to achieving a high mark on your assignment lies in your ability to examine the arguments advanced in support of these contradictory claims, and to then present in your write-up those arguments that seem to you to be the most convincing, those arguments that for you have the most merit – you’re told what to do, but, sadly, not how to do it. This requirement to deploy critical thinking – to assess the relative merits of competing claims, of contradictory arguments – is the key to achieving a high degree classification at most overseas universities.

Critical thinking is in greater demand in the humanities than in the sciences. But even in the sciences there are unanswered questions, questions for which different theories are advanced, theories supported to a greater or lesser extent by the empirical evidence. So, even in the sciences, you may be asked to sift and evaluate the evidence and to put forward arguments in support of the theory which seems, at present, to be the best contender.


If you find critical thinking difficult, then seek assistance or tuition. The basic principle behind critical thinking is to ask questions of every statement that an author makes: Is it true or false? Is it true in some circumstances, but false in others? What evidence has the author put forward to support that statement? What about the evidence put forward by those who disagree with the author? Overall, is there little or much by way of evidence? Is the evidence consistent or contradictory? Is the evidence strong or weak? And what groups have provided the evidence? Are they impartial or are they linked with vested interests? Whereas in China there is often one collectivist view of the world, in the individualist West there are many competing, contending, opposing views about almost any subject you can think of – all news is “fake news” unless solid evidence demonstrates otherwise.

Of all the skills that you will develop at an overseas university, this ability to process new information – to think critically about it, to draw conclusions from it, to highlight aspects of it that merit further investigation – is one that will best advance your future career prospects. While skills in critical thinking may seem to be of more value in the individualist West than in collectivist China, they are of great importance – irrespective of culture – in times of rapid social and technological change. In such times, there is no established understanding, no textbook to consult; there is only information, often conflicting information, that you must evaluate for yourself. With the rapidly growing expansion in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms, the need for humans to perform any kind of repetitive work – be it skilled or unskilled – will dissipate in the coming decades. Those jobs that remain will demand a great deal of mental dexterity: an ability to quickly learn new skills; an ability to rapidly process disparate types of information; an ability to integrate, consolidate, and make sense of the outputs generated by a wealth of ever more capable AI applications.

... English Language Proficiency

English Language Proficiency

Can you understand spoken English sufficiently well to understand lectures? Can you speak English sufficiently well to be understood by your tutors and by the people in the locality where your university is located? And, most critically of all, can you write English sufficiently well to get a good degree classification?

Now, universities require you to pass various English language tests in order to gain entrance. So – you might think quite reasonably – if you can pass these tests, your English language skills are adequate, fit for purpose. Unfortunately, such faith in the beneficence of universities is not justified – would that it were! International students are a source of very substantial income for universities in English-speaking countries, and so there is a pernicious temptation – one to which a sizable number of universities succumb – a temptation to lower the English language requirements in order to maximize revenues (universities may also offer places to those who fail English language tests provided the failing students take supplementary English language courses – yet another source of revenue).

So, a significant proportion of Chinese students studying abroad find that their English language skills are not fit for purpose, find that they have to make extraordinary efforts to improve their skills in parallel with trying to understand their courses. For more information, read the web pages under Language, which specify ways in which you can assess the adequacy of your language skills before travelling abroad – in particular, read the section entitled Understanding Lectures.


... Speed-Reading



There is one aspect to English language proficiency that many Chinese students who intend to study abroad overlook: speed-reading.

  • You’re studying at a university in China. At the start of your course, you’re presented with a course textbook. At about 150 pages, the course reading material is short; it’s well organized; it contains all the information that’s relevant to your course, and no information that is not.

  • You’re studying at a university overseas. At the start of your course, you’re presented with a reading list. At over 3,000 pages, the course reading material is very lengthy; it’s poorly organized; it contains all the information that’s relevant to your course, but it also contains a great deal of information that is not. (The volume of required reading often varies markedly between courses, being much more substantial in the humanities than in the sciences.)

Why, oh why, do they make life so difficult? Well, if the purpose is to efficiently grasp the principles of a particular area of study in as short a time as possible, then using a course textbook is clearly the better option. But information in the real world does not come neatly packaged in course textbook format. Instead, there are the many online blogs and web articles, most of which are ill-informed and poorly written. Instead, there are the many books, most of which come to different conclusions, most of which seem dedicated to expounding pre-existing prejudices rather than to explicating impartial analyses. In the real world, there is rarely a consensus, and so you have to sift through and analyse a great deal of material to gain a thorough, balanced, rounded understanding of any issue. So, a lengthy, antithetical reading list better reflects the effort involved in real-world decision making than would a succinct, coherent course textbook.

Given the focus on personal assignments and the associated requirement to read large quantities of material, it’s important to improve your ability to speed-read before you travel abroad, or, if you can’t, to develop workarounds that allow you to reduce the volume of material that has to be read. (But you are not alone: native English language speakers transitioning from high school to university often encounter a similar degree of discomfiture when confronted with the disappearance of the familiar and much-loved course textbook.)

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