Workgroups, Presentations, Debates


Workgroup Assignments



Chinese students studying abroad often discover that their universities favour workgroup assignments: you are randomly assigned to a workgroup containing up to, perhaps, six individuals, and then the workgroup as a whole is given an assignment. The individuals in the workgroup are collectively responsible for dividing up the work among themselves, and for collating the responses of the individual members. The assignment is graded, and this grade is allocated to each individual in the workgroup.

There is certainly some merit in undertaking workgroup assignments, particularly if you have an interest in a career in management: participation can teach you how to assess the capabilities of the individuals in a team; how to allocate tasks to them; and how to ensure that those tasks are completed in a timely manner. However, what tends to happen in practice is that a few keen and capable individuals in the workgroup do most, if not all, of the work. And despite this unfair allocation of responsibilities, each individual gets the same grade.

Universities at the lower end of league tables – those which attract students who are less capable and less motivated – tend to favour workgroup assignments, as the practice boosts the grades given to the less diligent students, often allowing a university to allocate them a passing grade overall. By favouring workgroup assignments, a university can massage its statistics and artificially inflate the average grade obtained by its students. While this practice may deceive those who rely on grade statistics, it doesn’t falsify a university’s league table ranking, as that ranking relies on many other factors – such as the opinions of external third parties – and not solely on a university’s skills at “marking its own homework”.

Laissez-Faire Workgroups


Some universities insist that workgroup assignments are carried out within a well-defined framework, and, as with seminars, that the work is undertaken within a university setting. But others leave it up to the members of a workgroup to decide how and where the work is carried out. As a result, a workgroup assignment meeting can be just another excuse to decamp to the local pub and get drunk, or just another excuse to retire to some student’s dorm room and take drugs.

Chinese students can find working within these laissez-faire workgroups to be challenging, disconcerting, and even humiliating: they may feel coerced to engage in repellent activities for fear that their grades will suffer if they do not. For example, here are the views of a student, Yali Liu, from an interview published in The Guardian newspaper:

  • The hardest thing about UK higher education is having to go to the pub. “It’s how much you need to invest socially with other students,” she says. “I don’t like going to a pub or club, but people just keep going out and I feel the pressure to go out too.” This is because, unlike in China, she says, there is so much emphasis during the course on teamwork and group projects, so socialising with other students is crucial. “It’s not about what you know and how you work, it’s really about working with other people – especially British people,” she says. “I find that so difficult.” Then there’s what to talk about when she does go out. Why do her fellow students spend so much time analysing the TV programme First Dates, for example?


In response to being constantly pressured to go out pubbing or clubbing, a native English speaker might get annoyed and say, perhaps, sod off! – vulgar slang that means go away. Now, I’m not suggesting that you do the same, but it’s important to remember that refusing to participate in a group activity in the individualized Western world does not result in the loss of face (丢脸 diūliǎn) that such behaviour might occasion in China. If you don’t want to go out, all you have to do is to refuse politely; come up with a little white lie by way of an excuse so as not to make the person who has invited you out feel snubbed: “I’m way behind on my assignment”, “I’ve agreed to help a friend with her assignment”, “I’m expecting a call from home”, “I’ve already been invited to another party”. Yes, the number of excuses is endless!

How You Can Make Things Better


There is a solution to the problem of the laissez-faire workgroup and to the overemphasis by some universities on workgroup assignments. And you are part of that solution. For example, about 20% (5%) of students going to UK (US) universities are from overseas and many overseas students share Yali Liu’s disdain for the boozy workgroup culture found in some universities. Now these universities are very dependent on the income that they receive from overseas students. And so if overseas students want less by way of workgroup assignments and want those that remain to be conducted within a well-defined framework and within a university setting, then the offending universities can be made to change their ways: all students have to do is to complain.

When selecting a university and making initial enquiries, email the International Student Office within each university on your shortlist, and ask them to specify, for the course you are considering, how much of the final grade is dependent on a student’s performance on workgroup assignments (rather than on examination results or on the grades allocated for personal assignments), and also ask them to specify where their workgroup assignments take place. Once you’ve made your final choice, email those universities you’ve rejected and inform them, where relevant, that the amount of emphasis they place on workgroup assignments is too great, and that this excessive emphasis is the reason why you have selected another institution.

If you’re attending a particular university and have had a bad experience with a workgroup assignment, then write about that experience online – anonymously if you prefer. Then send the International Student Office a link to what you have written. Even better, write an article for a Chinese website or newspaper, such as China Daily or the South China Morning Post; describe your experience; name the offending university; and, as before, forward a link to the International Student Office. It will take only a small number of such publicly articulated complaints before the errant university will mend its ways – rather than risk losing its revenue. Other universities will be carefully monitoring what is being said about their competitors, and so a complaint posted in the public domain will help to influence policy and practice across the entire university sector.

Remember: overseas universities need you far more than you need them!



Another difference between universities in China and those overseas is the emphasis that the latter place on students giving presentations as part of their coursework: at an overseas university, it’s quite likely, particularly in some subjects, that you will be asked to give presentations based on the course material that you are studying. Some students enjoy giving presentations, but many do not. The additional problem for you, as a Chinese student, is that you may worry about the adequacy of your English language skills – a concern that may add to your discomfort when speaking in public.

A presentation will involve a slide show, typically a PowerPoint slide show. If you find giving a presentation nerve-racking, then here are some observations and suggestions that may help:

  • You can practise what you want to say well in advance, and the points made on a slide will act as reminders should you forget – easily done when you’re feeling stressed. When practising what you want to say, don’t just read the text: speak it out loud. Record this dry run, and then play it back while looking at the slides as you would do were you someone who was sitting in on the presentation. Is anything unclear: whether your pronunciation, or the logical coherence of the points you are making?

  • Unlike a speech, when you are giving a presentation, the audience’s attention will be on the slides as much as on you. If you provide a considerable amount of information on each slide, then your audience will be focusing on the slides. All you need to do is to make a short comment about each section of a slide in turn, and then move quickly on to the next slide before the audience’s gaze turns in your direction.

  • If you have some control over where you stand, then try to stand behind your audience, or off to one side of your audience. By doing so, you will find that they focus more on the slides and less on you. If possible, dim the lights while giving a presentation. If you have access to a laser pointer, then you can look at the slides – and not at your audience – as you give the presentation, moving the laser pointer from one part of a slide to another as you speak to the relevant content.

  • The most difficult aspect to giving a presentation is usually the questions that come when the presentation is complete – an awkward, uncomfortable situation in which the lights are no longer dimmed and everyone is looking directly at you. Try to anticipate what these questions might be: typically, they will consist of requests for clarifications to some of the points made on the slides. Write down a list of likely questions and your answers, and practice giving these answers repeatedly well in advance of the presentation. You may be able to shift the focus of attention away from you during this question-and-answer session by redisplaying some relevant slides or, perhaps, by displaying some additional slides that address the answers to the questions you have anticipated.



Another difference between universities in China and those overseas is the emphasis that is sometimes placed by the latter on participation in debates: in some subjects, students may be assigned to teams and asked to debate some issue based on the course material that they are studying. As with presentations, so with debates: some students enjoy debating, but many do not; and, as a Chinese student, you may worry about the adequacy of your English language skills.

If you find the prospect of debating unsettling, then here are some observations and suggestions that may help:


  • Prepare well in advance. Decide which points you need to make to support your side in the debate; anticipate which points the other side will make, so that you can rebuff them. Make each point or rebuff into a heading and write down what you want to say in response. Go through your responses repeatedly. Don’t just read the text silently: speak it out loud. Then try to speak to the points without reading from the text, so that your responses will seem more natural.

  • Simulate a debate, one where you impersonate, in turn, a party from one side of the debate and then from the other. Try to keep these simulated exchanges going for as long as possible. Record this counterfeit debate; play it back; determine your strengths and weaknesses; and then adjust your responses accordingly.

  • If you get stuck or become nervous during a debate, then look down and read the response directly from your notes. Try to come up with phrases that you can use to dispel the awkwardness that occurs at such moments. Try to come up with rhetorical phrases that give you time to think. If you can’t answer the point put by an opponent, then just restate your position – politicians do so all the time and they invariably get away with it!

  • Remember that debating is a little like acting: smile at the audience before you start to speak; point at your opponents from time to time when criticizing what they have just said; shake your head when an opponent is making a point you disagree with.


Lab Work

The approach to the sciences at overseas universities can be markedly different from that of their Chinese counterparts when it comes to lab work, to experimentation. Right from the beginning of your course, you may be expected to perform experiments, to gather data, to analyse it statistically, to come to conclusions, to write up your results in the form of mini research papers. These experiments will often investigate issues that are already well understood, but, even at an undergraduate level, you may be expected to seek answers to novel questions – you might even end up submitting your findings to a research journal.

The focus is not just on getting you to understand the general body of knowledge that currently comprises physics, or chemistry, or molecular biology, or some other field of enquiry. In addition, great emphasis is placed on getting you to understand how that knowledge has been accumulated. You are encouraged to “get your hands dirty”, to become familiar with the knowledge-acquisition process, to contribute in some small way to extending the existing knowledge base.

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