How accurate are the common perceptions of Asian learners?

#1 Asian learners have a passive and unquestioning approach to learning
In contrast to this perception, scholars on Confucianism argue it does not advocate non-questioning group-thinking, but actually stresses the importance of education for the development of the individual. This is echoed by studies of Asian learners that show they expect their university education to improve them as a ‘whole person’ not just provide them with professional skills. Basically there is no strong evidence for the claims that Asian learners are passive and unquestioning due to cultural causes such as collectivism and respect for teachers. This perception is an over-generalisation and any passivity is more likely caused by situational factors such as the learners’ lack of experience with learner centred methods and/or language difficulties.

Rather than expecting learners to be passive or dismissing a quiet class with a cultural stereotype, it may be that the teacher needs to reflect on their teaching methods. Providing opportunities for learners to connect course content with their own experiences and group activities are just two ways to engage learners.

#2 Asian learners rote learn and therefore can only achieve surface learning
Rather than being a form of superficial learning, experts argue that memorization needs to be considered as part of a process involving reflection and integration with prior learning that leads to deep learning. Put simply, just because Confucian style learning demands a lot of memorization, that doesn’t mean learners that have learnt this way are unable to achieve deep understanding.

For teachers the question to ask is, does my way of teaching and assessing encourage or discourage surface learning? Many learners, from any background, are strategic – they will choose a surface style of learning if that is what will get them through the course. Exams are a perfect example of an assessment type that can lead learners to take the ‘easy’ route of memorizing over understanding or higher level thinking skills.

#3 Asian learners are not open to new learning experiences
The view that learners from a Confucian heritage background prefer a teacher-centred mode of teaching is not supported by evidence. Like any other learner being exposed to new experiences, what they do need are precise guidelines and instructions. Research has indicated that the stress caused by uncertainty about what is required leads to cultural shock for learners and they spend their energy on determining the lecturer’s intent in asking a question rather than on answering it.

Please note that while it is another myth to presume all Asian cultures are homogeneous, for the sake of brevity, the term ‘Asian learner’ has been used. Most of the information relates to learners with Chinese or Confucian heritage backgrounds.The information in this column is based on a small review of the literature in this field. If you would like the reference list, please contact me at