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Learning to Study in the UK

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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The way of teaching in a university in the UK is very different from China. Perhaps under the influence of Confucian traditions, teaching in Chinese universities is teacher-centred and takes place in large classes. The focus is on formal lectures, with little interaction between students and academics. In contrast, UK universities tend to encourage interaction and discussion between tutors and students, which helps foster independent thinking.



The posting below looks at some of the difference between Chinese and English approaches to university learning in the UK as experienced by the Chinese author. It is from Chapter 1: A Chinese Lecturer in an English University: an Unfinished Journey, by Feng Su, in the book, Chinese Learning Journeys: Chasing the Dream, edited by Feng Su. Trentham Books Limited, Westview House, 734 London Road Oakhill, Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire, England ST4 5NP. U.S. publisher, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, VA 20166-2012 USA. © 2011 Feng Su ISBN: 978 1 85856 477 7


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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Learning to study in the UK


By studying in the UK, I have benefited from different approaches to learning and interactions with British people. As a result, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the difference between Chinese and English approaches to learning in a university setting; my experience of interacting with local people has also enabled me to think about the differences between a western democratic society and an authoritarian Chinese one.

Before I came to the UK, my impression of Britain came mainly from classic novels like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist, and A Tale of Two Cities. I had read these books when I studied English in Beijing, I imagined that it would always be raining in the UK and people would always take an umbrella with them when they went out; everyone would act politely and dress formally like a gentleman or a lady. Obviously, my image of Britain was romanticised by my reading of English literature. Some of my images of England turned out to be true while many others were far from reality.

In 2003, I arrived in the UK for the first time and started with an intensive English course prior to the planned master's degree at one of the universities in Liverpool. On my arrival, I felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety. It was wonderful to be able to see blue skies (on dry days) and vast green spaces around the campus. It was a huge contrast to Beijing's often murky skies, which many believe are a result of the pollution by heavy industries around the city and busy traffic inside it. However, Liverpool seemed much quieter and smaller compared to Beijing.

After a number of years studying English in China, it was a shock to discover how little I could understand local people and make myself understood when I arrived in Britain. There were strange accents, fast speech, and unfamiliar phrases and slang. Even after my first three months, I was still struggling with English language proficiency. I then realised that it was not possible for me to improve my language skills dramatically and develop a deep understanding of British culture within one year. Subsequently, I changed my study plan to a three-year undergraduate degree in Information Technology.

The way of teaching in a university in the UK is very different from China. Perhaps under the influence of Confucian traditions, teaching in Chinese universities is teacher-centred and takes place in large classes. The focus is on formal lectures, with little interaction between students and academics. In contrast, UK universities tend to encourage interaction and discussion between tutors and students, which helps foster independent thinking. For instance, I had a Computer Network Security module that was entirely delivered through the problem-based learning (PBL) approach, which encouraged students to solve given problems on their own. The tutors were facilitators rather than knowledge transmitters. This different teaching method encouraged me to become an independent learner and to be critical in the learning of new knowledge.

The only difficulty I had was becoming part of the learning community on campus. In Chinese universities, all students are required to live on campus and stay in a dormitory. It is common to see six or more students sharing one room, and I once shared a room with seven other students when I studied in Beijing. It is easy to feel part of a community, a very intimate one in terms of getting to know each other. Many of my life-long friends and enemies came from these student dormitories.

When I arrived in the UK, I was allocated individual student accommodation on campus. At the beginning, it was such a luxury to have my own en-suite individual room and nobody interfering with my privacy. Gradually, this became a barrier between me and other students as everyone seemed to stay in their own room. I had few opportunities to meet them, let alone develop some sort of friendship. There was a strong sense of loneliness. I had to learn to cope with the fact that my family and friends were on the other side of the planet, and I could not afford to telephone them all the time. My only comfort was to meet with fellow Chinese students on campus who were sharing a similar experience. I met my future partner, Caroline, in this way.

With my knowledge from working in the IT industry I did pretty well in the degree. I was awarded first class honours. However, during those three years, I had to work extremely hard to support myself financially. My part-time work ranged from being a bar cleaner, restaurant waiter, chef, university library assistant, community volunteer, IT technician to university teaching assistant. Now, looking back, I believe these part-time jobs were a very important part of my overseas study experience.

They provided not only financial benefits but also learning opportunities to improve my English, and to get to know British people and the local culture from a different perspective outside the university.

When doing voluntary work with a local computer centre, UK Online, I met some local people who were receiving benefits from the state including housing benefit, child benefit and unemployment benefit. I learned for the first time that, as well as the free National Health Service (NHS), people who are unemployed or in disadvantaged circumstances get other benefits. It was unimaginable for a Chinese person to understand this happening in a traditional capitalist country and was a big contrast to my prior understanding. In my school years, I was taught that capitalist countries exploit their workers in order to get maximum profit. At first, it was hard to understand how the government would so generously hand out so many benefits. By contrast, in socialist China, people do not get such generous state support (if there is any at all for rural residents) for housing, childcare and medical care.

My experience shows me that contemporary China is now a complex country rather than a simple socialist one. China is perhaps a more capitalist country than it was but with some hybrid socialist country characteristics, as described by Mann (2007). From different workplaces, I learned how British people treasure and fight for individual rights, as reflected in the number of industrial strikes and political campaigns which I witnessed over the years in the UK. Taking some recent events as examples, the British Airways industrial actions in 2010 forced the management to rethink its policy on cabin crew benefits, and the UK parliament had to review its members' expenses policy after a number of damaging news reports in 2009. From my observations, these were achieved mainly by respect for the law and legislation that protects individual rights. In China, there may be equivalent laws, but there appears to be lack of respect for them and their implementation. There are too many risks for individuals to campaign for their causes in China.

While studying in the UK, I realised that I have become more political and often unconsciously compare China with the outside world. The distance from my home country has actually brought me closer to it. I often think how China can become a more democratic and free society that respects and protects individual rights, while it develops its fast growing economy. I think about these issues not cynically but sincerely. It springs from my love for my birth place and my desire to make it a better place. Certainly, I am under no illusion that western capitalist political and economic systems are perfect examples for others to copy. No such illusion could survive after having witnessed the unpopular Iraq War as well as the recent collapse of financial markets, which many believed was caused by greedy capitalists - bankers in particular.

Becoming a research student

Immediately after completing my undergraduate degree, I was awarded a full scholarship to continue my studies at master's level. On completion of my master's degree in Computer Science, I was offered a job as IT Research and Support Specialist at the same university. I did not plan for further study at the time as I was thinking about my career. I had two choices - one was to go back to the IT industry and the other to work in the higher education sector, which I gradually found more attractive; I had already taught some undergraduate classes. In order to become an academic, it was essential to obtain a research degree and have a good research profile. After I determined to join the academic community, I gave some careful thought to a research proposal for a PhD degree.

The idea of conducting a research degree on Chinese undergraduate students' experiences in the UK came both from my personal interest in how I and other Chinese students were transformed by the experience, and from the importance of such research for UK higher education institutes. The doctoral research (Su, 2010) fulfils the requirements for a PhD degree of the University of Liverpool, while at the same time meeting the needs of the institution as a whole. It addresses one of the major priorities of the institution: the overriding need for the academic support of overseas students. The process of carrying out this research over a period of three years affected me both professionally and personally in a way which I did not foresee. Professionally, the process has changed my views on how to conduct social science research; personally, it made me realise how demanding a research degree could be for one's personal life. The birth of my daughter at the writing-up stage of my thesis certainly made the journey even more challenging and exciting.

I used to view research as based on hard data and the process of fact finding. However, because of the interdisciplinary nature of my doctoral study, it was designed to be empirically grounded, qualitative in methodological orientation, and socio-cultural in its conceptual framing. This was new to me as a researcher and it made me feel nervous since my previous postgraduate work had not entailed the kind of wide-ranging reading and theorising that is essential in social science research. I felt as though I had started a journey into an unfamiliar field. The first challenge was to construct a framework of analysis that (a) gathered what I saw to be the salient issues and questions, (b) guided and informed the analysis and (c) provided a tentative structure for the thesis as a whole.

When students of Chinese origin study as undergraduates in the UK, they encounter numerous unpredictabilities over and above the daunting unpredictabilities faced by indigenous students. Not only must they wrap their heads around their chosen discipline or field of study, but they must do this within an educational and cultural context which differs hugely from their own. They manage this transition in a second and in some cases a third language. Chinese students within the UK study in multiple, complicated, overlapping and sometimes contradictory contexts of learning. There was no ready-made framework which I could adopt for my chosen study. I had to construct that framework for myself- what the textbooks refer to as 'bricolage'.

I was fortunate to have an excellent research supervision team consisting of three professors in the field of higher education. They played a significant role in helping me with a number of challenging issues during the research. At the beginning of my doctoral study I spent at least an hour each week in discussions with my principal PhD supervisor about how to develop a conceptual framework - or a kind of theoretical searchlight -to sustain and cast light on my study. I was also in regular email contact with the co-supervisors on specific aspects of my study. In the meetings with the principal supervisor, different theoretical perspectives were brought to bear on the research topic and gradually a set of research questions emerged. But we had to keep testing and re-testing these against the literature and our own understanding of the literature. This was a very challenging but exciting phase in the development of my enquiry.

The full account of constructing my conceptual framework is fully discussed in another book (Su et al, 2010). The process of the enquiry has made me realise that social science research is not linear, and it often starts with many uncertainties given the potential fuzziness of the study that is virtually limitless in its capacity for generating questions. As a new researcher, I have to learn to live with this. Another development was to realise the importance of reading - a wide-ranging survey of the relevant academic literatures. This is a demanding and difficult task but it is important for a researcher to understand how one's own field is related to other disciplines. For me, the scholarly interdisciplinary reading was the key for the construction of the framework of analysis for my research.

As a full-time PhD student working part-time and as a new parent, life during the three years of study was not easy. I managed to get a studentship from the university to cover the incredibly expensive tuition fees for overseas students (£10,000 per year). However, I still needed to work part-time to support my wife, myself and our daughter. Sometimes I worked twelve hours a day on my thesis and the job. I did not take any holidays and I always feel guilty at not having spent more time with my family. My wife's understanding and support made me work even harder in order to complete the study on time. As a result, I managed to complete the study six months early.

After many years' study in universities in both China and the UK, and achieving the highest possible academic qualification, I do not feel that I have learned everything in my chosen field of educational research. I am keen to continue my reading and thinking in the area of cross-cultural learning and the development of the learner within higher education settings, with particular reference to overseas students. Finding a job in the university sector as a lecturer was a dream for me, enabling me to pursue my career and academic interest.

Moving forward: my ongoing journey

After receiving my doctoral degree in 2010, I applied to a number of universities in the UK and received a job offer from Liverpool Hope University for a position as Post Doctoral Teaching Fellow in Education. It was a junior lecturer post with a focus on teaching undergraduate programmes and supervising some master dissertations in the area of education-related studies. As a new lecturer with English as my second language, teaching a cohort of 60 undergraduate students and supervising masters students was an enormous challenge for me. Changing my role from that of a research student to being a lecturer in a UK university was a difficult process, during which I learned some important lessons.

One lesson was how to communicate with students who are from a different culture, with a different educational background. It is crucial for me to be understood by students and make my message clear in the lecture. At the beginning, I was a bit worried that it might be a disadvantage for me to have English as my second language. As it turned out, language was not a big issue since I generally managed to speak slowly and clearly. My confidence in English has been gradually enhanced by presenting at conferences and delivering lectures to a large audience from time to time. Another lesson is how to utilise my international work and education experience for the benefit of students. Given my background of studying and working in two different countries, I am able to provide my students with different perspectives on many education issues in differing social-cultural contexts.

For me, teaching is both a challenging and an exciting profession, it is challenging because teaching is not only about practical skills but also a complex interaction between knowledge, theories, values and emotions demanding substantial engagement with learners; it is exciting because a lecturer can potentially have a positive influence on how students think and act in society. I have enjoyed teaching so far. Students' feedback has made me realise that I have had a very positive impact on their study and personal development.


Learning how to teach is still an ongoing journey - it is the learning of academic practice. My current dream is to learn how to make a difference in students' lives through teaching, and to make a contribution to the academic community and the wider public through research. I am delighted with what I have accomplished so far. I now hope to see the development of a more democratic China. Only when Chinese society becomes fairer and more equal, will more Chinese individuals like me make their dreams come true through their own efforts and intellectual development.