The learning virtues: Chinese cultural dispositions and student success

Date created: 
Chinese international student
Learning disposition
Confucian learning tradition
Academic excellence

Internationalization in Western higher education, especially given the large number of students coming from China, requires an understanding of culturally-informed learning dispositions. Learning challenges and cultural strain are the foci of most of the existing research, however these foci do not sufficiently illumine the positive and often outstanding educational outcomes these international students attain. This phenomenological case study explores the experiences of eleven Chinese international students in an undergraduate dual degree program of Simon Fraser University and Zhejiang University, investigating the qualities they share which dispose them to perform well academically. An analysis of three sources of data, namely, (1) autobiographical descriptions of student participants’ learning histories, (2) interviews with student participants, and (3) interviews of two faculty members, reveals six key learning dispositions driving these students earnestly, strategically and proactively toward academic excellence. With “Enterprise” and “Resolve,” they set high standards and aspirations as their learning goals, and pursue these goals with diligence. In the process of academic learning, “Concentration” assures full engagement in learning tasks, while “Perseverance” helps them endure learning hardships. “Humility” has them temper their self-satisfactions in order to be ready to learn from their teachers and peers. With the disposition of “Responsibility,” learning to the best of their abilities fulfills family expectations and connects their actions to intended futures.These learning dispositions are rooted in the Confucian learning tradition. They reveal the moral dimension to the learning. This study thus charts a new line of inquiry, one based on taking an emic, insider perspective on the internationalization of higher education, that promises to enrich our understandings of learning beyond knowledge construction and competency development. The findings will also inform current and potential Chinese international students, and their host Western universities, how and why these students are able to excel in their studies. Some practical recommendations for supporting these international students are drawn from the study data.

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Stephen Smith
Cécile Bullock
Education: Faculty of Education
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) Ph.D.