Education: Values and Expectations

Reading Exercise

A International students and immigrants attending schools in the United States can experience multiple "culture shocks." Students from abroad, accustomed to their countries' educational expectations, must adapt to new classroom norms in a foreign educational institution. In some other countries, students must humbly obey their teachers' directions and remain absolutely silent during a class. Yet in other cultures, students are allowed to criticize or even contradict their teachers. In one country, a prayer in the classroom may be acceptable, while in another it may be forbidden. Cultural differences as well as the experience of being a newcomer account for some of the adjustment problems that non-native born students experience. At the same time, a diverse student population on campuses helps some Americans appreciate that there are different habits, customs, and attitudes, and that the "American way" is not the only way.

Diversity in Higher Education

B Young students, middle-aged students, and senior citizens who wish to continue or extend their education have a variety of institutions of higher learning from which to choose in the United States. Some communities have adults schools as well as two-year colleges (which are also called "junior colleges" and "community colleges"). Not all students pursue a specific degree as their goal. They may simply want to receive specific vocational training that will assist them in their jobs (e.g., computer programming or language instruction). Alternatively, if they have substantial leisure time (as many retired people do), they may take courses to pursue interests for which they were too busy when they were younger. Many four-year colleges or universities also have graduate programs for people seeking advanced degrees.
C There is a saying in the American culture that "you are never too old to learn." Increasingly, one sees older and younger people studying together in American institutions of higher learning. Women are encouraged to gain new skills to be able to enter the job market after their children are grown. Other people change careers, which often requires additional education. Institutions are attempting to meet the diverse needs and goals of these students.

Active Participation

D Student participation in the classroom is not only accepted but also expected in most subjects. Some instructors and professors base part of the students' grade on oral participation. Courses are often organized around classroom discussions, student questions, and informal lectures, although large classes can involve formal lectures during which the student has a passive role.
E In a small percentage of the more informal classes, students may even decide the topics for study and choose appropriate books and articles. Allowing the student to take the lead in this manner is confusing for people in many other cultures. A Japanese student was shocked when her professor told the class, "I want you to come up with an outline of the course and a list of books to read." She felt the professor was not doing his job and was totally incompetent. The student knew that the professor had always received extremely good evaluations from his students in previous courses. However, she could  not bring herself to accept his authority when he treated his students as if they were equals and as if they possessed as much knowledge as he had.
F In some courses (mainly graduate seminars), the teacher has only a managerial role and the students do the actual teaching through discussions and presentations. It is common for instructors to guide students to take the initiative and to be responsible for their learning. Students pursuing advanced degrees are often expected to be actively involved in their own education. They must be ready to critique theories, formulate models, and interact with the professor. Students who do not ask questions and do not bring up their own ideas may appear to be uninterested in the course.
G A professor's teaching style is another factor that determines the degree and and type of student participation. Some instructors and professors prefer to guide the class without dominating it. Many encourage students to question and challenge their ideas. Students who contradict teachers must be prepared to defend their positions. In general, confident and experienced instructors do not object to students who disagree with them.
H Instruction in science and mathematics is usually more traditional, with teachers presenting formal lectures and students taking notes. However, the educational trends that have influenced the teaching of the humanities and social sciences have also affected mathematics and the "hard sciences." Students may be asked to solve problems in groups or to design projects. Classes that are considered applied rather than theoretical stress such "hands-on" involvement.

The Teacher-Student Relationship

I Many teachers believe that the responsibility for learning lies with the student. If a reading assignment is given, instructors expect students to be familiar with the information in the reading, even if they do not discuss it in class or give an examination. The ideal student is considered to be one who is motivated to learn for the sake of learning, not the one who is interested only in getting high grades. Unlike in some other countries, in the United States courses are not usually designed merely for students to pass exams. A teacher does not respect a student who only comes to class on the last day to take an exam.
J Many instructors hold a belief, reflecting cultural values, that an informal, relaxed classroom environment is conducive to learning and innovation. It is common for students to have easygoing and friendly relationships with their professors. The casual professor is not necessarily a poor one and is still respected by students. Although students may be in a subordinate position, some instructors try to treat them as equals within the limits of the teacher-student relationship (egalitarianism and informality are characteristic American traits).
K Professors and instructors may establish social relationships with students outside of the classroom, but in the classroom they maintain the teacher's role. A professor may go out for coffee with a student, but still expects the student to meet deadlines and study for exams. The teacher may give extra attention outside of class to a student in need of help, but probably will not treat the person differently when evaluating schoolwork.
L Professors have several roles in relation to the students: they may be counselors and friends as well as teachers. Students must realize that when a professor's role changes, they must appropriately adapt their behavior and attitudes. An American professor and his Middle Eastern graduate student became friends, but the student was not able to adjust to the different roles the professor had to play. When the student would come to the office and sit for one to two hours at a time, the professor became resentful of what he perceived was an intrusion. However, the student did not intend to anger his professor/friend. The student had  more relaxed attitude about time that was tied to his culture, and he, unlike the professor, did not separate work (or study) from socializing. The American professor compartmentalized his work and social time. The distinction for the student was unclear.

Trust, Honesty, and the Honor System

M Trust is an important expectation in American education. The "honor system," imposed by the teacher and the school, demands that the student be honest in all areas of schoolwork. Violation of the honor system can result in failing a course, having a permanent record of the violation in the student's files, and even being suspended or expelled from the university. Many students are also aware that they can jeopardize their rapport with fellow students if they are dishonest. Students who cheat may lose the respect of other students, particularly those who study for exams and work independently. Some instructors leave their classrooms when students are taking an exam. They may or may not say, "I expect you all to abide by the honor system" (which means, "Don't cheat!"). Even if the words are not stated, the student is expected to work alone and not share answers.
N In one midwestern university handbook, the following behaviors are listed as examples of academic dishonesty:
Plagiarism--Using other people's work and submitting it as your own without citing the source.
Cheating--This includes tests, take-home exams, and papers submitted for credit.
Fabrication--Reporting false or inaccurate data.
Aiding...dishonesty--Knowingly providing information to another student that would be used dishonestly.
Falsification of records and official documents--This includes forging signatures or falsifying information on academic documents.
O College officials take these rules seriously and punish accordingly. (Although some American students do try to cheat, they know what the consequences are.) Plagiarism, or presenting another's ideas (either in written or oral form) as one's own, is a concept tied to cultural beliefs. Americans believe in respect for other people's property, and this includes their ideas as well as their research. The words and ideas of academicians, scholars, and researchers are considered private property. If others' research and ideas are to be used in someone else's work, they must be acknowledge by a citation (a written reference indicating the source of the material). Sometimes, it is necessary to obtain written permission to use an extended piece of information (or ideas) in a book or article to be published. When international students are accused of plagiarism, it maybe that they omitted the citation out of ignorance and not because of dishonesty. In the academic world, Americans consider the lack of citation as tantamount to a "stolen" idea. Many students from other countries do not share similar ideas about private property, especially private property in the form of ideas or research. Still, they have to adapt to the rules of their college or university.
P Students from countries where "beating the system" is a survival technique have to adjust to the fact that in the United States any kind of falsification of official school documents is considered dishonest and is punishable. In an attempt to "beat the system," several Eastern European students were expelled from their college after it was discovered that they had given false information about their prior schooling on their applications for admission. Their attempt to take advantage of the system in order to better themselves may have been a natural response to having struggled in a society with many bureaucratic barriers. Nevertheless, the American university administrators could not excuse this kind of dishonest behavior, despite the students' cultural background.


Competition and Grading

Q Relationships between students in the classroom can be either cooperative or competitive. In programs or courses where a degree is not being pursued or where grades are not given, there is usually a friendly exchange of information among students. Likewise, when courses are taken for credit only (i.e., the students will be graded either "pass" or "fail" only), students are willing to share notes and be helpful toward each other. However, in some courses, an individual's grades are calculated in relation to others' scores. Therefore, in classes where such a grading "curve" is used, students may be reluctant to share lecture notes or other information for fear that their own grades will suffer.
R There are other reasons for the presence of competition among students. A high grade-point average (GPA) is needed for entrance to superior graduate schools. Students feel the pressure to achieve high grades when there are relatively few openings in graduate programs. In addition, when facing a competitive job market, graduates may be hired largely on the basis of grades and the faculty recommendations. Generally, American students are fairly grade conscious and often look for ways to improve their GPA. Some instructors give students opportunities to do extra-credit assignments.
S Occasionally, students disagree with the grade they have been given by their instructor. In this circumstance, if evidence is shown that the grade (whether for an exam or for the entire course) does not reflect the students' work, they  may approach their professor with their objection and ask for a change in the grade. It is extremely important that students be polite and respectful (yet assertive) and not express anger.

Student Stress and Coping

T Younger students sometimes have emotional problems in their educational environment. The stress of taking exams and of meeting deadlines can cause difficulty for those not used to responsibility and intense work. On the other hand, older students with children or with experience in jobs or the military adapt to pressure and stress more easily. A student who is also the parent of three children, for example, knows that grades, exams, and reports are not the most important aspects of life. Older students are also less likely to be intimidated by instructors or professors.
U When some American students find it difficult to cope and have excessive stress, they may seek counseling (usually with college counselors or psychologists). Many schools offer "peer counseling" in which students with experience actually advise other students. Younger students living away from home for the first time may not know how to handle their newly found freedom and responsibility, and may prefer to talk to someone close in age who has had similar problems. For many international students and new immigrants in the United States, counseling, whether by peers or older psychologists, is not culturally comfortable. (In many cultures, one does not talk to strangers about personal problems.) There are certain things that students can do on their own to cope with problems. In one university handbook, the students are advised to try to manage stress by doing the following:
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Make certain you get enough sleep during stressful times.
  • Learn to relax your body.
  • Set priorities; think about one concern at a time.
  • Learn to accept what you cannot change.
  • Learn to say "No" (i.e., do not let yourself be persuaded to do things you do not want to do).
  • Talk it out; share your stress with someone you trust.
  • Know your limits.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Make time for fun.
  • Avoid self-medication with drugs and alcohol.
  • Develop a support network of friends.

International and Immigrant Students in the United States

V There are some predictable problems for international students and immigrants studying in the United States. Making friends is a challenge (this is also true for some American students). Many colleges and universities offer a variety of student clubs and organizations where both foreign-born and American students have a greater chance of meeting people with shared interests. Information about these extracurricular activities is often posted in the student center and listed in the student newspaper. Sometimes foreign students and immigrant find Americans to be "cliquish." (Americans find some non-U.S.-born students to be cliquish as well.) If people feel excluded from the social aspects of American college life, they should actively seek people with shared interests. It is unlikely that students will make friends just by passing people in the hallways.
W Foreign or immigrant students may be disoriented during the first few weeks at a new school because they do not understand the system and are not willing to ask questions. Many students do not take advantage of the numerous services offered on campus that assist students in developing new skills and social groups. Some colleges offer students tutorial support in such subjects as writing, language study, computer skills, and other basic subjects. Students who appear to be most successful in "learning the ropes" are those who take the initiative to ask questions, locate resources, and experience new social situations.
X The American classroom is governed by numerous culturally dictated attitudes and expectations. For example educational practices such as the honor system and student participation indicate a respect for individual responsibility and independence. Foreign and immigrant students should anticipate that cross-cultural misunderstandings may arise as a result of differences. Having an awareness of cultural differences and flexibility with regard to one's own expectations and behavior are important factors in enhancing successful learning.
Reading taken from: Beyond Language by Levine and Adelman. Prentice Hall 1993.