One of the great benefits of having a large number of international students at your school is also one of its great challenges: there is no set global education standard, and pedagogical methods vary wildly across the world. As a director of international students, you want to make sure that your students are receiving an American-style education without making them feel lost at sea. The continued success of your program is partially dependent on what your students tell potential peers, and if they feel lost, you may not get the best reviews.

A growing percentage of your students will be coming from China, where educational methods are very different than in the United States. Understanding how Chinese and American schools are different, and how you can help to bridge that gap, is one of the major keys to the success of your program.

high school in Quingcung, China

A high school in China may look similar to its U.S. counterpart, but offers a very different learning style than an American one.
Image from German Gonzalez via

Memory vs. Creativity

This is probably the most oft-noted difference between Eastern and Western schools. Chinese schools tend to heavily emphasize rote memorization of facts to gear up toward an all-important exam, whereas American schools want to teach students critical thinking. I think there can be a lot of dime-store social psychology around this phenomenon, but little of it is helpful.

A big factor here is the job market- with over a billion people, the Chinese job market is extremely tight, even with social controls in place to try to temper population growth. The competitiveness trickles down to classrooms, where the students are trained in order to not just compete with each other, but with workers around the globe. It is rigorous, and clearly very successful.

That exam I mentioned above is extremely important, taking place roughly at the end of high school, and goes a long way in determining the future of the Chinese student. American colleges tend to take more into account- overall grades, extracurriculars, and a solid personal essay all play factors, so tests aren’t as much of looming importance.  This might make your Chinese student nervous, and it is important to assure them that you aren’t neglecting your duties by emphasizing other learning methods- or that they aren’t falling behind because they aren’t memorizing enough.

The Role of the Teacher

This is a big one- with such large classrooms, it is very difficult to organize a free-wheeling class (a Chinese classroom can have up to 50 students). Classes are more structured and rigid, and the teacher is held in the highest esteem. There tends to not be as much back-and-forth; rather, the instructor is the font of knowledge, and the students are the receptacle. This model seems more like an old-fashioned American school.

And here is where your teachers can make an important difference, for good or for ill. It would be easy and tempting for many of them to suddenly assume the role of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, and try to shake things up for their Chinese student, forcibly dragging them out of their shells and encouraging them to not just memorize facts, but feel them. This is well-meaning, but counter-productive.

Make sure your instructors give their international students some time to adjust. They won’t feel comfortable speaking up right away, and for Chinese students this might not just be due to a language issue, but a cultural one, where the teacher is not an older peer. Don’t pressure them to jump into every discussion, but allow them to learn the dynamic of the classroom. If you are going to ask them questions, make them specific to start with, and don’t go straight to “How do you interpret this piece of history?” or what have you.  They say you should learn to swim by jumping in the deep end, but the fact that no one actually learns to swim that way shows us the limits of its metaphorical usage.

Your international students will most likely be in a swirl of confusing emotions and difficult adjustments in the beginning. Hopefully they’ve had an excellent preparatory experience, but it will still be a challenge. Giving them space to adjust to educational differences on their own could be the difference between a successful school year and one of mounting frustration and failure.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.