I am working at a university in Europe. We have a great number of exchange students (one semester, year, of multiple years). I am having difficulties reaching some of these exchange students, especially, it seems, but not limited to those from non-Western cultures (e.g. China and India). Treating them in the same way that I would treat native Western students is proving ineffective. I am looking for ways to improve my teaching strategies to better serve these exchange students, and especially those from Asian cultures.

Here are some of the things that I would like help with:

  • I am having trouble getting them to attend class. Sometimes it seems that presence at classes and labs causes them some tremendous pain.

  • They have complaints about the too high difficulty of the courses.

  • They often prefer to communicate via email. It is very difficult to elicit interaction from them during class or lab.

  • Communication is sometimes difficult, and when I ask them how I might best help them, some invisible barrier prevents me from discovering a solution.

Note: Although some of these problems are endemic to exchange students (such as a focus on things besides class), the alignment of this, cultural barriers and language barriers are causing me an especially difficult time reaching out to students from Asian cultures.

Thus, I am especially interested in strategies for improving the following metrics for my Asian exchange students:

  • class attendance

  • class engagement

  • engagement with me outside of class

  • engagement in person, rather than via email.

  • class performance (grades)

My sample size ~100 of those students in two years. It is not a big sample at all (including my cognitive biases as well). However, it seems that my poor results at improving the outcomes for my exchange students are not unique to me, as my colleagues report a similar experience.

My questions:

  • What are some strategies to improve my teaching impact for Indian and Chinese exchange students? This includes improving class attendance, engagement with class and with me, and class performance.

  • In what ways are their educational systems and culture at home significantly different from those in Europe?

Note: I know that "Asia" is an extremely large place with a lot of strongly different countries, so feel free to limit your answer on India and/or China.


As I state before, there are common problems in the population of exchange students in general. It seems that they are coming for different reasons than study (finding new friends, experimenting with new drugs, investigate different culture ...). However, I am capable of recognizing and dealing with the popular strategies of Western exchange students: finding ways to abuse rules for their profit, etc.

Unfortunately, my strategies for improving outcomes with Western exchange students are proving ineffective for my Indian and Chinese students. I do not really understand their behavior. My questions are mainly about how to gain a greater understanding of their behavior so that I can make all-around improvements to our teacher-student relationship.

Day after edit

According to the excessive number of comments (all of them interesting I have to say), I need to make this clear. I am not saying they are not good students at their universities or in general. I am just unable to work with them in the same effective way as with the local students. So I would like to know the origins of this ineffectively and I would like to utilize different approaches of education to reach their potential (for their benefits).

Stating that they are "awesome students" (at their home) and I am "an ignorant teacher" does not help. I already know this.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please upvote/downvote the question itself based on its own merits, and please use comments only to ask clarifying questions about the question. Please do not use the comments to discuss exchange students in general, or Asian students in general, or any other general topic. Note that future comments of this nature will be deleted without warning.
    – eykanal
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 1:08
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    What is the language of instruction? And is there a requirement to demonstrate proficiency or working knowledge of the language of instruction before matriculating/transferring/arriving for the exchange?
    – shoover
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 1:50
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    As a general strategy, it is helpful to use language that focuses on "how can I improve my behavior to help X" rather than "how can I make X stop bad behavior." The first is a constructive observation about yourself: You have failed, and you can improve you. The second is a nonconstructive observation about others: They have failed, and that failure is some inherent property of their "they"ness. The difference is subtle, but you would be amazed at the polarization it causes on this side of the pond.
    – Him
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 16:46
  • mostly asian students complaining about the level of difficulty compared to western students? That is very interesting
    – dezdichado
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 21:45

6 Answers 6


I do think your first point is a little strange as in my experience (American university, CS), the Asian students always attended and were often the ones that stayed after during the additional review time. I have much more experience with Chinese students so I will tailor my answer to them.

  • Avoiding doing work/learning - This can be attributed to many factors some of which could also be exhibited by local students. The most generic could be course material; if a course is basic, not part of their core curriculum, or vocabulary focused, students may not work as hard to learn the material. The vocabulary focused part is extremely pertinent for foreign exchange students as it can be extremely frustrating for them to have to relearn terminology for a course they already took in their country (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, etc).

  • Not asking questions - This is very common and a definite cultural difference between Asian countries, or more specifically East Asian countries (China, Korea, Japan), and the west. In Asian schools, test scores are often posted publicly for all students to see and poorly performing students are often ridiculed. This also applies to asking questions in front of the class. This can be seen in younger children in the west but teachers often encourage them to ask questions and try to eliminate the perceived shame of the students lack of knowledge at a young age. You will more commonly see western students shamed because of their lack of athletic abilities since school sports are much more of a thing in the west than in the east.

  • Not talking directly to you in person is very strange. From what I have seen, the Asian students in my class often approached the professor in droves after class and were often the only ones to utilize the professors' office hours. Even the most intimidating and tough professors received plenty of questions from students so I would even hesitate to attribute it to that if this applies to you.

As a start, it would probably be a good idea to advertise your office hours more if you have them and attempt to get your students to utilize them more. An example would be if a student emails you a question, specific or general, to ask them to come to your office so you could better understand the question and explain it to them. If this fails, you may have to do some thinking yourself since I don't think there is enough information here, from a recent students' perspective, to give a more accurate answer.

Here are some points that I think are important to think through:

  • Is your course a core class? As a university student, I was not particularly interested in my science courses because I was getting a CS degree and would not be using the knowledge from those classes. This is mainly because they were a lot of work, had required labs that had to be attended in person, and I felt they were sucking up too much time that could be used for my core courses.
  • Is your course vocabulary heavy or highly theoretical? Learning terminology or theory in another language would be quite difficult. It may be the reason some of your students asked questions that didn't seem like they had a subject. Often times they will go to their upperclassmen for help with classes like these and the help from student to student is not always constructive for learning the subject matter. In this situation, I am not explicitly accusing them of cheating, but rather finding shortcuts, online resources, or tips on how to get a good grade on the exam(s).

In addition to this more clarification on Chinese/Asian/general Foreign Exchange students:

  • Foreign exchange students often form close-knit communities to help ease them into the new culture. Although this may defeat the purpose of studying abroad, people of all cultures would likely do this in a study abroad situation. This usually leads to students getting help from their upperclassman rather than the professor since it is easier to communicate and the results are usually more instant.
  • Students study abroad for very different reasons. You already listed some of the more cynical reasons in your edit and some of those could apply to your students. Another reason that you did not list but is a popular reason for Asians to come to Western universities is that the opportunities afforded are better than what they could get in their home country. This could be a better educational opportunity at the university itself or better opportunities after obtaining their degree. A lot of Chinese students go abroad because they did not get into one of the top universities in their country. Even a mediocre foreign university looks better on a resume there than a non top x university in China (x used to not spread misinformation).
  • Chinese students may be looking for a break. High school is very very rigorous in Asian countries and their college is more of a breeze. This is very different to the United States and perhaps Europe. They are probably a bit burnt out from high school and if they are coming with any university experience in their home country, they may have already gotten a taste of that more lax university life. The difficulty and time required to get a degree in the west may be burning them out.

It is also reasonable to think that there will be culture shock. If the course you teach is a first or second year course, they may still be going through that or it may have worsened in the time since they got there. They also could be homesick or missing their families. Morning courses in Europe are close to the time their family/friends would be going to sleep and evening courses are when they would wake up so they may be calling their friends or family instead of going to class.

I hope this post at least gave you some points to think on since I do think it is a little hard to answer the question at hand objectively and accurately since we do not know the students personally.

  • 5
    “China, Korea, Japan” is not a conventional set of South-East Asian countries. Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 4:43
  • 3
    So far, you have provided the most usefull informations.
    – matousc
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 6:24
  • 1
    Going further than what Michael commented: you managed to use a set of countries that nobody (to the best of my knowledge) would consider South-East Asian although parts of the Chinese southern border coincides with the northern border of South-East Asia.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 17:36
  • I used that subarea only as a means to separate it from the rest of Asia even though I know it is not part of the traditional SEA area. I will edit my answer to reflect that. I really never heard anyone refer to East Asia but I guess most of the time they will refer to a certain country rather than the area. Thank you for the help improving the answer
    – Cloudzzz
    Commented Dec 4, 2019 at 15:52
  • East Asia is a term I’ve heard before to refer to the countries @Michael mentioned. When I say Southeast Asia, I usually mean countries including Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, my own native Singapore, etc. there is cultural overlap between SE and East Asia, and many people of SE Asian nationality may be ethnically Chinese.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 16:58

I teach at a university in Asia and I could say the exact same thing about our European/American exchange students.

Quite simply, exchange students have very different incentives from regular students. They often convert their grades to a simple pass/fail on their transcripts so they just need to pass the class (we get students from very reputable institutions in the US Canada and Europe, I was surprised to hear about that practice at first). In addition for many of them it’s their first time in a new and exotic location. They want to party and travel. With all due respect, lectures are the last thing on their mind.

Some of the exchange students are hard working, but I would say that they are a minority.

To conclude I think your question has a bit of a cultural bias to it. European students can be equally annoying in an exchange program.

Edit: the question is biased because it seems to attribute this behavior to the students’ “Asian-ness” rather to them being in an exciting foreign country, away from their parents, dealing with a new language and academic practices, and all that within a few weeks. All of the bad practices the question describes can be easily observed in European/American students who come on exchange to my Asian university. Also, lumping together all students from Asia (or even just India/China) is completely inaccurate, and an over generalization of a group of people constituting the majority of humankind. I would suggest that the OP revisit their own beliefs and consider the circumstances under which they observe this group.

By the way, we also get exchange students from China and India. Surprise! they do fine in general, because to them our university/location is not particularly exciting or different! It’s like if an American student had a semester in the UK. Sure it’s different, but a lot of things are the same. Have you considered that option?

Edit 2: (reflecting OP's edit and discussion below)

There are, of course, cultural differences between Students from different cultural backgrounds. By and large, students from China tend to be quieter and ask less questions (this is especially true for female Chinese students in my experience). There are several great suggestions in the comments and in other answers: listen to them, do not be confrontational, try to schedule office hours where these students might feel more free to interact with you.

With all this out of the way: I think that the solutions offered above are not quintessentially unique to handling Asian students. They are excellent approaches to handling any reserved student, regardless of their background.

Moreover, exchange students (American, European, Asian or African) tend to be more difficult than regular students (as I describe above). This is a far more important factor in this equation than the cultural parameter from my own limited experience.

I think it's great that the OP is looking to improve their teaching, I just don't think that the difficulties have so much to do with cultural differences as they do with the universal difficulties that arise with foreign exchange students.

As an aside, there are some comments in the threads that are very close to sounding like "I'm not racist, but...". In my opinion, that is unfortunate.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Dec 4, 2019 at 17:14
  • 1
    I would argue that your answer is only talking about study abroad students and not foreign exchange students. To me a foreign exchange student is there for the full 4 years/whatever they need to finish with the intent to get the degree from said university. A study abroad is taking 1-2 semesters to study at a school in a foreign country. I agree with your answer in reference to study abroad programs but not foreign exchange students by my definition of the term. You should add something to differentiate or make clear your views regard both cases.
    – Cloudzzz
    Commented Dec 4, 2019 at 21:10
  • 1
    I think in my university the terms are used exactly the opposite way!
    – Spark
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 3:06
  • 10
    This doesn't answer the question at all, even after the edits. It just accuses the OP of bias and then defends that accusation. Have you got any suggestions on how to get through to exchange students generally?
    – coagmano
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 5:02
  • 5
    @Cloudzzz why would you call someone who is enrolled for the entire length of the course an "exchange" student? I've only ever seen the adjective "exchange" applied to students who are visiting for a short time, and do not participate in the entire degree course from start to finish. That's what exchange means, after all, it comes from the idea that a university will send one of its students to another and the other university will send one to the first. So they will exchange students.
    – terdon
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 11:14

I hate to answer by stereotyping, so I'll do my best to avoid it. That said, there are differences between people in different parts of the world. Some are easy to see and anticipate, once you know to look for them, and others are much harder.

Some people, for example, have cultural mores about open criticism. They may take great offense as being called out as less than perfect in public, but in the privacy of your office, it's fine. People coming from societies like this may never reply to "Do you understand?" in the context of a class, but need to be asked the same question in private, or encouraged to privately contact you if they need to.

As for sitting through class, I don't know of any social issues that might interfere, but I can certainly sympathize with people who have a language barrier that makes class less useful than trying to catch up later, from, say, a book.

It's a big world out there, and learning to work with wonderful people with different social norms that make them seem a bit odd to others is challenging, but worth pursuing.

I suggest asking colleagues from different parts of the world, who have been living where you live for some years, for advice on how to best communicate with people from these parts of the world, and ask if there are any social aspects that you don't know about that might help you understand your students.

As an addition, this is pretty close to my stereotyping concern, but knowing about it before I (and the student I was trying to work with) was frustrated by it would have been nice!

Such issues are one reason WHY study abroad and other international experiences are so important.

  • 2
    If their "issuess" here are related to some kind of shyness or insufficient ability to survive criticism and another public bashing, then living in Europe must be hell for them. I could try to separate them from the pack and investigate this option.
    – matousc
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 20:20
  • @matousc -- it might very well be, but if the people that they work with were more aware of such sensitivities, it might be a little bit better. Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 20:22
  • 1
    I wouldn't necessarily try to separate them from the pack, though. I might try to provide more than one type of scaffolding to suit different kinds of students with this in mind, and let the students choose which ones they use. Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 21:14

Play the "parents" card

I lived in Taiwan 11 years and have seen many sides of this. Yes, part of the challenge is about foreign students regardless of the country they are from or in. They tend to be from families with enough money to pay the higher cost. That leads to some "affluenza".

In Taiwan, high school is the hard part and university is a breeze. I have known a number Taiwanese students attending schools in Taiwan who were failed in classes because the prof decided they took too many absent days, even though there is not a set number for maximum absences. Attendance and hard work is expected to be not expected so much, at least in Taiwan.

Family is a big deal and holds greater weight in the Eastern cultures. Mom and dad, maybe grandparents, are footing the bills. If/when the parents discover that their money went toward failed classes they will be irate! Your students probably know this.

I have watched for 11 years, parents watch closely and many Taiwanese students seek a university out of town to escape the shadow of mom and dad. Once they are away, they can make terrible decisions. I know one student who emptied $3,000 USD in value from a bank account for some "friends" because dad wasn't there to stop him.

Also, I know of one local professor who has trouble with similar behavior of a student who won't attend class because the parents pressure the school and actually win, so the student gets a passing grade that should be failed. Perhaps your students expect something like this, so you need to remove that as an option for their consideration.

Somehow, you need to make things seem as if mom and dad are present, somehow. I don't know your powers at the university, but for the sake of the students, you can get permission from your dean to issue warnings, notices, and use creative words that speak the language of their particular cultures.

Here is your equation to keep in mind:

failure = angry parents = very bad

Yes, communication is often indirect and they like emails and text messgaging. Try a modified and/or augmented version of something like this:

I am not aware of how much money your parents have budgeted for you to retake failed classes, nor food and living expenses for an extra semester than they planned. However, it is my duty to inform you that if you miss XX more days of class and do not earn XX% minimum on all remaining assignments, you will fail without any way to retake the class. I will not discuss this further in email except to set an appointment to meet in person where we can see if you can earn extra credit to increase your chances of passing.

If you succeed, these could be some of your best, most proud graduates of your career. If you must fail them, then perhaps it was more important for them to learn a valuable lesson they learned nowhere else. This way, at least you will have helped along the way.

Good luck!

Afterthought: Thanks for the background info. I do not find the cultural context biased, there is nothing pejorative in what you wrote. We all have problems and strengths, but we are all different. And, where we grew up affects the glasses through which we see the world. Knowing culture should inform us how to be fair to all people, mainly because it shows us how "fairness" may need to be different for different people. For those who genuinely want to help all people, knowing our different backgrounds illuminates the path forward, removing excuses for bias and prejudice. Thanks for the relevant background!


Depending on what you teach, following may be helpful for more student engagement.

  • Interactive engagement - Having group discussions for about 10 minutes with random groups in each sessions. Student interaction may improve as groups will be random every time. Everyone would get to know the class & may be engaging more with each other.

  • Iterative Learning - Dividing the class into random groups & assigning an iterative project related to your coursework. This project should have a larger goal & can be accomplished through lessons learned from class. The project needs to be graded in the same manner (iteratively); I recommend 25% of the grade for the group project.

  • Interactive Teaching - Video & interactive sessions viz. Fun Quizzes or Trivia as part of the class. Some minor weightage in grades for this (viz. 5%).

I recommended the above to my Professor during graduation; applied the same when teaching voluntarily in India. I personally do not believe language or authority are barriers. Usually education in Asian countries may be less interactive; so more interaction would be interesting & new to students.


First, you need to understand the cultural differences. Teachers in Asian countries are generally regarded as an authority and someone you would not question. Having said that, language also plays a vital role in foreign student's progress. If students have problems with language (including accent, pronunciation, grammar and fear of judgment if they have to participate in any discussion).

I think the proper way to enroll any foreign students is through interviews and language test. It takes time to overcome cultural barriers, and Asian students are somewhat shy and introverted compared to students in Western countries. My suggestion is that you give them more assignments (perhaps group assignments) that require interaction with domestic students. Have them sit next to domestic students and let them counter-argue domestic students views in any in-class discussions.

  • I agree, and I think this needs to be done in a structured, not an ad-hoc manner. We have quite a few Chinese students in our CS classes, and whenever the lecturer says "now discuss this with your neighbor for a few minutes and come up with point" they tend to be very unresponsive. Maybe a less on-the-spot format for engagement would help them.
    – ObscureOwl
    Commented Dec 6, 2019 at 11:25

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