Most of us know what is meant by culture shock. This is the strangeness, uneasiness or even fear we experience when we move from our home country and familiar surroundings, to live in a new and different society.

I experienced this when I left Britain and lived in China. Suddenly I had to live my life differently, and get used to doing things a different way in a new culture. I soon got used to it and enjoyed eight years in Beijing and Hong Kong. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, and got very used to the way of life, that I experienced what can only be called reverse culture shock when I returned to Britain.

Many things bring on culture shock - different food and ways of eating, shops and prices, attitudes of people, customs etc. But culture shock is really only bad when it leads to permanent homesickness, and for most Chinese students who come to study in Britain it is a rewarding experience.

I have found over many years of working with Chinese students that they suffer another type of shock when they come to study in Britain - and I am sure it is the same in USA, Australia and other western-style countries. This is a kind of shock, which I believe is much more serious and potentially damaging to a student's ability to study - I call it learning shock.

Learning shock is the realisation by a student that the way he/she has been used to learning and studying is totally inappropriate to the way courses are taught in British universities.

There are many differences between studying in China and studying in Britain. First of all there is the simple difference of the time it takes to complete a programme. This is most marked at postgraduate level. A masters degree in China takes 2-3 academic years to complete, whilst in Britain it only takes one calendar year. This doesn't mean that there is less work in a British degree. It means that your studying and learning is much more intensive and you have to work much harder in a much shorter time.

And for some of your time you have to work on your own, and organise and direct your own learning. Many Chinese students find this especially difficult, as they are used to having their pattern of study and learning organised for them. In a British university you will be expected to plan your learning and organise your time yourself.

The basis of a degree programme in China is to attend lectures, gather information, and show that you have learnt that information by repeating it in a formal examination. British universities recognise that students learn in different ways, and so there are many more elements to a British programme. Also there is much more of an emphasis on how you use the information that you have learnt. So, as well as lectures, you will be expected to attend seminars and tutorials.

A seminar is a small group of students with a tutor where you can talk about any aspects of recent lectures and discuss other issues that have come out of the lectures or from your own personal research. A tutorial is a session between only you and your tutor where you can discuss any issues related to your studying.

You will not always be expected to work and learn just on your own. Some aspects of your programme will inevitably involve group work. The tutor will set an assignment and you will be expected to work with three or four colleagues to handle the assignment together.

Assignments are a very important part of studying and learning. They give you the opportunity to research important issues so that they can be introduced into your arguments and discussions. If when doing an assignment you only include information that your tutor has given you, your marks will be low. He/she will want you to introduce other ideas and arguments - ones that you have found out for yourself.

Did you notice that I have used the word arguments? Many Chinese students find it very strange that they might be allowed, or even expected, to argue with their tutors. The basis of Chinese teaching has always been that the teacher is always right. Not so in Britain - the role of the tutor is to impart basic knowledge and then direct the student in his/her own search for knowledge - and if that means arguing and debating with the tutor, that is no problem - in fact it is to be encouraged. That way everybody learns and benefits mutually. Chinese students do find it difficult to argue with a tutor, and sometimes even ask questions. This can give the tutor the wrong impression of the student, as he/she will feel that the student is not understanding the classes.

But learning shock will only be a shock to you if you arrive unprepared. If you come to Britain expecting things to be different and have a positive attitude that you can change your self to suit your environment - both your living environment and your studying environment - then you should have no problems living and studying in Britain. And you will learn a great deal and be a better person for it.


Neil Maynard University of Sunderland

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