This longitudinal qualitative study focuses on how four self-financed Chinese undergraduate students coped with their academic learning in a UK university. While there has been abundant literature on the academic difficulties and learning strategies of Chinese international students in English-speaking countries, mostly of it treats Chinese students as a cultural group, following a ‘large culture’ view. By contrast, this research aims to explore the factors that contribute to the variations among individuals during the dynamic interactions between their individual, cultural and educational elements, which represents a ‘small culture’ view.

Based on the data collected mainly through semi-structured interviews and class observations, triangulated by academic transcripts and teacher feedback, the thesis presents each case through ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973). With reference to the existing research into culture, mindset, goal and self-efficacy theory, as well as academic coping and approaches to learning, this exploratory study contributes to the current literature in a number of specific ways.

It is the first study to associate international students’ learning with their mindsets and self-efficacy. It identifies that Chinese students’ social goals can be both a source of motivation and pressure. Social goals can motivate students with a growth mindset to maintain their academic self-efficacy and adopt adaptive coping strategies, leading to positive learning outcomes. By contrast, social goals may pressurise those holding a fixed mindset to adopt maladaptive coping, in particular, problem-avoidance coping strategies, and in extreme cases, academic cheating, which further results in their dissatisfaction and disintegration.

The research provides new insights into the impact of mindsets on Chinese students’ achievement goals, mediated by their specific cultural experience and the new learning environment. There appears to be a more complex relationship than the existing work on mindsets would lead us to believe between students’ mindsets and their learning outcomes. For these Chinese students at least, a growth mindset provides the necessary condition for learning goals to take place, but it may not be always sufficient. This seems to contradict the previous literature that a growth mindset is associated with learning goals. Similarly, while a fixed mindset can lead to a performance goal, which also confirms the existing literature. However, the study also finds that a surface learning approach does not always coincide with a fixed mindset. The teaching and learning environment may mediate the relationships between mindsets and learning behaviour.

Students’ cultural values and beliefs, and their predominant mindsets formed during their socialisations may continue to influence their academic coping in the UK. However, these are also fluid constructs, which means that students are liable to change in a new learning environment. What is needed is to reach increase the understanding of the cultures of learning between UK universities and Chinese students to reduce the discrepancies between them. Chinese students’ tendency to believe in effort as a route to success (a growth mindset) can be an asset for UK educators to build on. Early interventions to help Chinese students to explore and develop a range of learning strategies to increase academic self-efficacy and to integrate them into a multi-cultural learning community are likely to increase their opportunities to make positive changes towards an enjoyable learning journey.

  • Hua Yu

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