Higher-order thinking as a challenge facing Asian students at Western universities

“Despite having a reputation for being studious, Asian students often face uniquely complex challenges in developing key studying skills”

I studied 20 hours every day to enter medical school, believing that effort was the key to academic success and the concept of optimising my studying skills felt irrelevant.

However, after entering medical school where I faced more than double my previous workload, I realised that efficiency was crucial to manage the content, without compromising my mental health. For the last 10 years, I have worked as an educator with thousands of students around the world and have obtained extensive insights about how students approach learning.

These insights reinforce that developing efficient studying skills is crucial for academic success when students enter university. I have also noticed that Asian students, despite having a reputation for being studious, often face uniquely complex challenges in developing these studying skills.

This is especially true for higher-order thinking – a common expectation at Western universities – due to learning habits they carry from their home country.

What is higher-order thinking?

Higher-order thinking is centred around integrating information. It requires learners to connect information to its purpose and evaluate relationships to other pieces of information. This contrasts to lower-order thinking which considers information in isolation.

As a result, learning with higher-order thinking helps information feel more relevant than if processed with lower-order thinking. Higher-order thinking also tends to be more efficient as it is less repetitive and due to the snowball effect of learning whereby it is easier to learn about a topic when there is more prior knowledge about it.

Growing research suggests that higher-order thinking helps to build knowledge more efficiently and engage with reading materials more deeply than lower-order thinking. In contrast, lower-order thinking struggles to build schemas that accelerate students’ future learning.

How do Western and Eastern institutions differ in orders of learning?

Educational norms for both teachers and learners differ between Eastern and Western countries. As Jean Lau Chin explains, the reasons for these differences are multi-faceted, including cultural factors, such as Asia’s virtue-based and collectivist values compared to Western outcome-based and individualistic values.

Characteristically, Eastern educational practice is more teacher-dominant with more repetitive learning expectations and assessments often prioritise the accurate retrieval of knowledge. This contrasts to Western educational practice which attempts to be more learner-centric.

Students are expected to engage in more creative or lateral thinking, with assessments prioritising the integration, application, or critical evaluation of knowledge. The differences between the norms of Asian students and the expectations of Western institutions can be problematic.

For example, Western universities often require students to deal with a large amount of reading, including textbooks, commentaries, videos, and journal articles – a practice contrasting with that of Asian traditional education, which often focuses on limited dense sources of information, such as scholarly articles and textbooks.

At Western institutions, students are expected to independently synthesise information from a wide range of sources including textual and non-textual sources to obtain a higher quality of knowledge. Consequently, many of my Asian students struggle disproportionately with managing multiple information sources and synthesising the information efficiently.

In reading, Asian students can be more familiar with lower-order practices like memorising and rote-learning facts. I commonly witness strategies like highlighting, writing summary notes, and the “cover, copy, check” method. These allow students to cover content quickly but superficially. It isolates ideas and is ultimately more time-consuming due to the need for significant repetition. Although these strategies can be effective in some settings, they are less useful at Western universities that assess higher-order learning.

How do Asian students respond to Western expectations?

Although Asian students have sometimes been labelled by Western researchers as passive learners, Asians are often over-represented in academically competitive degrees such as healthcare.

Furthermore, despite the teacher-dominant educational style of Asia, which is typically considered suboptimal by modern Western pedagogy, students in Asian countries generally outperform Western countries – a phenomenon coined the East Asian learner paradox by some scholars.

I believe this paradox is misleading and can detract from practical discussions that help individuals overcome their lived challenges. Over the last several years, I have encountered countless stories like my own, whereby Asian students use effort to overwhelm deficiencies in their methods.

Unsurprisingly, research suggests that the paradoxical high achievement of Asian students is inconsistent or may even be myth. Some studies have found that Asians’ academic performance in university is lower than European peers with advantages simply attributed to a higher investment of time and effort. Many studies also evaluate achievement of Asian students only against Asian assessments which test at lower orders, potentially masking problems with higher-order learning.

Furthermore, substantial research has found that the Asian-dominant culture of achievement through effort comes at the heavy cost of students’ mental health and wellbeing. Compounding this, as parental pressure is a strong influencer for Asian students, I have consistently noticed that students with parents who firmly hold traditional Asian beliefs regarding learning tend to struggle more with adapting their methods to meet Western learning needs, instead favouring an effort-only approach to studying. As such, even students who have spent most of their life in a Western system can be affected by their household’s beliefs around effort and studying.

How can Asian students change their learning practices to engage in higher-order thinking?

The cross-cultural discrepancies that Asian students struggle with can be traced to the institution and systems they navigate through. Although research interest in Asian student achievement is growing, it is unfortunately slow-moving with marginal progress at the systems level. Thus, while students themselves cannot be blamed for the issues they face, it is pragmatic for them to take charge and change their own practices. Higher-order thinking is complex and research on how learners can effective train themselves in it is sparse. Regardless, I have observed considerable benefit when students utilise strategies that consistently correlate with higher-order thinking in the literature. Such strategies should:

  • Compare ideas from various information sources against each other and find relationships
  • Consider the purpose of information and how it can be applied
  • Create explicit networks of information rather than simply understanding isolated concepts

What should Asian students be wary of when attempting to change their practices?

Although higher-order thinking gives information purpose, context, and relevance, allowing the learner to retain, retrieve and apply knowledge more easily, many students feel uncertain as strategies that incorporate higher-order thinking can lack the familiarity of repetition. Learners should also be aware that higher-order thinking requires a greater investment of cognitive resources and mental effort. Many of my students feel compelled to reject higher-order thinking as they misinterpret higher effort as a sign of ineffectiveness. Asian students can be additionally hesitant as these methods often conflict with their beliefs around learning. In some cases, culturally sensitive consultations with parents have also been beneficial to create alignment between the beliefs and expectations of the student, parents, educational system, and career landscape.

In sum, differences in learning norms, teaching practices, and expectations between Eastern and Western institutions can create barriers for Asian students. If Asian students do not learn how to incorporate more higher-order learning strategies, they may need significant sacrifices in time and mental health to obtain their desired performance.

About the author: Justin Sung is a former medical doctor turned full-time educator. He is passionate about reducing research-practice gaps in education and equipping learners with skills to improve their learning efficiency. He is the co-founder and head of learning at iCanStudy, an international organisation teaching evidence-based learning skills to students and professionals. He has worked with tens of thousands of learners from over 120 countries and is a strong proponent of how ethical business practice can be leveraged to support gaps in public education systems.