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C2C Digital Magazine (Spring / Summer 2020)

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Chinese Students’ Learning Preferences in Emergency Remote Teaching

By Gulinna A and Ting Zhou, Teaching Innovation and Learning Technologies, Fort Hays State University


Figure 1.  Chinese Students as Global Learners 

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, many universities have provided instructional design and technology support for their faculty in the transition of face-to-face courses to online delivery. We have started handling emergency remote teaching since late January. Fort Hays State University (FHSU) has partner educational programs with several universities in China. In the past, all courses that are affiliated with FHSU degrees have been offered face-to-face in China. But, due to the COVID-19 pandemic in January, all the spring courses in China’s universities were postponed and converted to online courses. Most faculty members who were in China also traveled back to the United States. Then the pandemic struck the states in March and the governments have travel bans worldwide. This pandemic has forced all faculty members to rethink their learning activities and curricula. It also opens a window for instructional designers to work with a growing number of faculty members on the best practices in emergency remote teaching and learning. In this article, we will share our experiences and the lessons that we have learned from the faculty members and the Chinese students. We have summarized some effective strategies based on the feedback from the faculty members and their students. We will also discuss how cultural preferences have played important roles in our online course design experiences with the faculty.

Learning Preferences

For years, we developed online courses using student-centered design principles. In our domestic online courses, lessons are usually delivered in asynchronized format to provide the maximum flexibility for students, so that they can study the content and progress the course on a schedule that works best for them. In a student-centered approach, the instructor serves as a facilitator, whose role is to build an online learning community and provide resources. Students, as the center, utilize the course materials while learning from each other through social collaboration and eventually construct their own knowledge. 

However, during this case, we experienced cultural and learning preference differences, which caused us to modify our design principles and content delivery method to meet the expectations of our Chinese students. The main difference was that the Chinese students expected to see their instructor teaching live. In other words, streaming lessons. The reason for this difference is because we have a large number of nontraditional students in our domestic courses, who appreciate the flexibility of a student-centered asynchronized online courses. Whereas our China programs consist of traditional full-time undergraduate students, who get used to the instructor determining the progress of the entire class. 

To meet our Chinese students’ expectations, we encouraged our instructors to host regular synchronized class meetings in the form of either video conferencing or live chat (See Figure 2). In addition, courses were structured by weekly units instead of topics or chapters, and each weekly unit had very detailed checklists and instructions on what the students should do. 


Figure 2.  Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning Activities Used in the Chinese Learners Program 

Extensive Extracurricular Communications

The Chinese students view the learning management system (LMS) as their virtual classrooms while they rely on an asynchronous communication platform named WeChat to extensively communicate with the instructors. Instructors have formed course session groups in WeChat and periodically post important announcements and updates in WeChat rather than the LMS. The students are also more willing to communicate freely with the instructors in WeChat than sending emails or asking questions during the streaming lectures. 

We have mixed feedback from faculty members on their experience with WeChat. Some instructors mentioned that they regretted introducing this platform to their students because some students expected the instructor to respond to their questions within minutes. This unrealistic expectation has resulted in instructor burnout. Some instructors were also worried about the students discussing academic grades and performance in WeChat, so they had clear class rules in the course syllabi to prohibit the conversations regarding grades or exam make-up in WeChat. These faculty members simply use WeChat for student-oriented learning activities, such as group discussions or using it to communicate with the team leaders. We plan to share the best practices in using WeChat to improve instructors’ user experience if they still want to use WeChat as an additional way to connect with their students.     

Proctoring and Plagiarism Concerns

The COVID-19 pandemic started during the winter break of Chinese universities. As a result, students were staying home and many of them only had their mobile devices to access the courses. Therefore, they could not use any third-party add-ons or any exam proctoring software that needed to be installed. 

To maintain academic integrity without relying on proctoring platforms, we focused on the design of quizzes and exams. We recommend instructors to create question pools and draw random questions to quizzes and exams. We also recommend some specific exam settings, such as displaying questions and choices in random orders, and do not allow backtracking (See Figure 3). In addition, setting up a time duration for quizzes or exams will give students pressures to focus on solving the questions, making the exams more difficult to cheat. Another strategy is to use the combination of subjective and objective questions.

Figure 3. Best Practices in Test Settings in Blackboard LMS 

For the subjective assignments, such as group projects, essays, and other writing assignments, we enabled SafeAssign in Blackboard to help instructors detect the plagiarism issues in this type of assessment (See Figure 4). We also helped the instructors create open-ended discussion questions if they wanted students to discuss some important topics and concepts in the class. A very helpful setting for preventing students from cheating in discussions is to enable the “post before seeing others’ threads” setting in the discussion board (See Figures 5 & 6). 


Figure 4. A Writing Assignment Dropbox with SafeAssign Enabled to Check Submissions for Plagiarism


Figure 5. An Example of Open-Ended Discussion Questions with Clear Instructions

Figure 6. Discussion Forum with “Participants Must Create a Thread in Order to View Other Threads in This Forum” Setting Enabled

Grouping Strategies

For the domestic online courses, we encourage faculty members to assign the students who are from different backgrounds to be in the same group. Faculty can learn about students’ personal experiences based on their self-introduction posts in the class discussion board and then assign students to each group. The group members are also aware of the peer evaluation from the beginning of class to make sure that they contribute to the teamwork. In this way, we can hold all students accountable and each of them can contribute unique perspectives to their group projects and discussions. But our faculty members who teach Chinese students for years told us that they have different priorities when grouping the students. 

Since all Chinese students are English language learners (ELLs), they have varied English language proficiency levels. The students who have lower English language proficiency levels tend to rely on the advanced ELLs when working on group projects and class discussions. The advanced ELLs became the translators for the struggling students. Then these struggling students stay at risk and never have a chance to improve their English skills or leave their comfort zones. So instead of letting students post in the class discussion board, the instructors use a standardized English language test on the terminologies that are used in the field to test students’ prior knowledge of the course content and then based on students’ test scores, the instructors group the students who have limited English proficiency levels together. Then these students have to communicate their ideas in English with their peers and the instructor.       

At the same time, each group has a designated team leader. The team leader is responsible for communicating team members’ confusions and concerns with the instructor. Since the Chinese students grow up in a very collaborative culture, they tend to work together and do not like the idea of using a peer evaluation form to rate each other. The faculty members have told us that the peer evaluations never worked well with their Chinese student groups because they always give full participation points to every team member. Due to this cultural difference, the faculty members who teach in China tend to assign one student in each group with a leader role and then the students can self-manage their groups (See Figure 7). This grouping strategy can also reduce the communication frustration for the instructors because a typical class size in China is 60 students. If an instructor assigned 4-5 students in a group, then they still need to monitor over 10 groups in a class. Faculty members usually teaches more than one class session for the same course. By having the team leaders communicating with the instructor can prevent repetition of the same questions and other communication barriers.   

Figure 7. The Variables of Considerations for Grouping the Chinese Students

Our collaborative experience with the faculty members who teach Chinese students have been challenging and adventurous. This experience has opened our eyes about how cultural difference can affect instructional strategies. We also believe that the byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic can be an opportunity for the emergence of online learning in China. We hope to share our experience to inform other universities who have international students that will take online courses this fall or even the next spring. We welcome all feedback and suggestions on the instructional strategies that we have used and learned from this unique experience. 

About the Authors 

Dr. Gulinna A is an instructional designer in the department of Teaching Innovation and Learning Technologies at Fort Hays State University. She graduated from the Master’s Program in Educational Technology at the University of Kansas in 2012, and achieved the doctorate degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies with a focus in Educational Technology at the University of Kansas in 2016. 

Dr. A helps university faculty members with blended and online course development as well as consultation for effective teaching and learning solutions. She also offers workshops on emerging technologies and instructional design. Her research interests are gamification in education and influential factors that affect student perceptions of active learning.  

The author may be reached at  

Dr. Ting Zhou is an instructional Designer in the office of Teaching Innovation and Learning Technologies at Fort Hays State University. He earned his doctoral degree in the department of Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on instructional design and technology at Southern Illinois University. Dr. Zhou's expertise lies on using learning theories and instructional design models to help faculty members develop online and face-to-face courses.

His email is  

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