Cross Cultural Teaching Sensitivity

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I hope this won't be an invitation for everyone to jump on me, because I am genuinely concerned.  I have been observing which students drop out of my class early in the semester after attending one or two sessions, (I think that is a very different issue than the students who drop out after much of the semester has passed) and an overwhelming majority of the first week drop-outs are Asian students --I would say a majority of my early drop-outs are Asian and, worse still, a majority of the Asian students are dropping out.  Because this is a community college with a lot of first generation and low income students, the college asked us to think about successful approaches to retaining first generation and high risk minority students.  I specifically re-designed my two introductory sessions with the idea of hooking the students in, getting them committed to staying in class, being clear about the work required, and retaining a higher percentage of students.  What I have done is that I always spend considerable time doing icebreakers in the first two sessions to learn what their interests and experiences are, and then reference their experiences and connect them to the subject matter in the introductory lecture portion, and I joke with the students more than I used to.  My jokes are often at my expense, never at the students' expense, but I talk about them and weave it into my lecture.  A sizable majority of my students are white and Hispanic, and since I have changed my introductory practices, I retain most, maybe almost all of them initially and my retention rate later in the semester went up, and overall success rate has improved--with the exception of the Asian students.  I'm not over-reacting to a few examples--this is a clear trend.  Something is amiss.  I'm wondering what is going on.  Are they wanting more formality?  My lectures get pretty academic later on after the first couple of times.  Are my student-centered remarks offending or embarrassing them?  Are they upset because they have to pair up or get in groups of four to talk?  Is the joking a problem?  Is there something I am completely missing? The dilemma is that I believe the increased informality is helping to retain a lot of the low-income, minority students,  So what to do?

Two things immediately jump out at me.
1) "Asian" ia a pan-ethnic category with a lot of within group diversity.  It is quite difficult to make generalizations about people who are Asian since this is such a diverse group (like Hispanic, white, African American, etc.). With that being said, it may be difficult to pin point what, or even if this is a cultural problem.

2) The other issue deals with preception.  That is to say, is this an issue because you perceive it to be, or do you have some data to show that Asian students are leaving your classes at a higher rate than others?  As you already mentioned, you have many low income students.  Could this be a socioeconomic issue instead?  If it is an ethnic/culture issue it should be easy enough to detect since the majority of your students are not Asian if you have some data.   

Good questions.  They are Chinese and Southeast Asian--Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese.  Without going back to my roll, this year I would say I have had about 12 Asian students.  About four remained in my classes, about 8 dropped after one session.  I retain a majority of every other ethnic group. Maybe they are on the waiting list for some more high demand subjects, but I think it is more than that.  I think I need to meet or address some of their expectations about a college class early or figure out how to build a relationship.   

Is it potentially a language issue? Are your Asian students more likely to have weaker English skills than your other students, and could it be that your colloquial manner (and possibly more rapid speech, as I notice a lot of people get quite rapid-fire in terms of delivery when chatty) is leaving them feeling confused or put off?

If these are Chinese and Southeastern Asian students, I suspect that your approach may not align with their expectations of what they need educationally. IOW, what you're doing doesn't look rigorous to them.

I have worked with students from a variety of Asian countries at my various institutions, and in numerous conversations, my students from China (and also countries whose educational systems have been influenced by China) have told me how difficult they find it to adjust to U.S. norms for classroom behavior and interaction. Jus the fact that we sit in a circle in my class and have discussion is startling for many of these students--some take pictures to show their families and friends how strange things are here! Many four-year colleges have special programs for international students to prepare them for the expectations that they will interact with others in class, speak up and give their own opinions, and so on, but I'm guessing your CC does not do this.

Remember, too, that if families are heavily invested in the success of their childrens' education--which they may be in many of these cultures--this places additional pressure for students to succeed, and they may fear that your class is to "soft" to prepare them adequately to compete.


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