March 2015
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Sally Ashton-Hay, Southern Cross University, Gold Coast, Australia

Teacher training programs face the challenge of preparing new teachers to meet the learning needs of increasingly diverse students, yet these students are seldom asked about their experiences in higher education. Teacher qualities often make a difference between effective and less effective teaching, especially when teaching across cultures. In a recent study (Ashton-Hay, 2011), some international postgraduate students voiced their opinions about Australian higher education in comparison with their home countries in Asia. The student comments are worth considering because culturally appropriate pedagogy has the potential to enhance teacher education programs, particularly for ELL instructors.

The importance of culture in teaching became evident when some postgraduate education students were invited to reflect on and share their learning experiences in Australian higher education. The student participants came from Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, and South Korea. During discussion, the postgraduates highlighted a well-regarded Asian teacher “quality” that, to them, seemed to be missing in Australia. The students believed that they had observed that Australia “teaches to the middleand “makes people, all of them average.” In comparison, the postgraduates agreed that their teachers in Asia taught to the top end of a class, and each of them wanted to be in that top end.

This Asian teacher “quality” was highly regarded. According to the international postgraduates, Asian teachers “care that good students work hard and usually get high marks and ignore other naughty students.” The Asian teachers single out and pay extra attention to the most capable students in the class instead of trying to catch up less motivated ones. As one of the postgraduates explained, “He’s not bad, he just don’t want to work hard.” The Asian teachers do not overlook less motivated students but focus more time and energy on the brightest and best. Once a teacher focuses special attention on a particular student, that student realizes that the teacher’s guidance offers a potential gift package to excel.

Each of the Asian postgraduates hoped that special attention—to be encouraged and prepared for optimal achievement—would be extended from a teacher. One postgraduate commented that such special attention from the teacher could make her “go higher, higher and the others agreed. The difference was compared with the mediocre standard that Australian education was “okay, just care about make them average, 5 result is good enough and they don’t care, just make everyone average, that’s all.” On a seven-point grade scale, the postgraduates aimed for distinction with six points, or high distinction, because of the duty to learn and the importance of honoring a family investment in international education. The postgraduates expressed disappointment when their tutors insisted they should be satisfied or pleased to receive a credit or mark of five. Instead, these students wanted more feedback and tips on how to improve their results.

The international students agreed that special teacher attention, encouragement, and the push to succeed were frequently missing in Australian higher education. “I’m not stupid,” said one postgraduate. “I know I work hard to get good marks but teacher just said, that’s good enough, you should be glad. But for me it’s not good enough, just like a pass, that’s all.” Another postgraduate agreed, “Yes, we came here to study and do our best, so pass not enough, why not give more tips to students if they want it.” The international students already had high motivation and a diligent approach to studying yet experienced disenchantment due to lack of encouragement.

Another observation about “teaching to the middledealt with the way team work was organized in tutorials. Some tutors directed students to work in groups by telling the class to just “talk about it for awhile.” The purpose of the team activity was not clear, team progress was not checked, and there was no call for feedback or discussion. Instead, the postgraduates noted how one tutor “did paperwork at the desk and watched the clock.” When the team activity seemed to have little purpose and group effort was not recognized, a postgraduate asked, “Why did we do that exercise if there’s no point? What did the teacher want us to find out? Team work without a purpose was confusing and did not add value to an international education.

The expectations of Asian students in a master’s program highlight the importance of best practice in teaching. The purpose of how a team activity can be beneficial is certainly worth explaining to a class. Teachers can attend to groups, check progress, and call for feedback in order to compare and contrast ideas. Team efforts can be praised, particularly if students are learning English as an additional language. Original and creative responses can receive special attention and praise. Students who aspire to excellence can be encouraged.

It is not really clear if Australia does “teach to the middle,” as the postgraduates suggested, or if the students simply experienced less effective teachers who were not particularly inspirational. Such experiences possibly occur in any institution or in any country. The student comments are thought-provoking for the value placed on a teaching quality that could benefit English language instructors. The Asian teacher “quality” of singling out and priming motivated students with greater attention and encouragement to improve achievement may not be familiar. However, this quality of teaching to the top of a class could be adopted more widely. By encouraging ELLs to work harder and strive for successful achievement, teachers could promote culturally inclusive teaching practices for Asian learners. The stimulation for motivated learners could model engagement for other students and have a flow-on effect of lifting the middle up toward the top.


Ashton-Hay, S. (2011). Interactive peer-based learning in a comparative case study: What do students gain? (Doctoral dissertation). Queensland University of Technology, Australia. Retrieved from

Dr. Sally Ashton-Hay lectures in the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Southern Cross University in Australia, where she enjoys working with international students from over 80 countries. Her teaching background covers TESOL, indigenous learners, literacy, ESL, EFL, teacher training, business, tourism, poetry, literature, speaking, and drama.

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