Business schools: Here’s why some of your international students are underperforming

BY Sydney LakeMay 25, 2022, 1:09 PM
A person walks toward the main quad during a quiet morning at Stanford University, as seen in March 2020. (Photo by Philip Pacheco/Getty Images)

The Socratic method has been around since the fifth century BC, and continues to be heavily used in classrooms around the world—particularly in business schools and law schools. This teaching method requires students to debate one another and even their professors.

“The Socratic professor aims for ‘productive discomfort,’ not panic and intimidation,” according to a newsletter called Speaking of Teaching produced by Stanford University’s Center for Teaching and Learning. But for some international students, the Socratic method goes against the grain of their culture and educational upbringing. 

In fact, new research shows that East Asian students—including those from countries such as China, Japan, and Korea—underperform academically in business school and law school because they tend to verbally participate less in class. The Socratic method and more debate-focused pedagogies that are commonplace in American classrooms challenges Confucian tradition, which champions harmony and reservedness. 

The East Asian achievement gap in such programs is the topic of a recent paper, “The surprising underperformance of East Asians in US law and business schools: The liability of low assertiveness and the ameliorative potential of online classrooms,” co-authored by Jackson G. Lu, a professor with MIT Sloan School of Management, Richard E. Nisbett, a social psychologist, and Columbia Business School Professor Michael Morris.

During the past decade, these researchers examined academic performance of nearly 20,000 students of different ethnicities at 26 business schools and law schools. The findings from this paper may be informative to business school professors as they think about how to best engage all students in the classroom—especially as more courses return to a hybrid or in-person model.

While East Asian students still tend to excel in quantitative-focused courses, classes that require more debate and participation prove to be a greater challenge—and often these students leave class with lower participation grades than those students who were educated in the U.S. or other countries.

“It’s just not a conversational game that they’ve grown up playing,” Morris tells Fortune. “It’s something that in their culture has regarded as rather immature to be verbose and domineering. All the norms that they have about conversations with peers or conversations with a teacher are very different.”

This doesn’t have to do with a language barrier, Morris explains, but rather a cultural norm that students shouldn’t challenge the ideas of their professors and classmates. Underperformance happens for both foreign-born and U.S.-born East Asian students, which suggests English fluency isn’t the cause of the gap, according to the study. Researchers looked at GPA, individual course grades, GMAT scores, and class participation grades to make their comparisons.

“East Asian students systematically underperform relative to their test scores and their undergraduate GPA,” Morris explains. “It’s just going against the grain of how they were raised. And I think a lot of them are just willing to take the hit in grades in order not to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable.”

Class participation

Many business school courses require students to speak up in class—and often, your grades count on it. In fact, some courses weigh participation as 40% to 50% of the final grade, according to Morris and Sida Fang, a Columbia Business School student and co-president of the school’s Greater China Society. The study conducted by Morris and others shows East Asian MBA students at a top business school (which is not named in the study) had lower GPAs than South Asian, Latino, and white students.

While quant-focused courses like accounting and finance might not entail much discussion, strategy and leadership classes employ the case study method. 

“The belief is that that’s what we need to teach people to be able to win those arguments in the classroom,” Morris says. “And then they’ll be able to win the arguments in the boardroom.”

In these types of courses, professors expect students to debate and discuss scenarios, much like they would in a real-life boardroom situation.

“It’s very different than how you work in Asia,” Fang tells Fortune. “Here, your assertiveness, your confidence, your communications are much more valued.”

Fang grew up in Shanghai, China, and moved to the U.S. to earn his undergraduate degree from Vassar College, a small liberal arts school. There, he became more accustomed to classroom discussions, the Socratic method, and the art of debate. Fang has also seen this assertiveness play out during his career thus far, which has included stints with professional services giant EY and private equity firm Blackstone.

Even with this first-hand experience, Fang says he still recognizes the struggles that his fellow East Asian students at CBS face in the classroom. “A lot of these Confucian legacies—intention to be quiet, to reserve yourself and not being able to speak up—definitely affects the performance,” he adds. 

How to ‘draw them out’

The Socratic method “just doesn’t work” for some East Asian students, Morris adds. For that reason, these students end up with disproportionately low class participation grades. Morris, along with other professors, are mindful of these cultural differences and work with students on other ways to participate in class. 

“You can do a lot of things to try to draw them out,” Morris says.

Some ways to encourage more class participation from East Asian students include more moderated discussions in smaller groups and written communication, Fang says. Classroom discussion has also seemingly been more comfortable in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Morris notes, because Zoom discussions can be more moderated—and less intimidating. 

“The East Asian deficit was much reduced when the class was taught on Zoom,” Morris says. “What we think that means is that these are social norms that are sort-of triggered by the social situation of being in that classroom, packed with competitive people.”

While holding Zoom classes until the end of time is not the answer to the problem, Morris says, hybrid formats may be a solution. 

“The problem is still there, but I do think that Zoom helps a little bit because you just press a button to raise your hand and everyone just speaks in order,” Fang says. “In a classroom, there’s more interpersonal psychological effects where if you’re an introvert you become more nervous and become more hesitant to speak up.”

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