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Academic cultural differences

Academic cultural differences
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Students in transition between educational systems experience academic cultural differences. Unsurprisingly, these differences are even bigger for students who decide to study abroad.

Certain aspects of teaching and learning, which are daily practice at the University of Groningen, like for example the flipped classroom or the e-learning projects you have discovered in Week 2, might not be conventional to all new students. This could refer to perception of rules and regulations, as well as communication and professional behavior.

The behaviour of students from culturally different parts of the world is based on their prior experiences of educational practice. The student may not be aware of what governs their behavior- they simply do what they believe is expected and appropriate. Strategies students applied in the past may not work in an unfamiliar academic system or may even have undesired effects.

There are five areas where cultural differences could lead to miscommunication and, as a result of it, to frustration (Carroll, 2005, 2015).

  1. The relation between teachers and students: Cultural differences can affect the communication between students and teaching staff. Misunderstandings can emerge from contrasting ways of showing respect, expectations about the role of the teacher and the professional relation between teacher and student. Example: Asian and European students tend to have different expectations about teacher guidance in small group teaching sessions. Where Asian students view the teacher as authority or expert who should provide them with clear instructions and the right answers, the Dutch student expects the teacher to be a facilitator of their learning process, providing them with constructive feedback on an optional base.

  2. Methods of teaching: The delivery of content differs across educational systems, as well as the expectations about student participation. Some students are experienced in engaging in discussions and giving their own opinion where others may find this challenging. Example: Many international students participated in educational systems where lecturing is the main teaching method. It will be challenging to this group to adjust their working style to teaching methods they experience for the first time in their educational career. Teaching at the University of Groningen intends to activate students so they will engage in discussions and team based learning. It might appear odd or even inappropriate to some students to share a personal opinion and provide feedback on topics they are not entirely familiar with.

  3. Assessment: Criteria and grading practice vary between educational institutions. Study success may be hindered when students encounter new assessment methods where criteria are not clear to them or are not recognised as such. Example: Grading culture and distribution of marks differ between educational institutions. The traditional dutch grading scale is from 1 to 10 with commonly a pass mark of 6. A mark of 10 is rarely allocated in practice because it intends to reward outstanding excellent achievement. More normative systems, as it is practiced in the United States have different intentions i.e. reward and encourage rather than single out absolute perfection.

  4. Academic writing: Communication means vary between cultures and this is to affect academic writing, i.e. the writing style to present arguments. Students may be used to paraphrase rather than write in an linear way. Additionally, meaning and perception of plagiarism can be coloured by cultural perspectives of a valid writing strategy. Example: In Europe, essays will try to reflect on both sides of an argument, trying to give advantages and disadvantages for each. In the United States essays tend to be more focussed on picking a side of the argument and making your case as convincing as can be.

  5. Academic reading: Reading assignments to deepen knowledge and understanding are common practice at the University of Groningen. However, students enter the university at different levels of English language comprehension and at times still need to develop the appropriate critical reading skills to extract relevant information. Example: Some programmes at the UG present an additional reading list besides their compulsory reading materials. Students are expected practice additional reading to deepen their knowledge where necessary. Students, not used to guiding their own learning progress, however, may be overwhelmed by the – in their eyes – extensive reading tasks.

Since the number of international student enrolment increases, more and more students will collaborate in international classrooms in higher education institutions all over the world. An “international classroom” intends to stimulate the effective use of the increasing diversity of students to provide a purposeful learning experience. Diversity is considered of added value to the learning process by sharing various perspectives from different backgrounds. A safe, secure and inclusive learning environment is a prerequisite condition to achieve a true international classroom.

Strategies to facilitate an inclusive learning environment for all students should build on the awareness of cultural differences in backgrounds and prior experience. An open-minded attitude and the acknowledgement of those academic cultural differences can provide a route to more understanding for individual needs and concerns.

In particular international students need guidance and access to relevant information. Being explicit about expectations and criteria creates a more secure environment where students feel comfortable to actively participate and express their concerns.

Misunderstandings, as listed above, may occur from instructors’ assumptions about student behaviour. Consequently, students will apply the strategies that have proven successful to them in the past, without adjusting to the new situation.

Instructors therefore should give a clear indication of their intended standards and learning outcomes. Students should know exactly what is expected from them i.e. how to achieve a good mark for their performance. Being explicit about criteria and expectations will encourage all students to adjust and share their learning strategies with fellow students and further engage in their academic career as successful learners.


  • Carroll, J. (2005). Teaching International Students. Improving Learning for all. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

  • Carroll, J. (2015). Tools for Teaching in an Educationally Mobile World. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

© University of Groningen / Catherine Meissner
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