Expert Advice| 权威建议

Success in the US Classroom: Key Challenges for Students from China pursuing MBAs and other Graduate Degrees

November 5, 2013 2:54 pm | By Alan Kerzner

As a 30+ year Marketing and General Management executive from private industry, I have always focused on developing professionals to their highest level of performance.  Over the last four years, I have had the honor to expand these efforts to the academic world, serving as an Adjunct Professor at The Wharton Graduate School of Business MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania and the Masters of Science in Marketing program at New York University.

At Wharton and NYU, I have taught students from over 20 countries covering 5 continents.  Students from particular countries have distinct strengths and areas that could be improved.  As my classes, especially at NYU, have consisted of a larger number of students from China each semester, I have observed some areas where they tend to struggle early on.  These struggles are due to how students are expected to participate in and are evaluated in the American classroom – and the fact that these dynamics differ from what is expected in the educational systems Chinese students may have experienced growing up.

The good news is that these “areas of struggle” are easily avoided and/or overcome with awareness on the part of the students and educators’ willingness to address these issues with students prior to the start of class.  I recently conducted a number of workshops for Chinese students entering the graduate program at NYU where we discussed key areas of success and actually trained in these areas.  It is these areas for improvement that I will discuss broadly in the rest of this article.  In future articles, I will discuss some of these areas in more detail, along with specific recommendations on how to enhance your expertise in them.

Please note that the principles laid out here are not particular to MBA or other graduate business programs, but are relevant for any small-class size courses at undergraduate or graduate level courses.

Familiarity with American Institutions and Entities

Although the world is getting smaller and more and more of what we deal with everyday is international in nature, American professors and courses are going to focus on American institutions and entities.  If you are studying political science or international relations, learn about the U.S. governmental bodies (the Executive Branch, Senate and House of Representatives); if you are studying marketing, familiarize yourself with American brands, retail chains etc.

Class Participation

Class participation is a critical part of your secondary education experience for several reasons:  it is usually a major component of your grade; is a major growth opportunity for you; and enhances the overall quality of class discussion by offering viewpoints different than other students in the class will have.  This is an area where, more than any other, students from China struggle.  Concerns about language difficulties, saying something perceived to be “foolish” and concern about challenging authority are major restraints in the mind of Chinese students.  But lack of participation is not an option if you are looking to succeed in the U.S. classroom and grow intellectually and personally.  It is quantity and quality of participation that is important.

Application of Concepts and Essay Questions

Quizzes and exams in America often consist of memorization questions, applications of concepts and essays.  During quizzes and exams early in the semester, students from China tend to do well on memorization questions but not nearly as well on questions dealing with application of concepts or essay questions where students are asked their opinions and to think at high conceptual levels. When reading course-required materials or studying for tests, don’t focus on memorizing things word for word.  Take the major ideas and concepts and ask yourself, what do these mean?  What is an example of where this concept is or should be utilized?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of this concept?  Work with other students in the class to evaluate each other’s depth of understanding.

Mixing with Student’s from Other Countries

Invariably, students from China interact almost exclusively with other Chinese students in class, sitting near them and trying to form work groups consisting mainly of their country mates.  This is limiting in several ways.  First, when something the professor says does not make sense or there is a topic that does not make sense, Chinese students often ask other Chines students for help.  But there is greater likelihood that someone from another country will know the answer, as they will have a different viewpoint.  Additionally, you will learn more by speaking to someone with different experiences from a different country.  One of the great things about going to school in the United States is that you get to learn about how things are done in this country, Europe, South America, Australia etc.  This is a major growth opportunity – take advantage of it.  One of the ways I try to force this interaction, even if students are reluctant, is to do assigned seating where every student must sit next to someone from another country – and where all work teams consist of individuals from different countries.  But you can do it yourself  – with great benefit to you and your classmates.

Ending Thoughts

The richness of the American educational experience is enhanced by the variety of students from different countries and with different life experiences. Students from China have been successful in the U.S. classroom – but this success can be increased and the benefit Chinese students receive from their American educational experiences enhanced by understanding some of the areas of struggle and taking proactive action to insure they are not obstacles for you.  The fact that you are reading this article and involved with this website indicates you have the desire and willingness to tackle these issues and overcome them.  Congratulations!

Alan Kerzner is an adjunct professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Professor Kerzner worked for a number of companies, including Hartz Mountain Corporation, Rexall, Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble. Mr. Kerzner graduated from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with an MBA in Marketing. He is also the CEO of the Institute for Global Student Success where he offers an in-depth one year program to help students learn how to be successful in American colleges and the business environment. More information can be found at

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