Pushing too Little, Praising too Much? Intercultural Misunderstandings between a Chinese Doctoral Student and a Dutch Supervisor

Feb. 20, 2016

Source: Studying Teacher Education, VOL. 12, NO . 1, 70–87, 2016
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of this study is to shed light on the causes of communication difficulties and misunderstandings between Western supervisors and Asian students in relation to their cultural and educational differences.

The authors conducted a self-study of their experience, as a Chinese international student and her Dutch supervisor during her doctoral research project at a Dutch university.
The Dutch supervisor was an associate professor at a research university in the Netherlands. The Chinese student had just graduated from her master’s study in linguistics when she started her doctoral project in 2010.

The data collection and data analysis in this study were largely interwoven and followed an iterative process, which included three major phases from September 2013 to August 2014.
In phase one both participants reflected on their experiences during the previous three years of supervision and independently developed a list of the striking aspects they experienced, including the most impressive and most challenging aspects of the supervision environment and supervising activities.
Next, the authors exchanged, combined, and systematically analyzed the lists. Phase two consisted of open, deep interviews with the Chinese students and with the Dutch supervisor separately. To ensure that both participants would talk as openly and in depth as possible, the authors chose to be interviewed by a third female researcher who has extensive knowledge and experience with intercultural communication and good knowledge about both participants.
A third phase involved discussion, debate, and negotiation between the Chinese student and her Dutch supervisor to distill the essential elements of the misunderstandings and the underlying assumptions we each held in relation to their educational, cultural, and personal background characteristics.
Thus the authors summarized key points of the interviews and discussed them in relation to the list from phase one, followed by open and ongoing discussions about the initial results and several revisions of the results during the analyzing and reporting process. This phase included both participants –and, in a later phase, third researcher –actively pursuing alternative perspectives of understanding.


This article describes a selection of implicit misunderstandings, together with their causes and consequences, in the supervision process between a Dutch supervisor and a Chinese doctoral student. The intercultural background of this supervisor–student dyad exposes how culture and educational experiences influence these misunderstandings and reactions to them. In this study, the authors have focused on the cultural and educational differences.The authors found the supervisor and the student to differ in their expectations of the learning goals and procedure for the doctoral program.

The three implicit misunderstandings in this study occurred due to mismatched and unspoken expectations about the learning goals and learning behaviors between the supervisor and the student, largely reflecting their educational and cultural background differences. The learning patterns they previously had developed became a natural source for them to understand the teaching and learning of international education in the beginning. However, both supervisor and student remained mostly unaware of these patterns, particularly with regard to concrete learning tasks, such as how formal the supervision should be, how feedback and assessment should be provided and understood (e.g. strict versus implicit critiques, open praise for excellence versus praise to encourage), and how the student is expected to learn (e.g. expecting answers versus providing questions, learning from modeling versus learning by trial and error). It took time and continual meta-communication throughout the supervision process to make the misunderstandings explicit to both sides.

As the study of the authors supervision process progresses, they came to recognize how little they were aware that their educational ideas and learning habits have been profoundly prescribed by their own cultural and educational backgrounds. In addition, they learnt to interpret teaching and learning practices from their own perspectives as well as from the perspectives of each other, and to suspend their judgement of the apparently odd learning behaviors of others from different cultures.
To increase awareness of hidden misunderstandings, university educators and students involved in intercultural education should clearly communicate their intended learning goals and expected learning behaviors at the start, for example by talking about students’ prior educational experiences and how the students envision themselves to be when they finish their overseas study. It is then important to establish an environment to sustain open and ongoing communication, so that either the teacher or the student is prepared to acknowledge when a possible misunderstanding has been experienced.

The sources for the implicit misunderstandings in relation to the cultural and educational differences offer insights into the work of academics and educators who are involved or interested in supervision of international research students.
A first insight relevant for others in similar contexts, is the relevancy of explicitly addressing the issues of cultural and educational similarities and differences. The authors' initial tendency was not to address them out of a respect for each other’s culture, and also actually a fear for doing so due to a lack of knowledge and skill to make this a point of conversation. Knowledge of and a dialogue about each other’s cultural and educational background is a necessary condition for intercultural supervision. It would be recommended to start the supervision with explicitly addressing these cultural and educational differences and similarities.
A second insight is that many of the intercultural differences are embedded in concrete behaviors, interactional patterns and expectations about supervision, which, if not perceived in terms of intercultural differences, might lead to misunderstandings, biased judgments, and a poor quality of the supervision. For instance, supervisors might perceive certain behavior as poor academic behavior instead of part of someone’s cultural background, such as students’ reluctance to express their opinion. Being aware of the background of this behavior, supervisors can make their international students aware of how such behavior is perceived in a Western academic environment and invite them to try to adjust themselves to this different environment.

The authors conclude that in international collaboration, celebrating cultural differences while also perceiving them as challenges is an absolute necessity.

Updated: Dec. 04, 2016