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Markus Anecdotes - What to do when nobody understands you?

Written/Photos by Markus Sept 2020

Teaching can be fun. Sometimes it can be challenging. And once so often it can be just weird.

For a little over one year I have given several classes on different subjects in Zhengzhou in China. Within the subject of law, the focus was on international contract law and company law. The students were Chinese. The classes were given in English.

I’ve done so at two different universities to different groups of students, most in their 2nd year. And most students were planning to go study overseas to complete their bachelors or masters.

During all classes, I had a teaching assistant present, who is Chinese. The lessons were in English, she would help out to translate if and when homework assignments were given or exam structure was discussed. This to make sure that the students would understand every detail.

Though the language barrier created challenges in the first 2 lessons, students generally quickly pick up on my style of teaching and the use of English.

One class struggled through at a university where I had two classes in parallel. It went wrong from the start.

At the very start, I introduced myself and asked a few students to come forward and do the same. I asked the first student: “Why are you here?”, hoping they’d share what they expect to learn. The student looked confused and did not reply. I asked the same question again and the whole class translated to him “Where are you from”, in Chinese. And he replied, “I am from Zhengzhou”. I smiled and said: “That’s not what I asked, Why are you here? What do you want to learn?” Again he replied, “I am from Zhengzhou”. The whole class was looking at me, expecting the next question.

I was shocked. How can a whole class not understand a simple question like that, while I’m expected to teach a complex subject in English, filled with legal terms they’ve never heard of?

As I use the same PowerPoint deck (in English) I use in other classes, I knew I may have had a problem, but thought they’d catch up as happened in all previous cases.

That day I went through the introduction of the course, explaining what they can expect, how the book works, what exams will look like including what the key subjects will be. Quite quickly I managed to identify the few that were responsive and seemed to know what was going on. At that moment, the whole class was paying attention.

As time went forward, getting closer to mid-term exams, I had gone through the first set of subjects. By now half the class paid no attention. They were sleeping, playing on their phones including staring out the windows. The other half was still engaged. Note that sleeping students is not a rare thing as there are over 100 in a class and they carry their responsibility towards participating or not.

Then the mid-term exam happened. Focus was on solving legal cases and they were allowed to use any source they could during the exam. Phone, books and notes they could bring and use to find jurisprudence and legal articles. I remember getting back the first exams and giving them a quick review. They were quite good. I was so happy. “So they do understand”, I thought. I went home happy.

The next few days I reviewed all exam papers and to my shock, they were a close to exact copy of the two top students. They copied the answers in the legal case they had to solve, even if they were answering a different case. They even copied including the typo’s.

I confronted them with my findings and evidence, and I gave them a choice: all fail or re-do through a homework assignment. Of course, they chose the latter. This time active cooperation took place, and I’m sure some copying, but at least the answers were a bit different. The result is that all, except a few, that is I passed almost all in good faith.

Now the second half of the course started. The subject was more complex than before and more information had to be processed. Fast forward a few weeks, and by now I lost the majority of the class. Sleeping and playing on the phone had become the standard. I remember standing in front of the class, dragging myself through the material of the day, given up on the hope of actually transferring any knowledge.

Some complained to their mentor that they simply do not understood what was going on. In response, the university had send the English teacher, from whom in parallel these students were receiving English classes and to attend one of my classes to see what was happening.

And then I figured out the problem. The other classes were getting English lessons from another teacher and were preparing to study overseas. This class was getting English classes, just to tick a box and graduate. The English teacher barely spoke any English, was scared to talk to me in English and chose to speak Chinese to my assistant instead. Her conclusion was that difficult words were being used and gave examples. She managed to pick the five words that every week I introduced as new legal terms to understand. She missed the point that these were new words to learn. At that moment I remember the first day, and realized they were very far away from the English level the other classes were. And it’s not their fault.

Of course at first I was amazed, as I now understood it had little to do with motivation, and students that were motivated, I managed to demotivate by teaching in a language they could not follow. I realized I had to simplify, but at the same time, realized that also meant less depth and would create a difference between the other class that I was running in parallel.

So how to teach a subject to a group who does not understand what you’re talking about? I had no idea. The advice of other teachers also didn’t help: “not your problem, it’s the university’s problem” and “fail them all”.

Instead, I decided to change the way to transfer the information. Instead of text, I started to use flow-charts, pictures and videos. Examples I gave no longer came from the international realm, but from local cases. I invited Chinese speaking guest speakers.

Students started to pay attention again. They started to ask questions, though it being in Chinese, it showed some were trying to understand what was going on. Out of 100+ students, about 25 started to be actively engaged again. And I did not “dumb down” the subjects at hand. I simply presented it in another way. More visual than just plain text. And this became my standard.

I learned a lot from this group of students and I hope they did the same.

In the end, the final exam approached. This time not a textual exam of reading and writing only, but questions such as “finish the sentence” and interpretation of flow charts. Most students passed.

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