glass block for spacing onlyFairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) 

This is a paper presented at the American Accounting Association MidAtlantic Regional Meeting held on March 26-28, 1998.  The paper was also presented at the Education in a Multicultural Environment Workshop for faculty and students of FDU on February 17, 1999.  Participants at the workshop suggested that we post this paper so that interested faculty and students of FDU and the wider academic community might use our observations and recommendations. 

Please contact Prof. Matthew Calderisi ( with questions or comments about this research.

FDU · COBA · international students · help 

Barriers to Learning Experienced by Asian Students in American Accounting Classes

by  Mary Beaven, Matthew Calderisi, and Panadda Tantral 
S J Silberman College of Business Administration 

 Student demographics in accounting classes on the Teaneck/Hackensack of New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University have changed.  Now approximately ¼ to 1/3 of the students in introductory accounting classes in the College of Business Administration come from Asian countries such as Korea, China, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam. 
As professors we have come to recognize that the needs of these students differ from those of American students.  Because computer searches indicated that no one had studied the performance of Asian students in American accounting classrooms, during the 1996-97 academic year we held focus groups with Asian accounting majors, interviewed them, and monitored their work. 
We learned that significant differences exist between American and Asian college classrooms—especially when the Accounting Educational Change Commission’s recommendations have been implemented and the curriculum stresses communication and interaction skills.  These differences, in conjunction with differences in cognitive and linguistic patterns, constitute formidable barriers that initially prevent successful participation in the American accounting classroom.  Our research indicated Asian students must resolve at least eight important issues in their move toward increasingly effective participation and need particular forms or support. 
Differences between the American and Asian classroom experience.  Asian students bring their own backgrounds, cultures, and experiences to the American classroom.  Limited student participation characterizes many Asian educational systems.  The student role is to sit in class, take notes, and memorize them.  Asian students are taught to respect their professors, authority figures whom they rarely question.  Exams require students to repeat the material covered in lectures and textbooks.  The ultimate educational objective is for students to be right. 
Although Asian educational systems are gradually changing, Asian students generally have not regularly participated in class discussions, question and answer routines, and oral presentations, activities integral to contemporary American post-secondary education. 
Even if Asian students have studied English and attended ESL classes, they often find American professors speak faster than they can comprehend and faster than they can take notes.  They rarely ask questions because in their culture it is impolite to ask a professor to slow down and answer questions.  Eventually they adapt to the American classroom, but still hesitate to participate for fear of jeopardizing their grades.  Instead they gather together to clarify their thinking.  Then if they cannot resolve an issue, they send a messenger to the professor. 
Only infrequently in their Asian classrooms have our informants (1) located, read and reported on research studies, and (2) prepared case studies.  They have not formulated theses, arguments, or analyses—cognitive tasks central to written assignments in American college classrooms but often alien to Asian classrooms.  As a result, Asian students hesitate to formulate their own thinking and express it in documents evaluated by professors. 
Differences between Asian cultures and their related educational systems, in conjunction with differences in cognitive and language patterns, placed a heavy burden on the Asian students interviewed throughout the 1996-97 academic year and constituted barriers causing fear and trepidation. 

The swamp of misery. 

Our Asian informants told us their first year in accounting classes was akin to being in a swamp of misery.  In their native lands they had excelled in their studies, their self-concept and self-esteem reflecting this excellence.  Yet in their introductory American accounting classes, they found themselves unable to articulate what they knew and felt miserable, often becoming depressed.  No matter how hard they worked, they often achieved only marginal understanding and felt doomed to failure. 
Answering questions in class may paralyze Asian students.  A Korean student told her former professor that she never said a word when he called on her.  He would wait a bit and then move on. 
In introductory accounting courses Asian students cannot simultaneously listen and take notes, finding themselves adrift on a sea of words they do not understand.  After class they review their notes, becoming frustrated, because they often cannot make sense of their own notes consisting of many words they do not know and a plethora of unconnected sentences. 
When Asian students read, they become cognitively and linguistically overburdened in trying to make sense of each word, each sentence, and each paragraph.  Because they spend so much time translating words and looking them up, they cannot determine critical points or prioritize ideas.  After exerting an enormous amount of intelligence, time, and effort, they still emerge with incorrect understandings. 

 Assigned a paper to review journal articles or research studies, Asian students do not know how to select a topic.  Overwhelmed by the number of articles to read, they have no way of knowing which of  “seventy” articles to read, as the abstracts are too abstract to guide their selection.  With journal articles using abstract vocabularies and complicated linguistic structures, one article takes “forever” to read, and then the paper that follows requires a “different kind of writing and structure.”  Preparing such papers is “murder,” our informants claimed, particularly when a similar paper is due in all of their classes the same week. 

 In their native lands they are told what to read and summarize and then their papers are graded as to whether they are right or wrong.  Accordingly, much of the work involved in an American research review is new to them, at first highly frustrating and later time-consuming. 

 Case studies are more threatening than surveys of the research literature because students have to formulate their own thinking and expose it in writing.  This brings their self-concept even more into play.  Excellent students in their own countries, they know that their performance in American classrooms does not measure up to their expectations.  First, Asian students must be able to understand the case material and often do not have the American background knowledge needed to place cases in context and make appropriate interpretations of environmental factors.  Second, because of their lack of experience in applying concepts to situations and because of their difficulty with the English language, Asian students tend to (1) write out the concept and then (2) describe the situation to which they apply it.  Since they do not easily combine these two processes, it’s difficult for them to piece thoughts together within a page limit.  To do the job, Asian students need to use more words than American students.  Even then they are graded on a kind of thinking foreign to them, on a case whose context they do not understand, and in a language they still find difficulty using. 

 Tests put Asian students at a disadvantage.  Asian students do not have the linguistic sophistication to perform well on multiple choice, true false, and fill-in-the-blank questions because these questions often depend upon the student (1) knowing multiple meanings of a word and its connotations and (2) recognizing subtle linguistic differences. 

 Language differences cause additional problems on essay-type exams.  Asian languages use a consistent verb form that does not change.  Additional words are added to indicate verb tense or passive voice.  Pronouns he, she, and it are often the same.  Nouns do not have plural forms.  Although students handle these language differences well when they are not under pressure, Asian students often perform below their expectations when faced with the time pressures of exams. 

 In spite of their remarkable intellect, willingness to work hard, and desire to succeed, initially Asian students often feel as if they cannot win when doing their assignments.  They are, indeed, in a “swamp of misery.” 

 In addition to their difficulties in the American classroom, Asian students face a culture shock in their personal lives.  The Asian diet brings with it an intolerance for lactose.  Because many American foods contain dairy products—bread, butter, milk—even pizza, this intolerance causes painful intestinal disorders.  In addition to the change of diet, students have to adjust to American living conditions in the dorms or off-campus and figure out how to get along in a new country. 

 In their classes and personal lives, Asian students live in a “swamp of misery” during their first three semesters in an American accounting program.  No matter how much they study, only gradually do they develop the linguistic skills, the conceptual frameworks, and the courage to express themselves.  American faculty, not understanding their plight, often believe Asian students have nothing to offer, cannot learn, and do not belong in their classrooms—students deeply feel that sense of rejection. 

 Engaged in an arduous and often painful process, Asian students know that they do not know.  Our informants described periods of depression when they could not make sense of what was going on in class, no matter how hard they tried.  If they missed a class, that was the equivalent of an American student missing four consecutive classes. 

Eight barriers to learning faced by Asian students

Our research identified eight problem areas Asian accounting majors encounter.  Only as they resolve these problems do they begin to emerge from the “swamp of misery” and increasingly participate in class on a par with American students.  In turn, only if professors in American accounting classrooms understand these barriers, will they be able to facilitate the education of Asian students and provide appropriate support. 
  1. The extraordinary amount of time Asian students spend preparing for class.  Asian students must read a chapter a minimum of two to three times to obtain a sometimes-marginal understanding.  One student remarked that it initially took her ten hours to read a thirty-page chapter.  First, she figured out how the words fit together in the first sentence, then puzzled through the second sentence, and finally determined how the sentences in a paragraph interrelated.  By the time she figured out the second paragraph, she had forgotten the first.  Numerous reiterations led to a questionable understanding of the chapter.
  2. The amount of time needed to assimilate a classroom question and formulate a verbal response.  Generally the professor moves on to another student before an Asian student is ready to answer a question.  Asian students need time to translate the question from English into their native tongue, formulate an answer, translate it back into English, and muster the courage to speak.  Our informants believed professors thought they were dumb or unprepared when what they needed was more time to answer questions.
  3. The complexity of language comprehension problems.  Asian students find accounting particularly difficult because they have to learn the concepts and language simultaneously.  Because language affects all aspects of a class, initially our informants felt as if they did nothing well except appear in class on time, where they often feel dwarfed by the steep learning curve ahead of them.
  4. The problems experienced with an instructor’s classroom presentation.  The pace of an instructor’s delivery may be too fast.  The instructor’s regional accent, handwriting, and use of colloquialisms may be too difficult to understand.
  5. The fear of ridicule of their limited language skills.  Asian students are bright with strong self-concepts and high levels of self-esteem.  Academic success in their native land contributed to their sense of self.  However, when they know that they cannot communicate what they know and what they feel, they tend to keep silent for fear of ridicule and fear to come to class.
  6. The sense of isolation.  Our informants told us that during their first year in accounting classes they experienced periods of depression and isolation.  Because of the limited availability of support personnel and mentors from the same ethnic background who spoke their native language, often there was no one to help them.
  7. The difficulty in preparing written assignments.  American and Asian norms and conventions regarding written assignments, papers, and projects differ greatly.  In accounting, not only are students simultaneously learning new concepts and linguistic patterns, but they also have to demonstrate what they know in a culturally different way and use new patterns of thought.
  8. The inadequacy of conventional approaches to problem-solving.  Asian students find it impossible—even impractical—to work through the processes stipulated in the textbook and lectures.  Because of language difficulties, they cannot (1) accurately comprehend what is written/said and (2) follow directions.  They get themselves mixed up and muddled up when using conventional approaches to American problem solving.  Their mistakes are legion.

Support mechanisms

Although our informants described enormous pain and difficulty as they confronted the eight barriers to learning found in the swamp of misery, they also expressed joy and happiness as they began to move toward fuller participation in their classes.  One woman exclaimed, “I am no longer an international student!” when she found she could play an effective leadership role in a special seminar held for accounting majors.  This spring the professor teaching the undergraduate business capstone course reported some of our informants were among the best in her classes. 

Our informants agreed that the “swamp of misery” was inevitable but much could be done to mitigate its effects and truncate the time spent there.  As they described roads leading out of “the swamp,” they identified helpful support mechanisms; these can be broken down into two categories: classroom-based support and outside-the-classroom support. 

Classroom-based support mechanisms.  Classroom-based support mechanisms involved the kind of support the individual instructor may provide.  Our research identified eight in-class mechanisms. 

  1. Instructor presentation.  Professors talk too fast for Asian students and use colloquialisms they cannot understand.  One student reported that he was not sure what a “doggie-dog-world” was.  Not until his final semester did he realize professors had been talking about a “dog-eat-dog” world.”  The need to comprehend a professor’s language led many informants to recommend that during the first year or two of study in accounting they be assigned to professors speaking standard English with a slow delivery pace.
  2. The reverse approach to learning.  When Asian students who do not know how to solve problems are given access to problem solutions beforehand, they learn best by engaging in a reverse approach to problem solving.  They start with the answer and then extrapolate from the text and lecture notes the proper processes and concepts that result in the given answer.  They report moving back and forth between the problem, its correct solution, and relevant sections of the text.  If they figure out how to get the right answer, they believe they have understood the material and applied the correct concepts and processes.  To further confirm their learning, Asian students want to review problems in class as well as work with computers and/or solutions manuals, study guides, and answer sheets placed in the library.  Although this reverse approach to learning contradicts most pedagogical approaches found in American college classrooms, Asian students use it effectively.
  3. Classroom teaching aids.  No matter how hard they try, in their initial courses Asian students cannot simultaneously listen and take notes.  Not ready to study with American students, they appreciate receiving lecture notes from the professor.  At their leisure they compare their often-incomprehensible notes with the ones they have received, correct mistakes, and fill in he gaps they missed.Because Asian students depend upon a multiplicity of cues, they need instruction that includes a broad range of sensory input.  The instructor needs to utilize visual aids, computer presentations, use of the blackboard, videos, and lecture notes, providing similar kinds of instructional aids for use outside of class.
  4. Chapter review.  The students we interviewed stressed the importance of a professor’s reviewing a chapter in class.  During their first two years in America, Asian students have yet to acquire the conceptual and linguistic sophistication needed to prepare assignments and be sure that they know what they should know.  They arrive in class with marginal understandings of the assigned readings. A chapter review confirms the students’ comprehension of the material and helps clarify what they misunderstood--as long as the review parallels the text.  Any deviation from the text is confusing.
  5. Frequent quizzes or exams.  Informants said they appreciated frequent quizzes or exams.  They easily prepare for them, budgeting their time, studying hard, covering the material, and learning it well.  They do even better when they have sufficient time to take the test.  The burden increases when a course has only a few exams that cover extensive material.
  6. Special assistance on research papers.  The professor can assist Asian students in writing reviews of research.  Because of the time and effort Asian students must spend on these assignments, they need to have the assignment far ahead of time.  The professor may focus students’ energies more effectively by (1) assigning them topics, (2) providing a list of relevant articles, (3) specifying the number to be read, and (4) asking them to submit copies of the articles read.  Professors can provide an outline for the paper--what should the student do in what order?  They may assign and respond to a first draft before requiring the final paper.  Further, professors across the disciplines may cooperatively schedule exams and papers so that not all classes will require tests and papers the same week.
  7. Glossary of accounting/business terms.  Our informants repeatedly told us that dictionaries were confusing.  For example, to understand what the word bill means, Thai students refer to dictionaries that translate English words into Thai.  For bill, the following definitions are given in the Thai-English dictionary: 1.  peninsula, royal decree, ticket, bill (dollar), flyer;  2.  beak;  3.  things that have hooks. The English dictionary, in turn, presents an array of baffling definitions.  Students may identify potential definitions but not differentiate among them.  Up to an hour may be spent studying dictionaries, playing with various meanings, not knowing what to do, making a choice, submitting an assignment, and being wrong. The accounting instructor may alleviate this difficulty by providing Asian students with a glossary of relevant definitions for accounting and business terms used in the text and homework assignments.  Even better, the students’ native tongues may be used in such glossaries.

Outside-the-classroom support mechanisms

Outside-the-classroom support mechanisms involve support a department, college, or university needs to arrange. 
  1. Native language support groups.  Interpersonal support seemed especially critical during the first year of study in America.  Informants called attention to the importance of (1) friends who spoke their language, (2) peer study groups conducted in their language, and (3) mentors from their native country who lived in New Jersey and helped fellow nationals make the transition.  Some local mentors regularly called students and organized support groups from the community to help them with their learning.
  2. Native language textbooks.   Students also mentioned using accounting textbooks written in their native language.  Through such texts they often learned their basic concepts and then acquired the related English terminology.
  3. Interactions with Americans.  As students increase their English proficiency, they want to expand their base of friendship, moving from support groups that speak their own languages and out to interactions with Americans.  Those involved with FDU’s Conversation Partners, a program that pairs international students with native speakers for conversation, claimed the program helped them. Class teamwork brought with it varying experiences.  In some instances Asian students were treated as if they were invisible; in some groups they feared to speak; in others they fully functioned within a cohesive group.  Asian students spoke highly of professors in their junior year who paired them with an American student as a study team.
  4. 4.  Immersion experiences.  Because FDU’s Accounting Program features four, one-week seminars on communications skills, students called our attention to the importance of these experiences.  Each seminar served as an opportunity to be in an English-speaking environment for five consecutive days.  They reported they could hardly get through the first one, but by the third seminar in the middle of junior year, students were ready for full participation.  They were in and out of the thick of things, taking on leadership roles, helping others understand, thinking, writing, and talking spontaneously in English.
  5. Tutoring.  University-sponsored learning centers provide individualized tutoring sessions that help Asian students when they need concentrated assistance in particular courses.  Our informants praised the work of FDU’s Learning Center in helping them with written assignments.  Their tutors were well equipped to help them.
  6. English as a Second Language Program.  ESL programs past the beginning and intermediate levels were criticized because ESL professors, with no background in accounting, were unable to help our informants with the accounting concepts and terminology.  Because ESL professors traditionally come from backgrounds in the liberal arts, social sciences, or education, ESL programs would be more effective for business students were they staffed with instructors with business backgrounds.


Our informants helped us realize that mature, able, bright, and caring Asian students require almost three and a half years to feel at home in America and participate fully in the academic life of the University.  However, the University and faculty may provide support mechanisms to facilitate a more effective assimilation.  When Asian students return to their homelands, expectations of them will be high.  They will be expected to conduct business in English.  People will funnel them information and documents in English and ask them to respond.  Whenever an English-speaking person arrives, they will be expected to serve as translator, host, tour guide, and concierge. 

 During their time at the University our Asian informants moved from that initial “swamp of misery” into ever-greater participation and academic success.  When they return home, they will function effectively in English and provide the expertise needed. 

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FDU · COBA · international students · help 

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