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
Please contact Prof. Matthew Calderisi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
with questions or comments about this research.
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Barriers to Learning Experienced by Asian Students in American Accounting
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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. 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.
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.
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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