An analysis of Chinese students’ use of Chinese essay references

Another role for international students in the internationalisation of the curriculum

in Learning and Teaching
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Miguel Antonio Lim University of Manchester, UK miguelantonio.lim@manchester.ac.uk

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Zhuo Min Huang University of Manchester, UK zhuomin.huang@manchester.ac.uk

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Abstract

Many studies have addressed the needs and challenges of international students in their host countries; however, there is relatively less work on the potential contributions these students make to their curricula. This article presents a bibliographic analysis of the academic references (n = 7,273) used by Chinese students to construct their final essays on the theme of education and international development at a leading global university based in the United Kingdom. It examines (1) what knowledge resources are used in their essays; and (2) what the characteristics and patterns of these choices are. When allowed to construct their own essays, Chinese students appear to choose to use a significant proportion of Chinese knowledge resources within English academic essays. This use increases when their lecturers and tutors explain and accept the value of non-English academic resources. This article then discusses the implications of this result for lecturers.

The United Kingdom and other traditional host countries welcome an increasingly large number of international students into their higher education programmes, a trend which some predict will be sustained even after the COVID pandemic. The largest number of international students comes from mainland China, and some programmes have a large majority of Chinese students. This has raised important questions around the internationalisation of the curriculum in these contexts. One issue is the increasing commitment at higher education institutions throughout the United Kingdom and in other host countries to internationalise the curriculum. These efforts include attempts to critically understand the role of ‘Western’ and ‘Northern’ knowledge resources and the potential marginalisation of scholars from the Global South (Takayama et al. 2015). For instance, some institutions have conducted reviews to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum (Somerville 2021). There are various studies that highlight both the adoption of new curriculum approaches and show the benefits of these changes (Leask and Bridge 2013; Leask and Carroll 2011; Sawir 2013). Internationalisation is a growing concern in many higher education systems, and it is particularly relevant in countries that attract and host a large number of international students.

A large proportion of international students hail from China (HESA 2019), where study abroad is strongly seen as a form of personal development (Hansen and Thøgersen 2015). However, there are also many studies that point to the challenges that Chinese and other international students face when studying in the United Kingdom; these include lack of familiarity with academic writing traditions in their host countries, variations in the definitions of criticality, differences in pedagogical approaches in different countries, and the use of English cultural idioms that international students are unfamiliar with because these were not formally taught (Barron 2006; Cowley and Hyams-Ssekasi 2018; Gu and Maley 2008; Lashley and Barron 2006; Ross and Chen 2015). The internationalisation of the curriculum (IoC) has been proposed as one response to these challenges.

The study examined a particular aspect of IoC – the use of international references in essay writing. It aims to understand how students can contribute to the process of IoC. The study contributes to the field's knowledge by examining a previously untapped data source material: the choices of references that Chinese international students use in their essays. There are a variety of frameworks around how to achieve IoC, and none, to the best of our knowledge, explicitly use this type of data. Most of these approaches revolve around changes in lecturers’ attitudes and approaches. A few consider more deeply the role of international students themselves (Sawir 2013). Importantly, Jenna Mittelmeier and colleagues (2018) argue that the mere presence of international students is not, in itself, a sufficient condition for an internationalised experience.

This study explains how a bibliographic analysis of references used by students in their essays can contribute to IoC. It employs a bibliographic analysis to analyse the range of materials that a student may have used beyond those presented in the reading list given to them at the start of term. The working assumption is that this list offers suggested works as background reading for the course topics and then more specific knowledge resources. The study goes on to compare this with the references actually used by students in their submitted essays. To the best of our knowledge, no previous study has examined the use of Chinese references in students’ academic essays.

It is not our intent to suggest that Chinese knowledge sources are more valuable or more important than other sources; rather, it is to investigate their use in our particular context, where many reading lists and curricular materials have been characterised as Eurocentric (Arday 2018). The study finds that when students are given a free hand to choose their references and when the topic/subject is appropriate, they elect to use a large proportion of Chinese sources. This has implications for how lecturers can dynamically shape reading lists to actively respond to students’ own learning inclinations and how they can use Chinese references where relevant.

The presence of international students in the classroom is the obvious (Jones and Killick 2007) teaching resource that many academics use as an impetus for IoC. There is also an ethical and pedagogical imperative for critical scholars and practitioners to acknowledge international students’ language and epistemological backgrounds, which provide a vantage point for their learning and development in IoC. The analysis presented here expands the ways in which lecturers could recognise the profile of the student body and respect the knowledge sources (e.g. Chinese-medium literature) that they can engage with. Through their choices of bibliographic references (where appropriate), international students can shape their lecturers’ pedagogical approaches and contribute to the agenda of internationalising the curriculum beyond their presence and participation in the classroom (Sawir 2013). The insights from students’ use of knowledge sources could potentially contribute to the design and content of their courses if lecturers committed to IoC are aware of and responsive to students’ choices of knowledge sources for their academic essays.

This article proceeds as follows: first, it reviews the general direction of work around IoC; second, it specifies the role of essay writing and choice of academic references in IoC; third, it presents our research questions and our analytical framework; fourth, it outlines our methods and data collection approach; fifth, it presents our findings grouped into themes; and finally, it presents the implications of our results. It then concludes with a few proposals for reshaping the future research agenda in this area.

Internationalisation of the curriculum: Demand and commitment

IoC has developed in largely English-medium universities (e.g. in Australia, Europe, the United States and the United Kingdom) as a key approach to respond to our increasingly interconnected and changing world (Green and Whitsed 2015). This approach, in contrast with the historical internationalisation agenda usually focussing on higher education as an exporting industry or student mobility (Green and Whitsed 2015), is now shifting to recognise and address the responsibility of higher education for preparing graduates to live, work and contribute effectively and ethically in national and international contexts (Hudzik 2014; Leask 2005). In the United Kingdom, IoC has been explicitly linked to the agenda of developing the global perspective, intercultural competence and responsible global citizenship of all students (Green and Mertova 2016) in order to challenge the issues of inequality and injustice in society. In particular, it aims to enable value-based learning outcomes which could be summarised as reflecting critically on ethnocentrism and developing cultural relativism, applying international and intercultural thinking to contemporary issues, acknowledging language and cultural diversity and engaging critically with the global plurality and politics of knowledge (Green and Whitsed 2015).

However, the aims and the agenda of IoC have been critiqued as too ideological and abstract when it comes to operationalising internationalisation at the level of teaching and learning practice (Green and Whitsed 2015). To this end, Tony Luxon and Moira Peelo (2009) argue that the internationalising activities for curriculum development, teaching and learning need to be brought to the forefront of the discussion about IoC. This is so that teachers and students who are at the centre of experiencing internationalisation could develop practical strategies in their contexts. Additionally, different disciplines (e.g., Business, English Literature, Health and Medicine, Engineering, Maths and Education) present distinctive ecologies of teaching and learning (Heffernan et al. 2019). This situated nature (Leask and Bridge 2013) and disciplinary ecology of IoC (De Sousa Santos 2009; Green and Whitsed 2015) inform challenges for academics to enquire into their own teaching and their students’ learning in a particular curriculum context (Leask and Bridge 2013) – possibly through what Stephen Kemmis (2007) has called Critical Participatory Action Research (CPAR). Thus, Wendy Green and Craig Whitsed (2015) suggest that IoC should be seen as a way of thinking about curricula and teaching and learning rather than a set of fixed, prescribed principles. They argue that it needs to first foreground the perspectives and work of teachers and students in their different disciplines and locales as they engage with IoC and second bring new ways of thinking about the possibilities and processes of internationalising the curriculum and teaching and learning.

Internationalisation of the curriculum: Essay writing and using academic references

To properly contextualise the findings of the study, it is necessary to explain the academic essay as a means of evaluation (and communication) of learning and critical thinking in the UK higher education system. In the United Kingdom, a common method of assessment in the social sciences and humanities is the end-of-term essay, where students are given a relatively broad topic on which they must write a several-thousand-word essay that reviews arguments and data in the relevant academic literature and then crafts a coherent argument that runs through the piece. This assessment method requires students to produce a well-referenced essay in which they present findings and arguments made by previous authors and through which they put forward their own findings and arguments. This method differs considerably from other assessment methods, such as traditional examinations or practical tests or laboratory work. It can probably be described as conducting a small ‘research’ project.

There is a range of research in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States that documents the transition experiences of international students (Barron 2006; Phakiti and Li 2011) and also documents the common challenges faced by non-native English speakers with the demands of English language proficiency and the adjustment to the new teaching and learning style (Barron 2006). There is a range of findings about the ‘culture shock’ and challenges that non-native English speakers1 face when carrying out academic writing in English (Mullins et al. 1995; Phakti and Li 2011; Tian and Low 2012). One particular area of interest raised here is the commonly used UK assessment method of essay writing (Cowley and Hyams-Ssekasi 2018), which has been identified as particularly challenging for non-native speakers because it requires technical mastery not only of the English language but also of certain modes of argumentation and the demonstration of critical thinking.

UK universities highlight critical thinking as the essential educational element (Fell and Lukianova 2015) in their programmes and demand its demonstration in assessment. The essay as an assessment tool is one way to demonstrate critical thinking. It is meant to let the student choose their topic and then demonstrate a line of argumentation that draws upon a range of perspectives, evaluates the strength of existing studies and then arrives at logical conclusions. It is the presentation and evaluation of various viewpoints (Shaheen 2016) that is often recognised as critical thinking. With respect to the study, how multilingual knowledge resources are used by students to show these diverse perspectives is examined.

The need to choose an essay topic and also the references to use in an essay can be one element of culture shock that international students face. Paul Cowley and Denis Hyams-Ssekasi (2018) argue that students who are beginning to learn research approaches need to learn how to distinguish between reliable and less reliable literature, such as works that do and do not undergo scientific review. Students are encouraged to do their own research for their essays and to make informed choices about which sources to use as references in their essays. They are often guided, as a starting point, by the academic sources in the reading list for the course.2 In writing their essays, they often need guidance on what references are valid, reliable and useful. The crafting of the reading list as a starting point for these choices makes it an important part of international students’ education. Importantly, previous research – albeit limited to two subject areas in one university – has found that reading lists are dominated by white, male and Eurocentric authors and researchers (Bird and Pitman 2020).

We are aware that the essay as a mode of demonstrating criticality is culturally bound. Kathy Durkin (2011) showed that the understanding of critical thinking is not universally shared and is, itself, a cultural norm that needs to be learned. Durkin (2008) also found that certain international students equated critical thinking with criticising, a negative process that required them to find mistakes and fault in the thinking of others. Nisbah Shaheen's (2016) study shows that despite initial misunderstandings, students eventually learn that critical thinking involves the presentation of various points of view on a topic. Academic reading presents various challenges for international students such as synthesising information from a wide range of academic sources and lack of familiarity with academic writing norms (Phakiti and Li 2011). But the importance of critical thinking only highlights the important work that lecturers and educators do when they craft recommended reading lists that facilitate and allow the appreciation of different viewpoints and educate students in exercising their responsibility to choose what they read. These elements are deeply linked to a healthy enactment of IoC.

Research question and analytical framework

Internationalisation of education tends to focus on desired outcomes, on wishing and hoping (Leask and Carroll 2011) rather than on actual processes and methods by which these outcomes can be achieved. Ron Edwards and colleagues (2003) and Glenda Crosling and colleagues (2008) proposed a framework by which to design and operationalise the themes of internationalisation that have been long advocated (see, for instance, Francis 1993).

Edwards and colleagues (2003) aimed to internationalise the curriculum for home students, introducing perspectives from beyond the host country. There is an important distinction that needs to be made in thinking about how to internationalise the curriculum when the majority of the students in the classroom are Chinese students learning about international issues outside China (for example, in the United Kingdom). The principle of providing a set of readings that are able to offer challenges to preconceived assumptions and beliefs should be upheld. But interestingly, what is lacking is a diversity of readings from non-English sources and from academic sources from the ‘home’ country of most of the students. Following the principle that diversity of curricular content is important (Whalley et al. 1997), the study of the authors and the original language of the source materials becomes both important and relevant.

In light of this commitment to IoC, we investigated a practical aspect of the teaching and learning activities – the use of Chinese knowledge sources – in and for a particular context of IoC – an internationalised MA programme about international education in a UK university. The aim is to argue for a more epistemically ethical way of thinking about and practising IoC. The study's working hypothesis was that it is important to understand the choices that students make with respect to the references they use to construct their essays and demonstrate critical thinking. The general question is: what can be learnt about IoC from an analysis of essay references used by Chinese international students? We have specifically framed our question around the practices of Chinese international students who represent the vast majority of students in our chosen case. However, our purpose is to begin to examine the way that international students use resources from their home country when allowed and encouraged to do so.

This general aim is further articulated by two research questions:

RQ1: What references are used by international students in their essays? In particular, what knowledge resources are used in a course with a large proportion of Chinese international students?

RQ2: What are the characteristics and patterns of the use of international references by international students?

On the basis of the answers to these research questions, the study will also discuss the implications for lecturers of students’ choices of their references.

Methods and data

The study investigated and compared the bibliographic references cited by students in their essays over a period of three years (2016–2019) for the Master's level unit International Education and Development. The course is characterised by a large number of international students, most of whom are from mainland China, and is delivered by an international academic team. Because of these demographics, our study focusses on the practices of Chinese international students, and the use of the term ‘international students’ refers to Chinese students in the rest of this article.

The study focusses on this course because its topic bears a direct relationship to issues of internationalisation, which might encourage attentiveness to and use of literature sources in different languages and/or across various international contexts. The course could therefore provide data that fit the research purpose. Second, one of us was responsible for the design and delivery of the course unit over the three-year period studied and the other was involved in the most recent academic year studied. Reflexively, the interest in the study was driven by our shared commitment to developing and internationalising the curriculum.

We are both international faculty members (with Southeast and East Asian backgrounds) working at a large UK university in which there is a large international student population. This positionality provides a vantage point to be attentive to the patterns of use of ‘non-English’ knowledge sources. The investigation into the kinds of knowledge sources (1) referenced by the students for their assignments; and (2) recommended by the lecturer in the course reading-lists allows for an understanding of the baseline of the curriculum regarding the proportion of Chinese literature sources used by students in the course.

The assignment brief was as follows. Students were required to ‘write an essay based on a literature review of 3000 words on a topic of [their] choosing. This topic must have been connected to the themes of education and development within an international context’. The assignment came due at the end of the first semester of the academic year.

Students were given the following instructions:

You should not conduct any primary research for this assignment. You may talk about your own experience of addressing challenges to development and education, but this should be limited to short sections.

You must critique the literature: use your research questions to evaluate the sources; ask questions of the findings; challenge the claims they make. You must also construct your own argument with the support of the literature. Your argument should be clear throughout the assignment and can be summarised in the abstract.

Additional guidance from the tutors included asking students to (1) pay attention to local, national and international policies relevant to their topics; and (2) cite references on the course reading list and beyond as appropriate.

The reading list for the course was organised by the lecturer according to the topic of each lecture. It was also updated from time to time with relevant and new sources as identified by the lecturer throughout the year (and over the three-year period). The reading list served as a primary signpost of the course to guide the students (Secker 2005; Siddall and Rose 2014). However, in the assignment, the students were asked to engage with a wide range of appropriate literature of their own choice rather than being limited by the reading list.

Many students on the course, 173 out of 182 students in total in the last academic year studied, were Chinese. Most of these students wrote essays analysing education and development issues in China (or international issues that had some relevance to China). The study then examined the prevalence of the students’ use of Chinese knowledge sources.

In the study context, which is that of an English-medium university in the United Kingdom, the study used an adapted definition of Chinese academic sources, which includes academic texts written by Chinese-named authors in the Chinese language, Chinese-named authors in the English language and Chinese-named authors working with international (mostly Western) authors in English-language publications (almost entirely in academic journals). Chinese-named authors are identified as Chinese where they are functional in the Chinese language even if they have chosen to publish in other languages such as English.

In particular, our study investigated the number of literature sources used in the essays’ bibliographic references that were (1) in the Chinese language; (2) written by a Chinese author (or authors) in English; and (3) written by authors from mixed backgrounds where at least one of them is Chinese. The analysis only included entries in the references section of the essay. We are aware that this section's being the only data set might mean that we were not able to analyse how the Chinese references were used by the students in relation to their topic in each assignment – for instance, if the students used Chinese references to write about topics in a Chinese context only or also in other glocal contexts. However, we believe that this area could be further explored by future studies.

In order to collect our data, the anonymised record of the student essays from the university's online learning system and the reading lists of the course in the years of 2016–2017, 2017–2018 and 2018–2019 were downloaded. Two student research assistants who were Chinese international students in the programme (2018–2019) assisted in the analysis. All the data they analysed had been anonymised, the analytical protocol was clearly set out to avoid misinterpretations and potential conflicts of interest, and neither assistant was a current student on the course unit under study. There were 316 assignments and 7,264 references in total written by 316 students. We did not exclude the small number (e.g. nine in the 2018–2019 programme) of students who were not Chinese from the data set, as we did not have the data to confirm whether they could read Chinese as their first or second/foreign language or not.

The analysis of the data involved four main stages. First, all essay references were organised into separate documents according to the academic year: 2016–2017, 2017–2018 and 2018–2019. Second, in these documents Chinese knowledge sources were organised into three categories including (a) literature published in the Chinese language; (b) literature with a Chinese author (or authors) published in English; and (c) literature with authors of various backgrounds where at least one is Chinese. Third, a basic statistical analysis of these categories was performed in order to understand the proportions of Chinese knowledge sources used by the students in their course assignments. Then the most cited Chinese knowledge sources in the student assignments were ranked in order of frequency in order to understand the type and content of Chinese sources the students tended to use. Finally, the findings were compared to the knowledge sources in the 2018–2019 reading list.

Methodologically, it was challenging to operationalise the concept of the Chinese knowledge source. While recent studies have tried to define a knowledge source based on the geographical location of the publisher or the host institution of the author(s) (e.g. Price et al. 2022) and even automate the bibliographic analysis based on the geographic data available in bibliometric databases, the study has taken it to mean a knowledge source in the Chinese language or produced by a scholar who is functional in the Chinese language (but may write in other languages, principally English). Three categories of literature (outlined in more detail below) were designed, but we realised that these categories might sometimes be difficult to identify precisely. Issues included how to identify authors with Chinese-looking names who might not identify themselves as Chinese. The approach relies on identifying Chinese knowledge sources with the names of the authors and carries the risk that our study identifies a knowledge source as Chinese simply on the basis of a Chinese name, even though it is possible that some ‘Western’ authors have Chinese names. The clearest results are therefore those that pertain to Chinese-language knowledge sources.

The findings are also based upon the data of one course unit characterised by its internationally oriented content and learning outcomes, and its largely Chinese student profile and international teaching team. These findings are not necessarily representative of the use of Chinese knowledge sources in other course units and contexts. Also, the data record involved 316 copies of student assignments with 7,273 references in total. The number of assignments and references was unevenly distributed in the three years with more essays in the last two years, reflecting the growth of the number of students in the course. There were 33 essays with 741 references in 2016–2017; 101 with 2,056 references in 2017–2018; and 182 with 4,476 references in 2018–2019. While acknowledging these limitations, we maintain they are the basis of the claims and arguments made below regarding the patterns of how international students use Chinese references.

Findings and discussion

RQ1: What references are used by international students in their essays? In particular, what knowledge resources are used in a course with a large proportion of Chinese international students?

The study found that the students tended to use Chinese knowledge sources – that is, literature in the Chinese language and/or written by Chinese background authors in English – in their assignments because many of them chose to write about a topic in the context of their home country and/or local area.

As shown in Table 1, the number of students enrolled in the course, and consequently the number of their assignments, has grown approximately six times from 33 to 182 in 2016–2019, a growth rate consistent with the increase in the total number of references. However, the growth in the proportion of Chinese references among all references used in student assignments has grown from 23 per cent to 44 per cent. In absolute terms, the number of Chinese references has grown from 172 to 1,981 (unique) Chinese sources. This is of course due to a larger number of students and thus essays submitted, but it may also be related to the lecturer's approach – maintained over the three academic years studied – of explicitly encouraging students to think ‘open-mindedly’ about which knowledge sources apart from those in the lectures, seminars and assignment tutorials of the course were relevant to their essays. By 2018–2019, more than 44 per cent of the total references cited by the students were Chinese knowledge sources. The large proportion of Chinese references used in the English-medium assignments might reflect the largely Chinese student cohort and their needs; citing knowledge sources accessible to them linguistically and culturally, and relevant to their assignment topics or contexts.

Table 1.

Student assignments: Chinese knowledge sources

2016–2017 2017–2018 2018–2019
Number of student assignments 33 101 182
References in total 741 2,056 4,476
Average number of references per student 22 20 25
Chinese references 172 836 1,981
Average of Chinese references per student 5 8 11
Proportion of Chinese references (approx.) 23% 41% 44%

The relatively large proportion of Chinese knowledge sources used in the student assignments consisted of different types of references. Chinese knowledge sources were divided into the three main types (as discussed above). The study investigated the number and the proportion of these types of references in the total number of Chinese knowledge sources. As shown in Table 2, the Chinese knowledge sources most cited were still the ones published in English. Although the proportion of these English-medium, Chinese/mixed-authored sources decreased from 95 to 57 per cent from 2016 to 2019, it was still the largest proportion of Chinese knowledge sources cited by the students in their English-medium assignments in the course.

Table 2.

Student assignments: the types of Chinese knowledge sources

2016–2017 2017–2018 2018–2019
Chinese knowledge sources published in Chinese 8 131 856
5% 16% 43%
Chinese knowledge sources published in English 164 705 1,125
95% 84% 57%
Chinese knowledge sources by mixed Chinese and non-Chinese authors 12 102 300
7% 12% 15%

The proportion of Chinese-medium knowledge sources increased in the three years from 5 per cent to 43 per cent. This might be related to the practice of providing positive replies when the students asked if they could or were allowed to use Chinese literature for their assignments. Given the internationalised profile of the teaching team, the students might have also perceive that their use of Chinese knowledge sources would be recognised and accepted in assessed work. These interpretations, however, were based upon our experience and teaching notes with the students in the course unit. Due to limited research resources (i.e. funding for research assistants), we were unable to conduct a qualitative study to investigate the reasons why students made these referencing choices. Future studies could use qualitative interviews to explore why and how students choose to use Chinese literature or not in their English-medium assignments.

The number of mixed-authored Chinese sources (mostly published in English) also increased from 7 to 15 per cent in the student assignments. However, this is consistent with the general growth (23 to 44 per cent) of the Chinese references cited by the students (as shown in Table 1). Thus, the main finding is that international (Chinese) students increasingly cite Chinese sources in their academic essays.

RQ2: What are the characteristics and patterns of the use of international references by international students?

Ranking the mostly cited Chinese knowledge sources in the student assignments showed that students tended to choose to use Chinese knowledge sources for the following themes:

  1. 1.Policies and national statistics in China, for example from the Ministry of Education of China.
  2. 2.Education inequalities in China (e.g. in regional, urban–rural contexts).
  3. 3.Mobility and ‘talent formation’ policies of China (these refer to labour market policies to develop skilled workers both within China and to entice those with international training to return).
  4. 4.Characteristics and issues of Chinese higher education (e.g. expansion, reform, internationalisation, policy-borrowing, and unemployment).

These themes might mainly reflect the content of the course and the demand for the students to cite the relevant policies, statistics and studies in various Chinese contexts. The top-cited Chinese knowledge sources in 2016–2019 are shown in Table 3.

Table 3.

Student assignments: top cited Chinese knowledge sources (2016–19)

Rank References Times cited as references
1 Ministry of Education of China (2019). Documents of laws, policies, reports, and statistics. Available at: http://en.moe.gov.cn/documents/laws_policies/ (English); or http://www.moe.gov.cn/jyb_sjzl/ (Chinese). 41
2 Tan, C. and C. S. Chua (2015). ‘Education policy borrowing in China: Has the West wind overpowered the East wind?’, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education 45, no. 5: 686–704. 19
3 Yang, J., X. Huangand, and X. Liu (2014). ‘An analysis of education inequality in China’, International Journal of Educational Development 37: 2–10. 18
4 Tan, C. (2015). ‘Education policy borrowing and cultural scripts for teaching in China’, Comparative Education 51, no. 2: 196–211. 17
5 Qian, X. and R. Smyth (2008) ‘Measuring regional inequality of education in China: Widening coast–inland gap or widening rural–urban gap?’, Journal of International Development 20, no. 2: 132–144. 15

A majority of these top-cited Chinese knowledge sources were published in English-medium journals. A top cited English-medium Chinese knowledge source would be seen around fifteen to twenty times across the students’ essays, whereas a top-cited Chinese medium one was only seen two to three times across their essays. Thus, although 43 per cent (as shown in Table 2) of the cited references were in Chinese in 2018–2019, the students tended to cite English-medium references much more than Chinese-medium ones across their essays.

In addition to the findings directly related to the two research questions, other important patterns were observed. One of these was a variety of technical errors and anomalies when citing Chinese sources. These appear to be the result of a lack of explicit advice and guidance about how to cite non-English sources. Some illustrative examples are given below. The students’ practice of referencing these Chinese-medium sources seemed to be problematic. For instance, they sometimes tended to ‘pretend’ the reference were in English by removing the original Chinese title and journal name and omitting any sign of translation (see Example 1 in Table 4). Also, they sometimes cited a Chinese-medium source by presenting the original title in Pinyin – a Romanised representation of the standard pronunciation of the Chinese language – in order to avoid any non-Latin alphabet appearing in the assignment (see Example 2). This way of presenting Chinese-medium references could be problematic, as it failed to respect and acknowledge the epistemic existence of the original language (i.e. Chinese characters here) of a non-English knowledge source, and instead transplanted it into the familiar, easy-on-the-eyes, Latin or Roman alphabet. Furthermore, the Romanised way of referencing Chinese-medium sources usually failed to serve the purpose of enabling the readers to trace more information about the original source (as they were not published in Pinyin, and also cannot be searched by using Pinyin).

Table 4.

Examples of common mistakes in students’ references of Chinese sources

Example 1 Shen, Y. (2006). Classroom Appraisal. Beijing: Beijing Normal University Press.

Wu, G. (2007). “Why Be Confident about Curriculum Change?” In Reflections on Education in China, edited by Q.-Q. Zhong and G.-P. Qu, 164–166. Shanghai: East China Normal University Press.
Example 2 Hongqi, Zhu. (2014) ‘Jiao yu zhi li: yi gong zhi qiu shan zhi’ [Education governance: participation and management], Education Research, 417(10), pp. 4–11
Example 3 Fan, X. H. (2008). Reflections on “shadow education” : multiple perspectives. Tsinghua university education research, 29(6), 101–104. (范晓慧. (2008). “影子教育” 的思考: 多种视角. 清華大學教育研究, 29(6), 101–104.)

Jin, S. (2007). “Curriculum Reform: A Major Project That Cannot Be Accomplished in a Hurry [Kecheng Gaige: Yixiang Buneng Jiyu Qiucheng De Panda Gongcheng].” In Reflections on Education in China [Fansi Zhongguo Jiaoyu], edited by Qiquan Zhong and Wu Guoping, 136–140. Shanghai: East China Normal University Press.

(The examples are quoted from the original assignments without editing, and thus might have some grammar mistakes or reference style errors.)

Another common mistake was related to the sequential format of presenting the Chinese–English translations in the references. In these kind of mistakes (see Example 3), the students tended to present the English translation before the original texts, or to present the original and the English-translated references separately without indicating the linked parts of translation. Further discussion of the English-medium academic practice of referencing non-English knowledge sources is provided in the next section.

After investigating the use of Chinese knowledge sources in student assignments, the study also examined the reading list of the course. In the reading list, there were seventy-six references in total for five main topics of the lectures. In these seventy-six references, two were from authors with Chinese or mixed backgrounds, whilst another two were from an author3 with an Asian background. All references in the reading list are English-medium, reflecting the largely English-medium discourse of teaching in the UK higher education. Comparing the use of Chinese knowledge sources in the student assignments and the course reading list in 2018–2019 (see Table 5), students appeared to use Chinese references in general up to twenty times more than the reading list in the course. Their use of English-medium Chinese knowledge sources was also approximately 10 times more than the reading-list of the course.

Table 5.

Comparing the student assignments and the reading list (2018–2019)

Student assignments Reading list
Chinese knowledge sources 44% 2.6%
English-medium Chinese sources 25% 2.6%
Chinese-medium sources 19% 0%

Implications for lecturers and tutors

The study's findings and observations lead to important implications for lecturers of Chinese students, given their increasing preference for Chinese references where these are permitted and their value is actively explained. The trend that we observed for international students to cite sources related to their own language and culture groups can lead lecturers to (1) consider including more non-English sources in their reading lists. Lecturers could consider, as a starting point, including sources that appear often in their students’ essays or sources that are used as key contextual studies when explaining, for instance, the Chinese educational system. Lecturers should also consider (2) offering more specific support for students with respect to choosing, using and referencing Chinese sources. Lecturers can be more explicit in their guidance as to what constitutes an acceptable and reliable Chinese or non-English knowledge source and also how to cite this according to the relevant citation convention. This will signal to students that these are not only acceptable but may even be desirable depending on the focus and nature of the essay.

Drawing upon reflections from our own practice, we notice that students appeared not to have been provided sufficient explicit guidance as to how to use and cite non-English literature in the essays, resulting in a number of the technical citation errors. Even though the citation guidance for using non-English literature might be available online,4 it could have been signposted to students in a clearer and more consistent way in the course unit and across the programme of study. Developing this clarity and consistency could enhance students’ confidence when it comes to using non-English sources. For instance, we think that some students might have chosen to avoid using Chinese knowledge sources or portray them as English-medium sources in their essays in order to fit into the largely English-medium norm of UK higher education. This could mask a possibly even higher proportion of Chinese literature used in the essays. However, we are aware of the challenges of including non-English language sources in English-medium higher education. For instance, there could be concerns about academic integrity (e.g. plagiarism, falsified references, the quality of sources and translation issues) in evaluating students’ selection and citation of non-English literature sources.

Nonetheless, we believe that, in the increasingly internationalised higher education system and world, the language skills of academic staff should not determine the limit of knowledge sources that students can access and engage with and the learning possibilities they can have. We are also concerned that dissuading students from using diverse language sources could risk signposting the legitimacy and value of a certain language medium over others, and possibly reinforce the privileged status of English-medium sources in knowledge production and dissemination. Therefore, a more linguistically inclusive curriculum could be embraced in order to maximise students’ opportunities and confidence for learning and development.

Universities that claim to be international or internationalised and particularly those that have large numbers of international students have significant opportunities to further introduce more inclusive reading lists and guidance for assessment methods. This is because, we have found, students themselves are able to identify a wider range of knowledge resources and make these available to lecturers in the form of the reference sections of their academic essays. Furthermore, faculty members can permit non-English sources and encourage non-English sources when appropriate. They can enable the use of non-English sources by teaching students how to cite non-English sources. They can address specific technical challenges for students which include whether they can use non-Roman characters and non-English words.

More generally, lecturers can consider whether they have a tendency to use Western sources when referring to indigenous issues such as international development or even country- or culture-specific issues such as the educational system of China. This results in the setting aside of sources outside the dominant English or Anglophone academic literature or even missing out completely on the intellectual provenance of a certain concept or issue. When lecturers use indigenous ideas and knowledge (i.e. when presenting issues and cases from other countries), non-English sources need to be acknowledged.

Conclusions and future agenda

Students use a wide range of resources when writing their essays. Through their choices of what knowledge sources to use in order to construct and support their arguments in their essays, they demonstrate to some extent the kinds of knowledge that they consider relevant and robust. The analysis of these resources shows that Chinese students rely to a significant extent on Chinese sources. This has potential implications for the design of courses with large numbers of Chinese students or where students are free to write about their own countries or specific contexts in their essays. The benefit of inclusion and support for non-English resources needs to be better recognised. Lecturers and course designers with an international mindset and awareness can incorporate various knowledge sources in a purposeful way.

Specifically for programmes with large numbers of Chinese students, lecturers can reflect on whether their (Chinese) students are allowed or even encouraged to use Chinese language resources. This step does not constitute an accommodation that makes essay writing any ‘easier’ for Chinese students. In fact, lecturers could consider that students who use Chinese language sources need to introduce an extra step of translation, which could count as a form of extra academic work for them. Chinese language sources need to be translated before they can be used in essays for evaluation and will often undergo a first level of analysis through this process of translation. More generally, lecturers can consider whether they include non-English sources in their reading lists and what the potential implications for excluding non-English sources are. Are their students aware of how to reference and study non-English resources?

Although the study analysed thousands of essay references, these nevertheless constitute a particular and non-representative picture of the range of resources being used by students. There are also specific design features of the course unit analysed, which allowed students to choose their sources without limiting them to using resources from a reading list; other course units might be designed differently. Future studies could examine more deeply how students actually used the sources that they referenced, taking the analysis beyond the mere presence of Chinese references. Further studies could also explore how many and why Chinese students choose to not use Chinese references in their assignments. This could provide more insights into students’ negotiation of their learning and assessment in UK higher education.

There is an element of reflexivity in this study, as the lecturers’ practice to acknowledge and embrace the value of non-English knowledge sources appears to have increased the proportion of non-English sources over the three years of the study. There are many challenges about writing about one's own practices. Even though there are important limitations, including the scale of our study, nevertheless our findings re-echo earlier work that calls for the decolonisation of the curriculum, and it also raises important points of principle. These include the need to allow students a wider ‘space’ to find the appropriate knowledge resources for their specific research and to provide the specific tools (e.g. referencing formats) that they might need to cite non-English (or host country) sources. Finally, this study serves to confirm our convictions that actively involving students through an inclusive and participatory approach is a fruitful way of contributing to the internationalisation of the curriculum.

Acknowledgements

The study was conducted with the research assistance of Qiong Wu and Huan Liu. It benefitted from the feedback from the Higher Education Research at Manchester (HERE@Manchester) reading group. The study was supported by the University of Manchester School of Environment, Education and Development (SEED) Impact Fund.

Notes

1

There are a range of positions on the debate on native-speakerism. By focussing our study on the challenges and responses of Chinese international students, it is not our intention to devalue or dismiss the challenges faced by native speakers of English with respect to academic writing.

2

In the United Kingdom, lecturers / course leaders almost always give a range of recommended (and sometimes required) reading materials for their courses.

3

This author is also the lecturer of the course and one of the authors of this study.

4

We highlight two examples which we feel embody a positive framing of non-English references. These include (1) the reference guide of the journal Pedagogy, Culture and Society, with relevant material on page 7, which is available here: https://www.tandf.co.uk//journals/authors/style/reference/tf_ChicagoAD.pdf; and (2) the Taylor & Francis Journals Standard Reference Style Guide, which also offers a suggestion on referencing non-English literature – see ‘Author-supplied translated titles’ on page 9. This document is available at https://files.taylorandfrancis.com/tf_APA.pdf.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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  • Phakiti, A. and L. Li (2011), ‘General academic difficulties and reading and writing difficulties among Asian ESL postgraduate students in TESOL at an Australian university’, RELC Journal 42, no. 3: 227264. https://doi.org/10.1177/0033688211421417.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Tian, J. and G. D. Low (2012), ‘To what extent are postgraduate students from China prepared for academic writing needed on UK master's courses?’, Language, Culture and Curriculum 25, no. 3: 299319. https://doi.org/10.1080/07908318.2012.734313.

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Contributor Notes

Miguel Antonio Lim is Senior Lecturer at the Manchester Institute of Education and Co-convenor of the Higher Education Research Network and the China and Higher Education Network at the University of Manchester. He also serves as Co-convenor of the International Research and Researchers Network at the Society of Research into Higher Education. Email: miguelantonio.lim@manchester.ac.uk

Zhuo Min Huang is Lecturer in Education at the Manchester Institute of Education at the University of Manchester. Her research interests involve intercultural education, intercultural ethics, intercultural personhood, mindfulness and arts methods. Email: zhuomin.huang@manchester.ac.uk

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Learning and Teaching

The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences

  • Arday, J. (2018), ‘Dismantling power and privilege through reflexivity: Negotiating normative Whiteness, the Eurocentric curriculum and racial micro-aggressions within the Academy’, Whiteness and Education 3, no. 2: 141161. https://doi.org/10.1080/23793406.2019.1574211.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Barron, P. (2006), ‘Stormy outlook? Domestic students’ impressions of international students at an Australian university’, Journal of Teaching in Travel & Tourism 6, no. 2: 522. https://doi.org/10.1300/J172v06n02_02.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bird, K. S. and L. Pitman (2020), ‘How diverse is your reading list? Exploring issues of representation and decolonisation in the UK’, Higher Education 79, no. 5: 903920. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00446-9.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cowley, P. and D. Hyams-Ssekasi (2018), ‘Motivation, induction, and challenge: Examining the initial phase of international students’ educational sojourn’, Journal of International Students 8, no. 1: 109130. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v8i1.154.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crosling, G., R. Edwards and B. Schroder (2008), ‘Internationalizing the curriculum: The implementation experience in a faculty of business and economics’, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 30, no. 2: 107121. https://doi.org/10.1080/13600800801938721.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De Sousa Santos, B. (2009), ‘A non-occidentalist west? Learned ignorance and ecology of knowledge’, Theory, Culture & Society 26, nos. 7–8: 103125. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276409348079.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Durkin, K. (2008), ‘The adaptation of East Asian masters students to western norms of critical thinking and argumentation in the UK’, Intercultural Education 19, no. 1: 1527. https://doi.org/10.1080/14675980701852228.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Durkin, K. (2011), ‘Adapting to western norms of critical argumentation and debate’, in L. Jin and M. Cortazzi (eds), Researching Chinese Learners: Skills, Perceptions and Intercultural Adaptation (London: Palgrave Macmillan), 274291.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Edwards, R., G. Crosling, S. Petrovic-Lazarovic and P. O'Neill (2003), ‘Internationalisation of business education: Meaning and implementation’, Higher Education Research & Development 22, no. 2: 183192. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360304116.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fell, E. V. and N. A. Lukianova (2015), ‘British universities: International students’ alleged lack of critical thinking’, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 215: 28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.11.565.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Francis, A. (1993), Facing the Future: The Internationalization of Post-Secondary Institutions in British Columbia. Task Force Report (Vancouver: British Columbia Centre for International Education). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Green, W. and P. Mertova (2016), ‘Transformalists and transactionists: Towards a more comprehensive understanding of academics’ engagement with “internationalisation of the curriculum”’, Research in Comparative and International Education 11, no. 3: 229246. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745499916662372.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Green, W. and C. Whitsed (eds) (2015), Critical Perspectives on Internationalising the Curriculum in Disciplines: Reflective Narrative Accounts from Business, Education and Health (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gu, Q. and A. Maley (2008), ‘Changing places: A study of Chinese students in the UK’, Language and Intercultural Communication 8, no. 4: 224245. https://doi.org/10.1080/14708470802303025.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hansen, A. S. and S. Thøgersen (2015), ‘Chinese transnational students and the global education hierarchy’, Learning and Teaching 8, no. 3: 112. https://doi.org/10.3167/latiss.2015.080301.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Heffernan, A., F. Longmuir, D. Bright and M. Kim (2019), Perceptions of Teachers and Teaching in Australia (Clayton: Monash University), https://www.monash.edu/thank-your-teacher/docs/Perceptions-of-Teachers-and-Teaching-in-Australia-report-Nov-2019.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) (2019), ‘Where do HE students come from?’, https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/where-from (accessed 15 May 2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hudzik, J. K. (2014), Comprehensive Internationalization: Institutional Pathways to Success (London: Routledge).

  • Jones, E. and D. Killick (2007), ‘Internationalisation of the curriculum’, in E. Jones and S. Brown (eds), Internationalising Higher Education (London: Routledge), 109119.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kemmis, S. (2007), ‘Participatory action research and the public sphere’, in P. Ponte and B. Smit (eds), The Quality of Practitioner Research: Reflections on the Position of the Researcher and the Researched (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers), 927.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lashley, C. and P. Barron (2006), ‘The learning style preferences of hospitality and tourism students: Observations from an international and cross-cultural study’, International Journal of Hospitality Management 25, no. 4: 552569. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhm.2005.03.006.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leask, B. (2005), ‘Internationalisation of the curriculum’, in J. Carroll and J. Ryan (eds), Teaching International Students: Improving Learning for All (London: Routledge), 119129.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leask, B. and C. Bridge (2013), ‘Comparing internationalisation of the curriculum in action across disciplines: Theoretical and practical perspectives’, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education 43, no. 1: 79101. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2013.746566.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leask, B. and J. Carroll (2011), ‘Moving beyond “wishing and hoping”: Internationalisation and student experiences of inclusion and engagement’, Higher Education Research & Development 30, no. 5: 647659. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2011.598454.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Luxon, T. and M. Peelo (2009), ‘Internationalisation: Its implications for curriculum design and course development in UK higher education’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International 46, no. 1: 5160. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703290802646172.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mittelmeier, J., B. Rienties, D. Tempelaar and D. Whitelock (2018), ‘Overcoming cross-cultural group work tensions: Mixed student perspectives on the role of social relationships’, Higher Education 75, no. 1: 149166. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-017-0131-3.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mullins, G., N. Quintrell and L. Hancock (1995), ‘The experiences of international and local students at three Australian universities’, Higher Education Research and Development 14, no. 2: 201231. https://doi.org/10.1080/0729436950140205.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Phakiti, A. and L. Li (2011), ‘General academic difficulties and reading and writing difficulties among Asian ESL postgraduate students in TESOL at an Australian university’, RELC Journal 42, no. 3: 227264. https://doi.org/10.1177/0033688211421417.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Price, R., M. Skopec, S. Mackenzie, C. Nijhoff, R. Harrison, G. Seabrook and M. Harris (2022), ‘A novel data solution to inform curriculum decolonisation: The case of the Imperial College London Masters of Public Health’, Scientometrics 127: 10211037. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-021-04231-3.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ross, H. and Y. Chen (2015), ‘Engaging Chinese international undergraduate students in the American university’, Learning and Teaching 8, no. 3: 1336. https://doi.org/10.3167/latiss.2015.080302.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sawir, E. (2013), ‘Internationalisation of higher education curriculum: The contribution of international students’, Globalisation, Societies and Education 11, no. 3: 359378. https://doi.org/10.1080/14767724.2012.750477.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Secker, J. (2005), ‘DELIVERing library resources to the virtual learning environment’, Program: Electronic library and information systems 39, no. 1: 3949. https://doi.org/10.1108/00330330510578796.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shaheen, N. (2016), ‘International students’ critical thinking-related problem areas: UK university teachers’ perspectives’, Journal of Research in International Education 15, no. 1: 1831. https://doi.org/10.1177/1475240916635895.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Siddall, G. and H. Rose (2014), ‘Reading lists – time for a reality check? An investigation into the use of reading lists as a pedagogical tool to support the development of information skills amongst Foundation Degree students’, Library and Information Research 38, no. 118: 5273. https://doi.org/10.29173/lirg605.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Somerville, E. (2021), ‘University pays students £15 an hour to decolonise curriculum’, The Telegraph, 9 October. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/10/09/university-pays-students-15-hour-decolonise-curriculum/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Takayama, K., A. Sriprakash and R. Connell (2015), ‘Rethinking knowledge production and circulation in comparative and international education: Southern theory, postcolonial perspectives, and alternative epistemologies’, Comparative Education Review 59, no. 1: vviii. https://doi.org/10.1086/679660.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tian, J. and G. D. Low (2012), ‘To what extent are postgraduate students from China prepared for academic writing needed on UK master's courses?’, Language, Culture and Curriculum 25, no. 3: 299319. https://doi.org/10.1080/07908318.2012.734313.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Whalley, T. R., L. Langley and L. Villarreal (1997), Best Practice Guidelines for Internationalizing the Curriculum, (Victoria: British Columbia Ministry of Education). http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/public/pubdocs/bcdocs2014/318118/best_practice_guidelines.pdf.

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