Chinese Students in UK Higher Education: Exploratory Research into Chinese Postgraduate Students’ Academic Experiences of Classroom Participation and Group Collaboration

  • Shirui Chai

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Recent years have witnessed increased attention to the dynamics of group activities, and researchers have conceptualised the Community of Practice as a vehicle to promote learning and collaboration within groups. In this thesis, the academic experiences of Chinese postgraduate students are explored, in particular their involvement in interactive activities within the context of UK higher education. It examines the ways in which they participate in classroom-based activities and to what extent they collaborate in group work.
Drawing on the social constructivist paradigm of learning, this thesis presents a qualitative study of three academic learning activities at a UK university: interactions within the classroom, participation in seminars, and collaboration in group coursework. The purpose of this study is to determine the extent to which higher education institutions in the UK have the capacity to ensure full participation of their Chinese students in collaborative learning. Three research questions were developed: 1) How do Chinese postgraduate students participate and interact in a classroom environment, for example during lectures and seminars? 2) How do they perceive participation in seminars, and what influences students’ participation in seminars, from the students’ perspective? 3) What factors facilitate or impede Chinese postgraduate students’ participation in group activities?
This study is an explorative study, involving a class of students for classroom observation and five participants for interviews. It employs the following methods for data collection: in-depth classroom observations for one semester, and three phases of semi-structured interviews. The data were systematically studied and coded, based on the emerging themes: 1) the dynamics of students’ participation in classroom; 2) students’ perception of seminar learning and participation; and 3) students’ perception of collaboration in joint coursework.
There are three major findings. Firstly, this study suggests that the patterns of students’ classroom participation are characterised by variety, dynamic alterability, and naturality. Evidence gathered from classroom observations illustrates that students engage in multiple forms of participation in classroom activities. They do so on multiple levels, and both active participation and passive participation are displayed. Furthermore, the absence of static patterns of participation shows that students modify their behaviour in relation to changes within the learning context. Additionally, this study argues that students shift between verbal and non-verbal participation in order to facilitate their moment-to-moment interaction in the classroom.
Secondly, data collected from individual, in-depth interviews indicate that participants perceive learning in seminars from three aspects: the cognitive aspect, the pedagogical aspect, and the affective aspect. The participants understand learning in seminars as an opportunity to increase academic understanding and build a sense of belonging. Further, there are several factors that influence students’ participation in seminars, including the overall seminar and its design. Notably, students commonly expressed that a seminar class containing fewer than ten students would be the ideal classroom for them, both with regard to participation and interaction. This preference of small-scale seminars is the result of three aspects: sufficient tutor attention; effective peer interaction; and more opportunities to contribute during discussions. In addition, it was shown that students participate more when they are familiar with the person supervising the seminar session: a friendly and inspiring seminar leader can be an effective motivator for students to participate and interact in the classroom.
Thirdly, this study contains additional exploration of students’ learning experiences outside of the classroom. Data collected from interviewing five participants who had been involved in a previous interview indicate that participants perceive learning from the pedagogical aspect, the individual competence aspect, and the affective aspect. In line with the Collaborative Learning Theory, positive interdependency and promotive interaction are essential factors that promote students’ learning within groups. Whilst the feature of group diversity can exert positive and/or negative influences on students’ collaboration, this study demonstrates that designing group coursework to be explorative and related to real life situations will diminish the negative impacts that result from group diversity.
The findings of this thesis suggest that designs of seminars and group coursework can create a friendly atmosphere for students to collaborate and work efficiently. In particular, this study offers an opportunity to revaluate students’ participation patterns and further emphasise the significance of silent study. It also contributes to a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of student learning in the UK higher education system. Lastly, this thesis investigates the perceptions of Chinese international students studying in the UK with an emphasis on their engagement and collaboration across various learning environments. For those who wish to study in the UK, this may serve as guidance on how to prepare successfully for higher education before coming to study.
Date of Award22 Jun 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorXiao Lan Curdt-Christiansen (Supervisor) & Reka Ratkaine Jablonkai (Supervisor)


  • higher education
  • Collaborative learning
  • Classroom Interaction

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