Visual Learners in China

I am a visual learner. I want to see new words written down. I like to see concepts diagrammed. I understand more easily and remember much better that which I see.

So far, this seems like a handicap for me at ECNU. With only one exception, none of my classes this academic year have made much use of visual aids. (And when I say “visual aid,” I use such a loose definition as to include just writing anything on the board.) This semester has been especially bad in this respect, with three classes where the professor typically just sits there and talks the entire time, never going near the board. This wouldn’t be so bad if the professor were lecturing on some sort of material we had already read about beforehand, but for those classes the material all comes straight from the professor (although there are some recommended texts). So most of the time, class content is 100% aural.

The one class where the teacher consistently uses the blackboard is an undergrad class on Modern Chinese I am auditing to get extra credits. That class is so hugely different from my graduate courses it’s almost laughable, but it should be easier–it’s a core undergrad course. We have one set text, and the teacher goes straight through it. Much of what the teacher writes on the board is in the book anyway. When the teacher writes on the board, he writes in extremely neat, clear handwriting. (One of my professors has handwriting so bad it gives me nightmares.) Is this undergraduate class representative?

It’s my first time in graduate school anywhere, so in all honesty I’m not sure exactly what to expect. As a graduate student, I don’t expect content to be spoon-fed to me as if I were still an undergrad. It just seems like there should be some visual content in my graduate classes. I’ve heard rumors of PowerPoint, but have never seen it in any of my classes.

So all this leads me to wonder… are visual aids just for babies undergrads (in China)? Does China’s system of higher education possibly favor those who are not visual learners?

Never having been a graduate student anywhere else or an undergraduate student in China, these are questions I cannot answer on my own.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Have you asked any of your classmates if the classes that you’re taking are typical? They might have had more experience w/ grad courses in China.

  2. Tim P,

    My classmates have no more experience with grad school than I do. We’re all first year students.

  3. I wonder if the profs are just lazy. In Korea, we had some older profs who were notorious for using the same old lecture notes year after year. These guys would show up three days a week to teach three classes and read the paper during their required three hours a week of office hours, and then POOF! they’d vanish from campus. The younger profs were more professional and had better teaching methods.

  4. I attended graduate school at a state university in the US for a few years, and my professors always had some kind of notes or presentation up for the class to see. Now, granted, the notes might be photocopies of pages from the textbook, and the presentation might have been downloaded from the textbook author’s website, but still, there was usually something. Even for seminars for which there was no textbook, the professor would have slides or else write notes on the blackboard. So basically, I never had the experience where a prof would just talk to us, which I would imagine to be awful because I’m also a visual learner.

  5. The undergrad classes I attended at Beida had very generally pretty low degrees of blackboard use. On the rare occasions that professors actually wrote stuff, it was mostly illegible – I’d ask my deskmates what he was writing, and the answer was generally prefixed with “Dunno; I’m just guessing…”

    The only class with any real use of writing was my Wenzixue class, where the teacher had Powerpoints of oracle-bone characters that we had about 16 seconds to copy before they flashed off the screen.

    Irritating, because I’d say that Chinese is a language that really lends itself to visual study — particularly, as in the case (ironically) of my 现代汉语 linguistics class — where the professor has a heavy Southern accent.

  6. Most of the grad classes that I took in the U.S. required the students to present a good deal of the material. One particular class had a different student present a chapter of the text each week with the prof providing a summary at the end of the class. I seem to learn better in that environment.

    But when teaching in China I found that the standard operating procedure for most ‘old school’ profs was to sit and talk (actually read) for the class period.

    I think a good deal of this is because a large percentage of Chinese profs work outside the school. This keeps class prep time down to a minimum.

    There is also the cultural component. The author of the book is obviously an expert so how can someone improve on that text?

    When I told my students that they could have my powerpoint presentations after each week’s class they were dumbfounded. This was an concept they hadn’t been exposed to before.

  7. My current experience in grad school in applied linguistics here in the States has convinced me that undergrad ling classes are actually HARDER than grad classes — there’s more homework (problem sets) & ‘lil assignments & then midterms and finals. Grad classes are more relaxed (though not necessarily easier) — in my experience, I’ve had to give summaries of research articles and present my own research for final papers. Grad students are, indeed, expected to do more for your learning than the professor himself.

    Another thing to think about is class size — I found myself being more frustrated and trying less (i.e. talking more) when I taught larger classes. Perhaps it’s not so much an issue for more experienced teachers who can see beyond these logistical issues.

  8. Well, I am not sure if my recommendations are useful or not, but it is based on my personal experience, have a look 😉

    I am a Chinese but I have been studying in New Zealand for nearly five years, and I am working for my postgraduate diploma now (I think it equals to the “graduate course” that you mentioned). When I was an undergraduate student, I didn’t know what the visual aid, but lectures were quite nice, they explained to me and helped me use the PowerPoint, then I made a very excellent presentation in front of the class.

    I think you can help your students to learn use overhead projector, or draw some brain storming graphics. I think the issue is Chinese students don’t have the concept of visual aid, so they can not use visual aids. They can do it but you need teach them first, am I right?

    By the way, I will visit your blog often in future, it is a very good space.

  9. Hey John,
    I couldn’t imagine an adequate linguistics class that didn’t make at least some use of visual material. I’m assuming (and hoping) that the classes you’re referring to aren’t “core” classes (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and (possibly) semantics, pragmatics and sociolinguistics). The anaylsis of linguistic data is necessarily visual since (1), we must abstract away from aural representations of data to observe patterns; and (2), we can’t faithfully pronounce most of the languages that we try to analyze! Obviously, I’m revealing my bias, which is the belief that, fundamentally, linguistics is data analysis which leads to the creation of theoretical frameworks.

  10. personally,i don’t think there is any way specifically for educating visual learners since most of chinese people are not at all.So don’t expect too much because non-visual is just the way chinese works.based on my own experience,chinese lectuer would never use PPT for class unless they really have to.So try to get used to it ,i mean ,the way chinese thinks of their language and the way how they use.I really have had a hard time to get use to my classes in will find out and try to talk to your professor.
    One thing I have to mention is that the top school in China is definitely top in every aspects among schools,not quite like those in US.So you will have the best way of learning chinese from teachers in top school who got their degree in US or other english speaking countries.Believe it or not,try to figure it out that way.

  11. Maybe you just drew a bum hand this year – most of the profs I’ve had have made substantial use of the board (to varying degrees of success). In a few classes the general reaction from the students was that the prof would be better off using PowerPoint or something more convenient than writing and erasing all class, but I think there’s more of a technology gap between students and teachers here than in the States – in lots of places the facilities for using high-tech display techniques were not installed until a few years ago (and other places still lack anything more than a basic chalkboard setup). I did have one prof in a 400-student lecture who used PowerPoint exclusively, and a few instructors who didn’t write anything down aside from the occasional foreign term.

    It is telling that teaching degrees often have a “board writing” requirement that gives good chalk penmanship to middle- and primary-school teachers, but university profs typically don’t have that training – and for the most part it seems to work out about the same as the range between precise lettering and wild scrawls on chalkboards in other regions….

  12. Theo Vermeulen Says: April 23, 2006 at 2:20 pm

    This topic caught my eye because with Professor Huang of ECNU I co-authored a Training Manual on Human Resource Development for the use of Chinese Training Co-ordinators and Trainers on an Australian Government sponsored health project in Xianyang (near Xian). The last part of that Manual is dedicated to exploring different training and teaching methodologies and using the most effective teaching method for the nature of the material you are teaching. I consider that it is also very applicable to teaching in universities at any level, under or post graduate./p>

    Zhwj comments that: “It is telling that teaching degrees often have a “board writing” requirement that gives good chalk penmanship to middle- and primary-school teachers, but university profs typically don’t have that training”. This is exactly right but our training needs analysis uncovered that it was not JUST “board writing” skills that were an issue. Many professors (and other trainers) simply did not have any formal or informal training in HOW TO TEACH or in using contemporary training or teaching methodologies and just tend to use the old ‘traditional’ method of just talking to the class, or even worse, just reading from the text.

    This is a very poor teaching method as very few students remember what they are told without some more effective forms of re-enforcement. Most people need some visual re-enforcement of the teaching material, especially as it provides some structure or framework for the class and the teaching material. In LANGUAGE teaching this is well recognised so different methodologies are used (eg role playing; videos; visual aids etc) but it seems to be forgotten in all other subject areas.

    I guess it also depends on what facilities are available. Besides being a trainer, I am also a graduate student at the University of Technology, Sydney (Australia). At UTS every teaching room has a build in computer, PowerPoint projector, overhead projector and whiteboards, (all supported by IT staff to keep it all going) so the teaching staff can use these facilities to present their teaching material. Not every university is so fortunate although I actually gave a class to some graduate students at ECNU when I was in Shanghai and used PowerPoint projector so maybe ECNU is not to bad in this regard.

    Of course another problem is that Professors (as opposed to school teachers) are considered to have a relatively high degree of professional autonomy so it is difficult to tell them HOW to teach, especially if the university does not have a high expectation in this regard. At the university I go to, the teaching staff are expected to do a teaching certificate and are also evaluated by the students on their teaching methods.

    Not sure if this happens in Chinese universities, but it is something to consider. This is especially the case at ECNU where they have the very capable Professor Huang (in the Institute of Adult Education) who could show those more traditional professors something about using contemporary teaching methodologies based on adult learning principles, as opposed to the childlike method of ‘sit there and listen to me pontificate’ approach! 🙂

    Take care!


  13. Some of the comments reminded me of when I was teaching Chinese middle school students in English. Although I frequently made use of the blackboard, my students never took notes! Even if I forced them to take notes, they would often throw them away after class, defeating the whole purpose. I don’t know how many times I explained the purpose of taking notes to them, it just didn’t take. When I sat in on the Chinese teachers’ classes, I noticed that they didn’t emphasize taking notes at all. They mostly had the students passively listen to their lecture, and after class the students would fill in the blanks in their little exercise books. The focus was usually not on understanding the general principles or patterns, just doing endless monotonous drills. I’m not sure if that approach favors non-visual learners, but personally I wouldn’t do well in that environment.

  14. Theo, I like your comment, and it in fact reflects a belief I have held for many years.. Do you have any materials or reports on this issue that I might be able to read futher into this analysis?

    Please feel free to email me.

  15. Another thing that might be a factor in this is that the professors might not want to look foolish in front of their students by hesitating before writing a character or writing it wrong. With the increase in the use of computers, more and more people more and more people are experiencing lapses in remembering how to correctly write some hanzi. This is true just as much if not more so for those with high levels of education, as they tend to use computers even more than others.

    It will be interesting to see whether the introduction of technology into the classroom changes this, as Powerpoint, etc., would allow for computer input.

  16. Wouldn’t more educated people be more likely to use Cangjie and thus still be able to remember how to write?

  17. Michael Kennedy Says: June 4, 2008 at 3:20 am

    Check out: I too am a visual learner and found the Web site very interesting.

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