A Phenomenographic Study of Chinese Undergraduates’ Conceptions of Learning in Transnational Programs

Research Highlighted:

Zhao, X., & Hu, Y. (2020). (Open Access) A Phenomenographic Study of Chinese Undergraduates’ Conceptions of Learning in Transnational Programs. SAGE Open, 10(3), 1-13.

Dr Xiantong Zhao, Southwest University, China

In Chinese higher education, transnational programs or Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (CFCRS) programs (Zhongwai Hezuo Banxue Xiangmu), are becoming increasingly prevalent. It a joint venture between local Chinese universities and foreign or overseas higher education institutions (HEIs), with the aim of educating Chinese students only (Hou et al., 2014). The teaching staff is composed of both foreign lecturers from partner universities and Chinese lecturers. The programs include both language learning and specialized knowledge teaching in a foreign language. The educational resources such as teaching plan, instruction outline, teaching technologies, textbooks, and curriculum system are introduced from the partner foreign universities. Due to the education input of the materials and staff, the teaching and learning methods are diverse, including group discussion, presentation, role-play, business game simulations, and so on. Moreover, assessment methods adopted by foreign partner universities have also been borrowed to diversify the traditional Chinese evaluation system. Thus, a cross-cultural education context is formed. Nonetheless little is known about student’s actual learning experience in such programs, which may be valuable for improving the education quality.

The present study investigated Chinese undergraduates’ conceptions of learning in programs cooperatively run by Chinese and non-Chinese universities. The research methodology adopted is phenomenography, which is defined by Marton (1994) as “the empirical study of the limited number of qualitatively different ways in which various phenomena in, and aspects of, the world around us are experienced, conceptualized, understood, perceived and apprehended” (p. 4424). Data are collected through semi-structured interviews with a group of undergraduates and analyzed following the phenomenographic principles to identify the referential and structural aspects of each conception. The referential aspect (also named as the meaning aspect) captures the global meaning of the phenomenon, whereas the structural aspect is composed of an internal horizon and an external horizon. The internal horizon denotes the focus of an individual’s attention and it “consists of the aspects of the phenomenon simultaneously present in the theme of awareness, and the relationships between these aspects and between the aspects and the phenomenon as a whole” (Cope & Prosser, 2005, p. 350). The external horizon, sometimes named as the perceptual boundary (Bruce et al., 2004), is composed of those aspects which constitute the background.

Six main conceptions of learning, including sub-conceptions are identified, namely, learning as increase of new knowledge (A), memorization with (B2)/without (B1) understanding, application with (C2)/without (C1) understanding, making sense of the knowledge acquired (D), gaining a new perspective to view reality (E) and personal change and growth based on an extensive understanding of learning (F). Generally speaking, the relationship found between conceptions is hierarchical, with Conception A as the least complicated learning conception and Conception F as the most advanced learning conception. Yet the sub-conceptions or branches are also notable. The findings not only demonstrate the complexity of Chinese students’ conceptions of university learning under a cross-culture learning and teaching context, but they also point to the possibility of there being something new to discover, even for some familiar and well-established conceptions.

This study calls for the attention which should be paid to the quality of CFCRS programs. In the Chinese context, policy makers considered transnational programs to be a sound way to improve the quality of teaching and learning in universities, as quality foreign education resources could be imported via such programs. However, the findings of this study reveal that the quality of CFCRS programs might be questionable from the learner’s perspective. The undergraduates investigated clearly demonstrated an overreliance on elementary and less advanced learning conceptions, whereas the pursuit of meaning was ignored and understanding, insight, and reflection seemed to be downplayed. Students’ conception of learning will affect their learning approaches and further the quality of learning as a whole as demonstrated by a number of researchers (Duarte, 2007; Edmunds & Richardson, 2009; Ellis et al., 2008). More sophisticated conceptions should be developed if deep approaches to learning are to be attained. Thus, the student participants in CFCRS programs are advised to have more advanced qualitative or transformative ways of understanding learning.


Duarte, A. M. (2007). Conceptions of learning and approaches to learning in Portuguese students. Higher Education, 54, 781–794.

Edmunds, R., & Richardson, J. T. (2009). Conceptions of learning, approaches to studying and personal development in UK higher education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(2), 295–309.

Ellis, R. A., Goodyear, P., Calvo, R. A., & Prosser, M. (2008). Engineering students’ conceptions of and approaches to learning through discussions in face-to-face and online contexts. Learning and Instruction, 18(3), 267–282.

Hou, J., Montgomery, C., & McDowell, L. (2014). Exploring the diverse motivations of transnational higher education in China: Complexities and contradictions. Journal of Education for Teaching, 40(3), 300–318.

Marton, F. (1994). Phenomenography. In T. Husen & N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (pp. 4424–4429). Pergamon

Author Biography:

Xiantong Zhao got his PhD degree at UCL Institution of Education (previously known as Institute of Education, University of London). He has been working at Faculty of Education Southwest University since Sept. 2017. His research interests lie in internationalization of higher education, cross-border higher education (transnational higher education), cross-cultural university teaching and learning, comparative higher education and phenomenography. Since 2017, his research interest has been focused on international aspects of higher education, in particular international visiting scholars, returned early career academics (RECAs), overseas students in Chinese universities and Chinese students in transnational programs. He is now searching for academic collaboration with those who are interested in the topics mentioned above. Please get in touch if you are interested: 314829991@qq.com

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