Classroom Culture: Learning in a Globalized Classroom

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 21–22, 2014

University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico


The modern college classroom hosts students and instructors from a myriad of backgrounds. A decade ago, there was a great deal of attention focused on the millennial student and the implications that this new cohort had for the college classroom. The discussion, however, was really centered on generational differences in experience, knowledge, and learning styles. While these differences between instructor and student continue to exist, the globalization of education introduces a host of additional differences, not only in terms of instructor and student cultural perspectives, but in terms of styles of and approaches to education and the classroom. For the economics and business classroom, these differences may be especially pronounced as students are asked to participate in leadership and group exercises or engage in debates on business ethics. The approach that individual college professors take towards teaching their classes is influenced by their own academic backgrounds as well. This presentation explores how some of these cultural differences impact education within the economics and business curriculum.

Diversity and Classroom Culture

One of the questions I typically ask candidates during their campus interview is what they hope their students will remember after having completed an introductory business or economics course. Sometimes a candidate will respond with a very specific list of concepts and techniques, such as the four P’s of marketing, or calculating the elasticity of demand, that they hope students will remember or have mastered. Other times the candidate will answer with a more general set of goals relating to overarching themes (such as constrained decision-making with uncertain outcomes), or to developing their students’ critical thinking skills. It is the type of question to which there is no completely right or wrong answer, a type of question typical of the fields these candidates are immersed in. Quite interestingly, this question can also illustrate how diversity may impact the classroom.

The first teaching seminars that I encountered, both as a graduate instructor and as a junior faculty member working towards tenure, focused on two general themes: 1) differences in learning styles, and 2) generational and attitudinal differences between instructors and students (i.e. the millennial student). These are of course very important aspects of teaching that any instructor should be mindful of: visual learners may not respond well to lecturing, and references to long-past sporting events, television programs that went off the air in 1982, or “current” events that you lived through years before your students were born will probably not resonate with the class (unless it is some type of history course). But there are other differences that significantly complicate teaching, namely those related to the cultural diversity of the classroom.

How do cultural differences impact the business and economics classroom? Cultural diversity can take many forms, including national, regional, ethnic, and religious differences, as well as differences in rural, suburban, and urban frames of reference. While assignments in mathematics or physics may focus on some type of physical phenomenon, with precise and predictable outcomes stemming from scientific principles and mathematical logic, business and economics problems are more situational, stemming from the behavior of multiple individuals. Predicting the outcomes of a particular situation, or even suggesting a course of action in response to that situation, depends on a wide range of institutional, ethical, social, legal, and political factors.

At a state institution such as Farmingdale, almost 90 percent of the students commute, predominately from Long Island and the eastern boroughs of New York City (Brooklyn and Queens). Although the student population is quite diverse and includes a sizable number of first- and second-generation American students, the great majority of the students have graduated from area high schools either on Long Island or in NYC. As the campus has moved in the direction of national instead of local and regional searches, our faculty in the fields of business and economics have become much more diverse, with more than 50 percent of full-time faculty in economics and business coming from outside of the NY metro area, the Northeast, or the United States.

These factors give rise to a tremendous potential for significant cultural differences between our students and instructors. In general, these differences can be classified into five general areas: styles and approaches to education, classroom expectations, classroom interactions, and cultural references. The rest of this presentation is organized as follows. Section 2 provides a brief overview of some of the emerging literature on cultural differentiation and educational outcomes. Following that is an exploration of classroom situations that may arise in the context of instructor-student diversity and cultural differentiation. The conclusions of the analysis are presented in Section 4.

Views from the Literature

Over the past fifteen years, cross-cultural differentiation in business education has become an area of increasing study. With the globalization of education, whether in the form of faculty and student exchanges, the presence of international students on many college campuses, the increasing availability of study abroad opportunities for American students, or the ability of students to enroll in courses and programs taught online and in hybrid formats, instructors need to pay greater attention to course delivery, from the selection of textbook and other course materials, to the types of instructional methods used in the classroom.

Liu et al.’s (2010) study of the impact of cultural differences looked at the issue of course delivery in online MBA courses. The most significant barriers to learning that they discovered related to communications tools, multicultural content, and time zones. Courses designed within the U.S. assume the availability of software, infrastructure, and other resources not always available to students outside of the U.S., often making it difficult for these students to complete assignments. Additionally, these courses contained various multi-cultural content, as at the core of many business problems is a range of ethical and institutional concerns that must be addressed within the context of culture.

Underlying Liu et al.’s analysis are concepts first explored by Hofstede (1986). While there are critics of this model (see for example Signorini et al. 2009), it still serves as a good approximation of the issues. Specifically, Liu et al. ground their analysis on Hofstede’s four dimensions: power/distance (wealth and power), individualism/collectivism, uncertainty/avoidance, and masculinity/femininity (gender roles).

Taking a slightly different approach, Murphy et al. (2012) look at the issue in terms of differences in values. These differences in values arise from two sources: age (generational differences) and culture. Roberson et al. (2002) focus directly on instructor cultural competence, particularly on whether instructors are able to navigate and improve cross-cultural communications. Underlying their analysis are concepts first developed by Bennet (see Roberson et al. 2002, 44-46), which explain how instructors may move from an initial state of denial through phases of defense, minimization, acceptance, adaptation, and integration. Ultimately, successful instructors integrate cross-cultural diversity into their courses.

Other studies, such as those by Shu-hui (2006) and Li (2012), analyze various aspects of cultural differentiation. Shu-hui (2006) finds that there are differences in ethical behavior between accounting students in Taiwan and the U.S. Concerned with students’ perceptions of authority, Li (2012) analyzes how American and Chinese students studying at the same institution respond to formal/informal authority, perceived professional competence, formal authority attached to position, and perceived demographic factors. While Li’s analysis found that students tended to rely on formal authority attached to position, there were some differences between the perception of professional competence and informal authority of instructors by American students.

Situations from the Classroom

The most well conceived teaching plan can fall apart if the instructor is unable to connect with students in the classroom. Making such connections is particularly important in introductory business and economics courses, gateway courses such as principles of economics and introductory accounting, which all students in most business programs must take, and very often with some degree of reluctance.

The economics classroom is a great example. At Farmingdale, most principles of economics courses are capped at 40 students, so there are plenty of potential opportunities for students to interact with their instructor in class. One of the first concepts that students are exposed to in the course is scarcity. The implication of course is that since resources are limited, we must make choices about what we should produce and what we should consume. Students are then generally exposed to their first economic model: the production possibility frontier (PPF).

In its simplest formulation, the PPF reduces the world to two dimensions and looks at it in terms of our ability to produce only two goods; only later is it expanded to encompass a multi-good world. The way in which I just described the PPF is not very interesting or exciting to a college student. It sounds more like mathematics (and there is a significant amount of mathematics behind it), and I might as well be talking about good X and good Y, or commodity A and commodity B. To an introductory economics student, this is not a way to sell dance lessons. As you can see, I have just committed two errors: first I invoked what are to the student fairly abstract concepts, as most people are not used to talking about the things they purchase and consume as commodities. I then referenced and paraphrased a line from an almost 30-year-old movie (Dirty Dancing) that most of them (or my readers) would not latch on to.

So the question is how do I connect with the students here? I should note that cultural context is important. In my own principles courses, I would probably use products like pizza and soft drinks, or cellphones and coffee. One semester I taught economics at the National University of Mongolia and had to find a whole new set of examples to use in the classroom, as there was not a McDonald’s or Burger King in sight. The critical issue is finding examples that will resonate with students in class, whether as part of class presentations, group exercises, or assignments.

What motivates students? This is an important question, and one that has some direct bearing on diversity. From my own experience teaching in other countries, I have found that students’ skill sets and levels of interest in particular subjects vary greatly. Schmidt’s (2009) overview of the issue focused on the approaches to their fields and their students that international faculty brought to U.S. campuses. In the case of economics, anecdotally, I have found that faculty members that completed a significant portion of their training outside of the U.S. tend to view students in introductory economics courses differently. In many countries, economics is a very exclusive discipline and one of the hardest subject areas for students to gain admission to study. This would suggest that the motivation level of students in classes in those countries would be relatively high. Teaching economics to a class of forty highly motivated students is a much different experience than teaching a class in which only a minority of forty students are really interested in the subject. This difference in motivation and skill sets may lead to issues between the instructor and students.

The examples presented above touch upon issues such as cultural references, styles of teaching and learning, and classroom expectations. There are of course a wide range of other issues that could be addressed here as well, including student perceptions of authority, formal and informal interactions between students and instructors, instructor expectations of students, students’ pre-formed opinions about instructors, and language issues. These all warrant further examination, but this particular forum limits further exposition.


It is ultimately up to each individual instructor to devise strategies that will enhance learning in the classroom. The key to success in any classroom is to capture and maintain student interest in the subject in a way that will keep them motivated. This sounds easier than it actually is in practice, especially if the instructor is teaching a class that students are only marginally enthused about taking (i.e. a course required by a program). Regardless of the reason that a student has signed up to take a particular class, successful instructors find ways to integrate cultural diversity into the classroom. Ultimately a student’s long-run success (and a graduate’s career success) depends upon their own ability to “adapt their behavior to different cultural norms” (Molinsky 2012).


Hofstede, Geert. 1986. “Cultural Differences in Teaching and Learning.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 10(3): 301-320.

Li, Ting. 2012. “Comparison of American and Chinese College Students’ Perception of Instructor Authority.” Journal of International Students 2(1): 116-122.

Liu, Xiaojing, Shijuan Liu, Seung-hee Lee, and Richard J. Magjuka. 2010. “Cultural Differences in Online Learning: International Student Perceptions.” Educational Technology and Society 13(3): 177-188.

Molinsky, Andy. 2012. “Rebooting Business Education with Cross-Cultural Training.” Chronicle of Higher Education (June 21).

Murphy, Edward F., John Gordon and Thomas L. Anderson. 2004. “Cross-Cultural, Cross-Cultural Age and Cross-Cultural Generational Differences in Values between the United States and Japan.” Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship 9(1): 21-48.

Roberson, Loriann, Carol Kulik, and Molly B. Pepper. 2002. “Assessing Instructor Cultural Competence in the Classroom: An Instrument and a Development Process.” Journal of Management Education 26(1): 40-55.

Schmidt, Peter. 2009. “2 Studies Suggest Just How Different International Faculty Members Are.” Chronicle of Higher Education (April 20).

Shu-hui, Su. 2006. “Cultural Differences in Determining the Ethical Perception and Decision-making of Future Accounting Professionals: A Comparison between Accounting Students from Taiwan and the U.S.” Journal of American Academy of Business 9(1): 147-158.

Signorini, Paola, Rolf Weisemes and Roger Murphy. 2009. “Developing Alternate Frameworks for Exploring Intercultural Learning: A Critique of Hofstede’s Cultural Difference Model.” Teaching in Higher Education 14(3): 253-264.

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Spring 2015: The Global Imperative for Higher Education