The first theory is cultural-cultural gap theory: There are cultural differences between students from different countries, including the way they speak, learn, read, write, understand, and interact with the world around them. Students who come from cultures where communication is often through verbal and/or visual means struggle a great deal more than students from Western societies in the United States. The second theory is the expectation theory: College instructors and schools make expectations of students very high. A common expectation is that students should be able to pass an exam with little effort, that they can read the same textbook over again, that they can know what is going on in the classroom, what is expected of them, and what will happen if they don’t do well on a test or homework assignment. But this expectation often results in very low academic success.
The third theory is the cultural difference theory: Different cultures have different norms and customs regarding the educational system. In one study, college students were asked to rate their own performance based on their performance in class. The students rated themselves based on how well they understood the material, how well they could communicate to others, how well they could express their ideas and opinions, how well they could write, how well they could follow directions, how well they did well in tests, etc. Most students found that their scores were largely unrelated to these aspects of their performance.
The study suggests that the performance expectations for college and university students are not based on a careful evaluation of their skills. Rather, students are judged on the basis of their cultural group membership. This means that the expectations for those students who belong to the “underclassmen,” which are the students who don’t attend university, are completely different from those who belong to the “underclass,” who usually do.
The cultural difference theory makes some sense. For many students, learning isn’t about knowing and understanding but about having the right amount of it. rather than having it all. And when there’s no such thing as the right amount, it’s hard for them to know whether they’re doing well or not.
What about the expectations theory of cultural disparity? This theory says that because cultures differ so much, students’ expectations for being able to succeed in school may differ too. The implication here is that people of one group would do far worse than people of another in college than they would expect to.
This theory is useful, but it has some problems. First, it’s not very well established. Second, the implications are too broad to be useful, since it assumes that all cultural differences are caused by what’s called “stereotypical thinking.”
For instance, people of a certain culture may have a higher expectation of their college exam success than people of another culture, even if they are in the same economic and social position and background. And even if they do, it doesn’t tell us why. Finally, we have to ask ourselves what it would take for someone from a different cultural background to do better at school than we expect. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because he grew up in a different culture and that’s what gave him such a good head start on his college work.