How do they do it? Study groups seen as key to Asian students’ academic success

July 2, 2017

Experts, and many of the Asian students themselves, say studying together is what makes the difference
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Friday, May 10, 2002

When 4-H extension agent Jasmine Chai works with Asian high school students, they often tell her they need more information about college.

“Asian-Americans are very strong on education,” Chai said. “They really want their kids to honor their families by having advancement in education.”

Chai organized Asian American College Day, a symposium for junior and senior high school students Saturday at the Tarrant County College Southeast Campus in Arlington from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. She said the event reflects Asians’ high value for education and their drive to succeed academically.

Experts differ as to why many Asians do so well in school, and some researchers caution against the stereotype that the quiet Asian at the front of the class is a whiz kid who effortlessly masters calculus.

Researchers have uncovered study techniques among some Asian students that anyone can emulate.

“It’s not Asians who are good at math, it’s Asians who organize themselves to learn math who are good at math,” said Uri Treisman, director of the Charles A. Dana Center, an education think tank at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is not something about the group. It’s about how they go about studying and the commitment they make to education as a root to upward mobility.”

When Treisman was a math professor at the University of California at Berkeley about 20 years ago, he noticed that many Asian students were excelling in his calculus class while other students were failing.

He exhaustively studied the phenomenon and found that many Asian students were studying in groups. He organized other students into study groups, and their scores increased dramatically.

Tanes Chalermvongsavej, a 25-year-old who traveled from Thailand to get his master’s in business administration at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he often participates in study groups with other Asians. But he said the study group is more a sign of their struggles than their smarts.

He said he and other Asian students tend to “flock together” to cut through the language barrier and difficult material in classes. “If we take two or three notes and compare, it makes them better, like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said.

Asians make up 6.2 percent of college students, according to the American Council on Education’s most recent figures from 1998. The 2000 Census shows that Asians are 3.6 percent of the population. Huabin Chen, a professor of science teaching methods at Saint Martin College in Lacey, Wash., believes more than study groups account for this success.

“I believe there’s a cultural difference,” said Chen, who studied academic performance among five Asian groups. “They value education more than American parents from my research, especially for science.”

Recent bestseller lists in China attests to Asians’ great interest in higher education. Last month, The New York Times reported that Harvard Girl Lui Yiting, a book about how parents can get their daughters into Harvard, was a bestseller in China for 16 months. It sold more than a million copies and spurred 15 similar books giving tips on how to get one’s children into other Ivy League schools.

“College education is highly valued by the general Asian-American population. Chinese, in particular, are very motivated in terms of encouraging their kids not only in getting their undergraduate degree, but in getting their master’s degree,” Chai said.

Vicki Nguyen, a 22-year-old senior at UT-Arlington, said she felt deeply obligated to do well in school to please her parents, who sacrificed so much by immigrating here from Vietnam. Her parents, in turn, demanded high standards.

“Anything below an A-minus was considered really, really bad, and we were reprimanded for that,” said Nguyen, who will volunteer at the Asian American College Day on Saturday. “They would treat you more like an employee than a child sometimes.”

Anthony Antonio, a Stanford University education professor, said this is the type of pressure that makes the Asian whiz kid stereotype dangerous.

Antonio said mental health professionals who work with Asian students know the high expectations put them under tremendous stress and sometimes cut them off from help they need.

Antonio said many Asians in the United States are the children of upwardly mobile immigrants who are more likely to be able to send their kids to college as opposed to immigrants who are poorer.

“It’s an overblown stereotype,” Antonio said. “We do have to be careful about characterizing the entire Asian-American population that way.”