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A surprising “bamboo ceiling” in the classroom

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New research suggests that ethnic East Asians—but not ethnic South Asians—underperform in US business and law schools due to a cultural mismatch in assertiveness

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 12, 2022—In the US, Asians are often viewed as the “model minority” as a result of their outstanding academic achievements. Asians outperform other ethnic groups in many educational settings, from kindergarten to high school to college admissions exams (e.g., the SAT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT), leading many to assume that all Asians are successful at every step of their academic careers.

This common assumption is challenged in new research by, Mitsui Career Development Professor and Assistant Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Richard Nisbett from the University of Michigan, and Michael Morris from Columbia Business School.

The researchers compared academic performance of East Asians (e.g., ethnic Chinese, Japanese) and South Asians (e.g., ethnic Indians, Pakistanis) with other ethnic groups in US business and law schools—important gateways to societal influence. Across six large studies, the researchers consistently found a “bamboo ceiling” in academic performance: Despite performing well on admission tests (i.e., LSAT, GMAT, GRE), East Asians had lower GPAs than both South Asians and whites, even after accounting for factors such as English proficiency and academic motivation. By contrast, South Asians and whites performed equally well.

What explains this underperformance? The researchers found that East Asians’ low verbal assertiveness plays a key role. “East Asian students may experience a bamboo ceiling in GPA because their low verbal assertiveness is culturally incongruent with the assertive class participation prized by US business and law schools,” says Lu.

Influenced by cultural norms of humility, harmony, and hierarchy, East Asian students were the least assertive among all ethnic groups across the studies. This low assertiveness disadvantages them in the Socratic classroom of US business and law schools, where verbal assertiveness and class participation are vital. Moreover, the researchers found that East Asians’ underperformance was more pronounced in social courses emphasizing class participation (e.g., leadership, strategy) than in quantitative courses (e.g., accounting, finance).

So how can educators ameliorate East Asian students’ underperformance in the Socratic classroom? The researchers found that East Asians’ underperformance was mitigated in online classes via Zoom, a communication medium characterized by lower social presence than in-person classes. Online classrooms allow students more time to formulate and organize their thoughts before speaking up. There are also fewer cues that trigger East Asians’ cultural norms of “saving face,” yielding to classmates, and deferring to the professor.

However, the researchers emphasize that online classrooms are not a panacea. Instead, they recommend that educators explore other pedagogical practices to help unassertive students. For example, instead of “cold calling,” instructors could consider “warm calling” by posing questions in advance so unassertive students will have more time to prepare. Instructors could also provide additional channels of class participation (e.g., an online forum where students post comments after class).

“As business and law schools become more diverse, educators should re-examine culturally bound practices of teaching and adapt their pedagogies to create an inclusive classroom, where students from diverse cultural backgrounds can thrive,” says Lu

About the MIT Sloan School of Management

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