Reading for higher-order learning: A matter of new habits

Critical thinking skills have become highly prized across the world in the last years, with much written about how to acquire them. At many universities, particularly in the West, they are regarded as being among the most important skills that students can acquire.

This can conflict with pedagogical traditions in other parts of the world, where different learning methods and assessment practices are prioritised. Asian students account for the highest number of international students at Western universities.

Well known for being studious and for their high level of engagement with academic texts, they may, however, find it difficult to adapt to different styles of teaching and approaches to learning.

Nevertheless, there have also been studies which argue that the depiction of Asian students as rote learners is an unhelpful stereotype. That can make it difficult to discuss the challenges students face in adapting to different styles of teaching.

Common issues at Western universities

A common problem faced by Asian students at Western universities is a sense of being overwhelmed by a heavy reading load. Western universities tend to require students to do a large amount of reading, including textbooks, commentary pieces and journal articles – a practice that contrasts with traditional Asian education, which focuses on just a few dense sources of information, such as scholarly articles and textbooks.

At Western institutions, students are expected to independently synthesise information from a wide range of sources, including textual and non-textual sources, to obtain a higher quality of knowledge.

Students, especially first-year and international students, often struggle to manage these multiple information sources in a language that is not their mother tongue. Even when they read all the sources required, they may struggle to read it in a way that demonstrates a high mastery of the material.

Moreover, understanding information is not enough when it comes to higher education. Students must demonstrate how to apply their knowledge to their work by skilfully connecting what they read with their prior knowledge, experiences and disciplinary expertise.

In Western learning environments, Asian students can find it difficult to make connections between the new information they are learning due to differences in cultural values and perspectives. They may also find it difficult to adjust their learning strategies to meet the different educational methods of Western institutions compared to Eastern norms.

So what can students who wish to study at Western institutions do? While much of the problem is linked to teaching at schools, institutions will likely see slow change to meet cross-cultural learner needs. It is impractical for individuals to await this change and there are ways they can bridge the discrepancies through changing their own practice.

Different levels of learning

A popular categorisation of levels of learning is Bloom's revised taxonomy where knowledge mastery is described in six stages. These stages are commonly grouped into two main divisions: lower-order and higher-order thinking.

Lower-order learning involves memorising and rote-learning facts, which serve as the foundation for higher levels of knowledge. Common strategies are highlighting, writing summary notes, repetition and the ‘cover, copy, check’ method.

This form of learning allows students to cover content quickly but superficially. It emphasises the isolation of ideas and is ultimately more time-consuming due to the need for significant repetition. Asian students are often more familiar with these learning practices due to the way they have been taught at school.

Although these strategies can be effective in some settings, they may not be as useful at Western universities that often focus on assessing students’ higher-order learning. Therefore, fostering Asian students’ higher-order reading skills is beneficial.

Those skills involve connecting information to its purpose and evaluating its relationship with other sources of information. This is more efficient as it is less repetitive and because learning has a snowball effect whereby it is easier to learn about a topic when there is more prior knowledge about it.

Growing research suggests that higher-order thinking helps to build knowledge more efficiently and engage with learning material more deeply than lower-order thinking. In contrast, learners with lower-order thinking do not become more efficient over time as they struggle to build schemas that accelerate their future learning.

While institutions evolve to bridge these cross-cultural disparities, system-level changes are likely to take many years. Therefore, it is prudent for individuals to modify their own learning practice to meet their immediate needs.

To engage in higher-order learning, learners should:

• Compare ideas from various information sources against each other and find relationships between them;

• Consider the purpose of information and how it can be applied;

• Create explicit networks of information rather than simply understanding isolated concepts.

Creating a checklist and self-assessing each point during a study session can help to build metacognition and develop new habits.


While beneficial, higher-order thinking requires learners to invest more cognitive resources and exert greater mental effort.

Students across the world often do not engage in higher-order thinking as they misinterpret this effort and consider it ineffective. Asian students can be additionally conflicted as this way of learning differs from Eastern learning norms.

Moreover, learners often misunderstand higher-order thinking as being separate from lower-order thinking. However, higher-order strategies allow for both higher-order and lower-order learning.

For example, we cannot compare two concepts with each other (higher-order thinking) without a basic understanding of the definitions (lower-order knowledge). Higher-order thinking gives information purpose, context and relevance. Therefore, studying using higher-order strategies allows us to not only attain lower-order learning as part of the process but helps the information to be more easily retained and retrieved as it is not perceived in isolation.

By contrast, studying using lower-order strategies does not lead to higher-order learning.

It is clear therefore that differences between Eastern learning and teaching norms and Western expectations and assessments can cause students difficulty in dealing with the kind of reading expected at Western institutions.

Incorporating more higher-order learning strategies into their daily practice would help Asian students better manage their reading load, enhance their critical reading skills and improve their overall efficiency.

Justin Sung is head of learning at cognitive-generic skills training programme iCanStudy.