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Personal Background Knowledge Influences Cross-Cultural Understanding

by Xiaodong Lin & John D. Bransford - 2010

Purpose of the Study: The purpose of the study was to investigate how two types of videos, personal background knowledge (PBK) and general background knowledge (GBK), affect people’s interpretation of a classroom problem case that involved a disconnection between a foreign college professor and her students. The PBK video described the professor’s personal experiences and upbringing within her culture that impacted her views about the importance of learning. The GBK video included only general information about important political and social events in, and the language and customs of, the professor’s culture. Both prior to and after seeing the PBK or GBK video, we measured participants’ reactions to the problem case. PBK had a much stronger impact on changes in reactions than GBK.

Background/Context: Prior research suggests that background information may unfreeze stereotypes and result in more empathy between people. It is unclear whether these effects are due to access to general kinds of knowledge about an individual (GBK) or whether they depend on specific kinds of relevant personal knowledge (PBK). We investigated the role of different kinds of knowledge in changing people’s negative views about the teacher in the case.

Participants: The participants were 43 undergraduate students (25 females and 18 males) enrolled in a general psychology course at a top-5 school of education (according to US News rankings) located near the middle of the United States. Ninety percent of the participants were Caucasian and enrolled in different majors in the school of education.

Research Design: We used a within- and between-subjects design. The participants first saw and responded to the case of the problematic professor (baseline condition). Participants were then assigned randomly to either the PBK or GBK video conditions. After watching, they answered questions about the case once again.

Results: The PBK video story had strong emotional and cognitive effects on changes in students’ understanding of Professor X’s case and in their strategies for resolving the problem. The GBK tended to make negative stereotypes and opinions worse. This latter outcome was unexpected given the frequent reliance on general cultural knowledge to make people more empathetic and understanding. We suggest that increased attention to personal background knowledge in instruction may have important implications for additional ways to help students learn.


The How People Learn (HPL) framework, discussed in numerous reports from the National Academy of Sciences (Bransford & Donovan, 2005; National Research Council [NRC], 2000), describes a useful set of lenses that can help clarify constellations of interconnected variables that may affect learning and teaching. The knowledge-centered lens focuses on the “big ideas” of the disciplines that should be the target of instruction. The learner-centered lens highlights the knowledge, skills, interests, and funds of knowledge that students bring to the study of the subject matter. The assessment-centered lens emphasizes the need to make student thinking visible so that misconceptions can be unearthed and feedback can be used to improve performance. The community-centered lens highlights the importance of the classroom community, including the degree to which a classroom climate exists in which students feel supported by teachers and colleagues, creating a safe space to ask questions and take risks. A variety of specific studies that explore these lenses are discussed in NRC, and Donovan and Bransford.

The primary focus of this study is the community-centered aspects of learning environments. The importance of fostering strong, positive connections between teachers and students and the impact that this can have on academic achievement is nicely illustrated by the story described in the book, Escalante: The Best Teacher in America (Mathews, 1989; also see Jay Mathews, education columnist, washingtonpost.com). Jaime Escalante, who taught in the inner city, was able to connect with his Hispanic students in a way that was instrumental in getting them to take demanding courses and do well on the National AP calculus examination. Stories like this are supported by the recent studies of three ethnically diverse middle schools in New York City (Lin, Siegler, & Sullivan, in press). These studies also suggest that classrooms in which teachers and students have shared learning goals and expectations produce more students who are interested in learning the subject matter (science and mathematics). In addition, these students tend to perform better in the subjects in which a positive teacher–student connection has been fostered (Lin & Schwartz, 2003; Lin, Schwartz, & Hatano, 2005). Therefore, positive and caring teacher–student relationships are vital for productive instruction and learning to occur (Bateman, Bransford, Goldman, & Newbrough, 2000; Dewey, 1963; Muller, Katz, & Dance, 1999).

Although building and maintaining positive teacher–student relationships has important implications, many instructors find it difficult to establish and maintain such relationships, especially with the increasing cultural diversity of both teachers and students in our global society (Fine, 1986; Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1999; Muller et al., 1999; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999). Several researchers suggest that the challenge does not stem from an unwillingness on the part of the teachers and students to form productive and understanding relationships with one another (e.g., Delpit, 1995; Muller et al.; Noguera, 1995). Arguably, most teachers care about their students and want to facilitate their learning success. Still, this often proves difficult. It appears that one of the key factors that challenges the formation of productive teacher–student relationships is teachers’ and students’ lack of familiarity with the cultural backgrounds, personal experiences, and lives outside of school of the other (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; King, 1995; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992; Noguera). This distance and unfamiliarity have been related to negative relationships between teachers and students (Brophy & Good, 1970; Ladson-Billings, 1999; Lee, Spencer, & Harpalani, 2003).

Unfortunately, a number of mechanisms operate to sustain and even increase the negative nature of relationships between students and teachers. For example, studies of confirmation bias (e.g. Wason, 1960; Wason & Johnson-Laird, 1968) suggest that students who come to view their teachers negatively have a tendency to attend to the less desirable aspects of the teacher’s instructional style, which may increase and magnify the negativity of the situation. Similarly, studies of selective attention (e.g. Dayan, Kakade, & Montague, 2000) suggest that increased attention to perceived negative aspects of one’s learning experiences may decrease the probability of noticing positive features of the class.

The study discussed here evolved from a real-life case of a professor whose students had developed increasingly negative attitudes toward her, in part as a result of cultural differences, from the onset of the course. The students did not appear to have negative attitudes toward the teacher and her cultural background when the course began, but the negative attitudes seemed to surface quickly and had strong cultural overtones that included characterizations by students as “being stuck” with a professor with an accent who assigned too much work. Over the course of the semester, the sense of discord and disconnect with the class worsened, and the professor sought out ways to start afresh and reverse the perceived downward spiral of negativity. Several different strategies were considered for turning the tide.

1. The teacher could directly discuss the problem with her class. This kind of approach can undoubtedly be successful in some settings, but the instructor was so worried at this point that she did not have the confidence necessary for this approach to succeed.

2. An ombudsman could meet with the class without the teacher present and try to resolve the problem. However, this approach has the potential to send a strong signal to the class that the teacher needs outside help, which could easily feed into the students’ already negative views.

3. A third approach, the one we eventually tried with the professor, emerged from a number of discussions about her experiences in her own country and how these experiences shaped her views about what it means to be a good teacher. Our discussions resulted in a multimedia background video that depicted personal information about the professor’s life prior to coming to the United States.  It included pictures of her as a young child with her siblings and parents, and it also showed the challenges the family faced during the Cultural Revolution. During this time, she and her family were sent to live in a cave along the Yellow River and had to learn to fend for themselves. Books and other sources of information were a rarity, and the desire to learn was important for their survival.

The approach that we adopted for developing the multimedia background video was influenced by studies suggesting that the exchange of personal information between members of diverse cultures could be a means to bridge their differences (Lin & Schwartz, 2003).  For example, studies suggest that opportunities to exchange personal information result in an increase of perceived similarity and a greater desire to interact with members of other cultures (Lee & Gudykunst, 2001; Pickett & Brewer, 2001). When members of diverse cultures were presented with personal information and participated in exchanges such as these, the negative judgments they had formed about other cultures were ameliorated (Hewstone & Hamberger, 2000; Ryan, Bogart, & Vender, 2000).

We also examined the research on stereotyping, which suggests that access to information about individual members of a particular cultural group may disconfirm the held stereotypes. This may result in a more positive regard for a group, provided that such information is used to revise the preconceived representations (Bless, Schwartz, Bodenhausen, & Thiel, 2001; Hewstone, 1994; Hewstone & Hamberger, 2000; Kunda & Oleson, 1995). Awareness of personal information has also been shown to decrease people’s tendencies to perceive all group members as the same and to increase perceived group variability and diversity (Bless et al.; Pickett & Brewer, 2001).

Researchers have also suggested that teaching and learning are affected by the type of personal information exchanged between teachers and students (Barry et al., 1999; Davis, Schutz, & Chambless, 2001; Rennels & Chaudhari, 1988). For instance, exchanges of personal information can decrease negative attitudes between teachers and students (Davidson, 1999; Lortie, 1975; Wentzel & Wigfield, 1998).  In a study by Davis (2001), students reported that the sharing of personal stories with their teachers was a factor that contributed to their ability to connect with one another. Barry et al. (2000) reported findings in which students’ self-confidence was more likely to be found in classrooms perceived by students as high in personalization (i.e., where teachers and students understand one another on a personal level). The formation of personal relationships between teachers and students increases academic achievement and student interest in school (Midgley, Feldlauger, & Ecceles, 1989; Roeser, Midgley, & Urdan, 1996; Wentzel & Wigfield).  

The exchange of personal information often evokes empathy (Batson, 1995; Schlenker & Britt, 2001). Empathetic people are usually found to be more willing to “take the perspective of others and vicariously experience their situation” (Schlenker & Britt, p. 368). When people are highly empathetic, they tend to focus on the interests of others, they exhibit more concern for the well-being of others, and they are more responsive to the needs of others (Batson; Schlenker & Britt). Overall, empathetic people are more likely to relate positively to members of groups unlike their own (Schlenker & Britt).

To summarize, a number of studies suggest that developing and maintaining a productive teacher–student relationship supports positive affective and academic outcomes. Nevertheless, such relationships are often difficult to achieve, and these barriers become even more difficult to surmount once a negative tone has been set between students and their teacher. One challenge, which is the focus of the present study, involves the questions of whether personal background knowledge about teachers can help change students’ negative impressions, and, if so, how and what kinds of knowledge presented effect this change.

Another goal of the present study was to find ways to study background knowledge effects in ways that allow stronger evidence about causality. The studies reviewed in the preceding paragraphs are strictly qualitative in nature, using methods of correlation and observation, not experimentation. These types of studies are valuable and important in the field, but experimental contrasts can provide detailed information about phenomena that differ from the information produced by studies like the ones mentioned. In the studies summarized in the preceding paragraphs, specific details regarding how the positive effects were produced are unclear. For example, we questioned whether the positive effects were a result of exposure to any type of knowledge about an individual (e.g., broad cultural knowledge), or whether there were particular kinds of personal knowledge, such as information relevant to the classroom (e.g., teacher training, schooling, educational philosophy), that produced these positive outcomes.  It also became clear to us that most of the research regarding teacher–student relationships is teacher centered and investigates how access to personal student information affects a teacher’s perceptions of, and attitudes toward, his or her students. As a result of the focus on teachers, we know little about how students’ perceptions of, and attitudes toward, their teachers are affected by access to their teachers’ personal information. An underlying assumption of the present study is that bridging cultural gaps is the joint responsibility of all participants (Lin, Schwartz, & Bransford, 2007), and helping students take on a global perspective is an important goal to achieve.



Participants were 43 undergraduate students (25 females and 18 males) enrolled in a general psychology course offered by the human development and education program at a “top-5” school of education (according to the US News ranking for the past 10 years or so) located near the central United States. The average cumulative SAT and ACT scores for the college are typically high and, during our study, ranged from 1280 to 1460 and from 28 to 33, respectively. Most of the participants (90%) were Caucasian and enrolled in a variety of major courses of study in the school of education, including special education, elementary education, science education, mathematics education, clinical psychology, and cognitive studies. Their involvement in the study was voluntary. The researchers were not the course instructors of the students who participated in this experimental design.

The study combined a within- and between-subjects design. Participants from both groups went through identical procedures, the only difference being that each group viewed a different video; the between-S factor was therefore Video I (personal background story) versus Video II (general cultural story). The within-S factor was reactions to the problem case both prior to and after seeing one of the videos. In the baseline condition, students heard, read, and responded to the problem case without having access to any videos. They were then randomly assigned to one of two different video conditions. As mentioned, the procedure was otherwise identical for all participants (i.e., saw the case and responded to it; saw one of the two videos; saw the case and responded to it again). At the end of the project, participants watched the video that they had not viewed during the course of the study (i.e., general cultural information group watched the personal story video and vise versa) to ensure that everyone involved received equal learning opportunities.


The problem case. All participants watched the multimedia problem case described next.

A College Professor’s Dilemma (The Problem Case)

Professor X is a college professor. She is having a difficult time connecting with her students. She feels that they are not as serious about their studies as they should be—they don’t appreciate the opportunity they have for learning. She does not understand why the students complain about her class rather than thank her for providing access to knowledge they need to have.

Students’ evaluations of X indicate problems they have with her as a professor. For example, they don’t understand why she puts so much emphasis on their need to attend class. She even takes roll. Second, they think she assigns way too many readings and projects. She expects all the projects to be high quality as well. She can’t understand why they don’t want to come to class and don’t want to get their hands on everything that is relevant to the topic they are studying. She can’t understand why her students put more emphasis on parties, clubs, sports, and other non-school-related activities; schoolwork should come first.

Students complain when X gives them detailed critical feedback about their work, like on their essays and class presentations. The students feel she is much “too harsh” and too critical in her feedback. She feels that she owes it to them to be as critical as possible so they can improve—otherwise she isn’t doing her job and isn’t preparing them for life.

Students also feel that the professor overemphasizes the idea that the classroom should be like a “family” where everyone helps everyone else—including giving one another critical feedback. Despite feeling that the feedback is too harsh, students want to see feedback from the professor, not from the other students in the class.

The two background videos. Each of the background videos was approximately 10 minutes in length. The general background knowledge (GBK) video provided general cultural information about the history, language, customs, and political events of the professor’s home country. The general nature of the information contained in this video was similar to the style of information used in cross-cultural training efforts to bridge cultural gaps (Arasaratnam & Doerfel, 2005; Hedegaard, 2003).

The personal background knowledge (PBK) video was a biographical story of the professor. It emphasized her upbringing and included elements of her daily life. It explained her key beliefs and values about learning, including her personal experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution and how those related to the larger cultural context. This revolution influenced the development of her sense of self and her instincts for survival.1 The emphasis on personal experiences within a broader cultural context aligns with initiatives that are currently promoting multicultural understanding in schools, such as Moll’s “funds of knowledge” (see Gonzalez et al., 2005; Moll et al., 1992) and Trumbull’s Bridging Cultures program (Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch, Greenfield, & Quiroz, 2001).

Assessment items. Students’ reactions to the case about the teacher were measured prior to, and after, seeing either the GBK video or the PBK video. We gathered these reactions by asking for brief written requests to (1) explain the causes of the problem, (2) describe their predictions of the professor’s personality, (3) generate solutions to the problem, and (4) indicate their desire (if any) to learn more about the problem situation, the professor, and her cultural background. After they saw either the GBK or PBK, we asked students to rate the degree of change in their thinking about the case, and we looked at changes in their answers to the noted questions (e.g., about perceived causes of the problem, and so on). At the completion of the project, all participants were asked to reflect on the experiences they had with the research project—for example, whether they learned anything about themselves.

Students had approximately 5 minutes to rate the degree of their perceived changes in understanding since last seeing the case, and approximately 15–20 minutes to answer the set of written questions that appeared after both presentations of the case. All participants were able to complete all the questions within this amount of time.


Our data analyses centered on the following research questions: (1) How did the participants react to the problem situation initially? (e.g., nature of the problem[s], possible cause[s]  of the problem[s] , prediction of the professor’s personality, possible solutions to resolve the problems, and their desire to learn more about the problem situation, the professor and her cultural background, and so on) (2) How did their understanding of, and reactions to, the problem change after they watched either the PBK video or the GCK video? (3) How did the participants reflect on the research experience?

The study used a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to explore the effects of the two different video conditions (the PBK video and the GCK video) on changes in students’ thinking about the problem case. A simple quantitative measure asked students to rate the degree to which their initial assumptions about the professor and the problem in the case changed after seeing the video.


As noted, after seeing either the GBK video or PBK video, participants were asked to rate the degree of change in their responses, ranging from 1 (no change) to 2 (very little change) to 3 (moderate change) to 4 (quite a lot of change) to 5 (a great deal of change). As Table 1 presents, the PBK group reported an average change at a 4.2 level (with a rating of 4 indicating quite a lot of change).  In contrast, the degree of rated change for participants in the GBK video group was 2.5 (with a rating of 2 indicating very little change). We performed a t test for mean differences between two independent groups and found a significant mean difference, t(41) = 3.351, p < .001. We then calculated the Cohen’s d to measure effect size (ES).  The d = 1.592, which is a large effect size. The Power = .999, which indicates that 99.9 times of 100, one will find an effect if there is indeed an effect.

Table 1. Average Levels of Change in Understanding of the Problem Situation Reported by the Two Groups After They Watched the Video





Personal background video




General background video




Note: Maximum possible score of 5 points.


Open-ended questions (qualitative data) were used in the study. These were coded, organized according to key topics that emerged (e.g., degree of consideration about the professor’s culture when first viewing the case), and used in a chi-square analysis to show the distribution of response changes prompted by the two different videos. In our discussion of findings, we provide examples of the kinds of remarks written by students in the two conditions. The remarks all showed increased empathy with the professor after watching the PBK video, and those in this latter condition also showed much more of a desire to know more about this teacher (which mirrors what happened in the real-life example that sparked this study).

Coding schemes were developed for each of the open-ended questions. Most of the participants wrote their responses in short sentences or paragraphs that can be distinguished as specific types of ideas. We therefore analyzed the responses into idea units (Chi, 1997). For example, if an individual generated responses that were predominantly about the professor’s personality, we counted them as one personality-related statement. If the responses were predominantly about the professor’s cultural background, we counted them as one culture- related statement.

Two raters coded the entire set of the responses and were blind with respect to conditions (personal video or general video). The coding occurred at two different levels: (1) preliminary coding on the content of the entire data set, and (2) more detailed coding using the categories established from the preliminary coding. The preliminary coding formed the basis for the detailed coding of the entire data set and provided objective procedures that could be used to describe the responses in a more quantitative manner (e.g., numbers of responses for each of the categories, and so on; Chi, 1997). Deriving coding categories from the data rather than using a predetermined coding scheme also increases reliability of the coding (Lin, 2001; Montgomery & Crittenden, 1977; Stigler & Hiebert, 1999).

The coders reached a 91% agreement on the preliminary coding. The differences were resolved upon further discussions between the two coders. A chi-square analysis was used to determine the differences between the two conditions in the kinds of responses that were generated for each question at the completion of the baseline and treatment conditions (the details of the results for each response are reported in the next section).

Short-answer questions asked participants to comment on their thoughts about the nature of the problem(s) suggested by the case, including (1) possible cause(s) of the problem(s), (2) assessments of the professor’s personality, (3) possible solutions to resolve the problems, and (4) their desire to learn more about the problem situation, the professor, and her cultural background. These answers were generated both prior to and following the viewing of a video. The findings are discussed next.

Effects of the Videos on Perceived Causes of the Problem

After each viewing of the case, all participants responded to the question, “What may have been the causes of the problem, and why did you think the professor acts as she does?” Three categories of responses emerged from the preliminary coding of the entire data set: (1) the professor’s personality as the cause of the problem (e.g., the problems were caused by the professor’s personality traits, including her values, beliefs, expectations, and teaching style); (2) the mismatch between the students’ and the professor’s cultural backgrounds as the cause of the problem (e.g., the problems were a result of the mismatch between Professor X’s cultural background and those of her students); and (3) a combination of both personality and cultural mismatch. Table 2 presents the coding scheme for each category and provides examples. The agreement between the two independent raters for this question was 89%. Disagreements were resolved by consensus.

Table 2. Coding Scheme for the Question, “What may have been the causes of the problem, and why did you think the professor acts as she does?”


Definition With Examples


Comments related to personality traits, beliefs, and so on.

“She acts this way because she values education. As for the family

orientation in class, she does this because she believes this is the best

way for her students to grow.”

“This professor is a perfectionist! She wants assignments done on time and she sets unrealistic standards. She is very close-minded and does not open up to her students. It is either her way or the high way.”

Cultural Mismatch

Comments related to the mismatch between Professor X’s cultural backgrounds and those of her students.

“Chinese culture values education more than American culture. . . .  She ants her students to do the same.”

“The problem occurred because Professor X is a typical product of her culture. China is a very rigid and strict country.”

“Most Chinese are hard-working and value education, but are boring and strict and have little social life. . . these cultural differences led to the problem in Professor X’s class.”

Both Personality and Cultural Mismatch

Comments related to both personality and cultural mismatch.

 “My understanding of the problem has changed because I now know that the professor has gone through a rough childhood in her culture. She is a compassionate woman who wants her students to learn.”

“She is very competitive because she was shaped by her culture. She is confused because she cannot accept ideas that are not the same as her cultural ideas.”

Initial responses to causes of the problem. When they first saw the case (prior to any background video), most of the participants’ responses (95%) fell into the first category (i.e., personality problems that were caused by the professor’s personality traits, including her values, beliefs, expectations, and teaching styles). There were no preexisting group differences. Exemplary responses included these:

“The problem is a result of her personality. She is genuinely interested in her subject matter and makes sure that the students can get most out of it. She is way too serious about her teaching.”

“She has very high expectations, and does not tolerate students who do not work.”

“I think that the professor is forgetting that her students also have lives outside of their academics. The professor does not seem to communicate well with her students.”

Responses after watching either the personal background video or the general background video. After viewing their assigned video, the number of people who attributed the problem solely to Professor X’s personality decreased greatly in both groups. As Table 3 shows, compared with the baseline condition, the groups generated very different kinds of responses to the causes of the problem. The PBK video group generated more responses that combined personal experiences and cultural mismatch as the cause of the problem. A total of 77% of the participants from the PBK group stated that the problem had to do not only with Professor X’s personality but also with students’ lack of understanding of the different cultural environment in which the teacher was raised. The GBK group did not generate any responses that discussed both personality and the differing cultural backgrounds. Instead, 90% of the participants from the GBK group generated statements that solely regarded the cultural mismatch between the students and the professor.

Table 3. A Comparison of the Percentage of People Who Generated Different Causes of the Problem Between the Baseline Condition and After They Watched Video


By Condition


Baseline (%)

Intervention (%)

Personal background story video





     Cultural mismatch



     Both (personal/cultural)






General background video





     Cultural mismatch



     Both (personal/cultural)






Following are typical statements that combined personality and cultural mismatch:

“The professor realizes what life can be like without education because of the personal experience in her culture. She is a responsible professor, values education, and wants to provide her students with a good education.”

 “Professor X was raised in a country that requires/expects much more respect for learning and educational opportunities. Education did not come to her easily. As a result, she wants her students to learn more and she works very hard. She is a warmhearted person.”  

Participants who made inferences about Professor’s X’s cultural background and the mismatch between her background and their own said such things as:

“The problem had to do with her cultural background. Her behaviors were consistent with her societal expectations and values.”

“Professor X was raised in a completely different culture. Her culture requires

her to respect those in authority. She wants her students to respect her. This caused the problem.”

Effects of Videos on the Participants’ Predictions of Professor X’s Personality

The responses to the question, “How would you describe this professor’s personality?” were coded as positive, negative, or mixed. Table 4 presents examples of the coding scheme for each category. The agreement between the two raters for this question was 95%.

Table 4. Coding Scheme for the Question, “How would you describe this professor’s personality?”




“She is a caring, warmhearted, and accomplished professor.”

“The professor is dedicated to her students. She is enthusiastic about her work.”

“Hardworking, interested in others, wise about life and other cultures.”

“She is very much influenced by her past experiences—she wants her students to learn as much as they can.”


“She is stern, demanding, strict, authoritative, kind of coldhearted.”

“She is narrow-minded with low self-esteem. She needs power over the students to give herself more self worth.”

“She is very unwilling to compromise and unable to see other people’s perspectives. She is very one-sided in her thinking.”

“She is a typical product of Chinese culture, rigid, critical, boring, respects authority and power. She is confused because she cannot see that she is unyielding with her cultural values.”


“Caring, concerned, hardworking, but also a bit too authoritative and may even be intimidated by her bright students.”

“Like most Chinese, she is hardworking and values education, but is boring and strict and has little social life.”

“Her culture is fascinating, but people tend to be closeminded.”

“She is stern and ambitious, but caring, knowledgeable, and open.”

In their initial viewing of the case, the majority of the participants in both groups described Professor X negatively (64% in the PBK group and 66% in the GBK group). Chi-square tests indicated no significant differences between the two groups, c2(2) =. 75, P = .68.

Changes in assumptions about Professor X’s personality. After viewing the personal background story video, the number of people who had assigned positive personality traits to Professor X increased significantly (14% initially to 77% after hearing the personal story). In contrast, in the GBK group, there was an increase in negative statements about Professor X’s personality (from 62% to 84%). The percentage of statements that were positive was 14% for the baseline condition and 10% after watching the general background video.  The difference between the two groups for positive statements about the professor’s personality was significant, c2(2) =19.9, P < .01.

Positive statements included the following:

“She is a compassionate professor who has gone through a lot in her life. She works very hard because education did not come to her easily when she grew up. She just wants her students to learn more.”  

“She is a strong and very grateful individual who appreciates what she has.”

Negative statements included:

“She honestly does not understand the American culture and value.”

“She is harsh, strict, and she is completely cultivated by her competitive culture.”

“She is a typical product of her culture—authoritative, rigid and tough.”

Effects of Videos on the Solution Generated for Solving the Problem

All participants responded to the question, “What would you advise the professor and her class to do in order to resolve the problem?” Their responses were coded as (1) one-party effort in which either the professor or the students should be held responsible for making improvements to the problem situation, and (2) joint effort in which both the professor and her students should work together to resolve the problem.

We also coded specific strategies mentioned in both kinds of solutions. This was relevant because research suggests that considering counterparts’ perspectives and making a joint interactive effort are crucial to successful cross-cultural communication and conflict resolution (Decety & Sommerville, 2003; Wu & Keysar, 2007).

For the one-party effort solutions, we delineated whether the focus was on what the professor should do or what the students should do. For each of the joint effort solutions, we coded for whether a participant suggested the use of general communication strategies (e.g., the professor and the students should talk to each other about their problems), or whether the participant suggested the sharing of personal background knowledge. An explanation and examples of the coding categories for the solutions are shown in Table 5. A frequency analysis of the responses to each of the questions that fell into a particular category was also conducted. The interrater reliability for the detailed coding of the solutions was 91.4%.  

Table 5. Coding Scheme for the Question, “What would you advise the class to do in order to resolve the problem?”


Definition With Examples

One-Party Effort

Either the professor or the students need to improve themselves or take on more responsibilities in resolving the problem


“The students should try to learn all that they can and show her the  effort. For example, they should finish all the homework on time, do more research, and prepare themselves for each class.”

“I would advise the class to pay more attention to schoolwork and do the best they can. They need to grow up!!!”


“She needs to lower her expectations. This is not China. Students have social lives.”

“She really needs to learn the U.S. culture and classroom norms and apply her understanding to her teaching.”

“The professor apparently does not know about American culture.

She should go to football games, music, dancing . . . have some social life and get a clue about America.”

“She should go over students’ papers and projects personally. In addition, the expectations of the course need to be clearly stated at the beginning of the course.”

Joint Effort

Both the professor and the students should work together

Sharing Personal History

“Now I know that the professor was raised in a country that expects much more respect for those in authority, the elderly, and education. They should understand each other’s culture and talk to one another more often.”

 “Try to understand where she comes from—maybe have her talk about her personal background to the class.”

“She should tell them her story and tell them what she expects from them. Students should listen to her explanations.”

General Communication

“I would advise the class to select three students to go to talk to the professor after the class about their complaints.”

“They should communicate, as honestly as possible, about the problems they have with the professor and vice versa, either directly or anonymously. They should also consider her points of view and put themselves in her shoes.”

After hearing the problem for the first time (baseline condition), a majority of the participants from both groups generated one-party solutions that required either the students or the teacher to work on the problem. A total of 64% of such responses were from the PBK group, and 62% were from the GBK video group.

A more detailed level of analysis indicated that during the baseline condition, a greater number of participants suggested that to resolve the problem, Professor X needed to improve herself (the one-party effort solutions; see Table 6). When a joint effort solution was considered, the focus was on the uses of general communication strategies (e.g., talk to each other or meet each other more). After the initial viewing of the case, not one person suggested that the professor and her students should share personal cultural background knowledge with one another. There was no significant difference between the two groups, c2(2) =.030, P = .86.

Table 6. Percentage of People Generating One-Sided or Two-Sided Solutions the Second Time They Heard About the Problem and After They Watched the Video


By Condition


Baseline (%)

Intervention (%)

Personal background story video


     One-party effort









General background video


     One-party effort









Suggestions that Professor X needed to improve included statements such as the following:

“She needs to lower her standards, make her expectations clear, and teach better.”

“The professor needs to change herself. Instead of punishing the students, she should give them choices, and she needs to learn to relate to her students.”

“Professor X needs to improve her teaching and to make it more enjoyable.”

A person who employed “general communication” strategies said, “They should work together on the problem. They should communicate, as honestly as possible, about the problem they have with one another, either directly or anonymously. Also, they should consider each other’s point of views and put themselves in each other’s shoes.”

Changes in suggested solutions. Our analysis showed that that after viewing the assigned video, the number of people who used joint effort solutions had increased greatly in the PBK group (from 41% at baseline condition to 78% after viewing the video). There was no change at all for the GBK group (from 48% at baseline to 48% after viewing the general background video). There was a significant difference between the two groups in suggesting one-party effort or joint effort after viewing the videos, c2(2) =4.04, P = .04.

Specific strategies embedded in each of the solutions. We found that for the one-party effort solutions, a great majority of the participants from the PBK group (18% of the participants out of a total 22% of participants who suggested one-party effort solutions) suggested self-improvement as a way to resolve the problem. In other words, the students needed to take on more responsibilities toward self-improvement. For the GBK group, there was an increase in the number of people who thought that Professor X should take on more responsibilities for improvement (36% of the participants out of a total of 48% of the participants who suggested one-party effort solutions). There was a significant difference between the two groups, c2(2) =7.3, P <. 01.

Suggestions that focused on the professor’s improvement included the following:

“She needs to talk to another Chinese professor who has gone through this transition in order to solve the problem.”

“Professor X needs to learn about U.S. culture, and respect her students.”

When a joint-effort solution was considered, most of the participants from the PBK group suggested that the professor and students share their personal backgrounds as a way to solve the problem (64%). Only 9% of the participants from the GBK video group suggested that the professor and her students share personal cultural stories. The difference between the two groups was significant, c2(2) =10.94, P < .01.

One participant suggested a solution in which both the professor and the students share their personal cultural stories, stating, “The students and the professor should try to understand where they come from—maybe have the professor share her personal cultural stories or have the students tell the professor about their personal stories.” Another student said, “She should tell her students her personal stories from China and tell them why she has certain expectations, but students should also make her understand their stories as well.”

Desire to Learn More About the Professor and Her Culture

For each group, we tallied the number of people who expressed a desire to learn more about the professor and her culture. After initially viewing the case, only 27% of the participants from the PBK group and 29% from the GBK group expressed a desire to learn more about Professor X and her cultural background. Participants who did not want to learn more about the Professor X and her cultural background said things like, “She sounds just like a lot of the professors at this university. They are not my favorites—I do not want to learn more about them!” and “The problem case was very straightforward and gave just enough information. It really did not prompt me to learn more about the professor and her background.”

After viewing the video, there was a significant increase in the number of participants in the PBK group, in comparison with the GBK group, who expressed a desire to learn more about Professor X and her cultural background (55% vs.14%), c2(2) =17.7, P < .01 (see Table 7).

Table 7. Percentage of Participants Who Expressed Desires to Learn More About the Professor’s Background, per Group and by Condition


By Condition


Baseline (%)

Intervention (%)

Personal background story video



General background video



Participants who expressed desires to learn more said:

“Her life sounds fascinating—I really would like to hear more about her story, including how she made it to U.S. and how she is doing right now.”

“I am really interested in learning more about her family and how they are doing right now. How did she feel about these cultural struggles as a child? How did she get into college in her country? Is she really close to her family?”

The GBK video did not inspire much interest in learning more about the professor. Only 14% of participants said that they were interested in knowing more about the professor’s cultural background and personal upbringing.

The Participants’ Reflection About the Research Experience

At the completion of the project, all participants watched the video that they had not seen during the experiment. Afterward, we held a group interview to discuss the lessons learned from participation in the study. Three themes emerged from the interview: (1) the importance of experiencing changes in their own understanding as they progressed through the study, (2) the value of getting to know about a culture at a personal level, and (3) the importance of seeking additional information about new situations rather than jumping to conclusions. Each of these themes is discussed in more detail next.

The importance of experiencing changes in their own understanding. Almost everyone mentioned the importance of experiencing changes in his or her own understanding rather than simply being told about or reading about this kind of experience. The benefits of experiencing such changes ranged from achieving a deeper understanding to having a greater emotional investment. Following are participant comments:

“Yes, I noticed a great change in my own thoughts between my first and last hearing the problem situation and Professor X. Until you can experience it yourself, it is hard to understand a situation on a deeper level.”

“Through experiencing these changes yourself, you are more likely to understand the changes that others go through when going into a new culture. Experiencing change from, what you guys call “baselines?”. . . to the video, gives me so much more insight. I was more engaged emotionally with the problem when I had a better understanding about the people who were involved in the problem situation.”

“Being told not to touch a hot iron and touching a hot iron produce different learning experiences. I felt that learning often occurs when the cognitive and affective are linked. That is what I believe an experience of change will offer you.”

The value of getting to know a culture at a personal level. Almost all the participants wrote that it is important to know someone on a personal level. The benefits range from increased personal respect and understanding to appreciating the limitations of one’s global view. Participants also expressed that knowing someone’s personal history helped them generate more specific and compassionate solutions. One participant said, ““Simply knowing that Professor X was from China was not sufficient. Knowing what she went through as an individual in China puts a lot of respect on her and what she was trying to do in her class. This gave me a whole new insight about the problem situation.”

Another participant said,

Understanding Professor X as an individual and how she has become the person she is made me realize that not all professors are alike. I believe that not all Chinese are alike, either. Every professor or Chinese [person] must have his or her own personal history, and I should not generalize my bad experience with one professor to all of the professors. I should know them as individuals.

Many participants also indicated that hearing about the professor’s personal background helped them internalize the situation and allowed them to be more compassionate and understanding. This compassion connected students to the problem, which helped them to be articulate and careful when suggesting solutions. As one participant noted,

Empathy is really a powerful way to think about a problem situation. Knowing someone as a person provides insights not only about that person, but how that person’s beliefs and identity come into being. . . . This helps you make connections, generate more specific and targeted feedback and solutions to the problem situation. With compassion, it is more likely that your solutions will be accepted by others.

The importance of seeking additional information about new situations. A third theme that emerged from the participants’ reflections was the importance of not jumping to conclusions, but instead seeking out more information about a new situation. One participant commented,

Experiencing these changes in myself reminds me that I am only one person with one perspective. I usually tended to jump to conclusions, and I do not think that I remind myself enough how often a problem goes much deeper than its surface level . . . I learned a great lesson here.

Other participants’ comments included the following:

“This project helped me realize how additional information can give you a completely different perspective about a situation. It can deepen your understanding and make you appreciate the benefits of knowing a situation from multiple perspectives . . . the danger of jumping into conclusions is so apparent.”

“This emphasizes the importance of knowing background of any situation. For example, when examining a new patient, it is vital for a doctor to have the background information. But we do not do that well in educational settings, such as helping kids with learning or emotional problems.”


The 43 participants in this study all saw a video about Professor X and her difficulties with a class of college students. The case was modeled after a real problem, but the participants in the experiment were not those involved in the original problem. The participants answered questions about perceived reasons for Professor X’s behaviors and suggested possible solutions. They were then exposed to video-based background information about Professor X by being randomly assigned to either the PBK group or the  GBK group. After seeing their respective videos, participants answered questions about the problem case a second time. At the conclusion of the study, participants also asked to discuss any lessons learned from participation in the experiment.

The results of our experiment mirrored the positive effects on the students and the professor of initially using the PBK video in the class that was taught by Professor X. The present experiment helped us rule out alternative reasons for these findings, such as a general Hawthorne effect, that might have occurred because of increased efforts to interact with students but had little to do with the content of the video shown.  In our experiment, there were large and consistent differences between the PBK and GBK groups.

Data show that the opportunity to see the PBK video helped students become more compassionate and understanding. This brought the professor’s cultural experiences to the forefront; as a result, student thinking shifted from a largely narrow view of the professor to a more holistic view. Overall, results of the experiment provide very strong evidence that the PBK video helped students develop an empathetic understanding toward Professor X and was much more likely to lead to positive conceptual change. In contrast to the PBK video, exposure to the GBK video (which featured food, clothing, famous places, and so on) tended to reinforce stereotypical thinking about the professor and her culture. This stereotypical thinking was evidenced by statements such as, “Professor X is a typical Chinese who is rigid, critical, boring, respects authority and power,” and “Like most Chinese, she is hardworking and values education, but is boring and strict and has few social skills.”

Questions asked at the end of the experiment were designed to explore the metacognitive aspects of students’ experiences. Participants who saw the PBK video were much more likely to explicitly notice changes in their own thinking about Professor X as they were exposed to new information about her background. In many cases, students spontaneously stated that the experience of being in the experiment taught them important lessons about themselves. Participants who saw the PBK video were also much more motivated than the other group to learn more about Professor X’s culture and her family’s experiences.

Despite the strong results, a potential threat to the internal validity of the study does exist. The differences between the two groups may reflect the possibility that presentation of the initial case and requests to write about it interacted with the experimental effect, watching the PBK video. No particular evidence supports this possibility, but there is a logical possibility. A future study should rule out this potential alternative interpretation by presenting the two experimental conditions without the control condition first.

Overall, the results from the present study provide extended insights into the community-centered aspects of the HPL framework (NRC, 2000). These findings add experimental data supporting many of the observational and correlational studies that focus on the positive effects of PBK, including empathy and understanding (see our earlier review of relevant literatures).

The data focus particular attention on the idea that the sense of community in classrooms is not simply a function of teacher behaviors, but is co-constructed by students’ understandings of these behaviors. This emphasis on the co-construction of classroom and other learning environments may augment the efforts of schools and universities that have developed programs designed to help teachers from other countries learn to understand and adapt to their new teaching settings. Helping students learn to take at least partial responsibility for their roles in creating effective classroom communities might strengthen these programs. Students, like teachers, need to develop habits of mind in which they look for “the story behind the story” before jumping to negative assumptions about the motivations of teachers—especially those with cultural differences.

Please note that we are not suggesting that the use of personal stories is sufficient to solve all “disconnect” problems. Our view is that personalized video stories can set the stage for empathetic discussions that foster and strengthen connections between students and teachers. This conjecture is supported by our data, which show that students in the PBK condition were more apt to want to learn more about the teacher and her upbringing, as compared with those in the GBK condition.  Nevertheless, future studies need to examine these learning and discussion processes in more detail.

That we were able to map a real-life case (the teaching disconnect) into a laboratory-based set of activities can help researchers explore issues of PBK in more detail in future studies. For example, we strongly suspect that the kind of personal stories about teachers will affect how they connect with their students. The personal story we used highlighted vulnerabilities and challenges that Professor X and her family had to overcome through individual and group learning. One could imagine a different kind of personal story about Professor X that highlighted only her achievements and those of her family and that said nothing about any sense of struggle and humility. It is doubtful that the latter types of stories would prompt the kinds of empathetic connections with the person that presumably facilitated the changes in thinking and attitude evidenced in the current experiment, but this is simply conjecture at the moment. Determining key features of how to tell one’s story represents a future research goal that is highly worthy of pursuit.

The creation of cases and background videos similar to the ones used in the present study can also facilitate research that explores related avenues of the present phenomena. One of the advantages of the cases is that they can be used to help students experience the changes in their own thinking after they have been introduced to a case and then shown different kinds of background videos. Another advantage is that research is beginning to uncover mechanisms that may help explain why the less we think of others as being like ourselves, the less we empathize (Jenkins, Macrae, & Mitchell, 2007). Using materials such as those developed for the present experiment may allow for studies of the mechanisms that support personal empathy and attitudinal change.

We conclude by noting that personal background knowledge might help close other kinds of gaps, in addition to those between teachers and students. One is the gap that often exists between students and the knowledge they are asked to learn. In physics, for example, instruction typically covers many scientific concepts but rarely ties them to in-depth stories about the people who developed this knowledge—especially the challenges and setbacks they had to overcome. The book Five Equations That Changed the World (Guillen, 1996) provides excellent examples of this point. Isaac Newton is the focus of one of the chapters, and his life is personalized in an atypical way. The author guides us through his life, starting at birth, and describes him as a very small and weak child who struggled with bullies and who attempted to find himself by communing with nature while he noticed and puzzled over interesting phenomena. One of the authors (JB) recently read this book and developed a strong sense of Newton as a person. This has increased JB’s appreciation of Newton’s discoveries, which had profound social and political effects, and made him want to continue to learn more about Newton and his contemporaries. Learning about Newton’s life and cultural contexts created a socially relevant bridge between JB and the study of physics and astronomy that he had never realized existed. Bridging this gap did not suddenly make JB think like a physicist or astronomer, but it did greatly increase his appreciation for the social importance of Newton’s work and motivated him to continue to learn about the details of Newton’s discoveries.

A PhD thesis completed by Hong (2005) shows that personal knowledge about those who have developed important ideas can increase content-area learning. The study involved three groups. The first group, the personal background knowledge group, read about Newton’s and other scientists’ upbringings, including their goals, values, and struggles in creating various scientific inventions. The second group, the achievement-knowledge group, was exposed to the achievements that these scientists made. The third group, the control group, studied the content knowledge itself, such as Newton’s law and Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Hong (2005) found that only the personal background group was able to solve problems that required interpretation and application of multiple scientific laws rather than a single scientific law. The assumption is that learning about the content in the context of people’s lives helped learners integrate their knowledge better than they would have otherwise, and this made the knowledge more assessable when new relevant problems arose.

Overall, it is possible that paying more attention to issues of PBK may help close a number of gaps in education. People are inherently social beings, and PBK helps us in a number of ways, including with how to talk to, teach, and motivate others (Bransford, Derry, Berliner, Hammerness, & Beckett, 2005). Studies by Davis, Vye and colleagues (2007) have shown that most texts for preservice teachers focus on how they develop different kinds of knowledge (e.g., counting versus counting on strategies in arithmetic), but the texts are not organized around real students who may be struggling with different kinds of conceptual issues.  When students learned to teach early math with “student-rich” texts created by Davis and her colleagues, they were much better able to diagnose learning problems experienced by new transfer students than were people who only learned generalized information about the development of early mathematics skills.

Whether the focus is on teachers or students, many gaps may exist because we have taken human stories out of our curricular and pedagogical practices. It seems worth exploring the advantages of reintroducing the personal and social nature of learning and inquiry, and seeing when and how this approach can improve people’s motivations and abilities to learn.


This research was conducted while the two authors were at Vanderbilt University. Data collection and analysis were conducted there. Support for writing this article was provided, in part, from Grant Proposal NSF DRL No. 0723795 to the first author and NSF No. 0354453 to the second author. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors only and do not reflect the opinions of the National Science Foundation. We greatly appreciate the work of Rachel Phillips, who helped us edit this article.


To create this video, we used story-creation criteria as discussed in Life Stories (Charlotte, 1993).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 7, 2010, p. 1729-1757
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15572, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:38:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Xiaodong Lin
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    XIAODONG LIN is an associate professor of cognition and technology at Teachers College, Columbia University. Xiaodong studies metacognition and problem solving, and ways that cultural interactions, with the help of technology, can facilitate understanding and personal reflection. She develops various kinds of technology-rich learning environments and explores how such environments influence cross-cultural collaboration and reflection. She finds that technologies make it possible for teachers and students from different cultures to collaborate in fundamentally new ways. This offers exciting opportunities for metacognitive development. Her most recent two publications are: (1) with coauthors D. Schwartz and J. D. Bransford, “Intercultural Adaptive Expertise: Explicit and Implicit Lessons From Dr. Giyoo Hatano,” Human Development (2007); and (2) with coauthors D. Schwartz and G. Hatano, “Toward Teachers’ Adaptive Metacognition,” Educational Psychologist (2005).
  • John Bransford
    University of Washington
    JOHN D. BRANSFORD is Shauna C. Larson University Professor of Education and Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle and principal investigator and director of the LIFE Center, a National Science Foundation Sciences of Learning Center that studies learning in informal and formal environments. He studies new approaches to learning, instruction, and assessment, with a special emphasis on issues of cognitive and social processes and how they are affected by different contextual settings. His most recent two publications are: (1) with coauthor D. L. Schwartz, “It Takes Expertise to Make Expertise: Some Thoughts About Why and How,” in Ericsson (Ed.), Development of Professional Expertise: Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Environments (Cambridge University Press, in press); and (2) “Preparing People for Rapidly Changing Environments,” Journal of Engineering Education (2007).
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