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New York, NY – Business schools and law schools continue to focus on efforts to reduce disparities in academic performance between students from different backgrounds. But new research from Columbia Business School finds that there’s an alarming gap in academic performance among MBA and law students of East Asian descent – with researchers demonstrating a difference in communication style is leading to underperformance. Their analysis also points to a promising solution in hybrid learning: researchers find that a main factor contributing to the gap is class participation, and that online classes can reduce the disparity.
Columbia Business School Professor Michael Morris and researchers from MIT Sloan School of Management and the University of Michigan rigorously examined academic performance between students of different ethnicities, building an analysis based on nearly 20,000 students across 26 business and law schools over the last decade. While many studies of educational gaps focus on ethnicity, there has been little examination of Asian students because of the harmful “model minority” stereotype that they succeed in all academic contexts. Additionally, past research groups all Asians together, obscuring experiences faced by some subgroups but not others.
Morris and his colleagues distinguished students of East Asian (including ethnic Chinese, Japanese, Korean) and South Asian (including ethnic Indian and Pakistani) descent, and found they have different academic outcomes in professional schools. Results show that students of East Asian descent are underperforming, with more pronounced differences in social courses emphasizing class participation (such as leadership and strategy) than in quantitative courses (such as accounting and finance). The researchers connect this underperformance to cultural differences between Asian subgroups – exploring the role of communication styles and assertiveness.
“The top business schools and law schools are global institutions dedicated to cultural inclusiveness,” said Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia Business School, who has previously analyzed a gender gap among MBA students and differences in how East Asian and South Asian individuals move up the corporate ladder. “But their classrooms traditionally center on competitive, large-group discussions and debates about business or legal cases. Our research shows that in this pedagogy, a surprising gap is emerging between East Asian students and their peers. Professors and administrators should be looking for ways to reduce cultural gaps in participation, and our research finds that Zoom helps to level the playing field.”
The research team of Professor Morris, MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Jackson Lu, and University of Michigan Professor Richard Nisbett developed six large studies (N = 19,194) to analyze student performance based on self-identified ethnic background. They compared multiple measures of academic performance – including grade point average (GPA), individual course grades, Law School Admission Test (LSAT) exam scores, Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) exam scores, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) exam scores, and class participation grades – using the expansive data to statistically rule out other factors and zero in on communication style as a leading cause of East Asians’ underperformance relative to other students.
This finding persists across different measures of academic performance, from grades in individual core MBA courses to cumulative GPA. The studies controlled for other factors relevant to performance, such as academic motivation, English proficiency, country of birth, admission test scores, and personality traits.
- A Pattern of Academic Underperformance: In one study of six cohorts of MBA students at a top business school, researchers found that East Asian students had lower grade point averages than South Asian, Latino, and white students. Notably, this underperformance occurred both for foreign-born and US-born students, suggesting that it is not caused by a difference in English fluency.
- Cultural Group Differences in Verbal Assertiveness. In another study, four cohorts of full-time MBA students (n = 1,320) anonymously assessed their classmates in verbal assertiveness – rating to what extent does a classmate share their views when it is appropriate, engage in constructive interpersonal confrontations, and stand their ground in disagreements. East Asian students were rated as less assertive than Black, Latino, South Asian, and white students in the same cohort.
- Online Classrooms Reduce the Gap. Through an analysis of student performance in three core business school classes over ten consecutive semesters, researchers found that the pandemic shift to Zoom narrowed the gap in performance. The difference was especially strong in more “social” courses that emphasize class participation.
The study, The Surprising Underperformance of East Asians in US Law and Business Schools: The Liability of Low Assertiveness and the Ameliorative Potential of Online Classrooms, is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Michael Morris is a Chaired Professor in the Management Division at CBS and also serves as Professor in the Psychology Department of Columbia University...Read more.