Cultural differences in learning strategies

A recent study comparing Japanese and Australian students provides important findings about the use of learning strategies. In particular, the emphasis on memorization by the highest-achieving students in both cultures indicates a need for educators to reevaluate the value of memorization, which often is dismissed as an inferior, rote type of learning.

Secondary students in Japan and Australia and a smaller group of Japanese students who had immigrated to Australia were studied to determine the types of learning strategies they typically use in different learning situations. Students with high, middle and low achievement were selected for each group. Nola Purdie, Queensland University of Technology, and John Hattie, University of North Carolina/Greensboro, developed the Student Learning Survey, which described eight vignettes of learning situations that occur in class, at home, when preparing for a test or when poorly motivated. Students were asked to indicate the strategies they would use to assist learning in such situations. Each time students mentioned a strategy, they were asked to estimate the frequency with which they would use that strategy in similar situations.


Students in these groups used a similar range of strategies. Two strategies important to all three groups were self-checking (reworking a problem, rereading, checking for errors) and structuring the physical environment (reducing distractions, arranging a study place). However, students differed in the strategy they used most. Australian students placed the most importance on goal setting and planning, while the Japanese students’ number one strategy was memorizing. Self-testing, highlighting or underlining, and organizing notes were among the least important strategies for all three groups. The Australian students reported using a greater number of strategies than the Japanese or Japanese-Australian students. The Japanese students used memorization, reviewing textbooks and cheating as strategies to raise their grades. When the Japanese-Australian students were compared to the other two groups, they were found to be more similar to the Australian students in their use of strategies, except that, like Japanese students, they used memorization frequently. They also reported going to others for help more often.

Comparing students’ strategy use to their achievement level also revealed significant differences between the cultures. The higher the achievement level of Australian students, the more they tended to use strategies to aid their learning. For Japanese students, however, strategy use was much more uniform across achievement levels.


Previous research has established the importance of self-regulated learning to academic achievement. In view of the growing multiculturalism of our classrooms, Purdie and Hattie set out to explore the relationship of culture to self-regulated learning. Placing a high value on education does not, by itself, lead to high academic achievement in a culture. However, many researchers speculate that the relative emphasis that different cultures place on effort and ability may have considerable influence on achievement.

Studies reveal that Japanese culture, in contrast to that of many Western cultures, places little importance on ability. Japanese parents and teachers emphasize the role of effort through task involvement, group cooperation and persistence. In Japan, there is an assumption that all normal children can learn well. Japanese schools traditionally avoid ability grouping until students enter high school. Differences in achievement are attributed to individual diligence and self-discipline. Intelligence is viewed as an expression of achievement, resulting from experience and education. The cultural orientation toward homogeneity and inclusiveness of the group contributes to this belief that all are equal in potential.

Purdie and Hattie conclude that despite the similarity in the range of strategies used by the three groups, there were significant differences in their pattern of strategy use. Memorization was rated the most important strategy by Japanese students, and the Japanese-Australian students maintained the importance of memorization even in a school environment that did not encourage it. These researchers caution, however, that it should not be assumed that Japanese students use this strategy indiscriminately. Those that achieve well are probably making correct choices about what is important to memorize. In all three groups, the lower-achieving students seem to lack the ability to use strategies selectively. Motivation probably plays a role as well, although it was not measured in this study. Japanese students appeared to consciously exert willpower to achieve learning goals through effort and persistence.

Strategy use was associated with achievement, with higher achievers demonstrating a greater use of strategies regardless of cultural group. The emphasis by Japanese students on memorization strategies suggests a need for Western educators to reevaluate the role memorization can play in effective learning. Purdie and Hattie also suggest that the Japanese cultural emphasis on persistence in the face of adverse conditions be considered as a learning strategy in further research.

“Cultural Differences in the Use of Strategies for Self-Regulated Learning”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 33, Number 4, Winter 1996, pp. 845-871.

Published in ERN May/June 1997 Volume 10 Number 3.

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