generally thought to be a low-level, non-cognitive copying
behavior that may inhibit creativity in learning (Bender,
1979; Deahl, 1899; Warnick, 2008). Therefore, it is rarely
studied in university classroom, and the few existing
research mainly focuses on avoiding copying as a pedagogical
approach in writing and composition classroom (Boyd, 1991;
Brooke, 1988; Twomey, 2003) and science classroom (Darling,
2001). However, recent developmental psychological and
neuroscientific research has demonstrated that imitation
requires a high level of cognitive capacity, and is a
critical ability unique to human beings (Meltzoff, 2005;
Meltzoff & Decety, 2003). It develops in infancy and
continues throughout adulthood, and is associated with a
variety of cognitive abilities such as intelligence,
emotion, and communication (Meltzoff & Prinz, 2002; Nadel &
Butterworth, 1999); thus plays an essential role in learning
(Hurley & Chater, 2005; Rogers & Williams, 2006). However,
most studies with the updated understanding of imitation
focused only on the learning and teaching of infants and
children, and ignored university students. Whether and how
undergraduate students use imitation and what the effects of
imitation are on their learning need further exploration.
There is a
growing body of literature examining the critical effects of
imitation in cultural transmission and development (Hurley &
Chater, 2005; Meltzoff & Prinz, 2002; Shea, 2009; Whiten
McGuigan, Marshall-Pescini, & Hopper, 2009). How university students from different cultures
use and perceive imitation is also worth examining. The
present study aimed to understand U.S. and Chinese
undergraduate students' perceptions of imitation in learning
and to explore implications for teaching and learning in
Review of Relevant
Definitions and Mechanisms of Imitation
decades, imitation has been broadly studied from a variety
of perspectives, including biology, psychology,
neuroscience, philosophy, and sociology (Hurley & Chater,
2005; Meltzoff & Decety, 2003; Rogers & Williams, 2006).
Therefore, it is usually defined very generally with a focus
on specific processes and possible consequences (Zentall,
2006). Hurley and Chater (2005) described imitation as
when the observer’s perception of the model’s behavior
causes similar behavior in the observer, in some way such
that the similarity between the model’s behavior and that of
the observer plays a role, though not necessarily at a
conscious level, in generating the observer’s behavior. (p.
behavior” in this definition emphasizes that imitation goes
beyond simply copying the same behavior. It requires
participants to understand the goal of a behavior and, more
importantly, to understand that the goal can be achieved by
other behaviors; thus participants can use a different means
to achieve the same goal of the observed behavior, and it is
this ability that distinguishes imitation from other forms
of social learning (Hurley & Chater, 2005; Zentall, 2006).
For example, Gergely, Bekkering, and Kiraly (2002) found
that when children were shown the behavior of turning on a
light by pushing it with the head, whether they imitated the
head push or not depends on whether the demonstrator’s hands
were free or not. These children understood the goal was to
turn on the light and the demonstrator used the head because
her hands were occupied; thus these children imitated the
demonstrator’s behavior – using their hands rather than
their heads – of turning on the light. Rogers and Williams
(2006) provided more examples in their definition of
the ability to learn socially from others and to incorporate
behaviors seen in others into the behavioral repertoire. It
involves the connections between the behavior we observe and
the behavior we enact. It can concern simple actions such as
opening a container, or it can be as advanced as
incorporating other people’s ideas when writing a book. It
is the means by which we absorb, repeat, and so become
integrated with human culture. …, it is a process with
irreducible simplicity, and yet the most sophisticated
robotics experts still struggle to produce any machine that
can perform the function. (p. x)
Understanding the goal of an observed behavior and choosing
a different but appropriate way to achieve the same goal
requires high level cognitive abilities. Hence, imitation is
not a low-level, non-cognitive behavior (Hurley & Chater,
2005; Williamson, Jaswal, & Meltzoff, 2010). On the
contrary, the flexible relationship between the observed
behavior and the enacted one is the core to many
social-cognitive capacities, including empathy,
communication, and intersubjectivity (Eckerman, 1993;
Meltzoff & Prinz, 2002; Nadel & Butterworth, 1999; Rogers &
Williams, 2006). Therefore, imitation becomes understood as
a unique and critical ability that belongs only to human
beings (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003).
possible mechanisms of imitation have been proposed based on
research in neuroscience and developmental psychology. The
discovery of mirror neurons provides a neuroscientific
explanation for the high frequency of imitation in social
interactions (Rizzolatti, Fadiga, Gallese, & Fogassi, 1996). Mirror neurons were
first found in macaque monkey brains. They fired when the
monkey performed an action, as well as when this monkey
observed someone else performing a similar action (Rizzolatti
& Craighero, 2004; Rizzolatti et al., 1996). More research
using advanced technology, such as brain imaging techniques
or transcranial magnetic stimulation, found that mirror
neurons also exist in human brains (Iacoboni et al., 2001;
Koski, Iacoboni, Dubeau, Woods, & Mazziotta, 2003; Mukamel,
Ekstrom, Kaplan, Iacoboni, & Fried, 2010). The findings
indicated that mirror neurons in human brains are activated
not only by doing the actions or achieving the goals of
those actions, but also by processing how to achieve the
goals (Buccino et al., 2001; Calvo-Merino, Glaser, Grèzes,
Passingham, & Haggard, 2005; Iacoboni et al., 2001; Koski et al., 2003; Van Gog et al.,
2009). Therefore, human beings can not only perform an
observed action or understand the goal of this action, but
also choose a variety of behaviors or methods to achieve the
same goal, which is essential to a genuine imitation.
researchers, however, have asserted that mirror neurons
alone are not enough to produce imitation (Hurley, 2008;
Rizzolatti, 2005; Zentall, 2006). Imitation may require a
deeper level of cognitive processing in applying novel
behaviors to new environments. People need to not only
internally represent but also externally manifest the
observed behaviors (Rizzolatti, Fogassi, & Gallese, 2001).
Therefore, cognitive mechanisms such as perspective taking
may also be essential for human beings to perform an
imitation (Hurley 2008; Zentall, 2006; Van Gog, Paas,
Marcus, Ayres, & Sweller,
Imitation and Learning
developmental psychology has found that imitation exists in
early infancy and grows in parallel with multiple cognitive
abilities throughout adulthood (Heyes, 2001; Heyes & Ray,
2000; Meltzoff, 2005, 2007). Experiments demonstrated that
infants – even those as young as 40 minutes – could imitate
the adults’ behaviors (Jones, 2006; Meltzoff & Moore, 1983).
Therefore, infants are born with the ability to imitate, and
this ability is not a reflex but a functional activity (Kugiumutzakis,
1993; Meltzoff & Moore, 1977). Imitation serves as the root
for infants and children to understand the mental states of
themselves and others, thus to develop social cognition (Meltzoff
& Decety, 2003). It helps infants and children acquire
experience and learn cognitive and motor skills such as
language and emotional expressions (Meltzoff, 2002, 2005;
Uzgiris, 1981), and develop communication skills (Nadel &
Camaioni, 1993), social relationships (Eckerman, 1993), and
moral conscience (Forman, Aksan, & Kochanska, 2004). Adults
have also shown a strong tendency to imitate in social
interactions (Brass, Bekkering, Wohlschläger, & Prinz, 2000;
Brass, Zysset, & Von Cramon, 2001; Press, Bird, Walsh, &
Heyes, 2008; Rumiati, Carmo, & Corradi-Dell'Acqua, 2009). Neuroscientific
research has demonstrated that imitation recruits certain
brain regions to establish relationships between the self
and others and also to distinguish between the perspectives
of self and other (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003), thus it helps
adults understand others’ goals (Meltzoff, 2005), exchange
social attitudes (Cook & Bird, 2011), and establish empathy
and intersubjectivity (Decety, Chaminade, Grèzes, & Meltzoff, 2002).
essential to many socio-cognitive abilities; therefore, it
“accelerates learning and multiplies learning opportunities”
(Meltzoff, Kuhl, Movellan, & Sejnowski, 2009, p. 285). Research found that
imitation is an effective and efficient way to learn, and
has identified several factors influencing infants and
children’s effective imitation in learning (Meltzoff, 2002,
2005, 2007; Van Gog et al., 2009). Long-term memory plays an
important role in performing imitation (Hanna & Meltzoff,
1993; Meltzoff, 2005). Studies demonstrated that infants and
children can imitate the same behavior not only immediately
but also after a one-week and up to even a two- or
four-month delay (Barr, Dowden, & Hayne, 1996; Meltzoff,
1988, 1995). This delayed imitation can also happen across
various contexts (Hanna & Meltzoff, 1993). Children saved
the information picked up through previous observation for
later use (Meltzoff, 1988); therefore, they used their prior
experiences to guide imitation (Williamson, Meltzoff, &
Markman, 2008). Live demonstration, including face-to-face
interactions or videos, facilitates imitation and learning (Meltzoff,
2005, 2007). Infants and children imitate more and learn
more effectively in dyadic interactions or group discussions
(Meltzoff, 2005). They also learn significantly better
through face-to-face communicating with live speakers than
listening to audio recordings (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003;
Meltzoff et al., 2009) or television programs (Meltzoff,
1988). Infants and children show a strong tendency to
identify and imitate models in learning (Masters, 1972;
Warnick, 2008). They tended to imitate adults or older or
same-age peers much more than they imitated younger
children; and they even adjusted their performance standards
when imitating people at different ages (Brody & Stoneman,
1981; Davidson & Smith, 1982). Research also found that
infants and children imitate various models, including music
or robots (Jones, 2006; Tennie, Call, & Tomasello, 2006).
involves complicated cognitive capacities and plays a
critical role in human learning (Hurley & Chater, 2005;
Rogers & Williams, 2006). Previous research has demonstrated
that both infants and adults use imitation in social
interactions (Brass et al., 2000, 2001; Meltzoff, 2005,
2007; Rumiati et al., 2009), but few studies focused on
adults’ imitation (Carmo & Rumiati, 2009; Cook & Bird,
2011), and even fewer examined the effects of imitation on
adults learning. Pyle (2010) found that imitating mentors or
coaches is important for individual adult learning. Zhou and
Guo (2012) and Zhou (2012) found that teacher’s imitation of
undergraduate students’ behaviors in teacher-student
interactions has a positive effect on teacher-student
relationships and students’ learning outcomes as well. More
research on undergraduate students’ imitation and its
effects on learning are needed to examine learning and
instruction in higher education.
Imitation and Culture
and culture are closely related to each other (Hurley &
Chater 2005). Nielsen (2012) proposed that imitation
provided a rapid transfer between generations of a vast
amount of information and skills and it also served as a
foundation upon which various aspects of human cultures can
be built. He found that when children imitated adults they
usually copy unnecessary and arbitrary actions, which is
called overimitation; and it was this overimitation
persistently replicated how an object is produced or used
and hence transmitted cultural ideas and practices across
generations, including personal behaviors like facial
expression, eye contact, posture, gaze, touch, gestures, and
voice and tone and pitch, and instrumental acts like skills,
traditions, language, and tools (Williamson, Jaswal, &
Meltzoff, 2010). Rogers (1999) and Rogers and Williams
(2006) also found that imitation was used as a critical
means to develop awareness of culture. More studies found
that people in a community used imitation to build their
culture (Whiten & Ham, 1992) and an outsider would use
imitation to become part of the culture (Hung, 1999).
imitation plays an important role in cultural transmission
and development, few studies had actually compared imitation
in different cultures. Losin et al. (2012) found that
American participants with European, African, and Chinese
backgrounds had more neural activities in imitating people
from the other two cultures. McCroskey et al. (1996)
compared participants from Australia, Finland, Puerto Rico,
and the United States and found that the behaviors that
violated cultural expectations may have negative effects on
cognitive learning. Therefore, it is worth further examining
imitation in different cultures.
study was guided by three interrelated research questions:
Question 1: Do undergraduate students across three different
educational contexts, two in the U.S. and one in China,
engage in particular imitative behaviors, such as copying
examples, following teachers’ behaviors, etc.?
Question 2: Do students believe these behaviors led to
positive or negative learning outcomes? And, if so, do
students across the three educational contexts differ in the
types of imitation uses and in the perceived usefulness of
Question 3: Given the cultural differences in imitative
behaviors noted in the literature (Losin, et al., 2012), are
there differences in the perceived imitative behaviors
adopted by the U.S. and Chinese students?
studies on imitation used either a direct observation method
or a within-subject design to examine imitation in social
interactions (Hurley & Chater, 2005; Meltzoff, 2005; Rogers
& Williams, 2006; Zhou, 2012). Yet, research demonstrated
that imitation is sometimes covert, that is, invisible or
unclear to the observers (Decety, 2006; Heyes, 2011). For
example, people used delayed imitation frequently, and it is
difficult to identify their imitation across time and
contexts using direct observations. Another significant
problem is that imitation allows the participants to use
different methods to achieve the goal of the behavior they
observed. People have flexible choices in performing
imitation and they usually do not just copy the behaviors
they observed. For example, children chose to turn on the
light with their hands rather than heads (Gergely et al.,
2002), or people might incorporate others’ ideas in a
writing assignment (Rogers & Williams, 2006). The mismatch
between the observed behavior and the response raises
problems for the assessment of imitation through direct
observation. Thus, observation methods are unable to capture
covert imitation and focus only on the overt imitation that
is “the disinhibited tip of the iceberg of continual covert
imitation” (Hurley, 2008, p. 5). In order to have access to
both overt and covert imitation, including delayed and
mismatched imitations, the present study used two
self-report questionnaires to examine undergraduate
and fifty-six undergraduate students from two U.S. and one
Chinese institutions voluntarily participated in the study.
Table 1 shows the demographics of the participants in three
institutions. The first U.S. institution is a large, public
university where 251 students were recruited randomly in the
waiting room during walk-in hours of an undergraduate
advising program on campus between February 2012 and April
2012. Their mean age was 20.1 years (SD=2.46). The second
U.S. institution is a small public college where 101
undergraduate students were recruited by visiting classrooms
randomly in August and September, 2013. Their mean age was
24.9 (SD=8.1). The Chinese institution is a large public
university where 104 students were recruited randomly from
four College English classes. The mean age was 19.4
(SD=1.78). No international student is included in the
Table 1. Demographics of
Participants in Three Institutions.
Note. N (1st US Institution) = 251. N (2nd US Institution) = 101.
Institution) = 104.
participants responded to two questionnaires. After
completing Questionnaire One, they immediately responded to
Questionnaire Two. At the beginning of both questionnaires,
the participants were informed of the purpose of the study
and asked to focus on their experiences of imitation while
answering the questionnaire.
questionnaires were constructed specifically for the present
study. They were developed from two resources. One resource
is an existing 43-item questionnaire – Questionnaire about
the Popular Conceptions of Learning (QAPCOL) (Cantoia,
Giordanelli, Perez-Tello, & Antonietti, 2011) which examines worldwide K-16 students'
conceptions of learning, including students' learning habits
(18 items), students' attitudes toward learning (17 items),
and students' mistakes in learning (8 items). One of the
major findings of the QAPCOL was students' uses of imitation
in learning, including students' learning from others'
demonstrations, experts' explanations, peer discussions,
collaborations, knowledge verification, observations, and
mistakes. Another resource is the latest developmental
psychological and neuroscientific findings on children's
imitation in learning, including imitating videos, real
persons, role models or peers' attitudes, examples,
teachers' behaviors, and delayed imitation (Hanna & Meltzoff,
1993; Hurley & Chater, 2005; Meltzoff, 2002, 2005, 2007;
Meltzoff & Decety, 2003, Nadel & Butterworth, 1999, Rogers &
Williams, 2006; Warnick, 2008). Based on these two
resources, two questionnaires were developed to examine
whether and how undergraduate students use and perceive
imitation in their learning.
Questionnaire One focused on the first research question: do
undergraduate students across three different educational
contexts engage in particular imitative behaviors? (e.g., “I
followed, maybe automatically, teachers’ behaviors in class,
like taking notes or turning the pages.”), and Questionnaire
Two examined the second research question: do students
believe these behaviors led to positive or negative learning
outcomes? (e.g., “I learned better when I followed teachers’
behaviors in class.”). Due to the nature of the two research
questions, most of the items on the two questionnaires were
parallel. Students reflected their use of a certain
imitation in Questionnaire One, and then evaluated the
effect of this particular imitation on their learning in
answering the questionnaires, students were instructed to
focus on their imitation in learning. Whether and how
undergraduate students use various kinds of imitation is one
of the research questions, thus no example was given
purposely. None of the students asked for clarification
while answering the questionnaires. Imitation helps students
set and meet different expectations in various learning
settings, thus learning was not defined specifically in
Questionnaire Two. Students were expected to interpret
learning expectations based on the various settings
described in each item.
rated their agreements with each statement on a 5-point
Likert-type scale anchored at 1 (Strongly disagree) and 5
(Strongly agree). The order of items within two
questionnaires were randomized. The internal consistency
reliability, Cronbach’s alpha, between the two
questionnaires was 0.94.
Axis Factor (PAF) with a Varimax (orthogonal) rotation of
the 16 Likert scale questions from Questionnaire One was
conducted on data gathered from 456 participants. An
examination of the Kaiser-Meyer Olkin measure of sampling
adequacy suggested that the items were factorable (KMO=.609).
Four factors were therefore grouped as: learning materials (Cronbach’s
α = 0.73), learning activities (Cronbach’s α = 0.69),
problem solving processes (Cronbach’s α = 0.63), and
learning attitudes (Cronbach’s α = 0.83). Cronbach’s alpha
for all the items in Questionnaire One was 0.87. A Principal
Axis Factor (PAF) with a Varimax (orthogonal) rotation of
the 18 Likert scale questions from Questionnaire Two was
conducted on data gathered from 456 participants. An
examination of the Kaiser-Meyer Olkin measure of sampling
adequacy suggested that the items were factorable (KMO=.771).
Four factors were hence grouped: the effects of imitations
in learning materials (Cronbach’s α = 0.71), the effects of
imitations in learning activities (Cronbach’s α = 0.75), the
effects of imitations in problem solving processes (Cronbach’s
α = 0.68), and the effects of imitations in learning
attitudes (Cronbach’s α = 0.88). Two items were added to
examine the effects of imitations in general. The Cronbach’s
alpha for all 18 items in Questionnaire Two was 0.90.
Undergraduate Students’ Uses and Perceptions of Imitations
across Genders, Grade-levels, and Disciplines
of mean differences, the demographic data were compared on
three variables – gender, grade-level, and discipline. The
gender, grade-level, and disciplinary differences in
undergraduate students’ uses of imitation in learning are
presented in Figure 1. Female students reported using more
imitations than male students in 13 out of 16 imitations,
and using significantly more in five items – Preferring
watching videos to reading written instructions, Following
teachers’ behaviors, Having inspirations from discussions,
Using homework samples, and Following the same steps in the
examples. Juniors and seniors reported using more imitations
than freshmen and sophomores in eight items, and
significantly more ones in five items – Preferring watching
videos to reading written instructions, Being reluctant to
initiate an activity, Having inspirations from discussions,
Using the same method in the examples, and Being influenced
by classmates’ attitudes, while significantly fewer
imitations in two items – Following teachers’ behaviors and
Following the steps in examples. Science and math students
reported using more imitations than non-science and math
students in nine items, with significantly more in three
ones – Following teachers’ behaviors, Following the same
steps in the examples, and Applying past examples in new
Figure 1. Gender, Grade-level, and
Disciplinary Differences of Undergraduate Students’ Uses of
Imitation in Learning.
grade-level, and disciplinary variations in students’
perceptions of the effects of imitations on learning are
presented in Figure 2. Female students reported perceiving
positive effects of 15 imitations than male students, with
significantly more positive effects on seven imitations –
Effects of watching videos rather than reading written
instructions, initiating an activity, blackboard
demonstration, homework samples, observing others’ mistakes,
observing successful examples, and live demonstration.
Juniors and seniors reported perceiving more positive
effects of 16 imitations, and significantly more in nine
ones – Effects of using textbooks with lots of examples,
following teachers’ behaviors, discussing schoolwork with
others, homework examples, observing others’ mistakes,
applying past examples in new contexts, classmates’ positive
attitudes, live demonstration, and having examples, while
one significantly less positive effect of having leaders in
discussions. Non-science and math students reported
perceiving more positive effects of 12 imitations, but with
more significantly less positive effect of listening to
lectures rather than reading textbooks than students in
science and math.
Figure 2. Gender, Grade-level,
Disciplinary Differences of Undergraduate Students’
Perceptions of Effects of Imitation on Learning.
Undergraduate Students’ Uses of Imitation in Learning
The means of
456 undergraduate students’ responses to 16 items in
Questionnaire One are presented in Figure 3. Overall,
students showed agreement (Mean > 3.00) to 14 items, that
is, they tended to perform these imitations while learning.
Exceptions occurred in items for Preferring classmates’
rather than teachers’ explanations (M = 2.68, SD = 1.07) and
Being influenced by classmates’ attitudes (M = 2.61, SD =
1.22). As for individual institutions, students in the first
U.S. institution showed agreement on 13 items. Exceptions
occurred in items for Being reluctant to initiate an
activity (M = 2.98, SD = 1.32), Preferring classmates’
rather than teachers’ explanations (M = 2.85, SD = 1.07) and
Being influenced by classmates’ attitudes (M = 2.49, SD =
1.10). Students in the second U.S. institution showed
agreement on 14 items, with exceptions for two items,
Preferring classmates’ rather than teachers’ explanations (M
= 2.55, SD = 1.19), and Being influenced by classmates’
attitudes (M = 2.22, SD = 1.12). Students in the Chinese
institution showed agreement on 14 items, with exceptions
for two items: Following teachers’ behaviors (M = 2.16, SD =
1.18) and Preferring classmates’ rather than teachers’
explanations (M = 2.38, SD = .84).
Figure 3. Means of
Undergraduate Students’ Uses of Imitations in Learning.
MANOVA is used to determine whether there were significant
univariate main effects for institutions of undergraduate
students' responses to the uses of imitations (SPSS version
21). *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.
differences of students’ uses of imitation across the three
institutions, a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA)
was conducted comparing student responses from the three
separate institutions. Results of the MANOVA on
Questionnaire One demonstrated a significant multivariate
effect for institutions, Hotelling’s T = 1.09, F = 14.91,
p < .000, partial eta squared = .36. Power to detect the
effect was 1.000. Given the significance of the overall
test, the univariate main effects were examined. Significant
ANOVA tests for institutions were obtained for eight items
of using imitation in learning – Preferring blackboard
demonstration (p = .00), Following teachers’
behaviors (p = .00), Preferring classmates’ to
teachers’ explanations (p = .00), Using homework
samples (p = .01), Using the same method in the
examples (p = .00), Following the same steps in the
= .00), Being influenced by classmates’ attitudes (p
= .00), and Having role models in schoolwork (p =
institutional pairwise differences of students’ uses of
imitation were further examined. Students in the two U.S.
institutions showed significant differences to three items –
Preferring watching videos (p = .02), Preferring
blackboard demonstrations (p = .04), and Preferring
classmates’ to teachers’ explanation (p =.02).
Students in the first U.S. and Chinese institutions showed
significant differences to ten items, including six out of
seven imitations in Learning Activities, two out of the
three imitations in both Problem Solving Processes and
Learning Attitudes. Students in the second U.S. and Chinese
institutions responded significant differences to eight
imitations, including four imitations in Learning
Activities, one imitation in Problem Solving Processes, and
all the three imitations in Learning Attitudes.
Undergraduate Students’ Perceptions of the Effects of
Imitations on Learning
The means of
456 undergraduate students’ responses to 18 items in
Questionnaire Two are presented in Figure 4. Overall,
students showed agreement (Mean > 3.00) to 17 items, that
is, they agreed on the positive effects of these imitations
on learning. The only exceptions occurred in items for
Effect of having classmates’ rather than teachers’
explanations (M = 2.98, SD = 1.06). Students showed highly
positive impacts of three items (Mean > 4.00) on their
learning, including Effect of blackboard demonstration (M =
4.32, SD = .82), Effect of live demonstration (M = 4.18, SD
= .95), and Effect of having examples (M = 4.20, SD = .99).
Means of Undergraduate Students’ Perceptions of the Effects
of Imitations on Learning. MANOVA is used to determine
whether there were significant univariate main effects for
institutions of undergraduate students' responses to the
perceptions of the effects of imitation on learning (SPSS
version 21). *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.
individual institutions, students in the first U.S.
institution agreed on the positive effects of 17 items on
learning with the only exception as Effect of initiating an
activity (M = 2.93, SD = 1.22), and the highly positive
effects of seven imitations. Students in the second U.S.
institution agreed on the positive effects of 16 items on
learning with exceptions for Effect of discussing schoolwork
with the others (M = 2.66, SD = 1.24) and Effect of
classmates’ positive attitudes (M = 2.95, SD = 1.32), and
the highly positive effects of eight imitations. Students in
the Chinese agreed on the positive effects of 14 items on
learning with exceptions for Effect of watching videos
rather than reading written instructions (M = 2.91, SD =
1.18), Effect of following teachers’ behaviors (M = 2.12, SD
= 1.19), Effect of having classmates’ rather than teachers’
explanations (M = 2.70, SD = .83), and Effect of discussing
schoolwork with the others (M = 2.34, SD = .88), but they
did not report any imitations having highly positive impacts
on their learning.
the MANOVA on students’ perceived impacts of the imitations
on their learning demonstrated a significant multivariate
effect for institutions, Hotelling’s T = 2.04, F = 24.64,
p < .000, partial eta squared = .51. Power to detect the
effect was 1.000. Given the significance of the overall
test, the univariate main effects were examined. Significant
univariate ANOVA tests for institutions were obtained for 16
items of the effects of imitation on learning, excluding
Effects of listening to lectures rather than reading
textbooks (p = .10) and Effect of having role models
(p = .19).
institutional pairwise differences of students’ perceived
impacts of imitation on their learning were further
examined, using MANOVA. Students in the two U.S.
institutions showed significant differences to eight items,
including Effect of initiating an activity (p = .00),
Effect of blackboard demonstration (p = .00), Effect
of discussing schoolwork with others (p = .00),
Effect of having leaders in the discussions (p =
.00), Effect of observing mistakes (p = .00), Effect
of observing successful examples (p = .00), Effect of
the classmates’ positive attitudes (p = .00), and
Effect of having examples (p = .00). Students in the
first U.S. and Chinese institutions showed significant
differences to 14 items, excluding Effects of listening to
lectures rather than reading textbooks (p = .06),
Effect of observing successful examples (p = .28),
Effect of having role models (p = .39), and Effect of
regarding role models as future self (p = .13).
Students in the second U.S. and Chinese institutions
responded with significant differences to 14 items,
excluding Effect of listening to lectures rather than
reading textbooks (p = .05), Effect of having leaders
in discussions (p = .87), Effect of classmates’
positive attitudes (p = .35), and Effect of having
role models (p = .43).
research of imitation in university teaching tended to
regard imitation as a low-level cognitive copying behavior
that was most useful in infancy or early childhood. The
assumption had been that cognitively developed university
students do not need to use imitation because its effect on
learning is minimal, or those students should not use
imitation because imitation might inhibit their creativity
in learning. While recent research provides an updated
understanding of imitation that it is a high-level cognitive
ability and plays an essential role in teaching and
learning. Therefore, this study sought to fill a gap in
current studies on imitation by exploring undergraduate
students’ use of perceived imitation across three
institutions representing two different cultures, and
providing practical suggestions for effective university
learning and teaching.
suggested that undergraduate students reported using
imitation in all four dimensions of learning (Learning
Materials, Learning Activities, Problem Solving Processes,
and Learning Attitudes). Results further showed that
students indicated in their responses that they learned
better when using imitations, which highlighted the
significance of imitation in undergraduate students’
education. In addition, self-reports indicated that there
were differences across genders, grade-levels, disciplines,
and institutions in the perceived use and usefulness of
undergraduate students' imitation. These differences were
most pronounced when exploring for cultural variations in
the uses and usefulness of imitation between U.S. and
Chinese students. These findings provided suggestions for
further research on undergraduate students’ use of imitation
across cultures, and may have important and practical
implications for students and teachers in understanding
imitation and using it effectively in higher education.
Imitation as an Effective Learning Tool in Higher Education
finding, that undergraduate students reported using
imitation in learning, supported the results of previous
research in developmental psychology, indicating that
imitation exists and develops throughout adulthood (Meltzoff,
2005; Meltzoff & Decety, 2003). Most of the imitations
undergraduate students used are delayed imitation, such as
when the teacher is lecturing, students will observe and
save those actions, and imitate the actions when they meet
similar problems later. Delayed imitation required students
to make connections across time and contexts, which involved
more cognition in the process. Therefore, in their
responses, undergraduate students indicated high-level
cognitive abilities in evaluating current contexts and
choosing what and how to imitate in those contexts. This
also enabled students to use different actions or methods to
achieve their goal, which led to what has been described in
the literature as a genuine imitation (Eckerman, 1993).
While using delayed imitation, undergraduate students
reported flexibility and creativity in finding examples. If
they did not have access to live demonstrations, they would
search for print examples instead. Students imitated
pre-existing examples, and also created opportunities for
new examples, such as discussions with teachers or peers.
Besides imitating their own previous experience, students
imitated others' ideas and experience as well. They imitated
not only each other’s behaviors, but also attitudes and
thinking, as noted in previous research (Cook & Bird, 2011;
further found that undergraduate students reported using
imitation as an effective learning tool, as suggested in
developmental psychological studies (Hurley & Chater, 2005;
Rogers & Williams, 2006). These results echoed previous
findings on the positive effects of various activities or
processes in learning. For example, the highly positive
impact of exemplification on students' learning was aligned
with Bender (1979) and Warnick’s (2008) research on role
models. The positive effect of live demonstrations on
learning, such as lecturing or blackboard demonstration,
contributed to Schaal’s (1999) proposal that teacher’s
demonstrations help students learn effectively, and Schaal,
Ijspeert, and Billard’s (2003) conclusion that
demonstrations will significantly speed up the learning
process. Students’ responses suggested a strong preference
for watching videos rather than reading written instructions
as an enhancement for learning. This result was in line with
the findings that dynamic visualizations are more effective
than static visualizations (Höffler & Leutner, 2007; Tversky
& Morrison, 2002; Van Gog et al., 2009). U.S. students’
report of frequent imitations of teachers’ behaviors
provided a better understanding of the positive association
between instructional behaviors and students’ engagement in
learning (Schroeder et al., 2011). Students’ reports on the
highly positive impacts of discussions, contexts, and
delayed imitation on their learning was aligned with Lave
and Wenger’s (1991) theory of situated learning and the
model of a community of practice. By supporting these
studies, the findings from this study highlighted the
critical role of imitation in learning. Students indicated
imitating more when they were exposed to live
demonstrations, examples, or role models, and, when they
imitated, they tended to follow the same methods or even the
same steps in the examples. This in turn led to their
perceptions of more effective learning. Therefore, being
able to imitate effectively across time and contexts may
have a significant impact on undergraduate students’
showed gender, grade-level, and disciplinary differences in
undergraduate students’ uses and perceived usefulness of
imitation. Female students used imitation more overall and
reported more significantly positive of effects of imitation
than male students. Upperclassmen used imitation more
cognitively and perceived greater benefit from doing it
than underclassmen, such as Freshmen and sophomores tended
to imitate behaviors, while juniors and seniors reported
more delayed imitations. Science and math students used
imitations in more direct ways and delayed imitation as
well. This may reflect discipline-distinct teaching
practices, such as the specific procedural features of
scientific and math instruction.
Imitation as an Effective Teaching Tool in Higher Education
further suggested that imitation can be used as an effective
teaching tool. Teachers should consider how to effectively
develop and guide students’ imitations in curriculum and
instruction. For instance, examples play an important role
in undergraduate students’ imitation and learning;
therefore, teachers may choose textbooks with more examples,
utilize examples from various resources such as videos or
real life stories, and provide more demonstrations or
homework samples. Teachers may also facilitate students'
imitations by organizing discussions or introducing
successful examples in school works to enhance students’
learning. Students reported a high preference towards
learning from observing others’ mistakes; therefore, when
introducing new content, teachers may use activities such as
asking students to identify or correct mistakes. Teachers
should also pay attention to the functional aspects of their
behaviors in guiding, encouraging, or even reminding
students in class.
students from all three institutions reported uses of
imitation in all four dimensions of learning, there were
interesting differences in their endorsement of both the use
and usefulness of imitation in learning. For instance, U.S.
students claimed that they were not influenced by others'
attitudes and students in the first U.S. institution showed
a very slight preference towards having role models in
schoolwork. But students also claimed that role models had
highly positive impact on their learning. The significant
differences between students’ reports on the positive
effects of imitating others and using this imitation in
learning demonstrated that holding one particular belief
does not automatically give preference to the use of certain
strategies (Purdie, Hattie, & Douglas, 1996). Therefore,
teachers should help students realize that imitating role
models, including classmates’ positive attitudes in group
discussions or in class, may have positive impacts on
learning. Emphasizing students' positive attitudes or
introducing role models in schoolworks or having leaders in
group discussions might encourage students to use imitation
Undergraduate students’ genuine imitation in the classrooms
has two essential components. The first component is that
students need to react to the behaviors they observed, and
the other one is that students' reactions should be related
to some behaviors. Teachers expect that the behaviors
students related to are the behaviors they are supposed to
observe. Unfortunately, that is not always the case in
classrooms. Students might make wrong connections.
Therefore, in order to enhance students' effective imitation
in learning, teachers need to explicitly explain their
expectations of students' reactions before the activities,
thus to direct students to make correct connections. For
example, when explaining a math problem, teachers should
tell students that they expect them to pay attention to the
procedures and to use these procedures in solving similar
problems. Thus, students’ imitation will be guided to the
procedures rather than the results and students might be
able to save and perform the procedures later.
showed that undergraduate students reported the ability to
find examples, but at the same time, they showed less
creativity in using these examples – they reported a high
preference towards imitating the same method or even the
same steps in the examples. Another important problem was
the significant difference between students’ reports on
imitations across time and contexts. Although 92.6% of the
undergraduate students agreed or strongly agreed that
delayed imitation was critical to learning, only 57.4% of
them reported using delayed imitation in learning.
Therefore, it is important for teachers to encourage
students to use imitation more consciously, such as by
helping students to develop the ability to understand the
context of observed behaviors, to save these examples for
later use, and to connect various behaviors across time and
contexts; thus students can see learning as a dynamic long
process rather than isolated individual activities.
Imitation as an Effective Tool in International Education
Undergraduate students in different cultures reported
different uses and perceptions of imitations, which aligned
with previous research on the critical role of imitation in
culture transition and development (Rogers & Williams, 2006;
Williamson, Jaswal, & Meltzoff, 2010). Generally speaking,
U.S. students reported more uses of imitation and perceived
a much more positive effect of imitation on learning than
Chinese students did.
students reported being influenced by classmates’ attitudes,
having role models, and showing more reluctance in taking
the lead by initiating a class activity. They also indicated
perceiving a more positive effect from having leaders in
discussions. This may be a reflection of the culture of
Chinese education – a cautiousness to avoid being different
or receiving attention in groups with an emphasis on
collaboration and role models. Teachers’ blackboard
demonstration and having homework samples are the routines
of Chinese education, which might explain the significant
differences between U.S. and Chinese students’ uses of these
imitations. Contrary to U.S. students, Chinese students
reported significantly lower endorsement of imitating
teachers’ behaviors in class and disagreed with the positive
effects of most behavioral imitations on learning
activities. Again, this echoes Chinese cultural norms which
underemphasize the use of a lot of behaviors in
communication, in contrast to American cultural norms in
which people tend to give continuous behavioral feedback.
These findings supports McCroskey et al. (1996)’s proposal
that culture influences the relationship between imitation
and cognitive learning, and points to a need for further
studies on the effects of culture on students’ imitation and
findings have potentially significant implications for
international education. With a greater understanding of the
cultural influences on students’ learning, both U.S. and
Chinese institutions would become better prepared to
contribute the success of international students.
Implications for Future Research
is among the first studies on adult imitation in
undergraduate educational settings. The findings have
contributed to the existing literature on human imitation,
suggesting the critical role of imitation in undergraduate
students' learning and teaching, and highlighting cultural
influences in students’ imitation and learning. However, a
number of issues need to be taken into consideration in
questionnaires had strong reliability statistics (Cronbach’s
alphas for the Questionnaire One and Questionnaire Two were
0.87 and 0.90), and the Cronbach’s alpha between the two
questionnaires was 0.94. But two subcategories in
Questionnaire One – imitation in learning activities (.69)
and imitation in problem solving processes (.63), and one
subcategory in Questionnaire Two – the effects of imitation
in problem solving processes (.68) – had relatively weak
reliability. Because this was an exploratory study examining
both overt and covert imitation, all subcategories were used
in the analysis. No measures of both overt and covert
imitation currently exist, and while the questionnaires for
this study have limitations, the measure does represent an
initial attempt to explore a phenomenon that it is not
easily measured. In this study, several students wrote their
experience of imitation in learning at the end of the
questionnaires, such as imitating mistakes. These
qualitative information was also collected, and the
possibility of interviewing focus groups might help with
future revisions of the questionnaires as well.
limitation concerns the dimensions of learning examined in
the present study. Inspired by Cantonia et al. (2011)’s
questionnaire about the undergraduate students' conceptions
of learning, and based on definitions and previous findings
of imitation (Hurley & Chater, 2005; Meltzoff, 2002, 2005,
2007; Meltzoff & Decety, 2003; Rogers & Williams, 2006;
Warnick, 2008), this study examined imitation in four
dimensions, namely, learning materials, learning activities,
problem solving process, and learning attitudes. Learning is
so complicated that any generalization of the conclusions is
limited to these aspects. Future studies may either expand
or refine these dimensions of learning to generate a more
comprehensive understanding of undergraduate students’
used a self-report method to examine undergraduate students’
imitation. Students were told clearly at the beginning of
each questionnaire that they should focus on imitation in
their learning. Students needed to situate themselves in
various contexts to reflect on their experiences; thus it
might be possible that they took other factors into
consideration while answering the questionnaire. Therefore,
additional evidence from non-self-report measures – such as
students' interviews, students' learning outcomes or
classroom observations – may contribute to a more complete
picture of undergraduate students’ imitation across
a high-level cognitive ability that emerges in infancy and
develops throughout adulthood (Meltzoff & Decety, 2002). It
is associated with a variety of cognitive skills such as
motor skills, communication, emotion, and intelligence
(Hurley & Chater, 2005). The present study presented an
updated understanding of what imitation is and how it can be
developed and used in university learning and teaching. By
examining U.S. and Chinese undergraduate students’
imitation, results suggested that
Undergraduate students from both
cultures used various imitations in learning and
perceived those imitations to have positive effects on
Gender, grade-level, disciplinary,
and especially, cultural differences of undergraduate
students’ uses of imitation and their perceptions of the
usefulness of those behaviors varied in ways that
suggest the significance of broad norms when using
imitation in undergraduate teaching and learning.
Undergraduate students reported
using imitations in learning materials, activities, and
attitudes, and problem solving processes, such as using
examples and preferring live demonstrations, following
the methods and steps in examples, preferring imitating
others in class activities, imitating each other’s ideas
in discussions, having role models in schoolwork,
perceiving role models as their future selves, and
applying past examples in new contexts; and U.S.
students automatically followed teachers’ behaviors in
class and Chinese students reported being influenced by
General educators should develop
and guide these students’ imitations in curriculum and
instruction by providing examples and demonstrations in
various activities, from various resources, and via
various media, encouraging role models, and making
conscious connections between current and previous
knowledge and experience.
contributed to a better understanding of the significance of
imitation in undergraduate student education, provided
implications for teachers and students in using imitation as
an effective teaching and learning tool, and offered
important avenues for future research on the topic.
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