published Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Swansbrough: Students in China feel extreme pressure

By Robert Swansbrough

All Chinese high school students hoping to attend college next fall take the National College Entrance Exams (gao kao) on June 7, 8 and 9. The first day assesses their knowledge of Chinese, the next day mathematics and the third day English (written, not oral), plus a second subject of their choice-such as Chemistry, Physics, History and Politics. The Ministry of Education estimates more than 9 million students will take the National College Entrance Exam, with overall college enrollment next fall growing by 7 percent.

These students, and their parents and grandparents, recognize that how well they do on the exam impacts their admission to a better university, future course of study, and their subsequent career success-measured by a good paying job. The hopes and destiny of the entire family rests upon their young shoulders. Their scores on the national college entrance exam become the major determinant of their future, not high school grade point average, letters of recommendation, extra-curricular activities or special skills, which play a role in American college admissions.

Many parents have sacrificed much to enroll their children in the most prestigious schools in their villages or sending them to a larger city to stay with relatives for a better education. During their senior year in high school they may attend classes 12 hours a day to prepare for this one critical exam, although from a tender age their parents and teachers pressed them to constantly study harder. Students complain that from primary middle school to senior middle school (high school), all they did was prepare for the college entrance tests.

The outcome of their National College Entrance Exam scores determine if they can study a particular popular major, like engineering or business, which may offer good paying jobs. Likewise, attending the highest ranked colleges in China is the goal of China's “best and brightest.” The competition is keen, pressures intense.

In the United States, if a student is admitted to a university, his or her SAT/ACT score doesn't limit them from majoring in a difficult subject. For example, they get the opportunity to declare a pre-medicine major, with the tougher required courses in chemistry or biology determining whether they can achieve their goal. If Chinese college students want to change majors, they have to take another exam through that department and gain the required higher score to study that subject. In the U.S. students can easily change majors, although they may have courses to make up.

Several weeks ago I showed my students the movie “The Candidate,” starring Robert Redford, on a Sunday night at the new Sichuan University campus. I was surprised at the number of students attending Sunday night classes in the classroom building. When I asked about this, I learned that students can take courses for a second major (to improve job prospects), but these courses are only taught on weekends.

Therefore, Chinese college students might be taking 14-16 classes in their major, plus 4 or 5 classes on the weekend for a double major. Sichuan University students in their first three years may thus enroll in 20 classes a semester, seven days a week! They take this heavy load, with the approval of the faculty, so that they have a lighter class load in their senior year when they seek a good job in the very competitive work environment. Of course, in China “guanxi” (connections) helps in their job quest.

To visiting Fulbright faculty like myself, this system seems to continue the Mandarin emphasis on rote memory. Professors lecture, students assiduously take notes and repeat those facts on the final exam. The American emphasis on critical thinking, challenging student opinions in a Socratic manner, and collaborative projects through teams and simulations isn't, as one official told me, “the Chinese way.” Who can argue with 5,000 years of history!

When I discuss this issue with administration officials and faculty, while delivering Fulbright guest lectures at different Chinese universities, I am often told that they are trying to reform this educational approach. Some faculty members, particularly those who have studied in America or another Western nation, try to engage students more. There is also an effort to provide what in America we call a General Education for all college students, requiring courses in a variety of disciplines to create a more broadly educated graduate.

Since students spend 10 to 12 hours every day listening to lectures, which are the basis of tests, very little outside reading or research is required. This especially astonishes American faculty who feel assigned texts and readings provide additional information, case studies or simply different viewpoints on issues. Chinese students who have studied in the U.S. tell me they are most surprised by the amount of required reading and research reports, although they take about one-third the course load they would in a Chinese university.

Perhaps the impetus for top-down reform of China's educational system will be launched because of economic reasons-to develop more creative and innovative graduates to compete in the global economy. Confucius never had to worry about a technology-driven society or globalization!

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