Monday, January 20, 2014

"Chinese students just want grades."

(Below is a highly condensed version of a longer draft article)

Another comment complaints about Chinese students in the US is that they only care about grades. That is, they don't really value learning or contributing to classes or campus, unless it factors into their grades. Again variations of this complaint abound online in articles and posts from sites such as The Chronicle of Higher EducationDanwei, and China Law Blog. Again I want to look into the fairness of this complaint.

As with previous post, it is unfair to point fingers at Chinese student or any other international student group for caring too much about grades and too little about learning. I personally have always cared deeply about learning, but in my time at university plenty of US students demonstrated ambivalence toward learning. Students regularly handed in papers devoid of actual research or studiousness. Many never read professors comments, looking only at the score. Students asked, "How can I improve my score?" and I always thought to myself, "Spend more time hitting the books." Concern about grades is not limited to international students.

However, there are several factors that do, in fact, contribute to Chinese students focusing on grades, and in some cases not about the learning, at least not in the American sense of the word. These factors include an exam-focused education system, a relationship-based (more than merit-based) society, and a culture of "face".

It's no secret that the Chinese education system is exam based. People underestimate, however, the effect this can have on many students. Students' academic careers, from elementary school through university, are determined by the results of exams. By and large, these exams test students ability to regurgitate facts and plug numbers into formulas. Whether students understand or not is often irrelevant. In such an environment, grades are paramount, and most understand grades to be the sole determinant of whether learning has occurred. Such a mindset does not change simply because one has entered a US university.

Getting jobs and promotions in China is often more about who you know than about what you know or what you can do. Although few might say it, there is a glum recognition that no matter how hard one studies or how much on learns, it simply may not matter. So, why try? If you need is the document for legitimization (a degree, a transcript, etc.), but the important thing knowing the right people, why not cheat? Why not find someone to take the test for you? You'd be better off cultivating relationships than acquiring knowledge.

Face is an oft-mentioned aspect of Chinese culture (as well as of Japanese and Korean culture). For Chinese, in practice, face often comes down to not only being a winner, but also looking the part, hence the uniquely Chinese penchant for ostentatious luxury goods. Today, many schools still make students' scores public, from the the top students to the bottom. Universities select students with the top exam scores (or those whose parents have good connections). Employers seek students with the top scores, regardless of actual ability, experiences, or societal engagement. Chinese students in the US who plan to go back to China know this and act accordingly; appearances matter.

This is an incredibly condensed description, and the topic truly deserves a much more nuanced discussion. Nevertheless, I hope it has been helpful.

Why do you think US students complain about Chinese students' focus on grades?

If you believe it is a legitimate complaint, why do you think Chinese focus so much on scores, even at the expense of learning (in the US sense)?

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @MatthewTShowman

Additional Media
Channel C: Discussion of college application in China and the US
Channel C: Why don't Chinese students challenge authority? (The first half is most relevant to this post.)
Wall Street Journal: What the Chinese Want (Tom Doctoroff)
The high ambitions of China's consumers (Tom Doctoroff)

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