Friday, January 14, 2011

On Exams

My student Kevin decided he wants to go to grad school.  The entrance exam is in January.  The April before, he moved out of his dorm into an apartment in order to have a quieter place to study.  From that time forward, he has spent most days studying 8 to 12 hours.  He spent some school breaks taking additional politics classes that might help his chances on that part of the exam.  He calls ahead his orders at his favorite restaurant to save an extra few minutes for study.  His main activity for the last nine months of his life has been studying for a single test.  Is this normal?  For many of my students, yes.

Exam culture enjoys a long history in China.  In days gone by, you could advance into official-dom by scoring well on a test.  In the present day, a lot of people still see exams as the golden ticket to success.  For this reason, people around here take their exams very, very seriously.

My first really good Chinese friends were some neighbors in grad school.  This couple moved to the U.S. so he could pursue an engineering Ph.D.  Her plan for the year was to study for the GRE.  My roommates and I felt sorry for her -- we were sure she would be lonely and bored, since all she had to do for a whole year was study for one exam.  Ah, how silly we were.

We didn't know that it was not only common but expected that a serious student would treat exam preparation as a full-time job -- morning to night, day after day, for months on end.  This came as a shock to someone like me, who didn't start studying for the GRE until the night before, when I made the unhappy and stomach-sinking discovery that I had less than a day to learn long division.

I have written before about the Gao Kao ("Big Test" -- the College Entrance Exam), which dominates the average Chinese student's life from the time he enters primary school until he mercifully graduates from high school.  The exam insanity does not end here.

College students take exams for all manner of things.  They take standardized tests to get "certificates" which certify their competency in computers or business English or some other marketable skill.  They have to take a standardized leveling test for their ability to use Mandarin Chinese.  Our students take a couple big English tests (after 4 and 8 semesters of study) to verify their English level.  These types of skill-verification can help students get jobs in the future.

And then, as graduation looms, scary new exams appear on the horizon.  Want to go to grad school?  Exam.  Want to get a job?  (Often) exam.

Even grad students are not immune.  For example, my tutor is a 2nd year masters student trying to decide what to do next.  She has already taken the extremely competitive civil servant's exam, which can get you a cushy government job, but only if you end up in the top 1%.  She also wants to try testing into a teaching position in a high school in her hometown.  If she does well enough on the exam (competing against about 200 other equally qualified candidates), she will be granted a job interview.

And now I'll get to my point:  The grad school entrance exam is today, January 15, and close to 100 of my former students are taking it.  My university is well-known for students taking and passing this exam -- about 80% attempt it.  It's a brutal exam, because you compete for only one school.  For example, if I want to get into a grad program at Beijing Foreign Studies University, I only take that specific test.  If I can't get a spot in that program, I have to wait a year and try again, either at that school or perhaps an easier one.

I asked a few students how they're feeling about the exam.  In spite of months of full-time study, many of them feel under-prepared:
  • "Keep cramming till I get sick.  Kidding!  I am trying my best while expecting the worst."
  • "I am a little nervous and doubt myself."
  • "I haven't study for a long time.  Now I worry a lot."
  • "The 'big day' finally comes.  Now I want to finish it as soon as possible."
  • "I'm fine, although a little worried and a little nervous.  Hope I'll be lucky."
  • "To be frank, I don't think I can pass the post-graduate examination, regarding my far-from enough preparation... So, here I am, decided to give it a shot even though this is not the best time.  After it, I will go back home immediately for the teacher's exam."
Ah, China, you and your exams.  Please be thinking of my precious students as they hope for a pay-off on their hundreds of hours of preparation.

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