Final Exams in China

I finished submitting all of my grades last week and celebrated by hosting a wine and cheese night for friends. I’m really looking forward to not opening Excel or adding up points or using a red pen for the next two months…

With that said, I thought I’d write down a few of my impressions about final exams in China. This is the third time I’ve been through the process, and I’ve learned a few things along the way…

1. 70/20/10 or 70/30

Every foreign teacher that I’ve talked to in China has experienced a conversation that goes something like this about a day or two before grades are submitted.

Teacher in Charge: Ok, please submit your grades by (date two or three days from now).

Foreign Teacher: Ok, great. No problem! I’ve already got most of my Excel spreadsheets ready to go.

Teacher in Charge: (out of the blue) By the way, I’m happy to tell you that the final exam should be 70% of the students’ grades, and the other 30% can be attendance, homework, class participation and the midterm.

Foreign Teacher: Wait, whaaaaat? (Wonders why he/she didn’t get told this at the beginning of the semester…)

This seems to be a China-wide rule. The exams are king and everything else is just peanuts! Oral class, writing class, literature class– it doesn’t matter. 70% seems to be the arbitrary amount that is allotted to all final exams. Often 30% is given to the midterm, meaning that homework and participation do not matter. Or, sometimes 20% is given to the midterm, and a measly 10% is given to “performance,” namely attendance, participation and homework. This does not jive with my teaching philosophy at all! Thankfully, my university this year is pretty organized, and knowing that many foreign teachers are not a fan of this grading scheme, they offered me the option to apply for an exemption from this 70/30 grading breakdown. I filled out a bunch of paperwork and was successfully allowed to allot 40% for the final exam, 20% for the midterm, and 40% for homework and class participation. In my eyes, that breakdown motivates students to a) come to class, b) learn throughout the semester, c) do their homework and lastly, it makes a statement that exams are not the only way to show how much someone has learned. Sure, it might mean a little more grading for me because I have to grade homework and take attendance every class, but I enjoy trying to slowly break the idea that exams are the end all and be all of demonstrating knowledge. You can’t just cram before a final exam and get an A in my class!

2. Four types of questions

Another (peculiar?) thing that was stressed a lot this year was that on the final exam there needs to be “four types of questions.” I guess this is actually a good rule of thumb, because it assesses students in different ways. Every time I talked with my boss about the final exam, this was the one criterion that she stressed. I was never told how long the exam should last, or how many questions it should contain. However, there absolutely had to be four different types of questions! I had a mix of multiple choice, matching, true/false and open-ended short answer questions. Voila! It actually made writing the test easier.

3. Big papers

I’ve found that another hallmark of Chinese exams is ridiculously sized papers. I don’t know what it is about a poster-sized sheet of paper that screams EXAM… but all of the exams were printed on this double-wide A4. This means that it’s a b**** to carry ~270 of these, and even more annoying to constantly flip the giant sized pages for grading. Knowing this, I successfully outsmarted the system by making a separate normal sized answer sheet where students had to record their answers. That meant that immediately after the exam I could ditch the oversized exams and just keep a neat stack of regular sized answer sheets. Hooray!

Jess shows her true feelings about grading exams

4. Cheating

In a culture where exams mean everything (don’t get me started on the gao kao- college entrance exams),  cheating is rampant. However, in my experience proctoring the final exams for students this semester, there seems to be a lot of empty talk about punishing cheaters. Students are required to have their ID cards out on their table to ensure their identity (nobody checks them) and before the exam everyone has to put their backpack at the front of the classroom (but they can have pencil cases on their desks).  There are two proctors assigned to monitor the classroom throughout the two-hour exam period, although my fellow proctor often spent a significant portion of the time texting on her phone. In one exam room, she found a student with a cheat sheet, and nonchalantly took the paper from the student, put it at the front of the classroom, and then…. did NOTHING! I was flabbergasted. No reprimand, and no record made of the incident! One of my fellow Chinese teachers said that he found nine students cheating in one exam room during an exam (out of about 40 students). I don’t know if it’s just my program, or if it is more widespread, but it seems that universities make a lot of threats about cheating, but it’s all just lip service. Sad, but true.

5. The “official-ness” of exams

When I was in college, I had a few exams each semester that were assigned a specific date and time, where you went into the room with your nose in your notes for one last glimpse at your review sheets before you sat for an hour and took the timed exam in a university approved blue book. However, more often than not, my exams were take home exams, where we were given strict instructions about what we could or couldn’t do, as well as a time limit to abide by, and signed the honor code on the front page saying that we didn’t cheat. The rest of my exams were simply essays that required me to synthesize information that I had learned throughout the semester. This is not the case in China. Exams seem to be much more regulated, from the timing to the size of the paper, as i mentioned before. I successfully petitioned to have a take home exam in one of my classes, which I think actually went quite well. But for my other classes I had to give a “traditional” written exam that required students to regurgitate facts that they had learned throughout the semester, because that’s just how it’s done here.

For my public speaking class, where we had focused on giving speeches for most of the semester, I didn’t think it would be fair to simply test them with a written test. I brought this up with my boss, who basically told me that they had already reserved the exam rooms, and couldn’t change that, so I should just give the students something written, even if an in-class oral exam comprised most of their final exam grade. I made a fairly straightforward exam that I predicted would take the students about 30 minutes to complete, sent it to my boss for approval, and didn’t hear anything back. Success!

However, as I was administering the exam (on the last day of the exam period), an official looking exam monitor with a large badge around his neck came into the exam room and started asking students why they were finishing so early, and if they had checked all of their answers. He went straight for the Chinese proctor in the room and demanded to know why the students were leaving so early, to which she explained that it was a public speaking class and the students had already completed a large chunk of their final exam through an in-class presentation. He didn’t want to hear it. He lectured her about how this was the final exam, it was 70% of the students’ grades (it was not), it should take at least 45 minutes (a seemingly random number) and continually repeated that the students shouldn’t be leaving so early. I was standing right there, but he assumed I couldn’t understand. I was a little scared that I had broken some unknown rule and would be punished, but it seems that he was also all bark and no bite. It frustrates me how inflexible Chinese can be about “rules” sometimes, and this exam scenario is the perfect example.

The good news is that I submitted all of my grades and haven’t heard about any grading fiascos (yet!). I still have nightmares about my first semester last year when I mistakenly put in the incorrect grades for students in two different classes, because their student numbers (that the school uses) did not match up correctly with their English names (that I used). At least it’s not quite as bad as one friend whose boss told him that the grades that he submitted were lower than the year before, and maybe he should increase the grades a bit. “Maybe” was not a suggestion, it was an order. Sigh…

But to end on a funny note, here’s a great Youtube video about grading that my former English teacher posted on Facebook recently. Do you have any great grading stories? I’d love to hear them!

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3 thoughts on “Final Exams in China

  1. You certainly HAVE learned a lot! Crazy stuff! You sound like a great teacher and I’m sure your students have so enjoyed you! Just remember “BABay, BEB, BIbikeeby…” and you will do just fine! 🙂 Enjoy your nice long break Kimbers! Love to you from Mendon.

  2. I was teaching a fourth grade, but something similar may be tried.
    I gave the students a copy of the report card & had them fill in their grades. I then had a conference with each student & almost all had given themselves a lower grade that I did. They all had gotten graded material back during the marking period.
    Is that too American or too far back to be true now?

    Aunt Noreen

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