Top Marks: Western and Chinese Education Compared

Top Marks: Western and Chinese Education Compared
Jan 30, 2018 By Kyle Melieste ,

If you’ve worked as an English teacher in China, you’ll likely have faced energy-sapping classes with robotic and uncommunicative students. Chinese education is known for its dullness and emphasis on exams, but Chinese students are also know for their high test scores and academic abilities. So how does Chinese education differ to that in the West and which is superior? Here we guide you through the Chinese education system, explain how it contrasts with Western education, and outline the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Photo: Obama White House

Exams vs Coursework

Are exams the most effective way of assessing a student’s performance? In China, it’s the only method. By far the most common (and accurate) conception and criticism of Chinese education is that it is too exam-focused. Grades are effectively the be-all and end-all of a student’s life in China. If you’ve ever worked in a state-run school or university teaching English, you’ll probably have faced numerous interrogations from the students about the dreaded exams. Classroom performance is almost irrelevant (so students often switch off) as the only expectation of students is to perform well in the tests.

In contrast, Western education splits student assessment between exams and coursework. I can vividly remember that many assessments in my university days were group-oriented coursework assignments that would run for several weeks. This is almost unheard of in Chinese schools.

The result is that Western education no doubt better prepares students for real-life situations, bestowing them with both communication and practical skills. However, some students who are not naturally academic may graduate from a more practical degree course and then go through life with little grasp of the basic core subjects such as math and English. Chinese education, on the other hand, consistently pumps out students with outstanding test grades and a good base knowledge.

Memorization vs Creativity

The Chinese classroom is known for its notorious rote learning method of memorization. A typical classroom in a Chinese school, college or university will feature rows of tables lined up facing the front, where the teacher will deliver a monologue lecture and scribble line-upon-line of text on the whiteboard that students robotically copy into their notebooks. This concept of rote learning is at the foundation of Chinese education. There are arguments that this lecture and note-taking style of teaching is effective, especially for some subjects such as math, where formulas and tables must simply be committed to memory. Chinese education is based on facts and offers little room for discussion of experimentation.

Although things were not so different in Western schools 50 years or so ago, the rote learning method clashes with modern Western education ideals, through which students are encouraged to be bold and expressive within the classroom. As mentioned above, the Western education system incorporates a lot of coursework, allowing students to learn at their own pace and practice the skills they’ve acquired in a semi-real life situation. Western education allows students to learn through trial and error, gaining experience by dealing with and overcoming problems.

The memorization and creativity approaches ultimately result in two contrasting kinds of students: those that possess a sponge-like memory and a vast capacity for learning, and those that are more independent, with a leaning towards critical and creative (but not necessarily “correct”) thinking. Due to the emphasis on repetition and reciting, Chinese students have excellent memories and are often capable of reciting entire books and solving complex mathematical equations in their heads. Western students, however, tend to perform better at problem-solving tasks when compared to their Chinese counterparts, who genuinely struggle to think “outside the box”. Trying something out and potentially getting something wrong is not a concept promoted in the Chinese education system.

Teacher Led vs Student Led Classes

Most classes in China consist of teacher-driven lectures with very little interaction between students and the teacher. It’s no surprise, therefore, that foreign teachers often face resistance from Chinese students when trying to present in-class interaction and activities. It’s not that they don’t want to interact, but rather the system has taught them not to. The opinions and statements of a teacher in a Chinese school will likely face no opposition or disagreement. The teacher is always right, and any disagreement or challenge from the students will likely cause the student to “lose face”, therefore fueling the fear of humiliation and the preference to avoid interactions.

Compare this with a typical degree course in a Western university where lectures are usually followed by student-driven tutorials and seminars. Classrooms in Western universities can be full of lively and engaging discussion, with students even encouraged to put their hand up in class and challenge a teacher if they don’t agree with a statement.

There are pros and cons of both teaching methods. The Chinese top-down approach produces students that are well behaved, disciplined and possess a great deal of factual education. However, Western teachers, particularly in higher education, increasingly act more as guides who nurture the individual expression and thought of their students.

Group Work vs Individual Work

Considering that China is a collective society, you might assume that Chinese students work effectively in groups. On the contrary, I’ve found as a teacher in China that they are less effective at group work than their Westerners counterparts. As tests are the preferred method of assessment in China, there is no incentive or need to work in groups.

In Western education, group work and assignments are a fundamental part of educational life. From day one of university you can expect to be thrown together with other classmates for discussions or group work where tasks must be assigned and managed by students with almost no interference from the teacher. For example, when I was at university I remember being grouped together with other classmates in a business simulation task where we managed a fictional online company. We competed with other groups on a week-by-week basis, helping to create a friendly and competitive spirit among classmates while gaining practical skills.

Extra Curricular Vs Additional Academic Classes

Most Chinese students take extra studyd classes outside of school hours, known as 补习课 (bŭ xí kè), in an effort to boost their test performance. This starts from an early age and can continue to the very end of a student’s study life.

Compare this to the West where only the students who really struggle take extra academic classes. However, many Western students partake in extra-curricular activities and societies that are related to their outside interests, such as music lessons or acting class. However, in recent years we’ve also seen Chinese students take up such extra-curricular activities, albeit usually to appear more “rounded” in applications to Western universities.

Despite the obvious drawbacks of rote learning, Chinese-style education is growing in popularity. China has established itself as Asia’s most popular destination for overseas students, according to the Ministry of Education. That said, however, every year hundreds of thousands of Chinese students continue to head to schools and universities overseas. Having exercised their memories and learned vigorous study techniques when young, perhaps these students have the best of both worlds?

Warning:The use of any news and articles published on without written permission from constitutes copyright infringement, and legal action can be taken.

Keywords: Chinese education system Chinese education


All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.