A popular saying on the Chinese mainland goes: "Exams, exams, exams, the magic weapon of teachers; marks, marks, marks, the lifeblood of students."
Understandably, students do what their culture expects of them: They study hard to achieve good results in examinations. However, examination results are a function of the manner in which examinations are conducted.
As presently conducted, examinations assess mostly knowledge acquisition and retention, at the expense of knowledge application and generation. Typically, school examinations emphasize accuracy in the reproduction of informational content, a relatively low-level cognitive activity.
To concentrate their efforts on reproducing information accurately, students rely on memorization and repeated practice. Symptomatic of the syllabus-bound mentality, teachers cover and students study only or mainly materials prescribed in the syllabus. Students often approach their teachers prior to examinations in the hope of getting "tips" on what questions might be set in examinations.
In short, students have learned to play the examination game; failure to do so means elimination from the educational system - a personal failure, and a disgrace to the family. They view education in utilitarian terms, as a means to an end.
In China's mainland, gaokao (university entrance examination) is a central preoccupation of secondary school students, parents, and educations.
Research conducted by this author reveals that it can be all absorbing, intellectually and emotionally, for the entire family; everything else must yield to its priority.
For instance, families would refrain from planning for vacations for as long as a whole year prior to gaokao. Students spend an inordinate amount of time in preparation for gaokao both within and without the normal hours of school.
It is not unusual to see senior secondary school students assembled in their classrooms to study until 10pm to 11pm, and then resume attending class by 7:30am the next morning. Some teachers actually discourage or even forbid students to spend time on reading materials that fall outside the syllabus. The anxiety that students and their parents experience is intense.
One student put it this way:
"I am scared my examination marks will not be high enough to earn me a place in a top university like Peking or Tsinghua. If I fail to get into Peking or Tsinghua, there will be no future for me. I may as well kill myself."
The closer the time approaches gaokao, the more intense the preoccupation with it. Many parents accompany their children to gaokao, checking in hotels nearby to provide emotional support to their children.
In contrast, parents seldom attend graduation ceremonies, during which students who performed at superior levels are lauded. People commonly refer to students who perform at top levels as zhuangyuan, a title accorded the top ranking candidate at imperial examinations in traditional China.
To have produced a zhuangyuan is no small matter, especially in rural areas. The student's name would be prominently displayed at school, which would bask in glory; and so would the whole family.
To avoid being misunderstood, I hasten to add that I am not against examinations in general and gaokao in particular. What I am against is to have examinations dominating and subverting education. Examinations have to serve the goals of education, and not the other way around.
Mao Zedong, a fierce critic of Chinese education, minced no words:
"At present, there is too much study going on, and this is exceedingly harmful .... the burden is too heavy, it puts middle-school and university students in a constant state of tension .... The students should have time for recreation, swimming, playing ball, and reading freely outside their course work."