Study Suggests China Students Excel in Critical Thinking -- until College

By Hernandez, Javier C | International New York Times, August 2, 2016 | Go to article overview

Study Suggests China Students Excel in Critical Thinking -- until College


Hernandez, Javier C, International New York Times


As university enrollment surges in China, apathy and poor teaching erode advantages seen in primary and secondary schools, a Stanford study suggests.

Chinese primary and secondary schools are often derided as grueling, test-driven institutions that churn out students who can recite basic facts but have little capacity for deep reasoning.

A new study, though, suggests that China is producing students with some of the strongest critical thinking skills in the world.

The unexpected finding could recast the debate over whether Chinese schools are doing a better job than American ones, complementing previous studies showing Chinese students outperforming their global peers in reading, math and science.

But the new study, by researchers at Stanford University, also found that Chinese students lose their advantage in critical thinking in college. That is a sign of trouble inside China's rapidly expanding university system, which the government is betting on to promote growth as the economy weakens.

The study, to be published next year, found that Chinese freshmen in computer science and engineering programs began college with critical thinking skills about two to three years ahead of their peers in the United States and Russia. Those skills included the ability to identify assumptions, test hypotheses and draw relationships between variables.

Yet Chinese students showed virtually no improvement in critical thinking after two years of college, even as their American and Russian counterparts made significant strides, according to the study.

"It's astounding that China produces students that much further ahead at the start of college," said Prashant Loyalka, an author of the study. "But they're exhausted by the time they reach college, and they're not incentivized to work hard."

The findings are preliminary, but the weakness in China's higher education system is especially striking because Chinese leaders are pressing universities to train a new generation of highly skilled workers and produce innovations in science and technology to serve as an antidote to slowing economic growth.

The government has built hundreds of universities in recent years to meet soaring demand for higher education, which many families consider a pathway into the growing middle class. Enrollment last year reached 26.2 million students, up from 3.4 million in 1998, with much of the increase in three-year polytechnic programs.

But many universities, mired in bureaucracy and lax academic standards, have struggled. Students say the energetic and demanding teaching they are accustomed to in primary and secondary schools all but disappears when they reach college.

"Teachers don't know how to attract the attention of students," said Wang Chunwei, 22, an electrical engineering student at Tianjin Chengjian University, not far from Beijing. "Listening to their classes is like listening to someone reading out of a book."

Others blame a lack of motivation among students. Chinese children spend years preparing for the gaokao, the all-powerful national exam that determines admission to universities in China. For many students, a few points on the test can mean the difference between a good and a bad university, and a life of wealth or poverty.

When students reach college, the pressure vanishes.

"You get a degree whether you study or not, so why bother studying?" said Wang Qi, 24, a graduate student in environmental engineering in Beijing.

The merits of the Chinese education system are a perennial subject of debate, in the United States as much as in China. The Obama administration has held up the stronger performance of Chinese high school students on international exams in math, science and reading as an example of stagnation in the United States. …

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