Scholarship and education

The habits of highly effective test-takers

JDM080607gaokao.jpg
Parents wait for their children outside the test center (BEN)

The composition section of this year's college entrance exam was held this morning. Though the exam's contents were embargoed while the test was in session (under the state secrets law), the questions surfaced on the web and in the evening papers this afternoon.

In Beijing, where 118,000 students sat for the exam, the essay topic was an old self-help chestnut made popular by motivational author Stephen Covey. Here's the Beijing gaokao version of the "big rocks first" approach to time management, as reported by the Mirror:

During class, the teacher said, "Today we'll do a little experiment." Then he put a glass bottle filled with rocks onto the podium, and asked, "Is it full?" The students answered, "Yes." Then the teacher took a tub of sand out from under the table and slowly poured it into the bottle. Then he asked, "Is it full?" The students thought for a while. Then the teacher took out a pitcher of water and poured it until the water level had reached the top of the bottle. "What does this experiment demonstrate?" the teacher asked. Chatter filled the classroom.

One student said, "Lots of things may look like they've reached their limit when there really is lots more space."

Another student said, "Order is important. If you put the sand in first, the rocks won't fit at all."

Another student said, "That's right. You have to put the rocks in first. Heavy things take precedence."

Then another student said, "Not necessarily. Is it really impossible if you put in the sand and water first?"

Students were instructed to write at least 800 characters using this text as a starting point.

The choice of text surprised many people, who had guessed that this year's topic would be related to the recent earthquake in Sichuan (though the earthquake did appear in the national exam paper I; see below). Instead, it was a familiar story that has even appeared as a sample question in test preparation materials, the Beijing Evening News reported.

Big-name writers invited by the evening Mirror to discuss the exam question differed widely in how they saw the question's difficulty. Mai Jia (Ansuan) thought it was an awful question:

To say that this question discusses a particular truth, then that truth is superficial, something that I think even a kindergartner would understand.
...
This topic seems to be telling us something, a truth about life; for example, that life choices, priorities, perspective, and making good use of your skills are all important.

But from this perspective, although students can choose the subject and viewpoint of their writing, the question itself is severely limited, leaving test-takers wth little room to elaborate.

Zhou Ruchang, the noted Redologist, had precisely the opposite reaction.

I just found out that this year's composition question was vastly different from years past. It's not a single, set sentence, but rather a reflection and explanation of something conceptual. I believe this is an excellent choice. In the past, composition questions were basically lifeless topics that appeared to be testing students' intelligence and abilities when they were really limiting them. This topic is broad enough to allow students to strike out boldly and create freely. It is a true test of their wisdom and ability.

Historical novelist Eryuehe agreed with Zhou, while Zhang Kangkang came down on Mai Jia's side.

In other regions:

  • Sichuan: "Resolve" (坚强)
  • Guangdong: "When facing something for the first time, don't be so quick to say 'no'."
  • Liaoning: "A newspaper reported that a few young people were spitting on a bus. Some reactions: (1) No sense of social morality; (2) Too non-conformist; (3) Used to it."
  • Chongqing: "Living in nature"
  • Tianjin: "Common sense"
  • Shandong: A zen-inspired topic: "The spring comes and the grass grows by itself" (春来草自青).
  • Fujian: "Three people went to a store to buy drinks, and each chose a different kind. The first person chose fruit juice, saying, 'I like sweet things.' The second person chose coffee, saying, 'I like things that are sweet and bitter.' The third person bought spring water, saying, 'I like things bland and flavorless'."
  • Shanghai: Most of the time we are only concerned with ourselves. Write an essay about "Them."
  • Zhejiang: "Touching the city, experiencing the countryside"
  • Jiangsu: "Curiosity"
  • Hubei: "Passing a tree, a branch blocks your path. Do you snap it off and cast it aside, or do you bend around it? A mangy stray dog approaches. Do you take pity on it and avoid it, or do you give it a swift kick? The elevator door opens. Do you hold back and let others go first, or do you charge forward and push through? You are standing next to a blind person at an intersection. The light changes - do you offer them a hand? How do you brush past other people? How do you accept your change from a streetside vendor? How do you look down to tighten your loose belt? How do you live with yourself when you are alone?"
  • Hunan: A line from a Han Yu poem: "In light rain, the capital streets are slick like butter; The color of the grass is seen at a distance, but not close up."
  • Jiangxi: "Write a letter from the perspective of a rat, or of a rat's natural enemy."
  • Anhui: "Start off with feeling"
  • National (1): "The people's lives are of paramount importance!" This one has to do with the earthquake relief effort. It starts by noting that "Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and other party, government, and military leaders hastened to the disaster zone to direct the relief effort," and goes on to give a very brief summary of rescue work, aid, astonishing survival stories, CCTV's live broadcast, and the national mourning period. It ends with "The same feelings expressed in different ways: monetary donations, blood donations, benefit performances, close attention...." This text was used in Hebei, Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Guangxi.
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There are currently 5 Comments for The habits of highly effective test-takers.

Comments on The habits of highly effective test-takers

Long time ago, when I sat for the College Entrance Exam, you only needed to memorize many exemplary essays to perform well on the exam. Too bad thing!

Students should be encouraged to speak up their own minds truthfully. Diverse perspectives should be fostered rather than suppressed.

[Removed extra homepage link. --JM]

And hopefully, they all will do well and go to a name school in preparation for leaving China to study overseas and never to return--the dream of every patriotic parent.

What the hell do these exams actually test? Composition? They look like those rather boring mock-philosophical 'exemplary' articles you see in the Chinese newspapers on 'hope' or somesuch. I wonder how many people who would have made good science, maths or engineering students will be tripped up by the challenge of having to compose a meaningful essay on such whimsical topics. Once again I'm glad that I was tested on the A-level system, where you only had to answer exams in three subjects of your own choosing.

Gaokao was such a traumatising phase of my life. Even 9 years later,it still comes back from time to time to haunt me in the form of nightmares. The sense of my whole life hanging on a thread (the exam) was so nerve-racking. The composition section of the Yuwen (Language and Literture) subject was stupid back then and stupid now.

I am sorry which subject is this? Chinese? English?

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