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Examining exam prep: An international comparison

A conversation between international and local students.

International student Yu Jin (R) speaking to local student Isabella Krebet (L)

(For The Swanston Gazette print edition one, 2019)

At the start of 2019, Yu Jin sent in a pitch wanting to compare Western and Eastern exam study styles. It was one of the very first emails we ever received - imagine our excitement! Over many meetings and brews of coffee, we had fascinating discussions and many laughs. We worked collaboratively on this, his first creative piece in English, to give an insight of our experiences, and to pay tribute to the friendship we’ve developed in working together.

Yu: I am Yu. I am an international student from China and currently completing my Master’s degree in IT at RMIT.

Isabella: And I’m Isabella! I’m a local journalism student at RMIT

Yu: In the final week of last semester, I was surprised and confused by one studying method suggested by the lecturer. We were allowed to prepare one A4 paper with anything related to the subject on it and take it into the exam. This kind of exam is generally called ‘partly open-book examination’.

Isabella: This sounds like the cheat sheet idea!

Yu: In the beginning, this good news. Made me very happy because I had never been treated by my teacher so nicely. I always found it hard in China to remember everything. However, when I was preparing this paper, it was not going as smoothly as I imagined it would.

Isabella: In my experience with VCE exams, the pressure was high but the different methods were varied. Most people tend to like it. Yu, what’s your take on this exam prep style?

Yu: The questions of ‘partly open-book examinations’ are open and subjective, so the test builders (exam writers?) generally will draw up exam questions by combining social phenomena with examinable contents to test students’ abilities. Therefore, it is impossible for students to find accurate answers from their ‘permitted cheat sheet’ since there are no definite answers for subjective questions. Everything on the sheet can only be used for reference. My Chinese friends write on it in Chinese.

Isabella: Ah yes, fabled ‘real-world examples’. I guess the cheat sheet works well when you use the right techniques. For example, I was told to write the niche details of potential answers. Not the obvious things we can easily remember. There’s a balance in what depth of knowledge we bring to the exam.

Yu, local students fill the cheat sheet so much. There is often more ink than there is paper! How much do you fill yours? And what do you try to put on it?

Yu: Firstly, I tried to write everything but you know that’s not realistic. So I realised I must review the slides of lectures and then make sense about what I had learnt, and try to get the key points. Besides, the blank area on the paper is limited; I must make the most use of it by copying key points.

In the end, ‘partly open-book examination’ is not about remembering the knowledge entirely, but understanding it.

But unfortunately, in the real exam, most of what I wrote on the cheat sheet ended up being unrelated to the questions. I had to answer the questions with what I had understood and memorised instead. So I would choose my former Chinese method rote learning if given the choice. I think it would work better for me in future exams. I prefer remembering useful content to copying useless knowledge in the time-limited final study week.

Isabella: That seems hardly fair on you and other international students. What a shame your efforts didn’t work out so well. How have you found the teachers compare from China to Australia?

Yu: In China, I found my teachers were always telling us what specifically to look out for in exam preparation. As we learned, they pointed out important things for us to memorise exactly, because it is exactly what they wanted us to write. I don’t see this as much with my Australian teachers. This way is normal in China, and they prioritise seeing that students can remember things, not if they actually understand.

Isabella: Goodness, why? In Australia, the local student would find that quite harsh.

Yu: Well, many Chinese people had been forced to recite a number of Chinese ancient poems during childhood, even though they didn’t understand these poems’ meaning at that time. But as they grow up and accumulate knowledge, they gradually can understand the meaning of these poems eventually. There is a Chinese saying that ‘reading the book a hundred times will make the meaning self-evident’. It is similar to ‘practice makes perfect’.

Isabella: I love that sometimes direct translation is so charming and convoluted.

In light of that, to some Australian students, there’s a stereotype of the education system in China being incredibly strict and inflexible. Now that you have experienced a different system in Australia, how do the two compare?

Yu: Yeah, there definitely are differences between Chinese and Australian education systems. One obvious point being who is correct when students are learning, or who should students believe. In Australia, we always were answered that it is up to you by teachers, sometimes even a Yes or No cannot be confirmed. But in China, we must listen to our teachers, even though they are wrong sometimes, this is not only in China, but also in most Eastern countries.

Isabella: Though it may vary by course, I tend to think people will study at their own pace, on their own. Group studying is for some, but it easily becomes unproductive.I don’t think a lot of local students study this way very often.. Have you found a difference between how students studied back home in China vs how the local student studies?

Yu: The difference exists exactly, but all paths lead to Rome. Here, to relate this with exam preparation, Chinese path is rote learning, Australian path is with a cheat-sheet, and Rome is passing the exam. But, on the Chinese path students struggle memorising the key points while on the Australian road students struggle writing that. But, if they want a further step, understanding the knowledge is necessary, and it is not enough to just get the key points. So, I want to say the ultimate purpose of the two education systems are similar - get the key points and then try our best to understand and master the knowledge.


Article: Yu Jin and Isabella Krebet

Photos: Romi Martini


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