Transitioning to university in Vietnam

By Dy Healy, LSU

July – This morning, on my way to work, I saw lots of parents sitting in front of every school, waiting for their children with anxious faces. “Will my child be able to answer all the questions? Is she confident enough? Has she prepared everything she needs?” Seven years ago, my parents felt extremely nervous and prayed continuously for their child, and this morning I am certain these parents were doing exactly the same for theirs.

August- The results came out today! Newspapers with long lists of student names, marks, and university announcements were sold out quickly. Vietnamese college websites were frozen by excessive traffic. Hundreds of parents and students searched for the answers to their dreams, efforts, and prayers.

Are these hundreds of students really prepared for what is expected of them at university?

Every year, in July and August, when hundreds of students throughout Vietnam take their University Entrance Exams, this question keeps coming back to me. Passing University Entrance Exams means having a ticket to be at tertiary levels to study for your own interests, jobs, and futures. In Vietnam, this meaning is also highly related to the pride of your family, the fame of your high school, and on the surface, the achievement of an education. For such reasons, University Entrance Examinations play a very stressful role in Vietnamese students’ lives.

Grade 12, the last year of high school, is sometimes ironically called the “Death Race” by Vietnamese students. Every day, after school, most students rush to evening classes to take extra lessons for University Entrance Exams. Their study schedules are very busy. Moving from class to class, having quick dinners, and coming home late at night to complete more assignments due the following day are inevitable facts of life. In evening classes, teachers usually give students questions from previous exams. Students learn the forms of the questions, memorize the answers, and hope they will find similar questions in the upcoming exams.

I remember my Literature teacher used to read her sample essays to a class of more than fifty students. Every student wrote down her words carefully and learnt them by heart for exams. Once I asked my teacher “If I do not follow your essay, but use my own ideas, what will happen?” She replied: “Other students will finish writing their essays (which means my teacher’s essay) while you are still composing your own ideas and run out of time”. But I was stubborn, and in the exam I abandoned my teacher’s model answer. Indeed, that year, my Literature mark was not as high as my friends’. The unpleasant lesson I learned was that it was better to repeat what was provided to me than to try and think for myself.

I am currently working for an International University. Whenever my colleagues discuss how Vietnamese students lack critical thinking, I totally agree with them, and sadly feel sorry for our students, but wonder who is to blame for this fact? The Vietnamese students who do not try to form their own ideas? The high school and night class teachers who do not encourage students to think critically? The education system which has some imperfect forms of assessment? Or the society that values the pride of being at university but forgets the true meaning of learning at university?

Most students would rather follow what other people do after some time trying to write independently and receiving lower marks than their friends. Consequently, they are incapable of expressing their own thoughts. Most high schools would not like their names attached to high numbers of failed students in University Entrance Exams. Teachers then feel pressure to achieve high pass rates in their classes. As a result, they tend to teach their students the “safest way” to pass University Entrance Exams.

From conversations with my expat friends, I understand that in some other countries the scores of high school graduation are regarded as basic criteria for students to choose their university. If only it were the same in Vietnam, our students would not have to study so hard to take two big exams in the same year of grade 12- High school graduation and University Entrance Exams. Students could have some time to enjoy their last year of high school instead of running from one evening classes to another, trying to put as much knowledge as possible into their heads, and forgetting this knowledge as quickly once they have already passed the exams.

In fact, even the successful students are not prepared for what is expected of them at universities. As we all say “Old habits die hard”, and after twelve years being so familiar with learning sample essays by heart, it is not easy for students to immediately think independently and critically. Students can’t express and defend their own ideas. They tend to become confused or even depressed with the self- learning method at international universities. Near semester exams, students often desperately look for their lecturers’ instructions of what will be tested as in high schools.  I empathise for Vietnamese students who first experience the international education environments. However, empathising does not mean I agree with students’ intentional ignorance. At some universities, Learning Skills Units and other consultation offices are set up to assist them in adapting to new approaches of study. It is sad that there are still many students who do not use such useful services to the full.

September is coming. Hundreds of students will start their first semester at university. I would like to congratulate them on their passing of University Entrance Exam and sincerely wish them all the best in higher education. I wish them success in freeing themselves from the old paths of learning and encourage them to earn for themselves the true pride of being fully independent university students. Earning this pride may be not easy at first. However, it is also not “impossible”. There is an inspirational quote that I often remind myself: “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something, and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do” – Helen Keller

From my own experiences, I would like to share some learning tips with Vietnamese freshmen at universities:

•    Instead of being afraid of new learning approaches, try to know them, ask people what you do not understand. Use the consultation services at your university.

•    Do not wait until exams come close then study.

•    Last but not least, believe in yourself. If you are not able to change the majority, change yourselves, make a difference in your learning attitudes. Make the effort to think on your own and value your ideas as your own body and soul. Be proud of them and do not copy others.

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9 responses to “Transitioning to university in Vietnam”

  1. clientmanagementvn says :

    It’s great to hear first hand point of view of someone who has actually been in that system and gives heartfelt encouragement to make a change in those who still have yet to find their way… I will share this to my students who are probably cramming for their exams next week! Thanks Dy ~Mel C

    • LSUvietnam says :

      Thanks, Mel. I hope my sharing will somehow help your students. Please tell them that the feelings of writing your own opinions and receiving comments from people are great. That’s how I feel now. They can do the same.

  2. Fiona Wiebusch says :

    Terrific insight into the student experience of transitioning to university life. Thanks for sharing, Dy.

  3. Hanh Tran says :

    Good learning tips Dy. I must say this is part of the education story in Vietnam though. We didn’t have to learn the whole sample essays by heart, but the main analytical ideas. That was how I got prepared and passed the university entrance exam with a high mark. Also there are successful stories of high achievers who didn’t go to evening classes but could stand at the top of their school. Therefore, it is mostly up to the student to adjust himself/herself t in any learning environment. In addition, who can tell whether east or west is better?

    • LSUvietnam says :

      Hi Hanh,
      Thanks for your opinions. I agree with you about two things. There is no obligation for Vietnamese students to learn the whole essays by heart in exams, and it is mostly up to the students to adjust himself/herself in any learning environment. The second point was what I wanted to emphasize here. The decisions to make are up to students. It is sad that the majority of our students are still confused about what they should do. Those are the ones I meant to help, not the high achievers. I am no expert to tell whether east or west is better. My ideas were mostly aimed at reflecting some real social phenomena.

  4. Thuy Tang says :

    I totally agree with your sharing about the current education in Vietnam. It’s true. I am an example . University entrance exams drove me crazy, under pressure form parents, relatives, neighborhoods…(maybe it’s for culture). As your said: “Moving from class to class, having quick dinners, and coming home late at night to complete more assignments due the following day are inevitable facts of life”…very exactly in my situation and other students although I was in the top good students in class. Do you know how many time took part in the exam? exactly 6 times …to get in a university. Sometime, I want to killed myself because of the failure. I told that to give an evidence

    Oh, I am very interested in the article which related thinking critical of students. Yes, you are right! Most of high school students have to get the teaching method (traditional method read-write). They are not reflective and active. Teachers are center. Teachers said and students follow…For example, I had a son study in Primary school, when he draw a potato, teacher said need to use red color. When I said you can use green or any color you want, but he said that “my teacher let me use red color. If i did not do like this, I will get bad mark”. Do you think it make to inhabit student’s thinking critical. Still have many examples to support for your argue. I absolutely like your topic. Vietnamese education still has many gaps and shortcomings

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The LSU Top 5 #37 | lsuvietnam - June 26, 2013
  2. Rote Learning: the best of a bad lot? | lsuvietnam - June 28, 2013

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