Does the university entrance exam stop Vietnamese students from thinking critically?

By Dr Wei Wei, LSU

Every summer is a headache for Asian students who have almost finished high school as university entrance exams arrive. A good exam score is interpreted as the primary indicator for a wide range of things, for example, the students’ efforts, intelligence, learning strategies and learning outcomes, teachers’ capabilities, efforts, commitment, schools’ facilities and efforts.

Examinations, especially the high-stakes university entrance exams, have been constantly criticised as the main reason why Vietnamese students do not have enough critical thinking skills. From what I read, the local media normally describes the test as an “intelligence monster”, which “kills young high school graduates’ critical thinking skills”, “demotivates students to do any (so- called) deep learning” and “forces students to memorize knowledge rather than create their own ideas by linking different ideas”. Moreover, some reports describe classes in senior high schools as “coaching the previous exam papers” and “lecturing the tested knowledge”. They argue that these kinds of test-driven instructions in the classroom, which are often looked upon negatively, are a result of the high-stakes tests. Finally, some other experts claim that “so much classroom time and resources have been wasted on teaching or preparing students for taking the university entrance exams” because students will never use some of the knowledge again in the future. One of the most popular criticisms is the link between the high-stakes university examinations and local students’ insufficient critical thinking skills. In short, previous discussions in the media present the national university entrance exams as a negative and unnecessary educational intervention. Therefore, it could be argued that many of the problems related to students’ insufficient critical thinking skills could be solved if the high stakes tests are scrapped.

However, fantasizing and blaming the negative impact of the traditional exam system in countries like Vietnam is a cheap, convenient and safe choice.

“Cheap choice” refers to how little empirical evidence has been uncovered to draw conclusions. Journalists constantly talk about this as if it was a fact. A simple comparative study can tell us that it may not be appropriate to presume that a test may undermine students’ development of critical thinking skills. Here are some simple facts. Vietnam is not the only country in Asia which uses students’ scores from national university entrance exams for admission purposes. Other Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea, with better reputations and capabilities in technological innovation have a much more competitive university entrance examination system. Take Japan as an example. Its exam system shares many similarities with the Vietnamese one: the test-driven instruction in the final year of secondary school, rapidly growing and well established private tutorial industry aiming to help students achieve higher scores, the increasing number of commercial publications investing money in designing and publishing test preparation books and students’ extremely high level of stress and low level of motivation for learning. It is therefore hardly convincing that the national university entrance exam is often blamed for graduates’ insufficient critical thinking skills after graduation.

“Convenient answer” refers to the fact that the real stakeholders are always missing from the previous discussions. In other words, without addressing the real problem, previous discussions in the media seems to simplify the complexity of the problem and merely serve to hastily get a convenient but acceptable answer. So what is the real problem? Well, it would be unrealistic to expect a simple answer to this in this forum, but what has been missed from previous debates/discussions on the negative impact of university entrance exams on students’ critical thinking skills is the content of the exam (not the exam system). One of the fundamental problems here is the inconsistency between the curriculum and exam papers. In other words, the relationship between what has been taught (what needs to be taught) and what has been tested (what should be tested).

First of all, it is about the distribution of power. This raises concerns over who actually controls the education system, which has a direct impact on whom the teachers and students should follow. This is not new at all. The inconsistency between the teaching curriculum and exams happens almost everywhere to some extent. To address this problem however is not easy. It needs consistent support from the Ministries of Education in the countries that adhere to this style of examination system, in addition to frequent and efficient communication between curriculum development teams and assessment teams. Secondly, if a high level of consistency between curriculum and assessment can be achieved, there would be nothing wrong in teaching to the test strictly and repeatedly, because teaching to the test means teaching the curriculum and preparing the students with the necessary skills for their future jobs. In other words, the problem is the alignment between skills/knowledge for jobs, curriculum and assessments.

“Safe answer” means it is a “mainstream idea” which has been accepted by every stakeholder (including schools, parents and students) but fails to offer a solution based on which actions should be taken. It is amazing how many years the university entrance exams’ negative consequences have been discussed and how few actual changes have been made by governments that administer these types of exams. It is a safe answer because all the stakeholders in the system accept the answer and can easily find an excuse for doing nothing to change the situation. It is more likely to be a show performed by all the stakeholders in this game. On one hand, journalists interview the educational experts every year at this time, with educational experts expressing their concerns over the link between tests and students’ lack of critical thinking skills. On the other hand, teachers at senior high schools continue their test-driven instruction and students continue their test preparation work.

So let’s go back to the question in the title. A simple answer is “no”. First of all, critical thinking can be taught and assessed. A valid and reliable assessment can be introduced to promote its instruction at classroom level. There is nothing wrong in teaching to a good test. Secondly, the development of critical thinking skills needs a supportive environment where the knowledge is not classified as tested or non-tested nor defined by a few authorities without challenge from others. At the expense of sounding repetitive, what I mean is that the definition of learning is not to simply identify and memorize tested knowledge which has been defined by a select few “powerful scholars” who remain irreproachable.

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3 responses to “Does the university entrance exam stop Vietnamese students from thinking critically?”

  1. Barend Scholtus says :

    The entrance exam gets you into uni, so they feel the exam defines how you should get out of high school:

    “A teacher received complaints from neighbouring classes that his students were too noisy. He was then advised by the headmaster that “people look at the number of students that pass the national exam, not at how they learn. Therefore, stop it!” (Personal communication, 2004).”

    The problem is also with people’s perception of learning:

    “A Chinese student’s quote from Jin and Cortazzi (1998):

    Why does the teacher want us to talk together? She can’t listen to all of us talking at once. How can I learn by talking to my friend? He only knows what I know. I may learn his mistakes. I want to listen to the teacher, she knows more. (p. 744)”

    Mai Nguyen-Phuong-Mai, Cees Terlouw & Albert Pilot (2012): Cooperative Learning in Vietnam and the West–East educational transfer, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 32:2,137-152

  2. huynhngoct says :

    this subject can be also explored with an a framework of motivation analysis. (An article wrote by BJ Fogg with his suggested behavior/motivation framework) – in which he argues a behavior (in this case: Critical Thinking for Undegrad freshmen) can only happen with strong motivation and strong ability to execute.

    As for my point of view, I look at it like this: Gaining UEE give strong extrinsic motivation while critical thinking (or any type of educational self-actualization) is a natural result of intrinsic motivation. Hence the conflicting nature reinforced by the lack of ability (resource) to achieve (or maintain) both these motivation types. They have to make a choice.

  3. thanh nguyen says :

    University entrance exam in Vietnam requires students’ hard working and diligence, not their methods of thinking. In school (especially scram school ), students spend much of their time doing exercises, while teachers teach them the most effective and fastest ways and tips to solve problems that are often appear in the tests, students memorize the paradigms and follow them closely during the exams. This teaching method does not encourage students to evoke critical thinking but solely impose them upon memorizing by heart the exact methods and tricks on solving exam problems which they get quite used to for doing many exercises and assignments together with hardship and perspiration.

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