November 27, 2009

Why Chinese students outperform their Western peers?

A German exchange student is doing a survey on the title topic and asked me about it in two sub-questions: 

1) Describe in your own words how you would revise for an examination. 
2) Do you try to understand what you are learning? (not knowing the dictionary meaning of the word) 

And this is what I replied: 

1. I would say it differs from course to course. For technical courses, I would normally read the lecture notes or textbook or whatever the course has, and summarize the concepts/formulas that are supposed to be remembered by copying them on a sheet of paper or flash cards, and try to memorize. After that I'll re-do the problem sets done before. 

For a non-technical course, I would only do the first part - though this time the work load of the summarization is much more significant. 

I think these methods differ among students. For example, some would sit before a blank sheet of paper and try to recall and jot down the structure of the course with all relevant theorems etc. 

2. I do not fully understand your question. Do you mean whether I will try to understand the material without knowing some words? Well I would say the meaning of a few words really doesn't matter in capturing the essence of a piece of material, except when this word is the concept that the material is trying to explain. However, in the second case, the article will normally pin down a detailed definition of the term, and it dose not matter if you do not know the original/literal meaning of the word - though it helps, it won't be tested anyway. 

That said, personally I would usually look up a new word if it appear in an article I read - be it a textbook or just some novel I find interesting to read - not for getting a better mark though; just that I love enhancing my vocabulary. 

Nonetheless, I think a major contributor to the fact that students educated in China outperform in some areas is that they have much more mathematics in primary and high schools than typical western students. I remember reading an article saying that parents of ethnic Chinese kids in the U.S. always complain that the math taught in school is too easy and superficial; while their Caucasian counterparts complain that the math taught are too difficult for their children to learn. 

For me, I do not find any subject that merit equal importance as math, except for possibly language courses, in pre-tertiary education. It's used everywhere and in every academic discipline.

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