Science - February 19, 2004

Chinese exam results not yet up to scratch

The first exam results from the group of Chinese bachelor students who arrived late in Wageningen before the second period are not up to scratch. Students and staff are thinking of ways to minimise the setbacks the Chinese are experiencing.

“The results of the Chinese participants in this course were lower than those of their Dutch classmates,” says Rik Beeftink, who taught the introduction to process engineering to second-year undergraduates in November and December last year. Dr Theo Lexmond, the study advisor for environmental sciences, was a ‘little irritated’ by the quick judgements expressed by people in Wb last year about Chinese students who had only been two weeks in the Netherlands.

However, he does admit that the students who arrived during the first period have not achieved good exam results. “One student is performing very well, and passed all exams the first time round, some students did not pass everything but will probably pass the retakes. But there are also some students who got very low grades or did not even show up to exams. Apparently some of them need more time to acclimatise and become used to the Netherlands,” Lexmond says.

Bottlenecks

Lexmond goes on to say that evaluations have now been carried out with both students and teachers, and the results of these will be used to help search for ways to decrease the lag these students have. One of the bottlenecks, says Lexmond, is the language skills of the students. “Although all students passed the IELTS test, the BSc students are less fluent in English than their compatriots in the MSc programme. The level of the IELTS might not match the level that is required to study in Wageningen. Another bottleneck is that the students do not know many technical terms, at least in English. The original agreement between Wageningen University and the Chinese Agricultural University was that the teachers in China would use English textbooks, but apparently this has not always worked out in practice.

The education of this group of students was also hampered by the fact that CAU was closed for some time last year because of Sars. Dutch students already get training in how to work in groups at high school, but this is not the case for Chinese students. They are not familiar with project-based teamwork, or with short, intensive courses. Higher education at the CAU is still taught in a traditional way, which includes less practical education than in Wageningen. Students told me that they are usually finished with lectures by three o’clock in the afternoon there,” Lexmond says.

Getting the hang of things

Si Wang, who is studying food science and arrived during the second period, says that he did not have enough time to study during that period. “We spent a lot of time getting the hang of cash withdrawals from the bank and cooking. It’s not a problem now, but we need more time than we did in China. All things are difficult before they become easy and we have to adapt to the new life style. This period we are now able to pay more attention to our studies, so I hope we will do better. But I have to admit that we find the course difficult, so we need the university to provide extra help. For instance, at the beginning of the period we could do with a short lecture about the course to point out the important parts in textbooks, key words.”

Sanwen Huang, president of the Chinese Association of Students and Scholars in Wageningen (CASSW), agrees with Wang: “I think that there are a number of reasons for the low scores of the students: Sars, mistakes in the CAU preparatory course, late arrival due to visa delays, the yet-to-be-optimised WUR education system. Now the university should provide extra help to these students. Don’t let them become the ‘guinea pigs’ of the CAU-WUR experiment.”

Support

“If more staff are needed to support these students then we will organise that,” says Paul Deneer, head of education and student affairs. He acknowledges the situation and says that to be able to determine the reasons behind the low pass rate, it is very important to talk with all the students involved. “Some of the conversations we have already had indicate that students are not only experiencing difficulties with language and the intensive education methods, but also in the way exams are set. The students are used to reproducing memorised material. Here, linking issues and showing understanding is more important. We would also urge the students here to continue with English language lessons to improve their command of the language. We are going to talk with the project leaders so that they can prepare the next group better. In China things are already going better this year. First of all there has been no outbreak of Sars, and two Americans are teaching English to the group. They are quite enthusiastic about the language skills of the students and expect fewer problems next year.”

More time

Deneer does not think it is necessary to provide all education in China in English. “Some parts of the course and the books should be in English,” he says. “We also want to add some typical ‘group’ education to the Chinese part of the programme.” Deneer adds that the students will have more time to get adjusted to Wageningen next academic year. “They will arrive around August 15. We also want to add an extra week between the AID and the start of lectures in which we can explain safety measures and that kind of thing.”

Rien Bor, who is in charge of international marketing, does not regard the results of individual students as news. Nevertheless, he says he can think of about twenty measures that would help get the Chinese part of the education programme up to scratch. These could be discussed with the Chinese project managers who will visit Wageningen at the beginning of March. He does not want to say too much before negotiations have been completed, but mentions that entrance exams could be a possible measure.

Guido van Hofwegen

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