Are Students Prepared for the Future?- Jess Hench

Are Students Prepared for the Future?     

A Comparison of Graduate Programs in China and the United States

by Jess Hench


Significant differences exist between the structure and nature of higher education in the United States and China.  Differences include the role of standardized tests, the pedagogy used in the classroom, the underlying beliefs about education in each country, and the relationship between students and faculty.  These differences dramatically impact the students enrolled in such programs.  In the U.S., students have meaningful experiences and connections with faculty that prepare them for careers after graduation.  In China, however, many interactions with students reveal that graduate students there do not feel quite so prepared for careers upon completion of their programs.


The Nature and Structure of  Graduate Classrooms:


Dr. Leslie Grant engages with students during small-group discussions

In graduate programs in the U.S., professors often ask students to collaborate in groups and to engage in discussions about the subject matter.  The professor typically walks around the room listening as the groups talk and engaging with the students during their discussions.

Some use of lecture is necessary, as professors communicate new information to students.  Students take notes, many using laptop computers, and students also interact frequently with the professors during the lectures.  Students are welcome to ask questions, give examples, and share additional knowledge with the class.


Dr. Mike DiPaola observes student-led “Graffiti Wall” activity









In this clip, Dr. Leslie Grant talks about the use of collaboration in her courses (personal communication, February 14, 2013).  She stresses the importance of having students work together collaboratively in class.  The collaborative approach supports Gergen’s (1995, p.34) adult learning theory that suggests, “One learns through engaging, incorporating, and critically exploring the views of others, and new possibilities of interpretations are open through the interaction.”



I observe the Sociology of Higher Education course at Shaanxi Normal University

During our EDUC 500 course in China, our group visited a classroom as a professor taught the Sociology of Higher Education to graduate students.  The students sat silently during class, focused on the professor’s lecture and PowerPoint presentation.  They wrote notes as they listened, and no students looked around the room during the class session.  When the professor asked questions, students were hesitant to answer.  The professor lectured for the entire class period, never asking the students to engage with each other or to share experiences or thoughts with the class.  This demonstrated the distinction between student and professor and made it clear for me that they do not interact on the same level.


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An Fanqi and me at East China Normal University

An Fangqi is a graduate student studying Educational Economy and Administration at East China Normal University.  She said to me with frustration, “What you have learned in university is not related to what you are doing.  You find you are wasting your time in university.  We just sit and listen to the teacher tell us blah blah blah, and we take notes and remember and take the exam.  Then we find what we have learned can’t solve problems in the real world.”  (personal communication, March 8, 2013)




Here, students at Shaanxi Normal University answer questions about their graduate school lessons (personal communication, March 4, 2013):



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Students in a high school classroom in China. Photo courtesy of Beverly Wang, Chinese student at W&M.

The lecture-based graduate school style is more like the way students are taught in high school.  Students in Chinese high schools wear uniforms to school and keep their hair cut short and neutral.  They are meant to look alike so they focus only on their studies.  Their focus is to prepare for the GaoKao, the test that will determine their futures.  In 2012 alone, 9.1 million students took this exam in China (China Education Center, 2013).  This test determines where each of those 9.1 million students will go next.





In this viral video, spoken word artist Suli Breaks shares his belief that exam scores are not enough to determine the futures of young people.  This shows that the Western world has influenced youth to believe that there are many ways to learn and experience the world beyond what is lectured in the classroom and measured by test scores.

The education system in China has a long history of functioning under the premise of the Instruction Paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995), by which the role of education is to pass knowledge from professor to student.   This was the way of Chinese education from its very beginnings in the 16th century BC (China Education Center, 2013), when education was a privilege known only to elite citizens.  As time has moved on, however, China is moving toward the Learning Paradigm, by which, “a college’s purpose is not to transfer knowledge but to create environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves” (Barr & Tagg, 1995, p.15).  {Here, my classmate Alicia Frederickson shares more about these two paradigms}.


The College Professor:


With Chin Jie at BNU


Chen Jie, a student at Beijing Normal University (BNU), was quite surprised to learn that we call our professor by his first name.  (personal communication, March 28, 2013). She said they would never do that in China.  She also explained to me that the relationship between students and faculty is very formal.  Professors teach the courses, and the students are subordinate to the professors.  In our culture, on the other hand, and particularly in the Higher Education program, we interact with professors on quite another level, as my U.S. interviews suggest.




Here, W&M professor Dr. Pam Eddy speaks about how she was treated differently when she visited China (personal communication, February 14, 2013).  This expands upon what Chen Jie and I found to be the difference in the way we interact with our professors.

Dr. Grant described the role of university faculty in the U.S. as being focused on teaching, research, and service (personal communication, February 14, 2013).  Part of all three of those areas is engaging students here at the university in each of those areas. She believes it is important to interact with those students, learn about their interests, and help connect them to opportunities.  She says, “One of the characteristics of a really good teacher is one who has a good relationship with their students.  This is very important at the higher education level, to have positive, productive relationships with one another.  As faculty, it is our responsibility to cultivate those relationships by getting to know our students.” 


From Graduate Programs to Careers:

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Debi and I with students at Shaanxi Normal University

My classmate, Debi, and I interviewed four female graduate students who are working on master’s degrees in Higher Education at Shaanxi Normal University.  They seem to enjoy their program and their university (personal communication, March 4, 2013).  The problem I observed, however, is that the higher education program is quite new and may therefore be somewhat underdeveloped.  These four girls are studying higher education, but they could not articulate a clear reason for studying this field or a sense of what their careers might look like in this field.  In fact, they really had no idea what types of jobs might exist in higher education, as their institutions are primarily run by the government.  They seem quite lost as far as what will come next after they graduate.



The students also have very vague ideas as to what they will study for their master’s theses.  I asked if their professors help them to figure out topics or help them learn about what types of career opportunities they might aim for.  There is hardly any help in these areas from the professors.  They will likely research whatever their professors research, and there is no guidance or practical experience for them to gain career knowledge.  {Click here to learn what my classmate, Debi Butler, took away from the same interview}

One of the students I spoke with in the Sociology class said she studied Russian as her undergraduate major.  I asked her what made her interested in Russian. The truth is, she does not like Russian at all and has no interest in the language or the country.  She wanted to study English, but her test scores were not high enough, so she was left with Russian (personal communication, March 4, 2013).  This suggests that there may be millions of students in China who are studying subjects that do not interest them and that they may never pursue further after college.  The girls at Shaanxi Normal are studying higher education, but it sounds likely that they will not be able to get into careers in the field.

In contrast, students in U.S. programs have many opportunities to prepare them for careers after graduation.  They work collaboratively with professors to gain meaningful experience and a sense of what takes place in the field, and they can approach faculty for advice about their future careers.  Chinese education reflects the ancient Confucius lesson “officials follow the emperor; children follow parents; the wife follows the husband; and students follow the teacher” (Lee, 2010, p.21).

In this video, Tehmina Khwaja talks about her experiences working with faculty members as a graduate student.  She explains how these experiences have been a crucial component of her education (personal communication, February 18, 2013)



Liu Xiuxia and her classmates at East China Normal University

Students like Tehmina graduate from masters and doctoral programs with meaningful experiences and knowledge that will help them navigate careers in the field they have studied.

Liu Xiuxia is earning a masters degree in Human Resource Development.  She has had more practical experiences than her peers in education programs (personal communication, March 8, 2013).  She was able to take part in a national conference, do field research in local companies, and even have internships.  Her classmates, on the other hand, did not have such opportunities in their programs.  They do not seem certain about where their career paths may take them after they graduate, because they have not had opportunities to have meaningful experiences in the field or to engage collaboratively with their professors.


Dr. Eddy’s class at the U.S. capitol


At W&M, one of Dr. Eddy’s courses is titled Educational Policy: Analysis and Development for graduate students in the Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership (EPPL) program.  In this course, students learn about the ways in which educational policy is created, implemented, followed, and amended in the United States and in the state of Virginia.  Each year, Dr. Eddy schedules a field trip for her class to visit the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C., where students visit the Board of Education, the House of Representatives, and other sites to learn about educational policy from the people who are involved in it daily.  This provides an opportunity for students to establish networks, bring their reading and assignments to life, and to understand how the subject matter translates from what is being learned in the classroom to what takes place daily in the field.

In China, Li Peiwei is studying Pre-School Education at ECNU.  She explains that most of her lessons are theory based.  “Theory is very beautiful,” says Peiwei, “but it is hard to apply theory to practice” (personal communication, March 8, 2013)  Peiwei’s feelings stand in contrast to one of the major goals of China’s push for increased higher education: to expand the middle class by having more citizens employed (Huiyao, 2012).



Students give a presentation on their research

In the William & Mary School of Education, students are given many opportunities to do independent research on areas of their interest and to showcase their work in public arenas.  The School of Education (SOE) has many student-led initiatives for showcasing work and inviting collaboration between students, faculty, and educators.  These opportunities reflect the Learning Paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995), which suggests that the student is the chief agent in the learning process.



Students share their research with their peers


In April of 2013, the Graduate Education Association hosted the SOE’s first annual Symposium, a forum for students to lead sessions or present posters of their research.  Many faculty members attended the event to support students and encourage their work through inquiry, but the entire event was created and led by students.






Founders of the William & Mary Educational Review discuss their work





This year, graduate students also created the very first academic journal, the William & Mary Educational ReviewGraduate students desired an outlet for presenting their written work publicly and to provide an opportunity for students to go through the publication process.  A group of students proposed the idea, garnered support, and saw the journal through to its first publication.  They presented their work at the Symposium and will also present at a state-wide conference for women in higher education.


I met a student on the plane on the way home, and we had a Graduation_Thinker_LuMaxArtgreat conversation that further enhanced what I learned in China.  Yan Feng, from China, is a senior at Michigan State University.  He was a student at a university in China for one year before transferring to the U.S. (personal communication, March 9, 2013).  Yan Feng noted that students in the at MSU seem more serious than his classmates in China. “Students work really hard.  In China, the work is not as serious, not as demanding.” He also explained that there is more practical experience available in the U.S..  “Students in China do not come out prepared for work,” he told me.  Yan Feng’s friends who attend Chinese universities have no idea what they want to do when they finish.  “The students in Michigan mostly know what they want to do when they finish.”



Chinese families work incredibly hard to put their children through college.  With over eight million students earning college degrees (Bradsher, 2013), it is disconcerting to think that so many of those students might not be prepared for the job market after they graduate.  “Chinese citizens who bet all of their savings on their children’s educations have fewer options if their offspring are unable to find a job upon graduation (Bradsher, 2013, p.2).

The role of faculty in higher education is crucial to ensuring student success upon graduation.  In the U.S., college professors are highly educated professionals who typically have a significant amount of experience in the fields about which they teach.  This depth of knowledge helps students understand the subject matter in meaningful ways, and the collaboration with faculty and other students gives them a rich, holistic experience within and beyond the classroom.

As systems of higher education evolve, countries are constantly looking to other countries for best practices and comparisons.  In many ways, the United States education system is beginning to take on characteristics of international education systems, including that of China.  The U.S. wants to be competitive with countries like China in terms of standardized test scores, and our K-12 curriculum has shifted dramatically to meet this goal.  Test scores have become a much greater focus in U.S. schools than they had been in the past.  After visiting China and learning about the struggles that students have in higher education, it is clear that the U.S. may be chasing the wrong goals by trying to emulate China’s system.  While test scores are important for holding schools accountable, the focus on rote memorization limits students by taking time away from meaningful experiences to learn in context.

China, too, is reaching beyond its own borders to see what is taking place in other countries.  While testing remains an important part of the Chinese education system, they are also learning from Western countries and adopting some practices.  Dr. Linyuan Deng of Beijing Normal University told us that they are changing the way they teach counseling and teaching to more closely resembles western education.  Professors are making an effort to use more collaborative methods in the classroom to give students are more rich understanding of subject matter.  {My classmates, Richelle Joe, created a wonderful project about counseling in China. Click here to read more}.  China is gradually shifting toward the Learning Paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995), while still retaining key elements of the long-respected Instruction Paradigm.


W&M’s Dr. Leslie Grant with Ma Hua, a Chinese professor earning a PhD at W&M


The United States and China both have many aspects of their educational systems that are strong and positive.  Both countries engender the belief in a strong education as the backbone of a nation, stressing the importance of learning and contributing to the greater society.  These countries have many differences too, as noted in this report, but this is not to suggest that one way is better than the other.  There is much to be learned and shared through research and partnerships between the U.S. and China.  The more we interact and collaborate, the more we will help each other pursue our goals of educating our nations to the best of our abilities.






*All photos and videos come from my personal collection unless otherwise noted.

Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995).  From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education.  Change, 27(6), pp. 12-25.

Bradsher, K. (2013).  In China, families bet it all on college for their children.  New York Times.  

China Education Center, LTD. (2013). 

Gergen, K. J. (1995).  Social construction and the educational process. Hillsdale, NJ:  Erlbaum.

Huiyao, W. (2012).  Good for China and the rest of the world.  New York Times. 

Lee, P. (2010).  Introduction to higher education in China.  Lexington, KY: Patrick Lee.