Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated May 02, 2019
By Kim Ooi

Behavior management in Chinese universities

Picture this scene: you’re standing in front of your university English class in China trying to explain something.

Meanwhile, Adam has his head on his desk, sleeping, Sugar is playing with her mobile phone and Fiona is doing homework from another class. Some of the other students are talking with each other.

You put out one ‘spot fire’ only for two more to flare up.

Does this situation sound familiar?

Well, at university you can’t make students write lines, send them to detention or exclude them from your class. And you certainly can’t hit them.

So, what do you do to manage their behavior? And should you use the carrot or the stick in your approach?

The two extremes

Most universities in China allow teachers to allocate a certain proportion of a student’s final grade (25-33%) for attendance and behavior.

You could make a list of rules for your class and deduct points for any infringements. That’s what I used to do.

My students knew that I meant business and they respected me for it.

But as a strict teacher, I ran into two problems.

Firstly, with an average class size of 35-40 students and seven classes per teacher, I was often unable to correctly identify the students whom I wished to penalize.

Managing student behavior in Chinese universities

A university student debate in China.

Secondly, deducting penalty points (using the ‘stick’) without giving any rewards for good behavior (‘carrot’) made me unpopular and had a negative impact on morale.

My university almost refused to renew my contract.

At the other extreme, you have the laid-back teacher in China. This is the one who tells lots of jokes, makes the students laugh, wears casual attire to class, plays lots of movies and hands out small treats.

I know two teachers like this.

The first one had to get really angry and slam his fist on the desk to get the students to pay attention. The second one now has a really poor attendance problem.

The third way

Since university teachers generally have little scope to use the stick, behavior management becomes much easier if you can earn your students’ respect.

Turn up to class regularly, on time and prepared.

Dress appropriately (collared shirt, dark trousers and black leather shoes for men and similar professional attire for ladies) and show the students that you’re passionate about teaching, professional and take your job seriously.

Knowing when to be stern and when to be easy-going is crucial.

Recently, a student approached me with a deeply personal problem. The fact that she trusted me enough to confide in me was very touching.

Using the carrot

Once you have your students’ respect, however, you need to maintain it. There are other ways to manage your class effectively, one of which is by giving out rewards for participation.

Rather than deducting marks for bad behavior (using the stick), give bonus marks for good behavior (the carrot) instead.

Recently, I decided to give each student who answered a question or gave an opinion in class a ‘participation ticket’. This was simply a small piece of paper on which they could write their names.

I certainly didn’t have any problems identifying the correct students to be rewarded and it was amazing how eager the students became too.

Whenever I asked a question, many hands would go up. Their fear of losing face or getting an answer ‘wrong’ or any shyness simply disappeared!

Why? Because each participation ticket meant a boost for their final grade.

This is the only thing that Chinese students really care about.

Participation tickets can be given to manage student behavior

Participation tickets.

The main problem with this method was the temptation to cheat.

Some students started making their own ‘tickets’ from their notepads. This is amazing given they never seem to have any paper when they need to take notes in class!

I had to insert a tiny signature in the corner of each participation square. Problem solved!

Motivate Chinese students by making it count

If you want your students to do something, make it count towards their final grade.

Chinese university students greatly dislike being given homework by foreign teachers and they often don’t do it.

Some students even seem to think that they’re only obliged to do work in class.

But if students don’t do preparatory work as homework, valuable class time is wasted with preparations.

When I discussed this problem with some of the Chinese teachers, I was told: “Chinese students care a lot about their final grade. If you want them to do homework, you should tell them that if they do their homework, they will get 100% in your exam but if they don’t do it then they will only get 80%”.

I don’t think that any teacher would be generous enough to give their students full marks just for doing homework.

However, the principle behind it is valid: allocate a proportion of the final grade for homework (or whatever it is that you want your students to do) and they’ll be more likely to do it.

Keep your classroom activities varied and interesting

No student likes a boring teacher or dull lessons.

If you only use one method repeatedly or a limited number of methods, your students will soon get bored. That’s usually when behavior management problems happen.

So, keep your lessons varied! Use quizzes, games, role-plays, discussions, debates, student presentations, movies, stories and more.

Creating a wide range of activities to keep students engaged is one the many skills you need to be a successful university teacher in China.

Let the students teach

One lesson that I learnt very early in my teaching career in China was the importance of regularly surveying my students.

Students in China are quite powerful and teachers are often assessed not on how well they teach, but on how popular they are with their students.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be the class clown or an adept entertainer, as some foreign teachers seem to believe.

Instead, ask your students how they would like to be taught.

When I did this, one idea that came up was to allow the students to take over the lessons by doing presentations.

Student presentations can work in China

Playing games in a university classroom in China.

The students making the presentation felt a sense of pride and the teacher’s workload is reduced since they have less planning and preparation to do.

For me, it was a win-win situation.

So, which is better, the carrot or the stick?

Like most things in life, it’s about striking the right balance.

In my opinion, a good teacher should always strive to use the carrot whenever possible.

At the same time, they should make it clear to students that they’re not afraid to use the stick if the situation warrants it.

I hope you have some success managing behavior in your classroom in China.

It gets easier the more you practice!

When managing student behavior in the classroom, do you use the carrot or the stick? Please comment below.


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