Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated March 01, 2022
By Kim Ooi

How to set exams in China

China’s education system is exam-focused and even foreign teachers can’t escape having to set exams.

Yet, no TEFL course to my knowledge teaches their trainees how to set and grade exams.

There are many ways to set exams and hopefully this blog will enlighten you to some of the main ones.

The main problem when trying to assess Chinese students

It is very easy for a Western educator to model their exams based on their own exams when they were a student. Big mistake!

Students in Western countries would be expected to be able to weigh up pros and cons, think laterally and critically and to have sound problem-solving and analytical skills.

Due to the fact that the education system in China is based largely on memorization and regurgitation, Chinese students, even at university level, have difficulty doing any of this.

Chinese students in a classroom at Jiangsu University China.

Chinese students have difficulty when it comes to things like critical thinking, according to teacher Kim.

Assessment options when teaching subjects

When setting exams in China for particular subjects, for example American History, I have found that the following assessment options work well:

Multiple-choice questions

This is what students in China are familiar with. They get to choose from four or five possible answers. The correct answer is staring the students in the face and even when they don’t know the correct answer, they can still guess.


Open-book exams

If your students find your subject difficult or if they have attendance or motivation problems (quite common at private colleges in China), open-book exams enable you to present your school with good grades and a 100% pass rate.

Graduating female university students in China.

Setting open-book exams in China can ensure a 100% pass rate, says teacher Kim.

Student group presentations

The students have all the information at hand on exam day so no memorization is required. Students get to pick a topic that they are interested in.

Presentations allow the students to demonstrate their knowledge and practice their spoken English at the same time.

Finally, using group presentations drastically cuts down your workload.

Instead of having to mark 35-40 papers per class (these are typical student numbers in China’s public school system), you’ll only need to assess perhaps six or seven presentations.

Assessment options for productive language skills

Let’s start with setting oral English exams in China.

Bearing in mind that you’ll have many students to assess, one thing you should not do is to set them an individual speaking task because you simply won’t have enough time.

The solution is to set some sort of group work and this can be a role-play or a group presentation.

As your assessment criteria, you can use aspects such as:

  • correct use of grammar
  • accuracy of pronunciation
  • organization
  • fluency
  • vocabulary, and
  • whether or not what the student said actually answered the question.

With regard to reading and listening, a simple list of comprehension questions related to the reading or listening text would be all that you need to do.

How to assess writing skills in China

Writing exams in China can present a teacher with a headache because Chinese students are averse to learning anything that they perceive to be remotely ‘boring’.

You’ll therefore find it difficult to teach them any grammar rules which are the essential building blocks of a good essay.

As a result, the essays you get will have many mistakes in capitalization, spelling, use of articles, tenses, prepositions and so on.


Schools don’t like it when students fail exams so you’d need to work out how to give your school the results they want in spite of your students’ poor grasp of grammar. Here’s how:

1. Keep your exam short, structured and avoid any sort of ‘expressive’ writing. Some good topics might be to write a CV or job application letter.

Student sitting a written exam in China.

Avoid assessing your students' expressive writing in China, says teacher Kim.

2. Give your students as exam topics things that you have covered in class instead of something completely new. The problem with this is that they will then use their corrected class work as their exam script and you may find all of them scoring 100%.

3. In the event that you get exam scripts with lots of horrific errors in grammar, capitalization etc., there are four things that you can do:

  • Try to find other things to award marks for, e.g. quality of expression, structure, whether the student has made an effort to use longer sentences, how well they explain their ideas, whether they have expressed any feelings or opinions and whether they have attempted to do any analysis.
  • Set a base score which you would need in order to push all your scores to the required level, say 50%. Then add 50% to everyone’s grade. So someone who really scored 20% would then get 70%, someone who scored 30% would then get 80% etc. I was very surprised when a fellow teacher suggested this as a solution but apparently, this is common practice in China!
  • Ask your head of department what kind of score is expected. My boss required a small minority of students to score over 90% and between 60-70% respectively. Everyone else should get between 71-89%. Mark the scripts as normal and sort the papers from the best to the worst. The best four to five students, regardless of their ‘true’ score, get say 90-94%. The worst four to five students get between 60-70%. Everyone else gets between 71-89% based on their performance relative to everyone else’s.
  • Award grades as a reward for effort not knowledge. Students with the best behavior, attendance and who work hardest get the highest grades.

It never ceases to amaze me how many interesting things one learns as a foreign teacher in China, and setting exams is no exception.

Using ‘creative accounting’ to award grades is something that I’d never have thought of doing.

I guess that’s why TEFL in China is such a unique adventure!

I hope you liked my article about setting exams in China. You might also like the one I wrote highlighting the differences between teaching at a Chinese university and a Chinese college.

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