Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated April 05, 2020
By Kim Ooi

Chinese student cheating

While working in China as an English teacher, I’ve learned that some university students cheat in exams.

It’s an interesting phenomenon given many Chinese universities have a no-fail policy for paid-up students.

So why would a student want to cheat in an exam?

To get to the bottom of this intriguing question, I thought I’d make this issue one of the discussion topics in my oral English class.

I asked the following questions:

  • How do you feel about cheating?
  • Why do Chinese university students cheat in their exams?
  • How do they cheat?
  • How should a student who had been caught cheating be punished?

In this blog I’ve summarized my findings to help you better understand the concept of cheating in China and to make you a better teacher because of it.

How do Chinese university students feel about cheating in exams?

Despite the widespread problem of cheating, it appears that the students do at least have a conscience because they all agreed that it’s wrong to cheat.

They also felt that if they cheated in an exam, it would be unfair to their classmates who didn’t cheat.

On the other hand, I have invigilated exams where students were openly and blatantly whispering and passing the answers to each other!

Why do Chinese students cheat?

Chinese students acknowledge that it's wrong to cheat.

Unlike in the West where individual achievements are celebrated, China has a collectivist culture where the success of the group is more important than the success of the individual.

This sentiment is particularly pervasive in China’s education system.

Why do Chinese university students cheat in exams?

My lesson revealed seven reasons why a Chinese university student might be tempted to cheat.

1. They didn’t prepare for the exam

It’s common to see Chinese university students fall asleep in class.

Knowing China’s exam-oriented culture, you’d think that this was because they had been burning the midnight oil studying, right? Wrong!

My students told me that if any of their classmates fall asleep in class, it was usually because they had been up half the night playing computer games.

2. They want a good grade

Every student wants a good grade but there is a lot more pressure on students in China compared to the UK, for example.

In the UK, employers look at factors like interpersonal skills, problem-solving and critical thinking abilities. In China, however, a student’s final grade is of paramount importance.

If a student wishes to study abroad, work for a foreign company or even work in an English-speaking environment in China, they’ll struggle to get a job if their English grades at university are low.

3. Parental expectations

Every parent wants their child to do well and be successful but parental pressures are particularly acute in Asian societies.

Parental expectations is one reason why Chinese students cheat in exams

Parental expectations are high in China, especially when it comes to education.

As a British Chinese, this is something that I can relate to.

When I was a boy, I was under tremendous pressure to succeed. I was promised expensive rewards if I hit my parents’ targets and threatened with all sorts of punishments if I failed.

I was also repeatedly told that if I studied hard and passed all my exams, I would get to be a big boss, be able to own a nice house, drive a sports car and pull a gorgeous woman.

4. Teachers’ expectations

Teachers the world over are constantly under pressure to meet targets. For example, watchdog inspections and pressure from parents.

A teacher’s performance may even be evaluated based on the percentage of students in their class that achieves the top grade or gets into a top university.

As a student, I remember my school giving us a pep talk on behavior and being made to clean our classrooms just before an inspection.

It’s only human for a teacher to pass on those pressures to their students because it is the students’ results that determine their continued employment.

5. Successful students are more popular

This can be true in more ways than one.

Firstly, due to the sheer pressure to do well in exams, students would do anything that would help them to enhance their grades.

It’s common sense that if you hang out with someone who is cleverer or more successful than you are, you might be able to learn some of their secrets.

Secondly, it has been said that success is sexy. Successful students may attract more attention than those who don’t perform well academically.

6. They’ll have more opportunities in life

In theory, the more qualified you are, the more opportunities you’ll have.

We all know this isn’t always the case as there are so many other factors that determine career success, such as people skills, problem-solving skills and creativity.

Chinese university student

If a student gets better grades, they may have more opportunities.

However, a naive young student brought up in China’s exam-oriented culture may equate exam success with getting a good job.

I certainly did when I was their age!

7. They’re unaware of the university’s no-fail policy

One thing I’ve noticed is how nervous – or even terrified – my students can be on exam day.

They genuinely seem to be unaware of the fact that university students who pay their fees and don’t break any rules generally can’t fail.

This is not something I openly discuss with my students.

How do Chinese students cheat in exams?

My students had a good time outlining all the cunning ways by which cheating in exams happens in China.

They didn’t seem to realize that their teacher (and potential examiner) might not be the best person to be divulging all their secrets to!

So, how might students cheat? Here’s a summary:

  • Finding a way to alter their score after the exam has been marked, like going into the teacher’s office
  • Hiding their notes in the toilet and asking to be excused during the exam
  • Taking their notes in to the exam hall in tiny pieces of paper
  • Asking, begging or bribing a clever student to take the exam for them
  • Using their mobile phone to communicate with fellow students during the exam
  • Bribing the examiner to give them a good grade
  • Using hand gestures
  • Writing the answers on, or under, their desks before the exam
  • Writing the answers on adhesive tape
  • Writing notes on their thighs and then wearing shorts or a skirt during the exam
  • Blatantly talking to each other during the exam.

Student cheating in China using a mobile phone

Student using mobile phone to cheat.

I’ve witnessed a number of these scenarios while teaching in China.

With regard to the last one, the students believed that since so many students were talking, it would be impossible to fail all of them.

Incredible, right? Only in China!

What is a fair punishment for cheating in an exam?

The most common penalty for cheating in an exam is disqualification and a score of zero.

Interestingly, some Chinese universities also subject cheating students to public humiliation.

When I caught a student cheating in her exam, her punishment – as directed by the university – was to write a self-criticism essay and to read this out loud in front of the entire class.

Get used to cheating in China

As an individual teacher, it’s hard to stamp out cheating in China. It's a quirk of the Chinese education system that you'll need to get used to.

Having said that, it’s your job as a teacher to bring out the best in your students and minimize the need for them to cheat.

Now that you know some of the most common reasons and ways of cheating in China, you’ll be a much wiser teacher.

Have you experienced your Chinese students cheating? I'd love to hear your stories.

NEXT READ: WHY ARE CHINESE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS SUCH HIGH PERFORMERS?


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