Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 02, 2020
By Kim Ooi

Teaching postgraduate students in China

It’s quite common for foreigners teaching in China to take up jobs based at universities and colleges.

In my experience, foreign teachers at universities are typically assigned to teach oral English to undergraduates.

I've been a university teacher for almost all of my seven years in China and last year was the first time that I had been assigned to teach postgraduates.

If you’ve ever thought about teaching postgraduate students in China, read on to find out more about what it’s like.

Qualifications

In the UK, generally speaking, a teacher should hold a qualification at least one level higher than their students.

My department made it very clear that only teachers who hold a Masters degree or a PhD would be entitled to teach postgraduate students.

However, I’ve spoken to other teachers who’ve been able to teach postgraduate students in China without holding a Masters degree.

The requirements can vary from university to university.

English syllabuses for postgraduate students in China

If you teach oral English to postgraduate students, the contents of your course may include the following:

  • Learning and education
  • The information age
  • Trends
  • Employment
  • Environment and nature
  • Culture.

Male Chinese postgraduate students

You should generally hold a higher qualification than the students you teach.

When I was first assigned to teach postgraduate students in China, my course had a study skills theme.

The syllabus that I was asked to deliver consisted of the following topics:

  • Critical thinking
  • International academic conferences
  • Career-planning and job interviews
  • Academic research
  • Advances in science and technology
  • Current affairs
  • Discussions.

Teaching methods

My Chinese university takes the teaching of postgraduate students quite seriously.

Unlike oral English classes at undergraduate level, at postgraduate level, activities like role-plays, games and watching movies wouldn’t be appropriate.

At postgraduate level, the students are expected to carry out independent research on a project of their choice.

I therefore decided to use student-led learning and discussions as my main teaching methods. I divided each class into groups, gave each group a topic and every week, one group would present their findings to the class.

After each presentation, students would be given the opportunity to ask questions, after which I would give them a number of exam practice questions that were relevant to the topic being discussed.

Assessment

In order to pass the course, my students had to satisfy three conditions:

  • Attend at least 67% of classes in a semester
  • Complete a project
  • Pass the final exam.

The final exam that my students have to pass is no mean feat!

On exam day, they would be facing a panel of two examiners. The examiners would ask two or three questions based on the material that had been covered in class.

The students would be required to remember information from the lessons, apply it to the questions, elaborate on their answers and use correct grammar and pronunciation.

And, much to my students’ surprise, China’s infamous no-fail policies at university don’t apply at postgraduate level.

Those who don’t meet the attendance requirements are barred from taking the exam. And, those who don’t meet the standard required will fail and have to take the course again the following semester.

Postgraduate graduation ceremony China

A postgraduate graduation ceremony I attended.

Being awarded at a postgraduate graduation ceremony China

A student being awarded.

What are Chinese postgraduate students like?

Since postgraduate students are older than undergraduates, they tend to be a bit more cocky in comparison.

My students have made complaints against me.

For example, they complained when I asked them to solve problems by themselves instead of giving them the answers. They said I “wasn’t teaching”.

They also complained that since they weren’t fluent in English, it was “very laborious” to take notes or even to pay attention in class!

If you teach postgraduates, you may also be required to teach on Saturday. That’s when the part-time mature students who have jobs on weekdays come to class.

Attendance issues

The part-time students presented a different problem – attendance.

Many of them wouldn’t come to my lesson if they had to work, had a conflicting class, was on an internship or had an illness in their family.

They were very surprised when the director of the postgraduate school at my university decided that the only acceptable reasons for absence were student illness or a family illness up to two generations.

In other words, you may only ask for time off if you yourself were ill or you had to look after a parent or grandparent. 

Empty classroom chairs

You might experience attendance issues when teaching Chinese postgrads.

Your request to be excused from class wouldn’t be granted for things like internships and business meetings, or even for a conflicting class.

On the other hand, postgraduate students tended to have one thing in common with the undergraduates.

They never take notes in class and were quite shocked when they realized that they would need to remember the material from their lessons in order to pass the exam.

What I like about teaching postgraduate students in China

I’ve always been against no-fail policies because it makes exams pointless.

For a professional teacher like me, the ability to fail a student whose work isn’t up to scratch is quite important. I like the fact that the postgraduate school backs their teachers up in the event of a dispute with a student.

If a student were to challenge their grade, the complaint wouldn’t be upheld if the teacher could produce evidence to justify the grading decision.

Female Chinese postgraduate student

There are lots of positives about teaching postgraduate students in China.

Unlike in some other departments at my university, in the postgraduate school I see the same students every week. I get to actually teach and to watch my students progress.

I also get paid overtime for teaching on Saturday, which is nice!

What I dislike about teaching postgraduate students

Since the standards for postgraduate students need to be higher, there’s a greater degree of standardization in the postgraduate school. This means much less academic freedom for individual teachers.

Requiring two examiners for each exam effectively doubles your workload. Not only do you have to examine your own students, you also need to examine another teacher’s students.

In the postgraduate school, in addition to the bi-annual exams, teachers also have to formally grade projects.

And, finally, the downside to teaching on Saturday means less time off.

Teaching Chinese postgrads is a challenge I'm up for

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to teaching postgraduate students in China.

But, I'm really enjoying it so far. It's a good challenge.

Would you like to teach postgraduate students? Hopefully, this blog has given you all the information you need in order to make your decision.

I hope you enjoyed my blog about teaching Chinese postgrad students. I've also written one about why Chinese university students cheat in exams (and how they do it). I think you'll like it!


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