Do university entrance exams inhibit critical thinking?

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Every summer is a headache for Asian students who have almost finished high school as university entrance exams arrive. A good exam score is interpreted as the primary indicator of the students' effort and intelligence as well as teachers' capabilities, efforts and commitment, and schools' facilities and efforts.

Examinations, especially the high-stakes university entrance exams, have been constantly criticized as the main reason Vietnamese students do not have enough critical thinking skills.

From what I read, the local media describes the test as an "intelligence monster" that "kills young high school graduates' critical thinking skills", "demotivates students to do any (so- called) deep learning" and "forces students to memorize knowledge rather than create their own ideas by linking different ideas."

Moreover, some reports describe high school classes as "coaching the previous exam papers" and "lecturing the tested knowledge." They argue that these kinds of test-driven instructions in the classroom, which are often looked upon negatively, are a result of the high-stakes tests.

Finally, other experts claim that "classroom time and resources have been wasted on teaching or preparing students for the university entrance exams" because students will never use some of the knowledge again in the future.

In short, discussions in the media present the national university entrance exams as a negative and unnecessary educational intervention. Therefore, it could be argued that many of the problems related to students' insufficient critical thinking skills could be solved if the high stakes tests are scrapped.

However, fantasizing and blaming the negative impact of the traditional exam system in countries like Vietnam is a cheap, convenient and safe choice.

When I say "cheap choice," I mean to say that little empirical evidence has been uncovered to draw such conclusions.

Learning Matters is a monthly column aiming to provide useful thoughts on learning and education in the hope of informing the broader discussion of educational development in Vietnam. The column is written by the Learning Skills Unit at RMIT International University Vietnam (

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Journalists constantly talk about this as if it was a fact. A simple comparative study can tell us that it may not be appropriate to presume that a test may undermine students' development of critical thinking skills.

Here are some simple facts:

Vietnam is not the only country in Asia that uses students' scores on national university entrance exams for admission purposes. Other Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, with better reputations and capabilities in technological innovation, have much more competitive university entrance examination systems.

Take Japan as an example. Its exam system shares many similarities with the Vietnamese one: the test-driven instruction in the final year of high school, a rapidly growing and well established private tutorial industry aiming to help students achieve higher scores, an increasing number of commercial publications investing money in designing and publishing test preparation books and students' extremely high level of stress and low level of motivation for learning. It is therefore hardly convincing that the national university entrance exam is to blame for graduates' insufficient critical thinking skills after graduation.

When I say "convenient choice" I mean that without addressing the real problem, discussions in the media seem to simplify the complexity of the problem and merely serve to hastily get a convenient but acceptable answer.

So what is the real problem? Well, it would be unrealistic to expect a simple answer in this forum, but what has been missed from previous debates is the content of the exam (not the exam system). One of the fundamental problems here is the inconsistency between the curriculum and exam papers. In other words, the relationship between what has been taught (what needs to be taught) and what has been tested (what should be tested).

First of all, it is about the distribution of power. This raises concerns over who actually controls the education system, which has a direct impact on whom the teachers and students should follow. This is not new at all. The inconsistency between teaching curriculum and exams happens almost everywhere to some extent. To address this problem however is not easy. It needs consistent support from the Ministries of Education in the countries that adhere to this style of examination system, in addition to frequent and efficient communication between curriculum development teams and assessment teams.

Secondly, if a high level of consistency between curriculum and assessment can be achieved, there would be nothing wrong in teaching to the test strictly and repeatedly, because teaching to the test means teaching the curriculum and preparing the students with the necessary skills for their future jobs. In other words, the problem is the alignment between skills/knowledge for jobs, curriculum and assessments.

When I say "safe choice" I mean it is a "mainstream idea" which has been accepted by every stakeholder (including schools, parents and students) but fails to offer a solution based on which actions should be taken. It is amazing how many years the university entrance exams' negative consequences have been discussed and how few actual changes have been made by governments that administer these types of exams. It is a safe answer because all the stakeholders in the system accept the answer and can easily find an excuse for doing nothing to change the situation. It is more likely to be a show performed by all the stakeholders in this game. On one hand, journalists interview the educational experts every year at this time, with educational experts expressing their concerns over the link between tests and students' lack of critical thinking skills. On the other hand, teachers at senior high schools continue their test-driven instruction and students continue their test preparation work.

So let's go back to the question in the title. A simple answer is "no". First of all, critical thinking can be taught and assessed. A valid and reliable assessment can be introduced to promote its instruction at classroom level. There is nothing wrong with teaching to a good test. Secondly, the development of critical thinking skills needs a supportive environment where the knowledge is not classified as tested or non-tested, nor defined by a few authorities without challenge from others. At the expense of sounding repetitive, what I mean is that the definition of learning is not to simply identify and memorize tested knowledge that has been defined by a select few "powerful scholars" who remain irreproachable. Therefore, to develop your critical skills, the following tips may be useful to students:

"¢ Stop blaming the exam system, especially after you start your university life

"¢ Evaluate the information that you read in books and have heard from your lecturers

"¢ Be prepared to question the reasons and evidence behind any conclusion and theory

"¢ Start to use what you read and have heard to explain your own experiences and perspective

"¢ Share and discuss your understanding and interpretation of theories with your colleagues and classmates

By Dr. Wei Wei
The writer is with the Learning Skills Unit, RMIT International University Vietnam

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