Rote learning, a hard habit to kick

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One July morning, on my way to work, I saw lots of parents sitting in front of every school, waiting for their children with anxious faces. "Will my child be able to answer all the exam questions? Is she confident enough? Has she prepared everything she needs?" Seven years ago my parents felt extremely nervous and prayed continuously for their child, and this morning I am certain these parents were doing exactly the same for theirs.

In August, the exam results came out today! Newspapers with long lists of students' names, marks, and university announcements were sold out quickly; Vietnamese college websites crashed due to excessive traffic; hundreds of parents and students searched for the answers to their dreams, efforts, and prayers.

Are these hundreds of students really prepared for what is expected of them at university?

Every year in July and August, when hundreds of students throughout Vietnam take their university entrance exams, this question keeps coming back to me. Passing the entrance exams means getting a ticket to tertiary education. In Vietnam this is also related to family pride, fame for your high school, and, on the surface, getting an education. For these reasons, the university entrance exams play a stressful role in Vietnamese students' lives.

Grade 12, the last year of high school, is sometimes ironically called the "Death Race" by Vietnamese students. Every day after school students rush to evening classes for extra lessons for the entrance exams. Their schedules are very busy. Moving from class to class, having quick dinners, and coming home late at night to complete more assignments due the following day are inevitable facts of life. In the evening classes, teachers give the students the questions from previous exams. Students learn the forms of the questions, memorize the answers, and hope they will be asked similar questions in their upcoming exam. 

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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I remember my literature teacher used to read her sample essays to a class of more than 50 students. Every student wrote them down carefully and learnt them by heart for exams.

I once I once asked my teacher: "If I do not follow your essay and use my own ideas, what will happen?"

She replied: "Other students will finish writing their essays (meaning my teacher's essays) while you are still composing your own ideas and running out of time."

But I was stubborn, and in the exam I abandoned my teacher's model answer. Indeed, that year, my literature marks were not as high as my friends'. The unpleasant lesson I learned was that it was better to repeat what was provided to me than try and think for myself.

I am currently working for an international university. Whenever my colleagues discuss how Vietnamese students lack critical thinking, I totally agree with them, and feel sorry for our students, but wonder who is to blame for this fact? The Vietnamese students who do not try to form their own ideas? The high school and night class teachers who do not encourage students to think critically? The education system which has some imperfect forms of assessment? Or the society that values the pride of going to university but forgets the true meaning of learning at university?

Most students would rather follow what other people do after sometimes trying to write independently and getting lower marks than their friends. Consequently, they are incapable of expressing their own thoughts. Most high schools would not like their names attached to large numbers of failed students in university entrance exams. Teachers then feel pressure to achieve high pass rates in their classes. As a result, they tend to teach their students the "safest way" to pass the entrance exams.

From conversations with expat friends, I understand that in some other countries high school graduation scores are regarded as the basic criteria for students to choose their university. If only it were the same in Vietnam, our students would not have to study so hard to take two big exams in the same year for high school graduation and university entrance. Students could have some time to enjoy their last year of high school instead of running from one evening class to another, trying to put as much knowledge as possible into their heads, and forgetting this knowledge as quickly once they have passed the exams.

In fact, even successful students are not prepared for what is expected of them at university. As we all say old habits die hard, and after 12 years of becoming so familiar with learning sample essays by heart, it is not easy for students to immediately think independently and critically. Students can't express and defend their own ideas. They tend to become confused or even depressed with the self-learning method at international universities. As semester exams approach, students often desperately look for lecturers' instructions on exams, just like they did at high school. I can empathize with Vietnamese students who experience an international education environment for the first time. But it does not mean I agree with their intentional ignorance. At some universities, learning skills units and other consultation offices are set up to assist them in adapting to new approaches of study. It is sad that there are still many students who do not use such services to the full.

September is here. Hundreds of students are starting their first semester at university. I would like to congratulate them for passing the university entrance exam and sincerely wish them all the best in higher education. I wish them success in freeing themselves from the old methods of learning and encourage them to earn for themselves the true pride of being fully independent university students. Earning this pride may be not easy at first. However, it is also not impossible.

There is an inspirational quote from the deaf-blind American author and activist Helen Keller that I often remind myself about: "I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something, and because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do something I can do."

From my own experience I would like to share some learning tips with Vietnamese freshmen at universities:

"¢ Instead of being afraid of new learning approaches, try to know them, ask people what you do not understand. Use the consultation services at your university.

"¢ Do not wait until exams come close to study.

"¢ Last but not least, believe in yourself. If you are not able to change the majority, change yourselves, make a difference in your learning attitudes. Make the effort to think on your own and value your ideas as your own body and soul. Be proud of them and do not copy others.

By Pham Nguyen Hoang Dy

The writer is with the Learning Skills Unit, RMIT International University Vietnam

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