Studying Chinese when your grades matter

In an ideal world, everybody would be studying Chinese according to their own goals, in which case the main challenge is to figure out what way of studying is the most efficient one for you personally. However, the world is far from ideal and for most people, studying Chinese has an extra layer of requirements superimposed over our personal goals, a layer of grades, tests and qualifications.

gradesIn some cases, this extra layer imposed by institutions, companies or organisations might even be more important than our own, personal goals. In some extreme cases, these external goals might indeed be the only reason we’re studying Chinese. Perhaps we need those credits to get into the program we want or our parents force you to take Chinese in school even though we don’t want to. Many people consider learning Chinese because they think it will give them an edge, not necessarily because they like the language.

There are extremes in both directions, of course, and most of us will find ourselves somewhere in the middle, i.e. personal goals are important, but we can’t afford to ignore grades or tests completely. If you only care about grades, I think you will fail unless you find some way of enjoying what you’re doing. If you don’t care about grades at all, you don’t really need this article. If you find yourself somewhere in the middle, however, this article is for you!

Personal goals and institutional goals

Before we go into this in more detail, however, let’s first discuss an underlying assumption. For this article to make sense, there has to be a significant difference between personal goals and external goals, but is that really the case? I think it is. It’s extremely unlikely that the requirements of the course you’re enrolled in or the test you’re required to take are identical.

There is also a difference between actual ability and performance on at est. Answering multiple choice questions is not the same as listening to a lecture, writing a short essay on a random topic is not the same as writing a letter to someone in Chinese. In short, you can be very good at Chinese and still fail the tests. Conversely, you can pass the tests and still lack crucial skills that simply aren’t within the range of the test.

I think that this is a problem with measurement (i.e. how do we measure progress, success or proficiency), something I’ve written more about in this article: Counting what counts. Having made this clear, let’s get into to the discussion of how to handle grades of various kinds. I will focus on three aspects:

  • Study the requirements
  • Efficiency analysis
  • The practice effect

Study the requirements

This might look simple, but in some cases it can be very hard to figure out what is required of you. What I mean by “requirements” here is that you should make sure that you know, in as much detail as possible, what is required of you. If your preparing for a test, you need to know what abilities they test, how they do it and how they grade your performance. The same is true for courses, where it can be even harder to figure out what’s required because of individual differences between teachers or an opaque grading system Still, i you don’t know what is required of you, the rest I have to say in this article will be pretty much useless.

Efficiency analysis

The next step is to figure out which parts will give you the highest number of points for the least amount of effort. This holds true both for when you prepare for an exam and when you actually take the exam. When preparing, focus on what’s likely to give you many points without costing you too much time. In my opinion, this mostly involves fixing your worst problems rather than honing the skills you’re already quite good at. If grammar is your weak point, increasing reading speed by 5% will probably help less than drilling grammar patterns all those hours it took to increase the reading speed.

When taking an exam, you need to be very clear how the scoring system works. For instance, earlier this year, I took the TOCFL (Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language, Taiwan’s version of the HSK), and since the test is arranged so that the questions become gradually harder but still have a fixed number of points, it doesn’t pay off to rush through.In other words, you need to spend much more time to get one point late in the exam than you need early in the exam.

A particular point of interest is the grammar/vocabulary part, which gives you many, many points without having to read a lot of text. This is where you can get the most points per unit time. Having looked at the requirements carefully, it is also clear that you can afford to miss quite a number of questions on the reading part and still pass, so it makes much more sense to go through questions carefully and run out of time rather than rush through. This is not obvious if you don’t analyse the test.

The practice effect

When doing scientific research, the practice effect is very bad. For instance, if we want to figure out if study method A is beneficial for preparing for an exam, we can’t test the students too often, because if we do, we don’t know if they improved because of study method A rather than because they practised (and thus got better at) taking the test. When you care about grades, this is good, because we don’t care about what’s giving us the good results; as long as the results are good, we’re happy.

Taking a test requires a set of skills which are quite unique and we need time to adjust to the requirements of the test. A good example of this is IQ tests on the internet. If you do several consecutive tests that contain similar exercises (or if you do the same test more than once), you will of course receive a higher score, but it would be naive to think that this implies that you have increase your overall IQ.Your increased score is due to the fact that you’ve become more proficient at taking that particular kind of test.

Everything is hard the first few times we try, Chinese proficiency tests are no exception. Thus, take as many mock exams you can, sign up for any pilot tests or do whatever practice questions are available. This is likely to be the most efficient way to study for a test and also allows you to identify problem areas where you might need to spend more time.


Passing a difficult test or a demanding language course isn’t something you can expect to do just relying on your general proficiency level. Sure, if you’re level is way above the required level, you should still be fine (most native speakers would probably do very well on Chinese exams for foreigners, even though they haven’t prepared at all), but if that’s the situation you’re in, I don’t think you would have read this far.

No, passing an exam or receiving good grades in a course is based both your general proficiency and your ability to apply that proficiency to the particular exam or course in question. This latter part requires practice, analysis and some planning to achieve. Thus, even though it’s obvious you need to know the language, too, don’t overlook the structural aspects of proficiency exams and language courses if you care about the grade.

The importance of counting what counts

Have you ever felt that your teacher is correcting the wrong things or that she says that one thing is all-important but then ignores that when setting grades anyway? Have you tried measuring your own progress and found that it’s not easy to quantify language learning?

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We humans seem to like counting things, we like to measure ourselves and our surroundings. Counting language learning is about quantifying something which can’t be easily quantified, so in this case counting by necessity equals simplification. This process is not simple and can be done in many ways. In this article, I’m going to argue that the way in which we count learning has huge impact on the way we learn. We will look at two examples: formal grades and self-assessed studying and see that even if they are both meant to be measurements, they have significant influence on the way we study.

Formal grades

Everybody knows that the way grades are set determines how students approach the subject being taught. This is more true for compulsory education than it is for grown-ups attending courses in their spare time, but it’s still a widely known phenomenon. Language learning consists of many different skills, but it’s seldom the case that all these cases are being formally graded, leading to some parts being more emphasised than others.

The problem is of course that humans are lazy (or smart) and only do what is required of them. Even diligent students (a category people tend to place me in, for instance) look closely at what is required. Perhaps they do more than that, but if they care at all about grades, they are still affected by which grading criteria are being used.

Let’s look at two cases:

  • Neglect is about overlooking an aspect of language learning. It might be intentionally, because of a lack of resources or because of ignorance. For instance, I took an advanced course in Chinese last year which contained no graded spoken element whatsoever. Sure, you needed to be able to communicate, but formal grades were still only based on written exams. Likewise, I’ve attended courses where you don’t need to write characters on the exams (perhaps you’re allowed to type or there are multi-choice questions).
  • Emphasis means the opposite of neglect, i.e. placing more focus on one skill rather than another. As is the case for neglect, this might be because of a number of different reasons. For example, a teacher or education system might strongly emphasise one aspect of language learning. I know teachers who are very strict with character writing and who deducts points for minor writing mistakes, even for beginners.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not saying that either neglect or emphasis is inherently good or bad, but we need to acknowledge that they influence the way people learn. In the first case, people are less likely to learn characters or focus on speaking and in the second case, students will probably spend lots of time handwriting characters.

Intention is great, ignorance catastrophic

If this is what the teacher wants, this is perfect. If not, it’s catastrophic. In other words, if neglect or emphasis done intentionally by a teacher, we can call her “competent”, but if it’s done unintentionally, I would say the she’s a bad teacher. I’ve found that many teachers aren’t fully aware of the impact their choice of examination method has on the students. If a teacher says that communication is priority number one and then deducts many points because of bad handwriting, this teacher isn’t aware that there is a discrepancy between what she says and what she does. The students will heed the latter, not the former.

  • As teachers, we need to make very sure that we are measuring what we think is important and that we communicate this to the students.
  • As students, we need to be aware of that not all teachers do this. In short, we need to take responsibility ourselves and make sure we learn what we need to achieve our goals.

Self-assessed learning

From time to time, I’ve had some extra time on my hands and have devised various plans to study Chinese more efficiently. Even though I realise that this might not be the case for everyone, I think that most people benefit from some kind of goal to strive towards, like learning X characters, reading Y pages or writing Z articles. Setting goals isn’t easy (see my article series about goal management), but as if the basic problems weren’t enough, measuring itself also causes problems.

If we’re going to measure our progress, we need to make sure that we measure every area in which we want to make progress, because otherwise we will neglect the areas we aren’t counting and emphasise those that count.

A personal example of self-assessment

For instance, I’m taking fewer credits than usual this semester and have a fairly ambitious plan to learn more Chinese. I devised a system for keeping track of how much I read, wrote, listened and so on. It worked very well, except that I had neglected to include some areas that I thought were important, such as writing articles here on Hacking Chinese or reading articles and books about Chinese or language learning in general that weren’t in Chinese. Because I didn’t count this as studying, I didn’t include it in my overall count. Result? I stopped spending time writing and researching articles. I read fewer and fewer books I knew I would benefit from reading.

This is an example of neglect. I didn’t count some aspects that really counts (or that at least were as important as what I counted). After adjusting the measuring system a bit, things stabilised and I now have a fairly robust method which takes all aspects into consideration (and if I find something which is related to Chinese, but doesn’t count, I will change the system).

Counting what counts

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

– Albert Einstein

This quote from Einstein really captures it pretty well, even though he didn’t have language learning in mind. Just because something is counted (measured by grades or when you assess your own progress) doesn’t mean it’s truly important. Likewise, some things that actually count can’t be quantified. This is because measuring is a simplification and some things will inevitably be lost in that simplification.

Being aware of this doesn’t make the problem go away, but it certainly makes it less serious.