Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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.

Sign up for a free crash course in how to learn Mandarin. You can also opt-in to my weekly newsletter if you want. For more about how your personal data is handled, please review the privacy policy.


  1. James says:

    Nice article, I always struggle with this situation during semester. I used to focus a lot more on my own personal proficiency until I realized it was so much easier to get higher marks if you focused on what’s required of you in the course, despite whether it is reflective of your true language ability or not.

  2. Jess says:

    Hey Olle, nice article. I totally agree. I am learning Chinese at uni and I am terrible at Chinese, yet I pass the exams because I can read and write fairly well from studying the text book. However, I can only speak and listen at a very basic level because we don’t get tested as much in speaking and listening (it’s easier to mark written exams with grammar etc..).
    I don’t think exams or tests show your language ability, but I still think they’re necessary – especially for reading and writing, which for Chinese is arguably the hardest part.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I agree, although we should say “tests as they tend to look in language programs”. I think it’s perfectly possible to design tests that actually focus on what they should, it’s just that most teachers either don’t know how or are unable to do so for other reasons (lack of time, resources, etc.).

  3. Ben says:

    This article appropriately explains the study of Chinese language in Singapore schools.

    In Singapore education system, English is the first language. Chinese is the second language. Chinese is offered to students in 2 version: Chinese (华文)and Higher Chinese (高级华文)。

    Chinese is the compulsory subject. Every student therefore has to meet the “institutional goal”. They pass the subject so as to meet “institutional requirement”.

    Higher Chinese is an optional subject, offered only to competent students who show interest in learning Chinese at higher level. Students who do Higher Chinese must therefore make it their “personal goal” to do well in the subject.

    But Chinese proves to be a difficult subject for most students and more than 50% of Singapore students seek help from Chinese tutors. What is interesting is that the demand for Higher Chinese tutor is almost as high as Chinese tutor. It means there some higher Chinese students are so serious about their personal goal that they engage help from external tutor.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.