Students and relatives celebrate the end of the college entrance exam on June 8, in Guiyang, Guizhou province. [Photo/Xinhua]
Questions combine theory with current affairs, key issues and social reality
China's annual college entrance exam, the gaokao, wrapped up on June 9, and candidates across the country were able to check their examination results starting on Saturday.
Chinese often compare the highly competitive exam to crossing a narrow bridge, because for many students, especially those from rural areas, enrollment at a university is an opportunity to change their future.
This year's exam questions have been hotly debated on social media because of the way they combined theory with current affairs, key issues and social reality.
The changes to the questions over the years showcase the country's desire to reform the exam and nurture creative talent. In the process, teachers have been encouraged to adjust their methods to enhance their students' all-around skills.
Students at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1977. They were among the first batch to sit the college entrance exam which resumed that year after a decade of suspension. [Photo/Xinhua]
According to People's Daily, experts from the Ministry of Education's exam center welcomed this year's test with its focus on the all-around development of students' moral, intellectual, physical, aesthetic and labor education.
In the national mathematics exam, there were questions about China's Chang'e 4 lunar probe, which landed on the far side of the moon in January, and the country's high-speed trains. One question asked students to calculate a person's height by using the golden ratio of the Venus de Milo, an ancient Greek sculpture on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
"It's an innovative question, but it's not difficult. You just need to take some time to calculate it," said Bai Wenxin, 18, from Longquan Middle School, in Jingmen, Hubei province.
"When I did papers from previous national college entrance exams and took my school's mock exams, I also bumped into a few creative questions, so I'm not surprised by the Venus question. Such training helped me keep calm."
Young people sit the exam in 1977 in Beijing. [Photo/Xinhua]
Bai said some mathematics questions were combined with topics like tai chi, the Eight Trigrams－symbols used in Taoist cosmology－and ancient Chinese classics on mathematics.
"Some questions, such as the ones about permutation and combination, are often associated with situations in life," Bai said. "It's very down-to-earth.
"To have such creative questions in the gaokaopapers is good. Because eventually we have to apply what we've learned from the textbooks in practice."
One solid geometry question is about an ancient polyhedron jet seal of a general from the Western Wei Dynasty (535-556). It has stirred up people's curiosity and many went to Shaanxi History Museum, where the seal is exhibited, to have a look at it.
Students rush out of school after the last exam in Changsha, Hunan province on June 8. [Photo by Gu Pengbo/For China Daily]
However, some students were puzzled when they encountered such unfamiliar questions for the first time in the exam.
"I was a bit amazed to read the Venus question, but I calculated the correct answer," said Tong Mengqi, 17, from a county in Huainan city, Anhui province.
"A force-feeding teaching method is obsolete. I agree that we should have more innovative questions in the gaokao, but it also means the level of difficulty is increased.
Meng Liping, 40, a math teacher from Shenmu High School, in Shenmu, Shaanxi province, said the two biggest changes, which had shattered previous stereotypes, were in this year's math paper. They were its innovative questions and the change in the order of the essay questions in the final part of the paper.
He said that had sounded an alarm for teachers. The approach of using a question bank was not a panacea anymore, and teachers needed to cultivate students' ability to think mathematically.
Meng said the ratio of such questions was higher this year, clearly signaling the course of reform in high school education.
He said there used to be an unwritten formula for the order of essay questions, but the order was totally different this year, with solid geometry replacing sequence and trigonometry.
"It's like having a meal," Meng said. "When the normal serving order of soup, main dishes and staple food is disrupted, students will feel at a loss."
He said such changes made students feel uneasy during the exam, because it was different from their practice papers. That required teachers to pay more attention to improving students' adaptability.
Meng said that when he took the gaokaoin 1999, he had been worried that if he failed he would end up becoming a farmer.
"One question was about an iron and steel plant that had appeared on China's Central Television news," he said. "But our school had no TV and I never watched it.
"I could understand my students' mood. They're young and inexperienced. Teachers should train them in an all-round way to tackle different problems."
Parents wait for their children outside an exam center in Beijing on June 7. [Photo by Wu Xiaohui/China Daily]
Meng said mathematics papers have kept up with the times, and that in the questions about real events, all the data is real. In the past, whole numbers were often used, making the answers easy to calculate.
A senior physics teacher at Hengshui High School in Hengshui, Hebei province, said the exam papers had become closer to people's real lives and livelihoods.
"In physics, the topics range from black holes and quantum theory to gravitational waves, said the teacher, who asked to be referred to by his family name, Chen. "We collect related materials and print them out for students."
The school is known for its strict teaching methods and its students' excellent performances in the gaokao. In 2018, 214 of its more than 7,000 candidates were admitted to Tsinghua and Peking universities, China's top higher education institutions. The number accounts for more than 60 percent of that for the whole province.
"The final aim of study is to apply it," Chen said. "The current gaokaopapers focus more on testing students' ability than basic knowledge and skills. Knowledge and ability complement each other, and not a single one can be omitted."
In this year's Chinese language exam, one composition subject was to write a speech about manual labor.
"The composition subject is very educational and can be a practical guidance for students," Bai, the Longquan Middle School student, said. "Physical labor is also an important skill that students should master. We should respect every laborer."
In her last year of high school, Bai got up at 6 am, went to bed at 11 pm, and took part in morning exercises and running.
She said her high school life was "intense" and "excellent" and "full" because she did not waste any time.
"My classmates and I joined activities on campus to ease our pressure of study, such as sports meets and theater evenings," she said.
Students chat after taking the first exam in Pingliang city, Gansu province on June 7. [Photo/Xinhua]
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, a patriotic campaign launched in 1919 by young Chinese to fight imperialism and feudalism. Another composition subject was to imagine you're a youngster from a different era, and write a letter or lecture related to the campaign.
"These composition subjects are related to the current era, with a focus on the development and history of our country," said Liu Yingcheng, 56, a Chinese language teacher from Qianjiang, Hubei. "In the past, students only wrote an article, but now the literary form is expanded to a letter or lecture. It's more practical than before."
He asked students to pay attention to central issues and social news in China, to broaden their horizons and cultivate their perspective.
"It's vital to read widely," Liu said. "To write a good composition, students should have an in-depth view and know about its basic structure. Flowery language and creativity are also important."
He said that in previous exams, when students were asked to write out an ancient poem or classic Chinese, the question gave them the preceding sentence and they were asked to write the one that followed.
Now, the question was flexible, and students needed to know the meaning of the original text in order to get the right answer.
"In the past, students spent much time on rote learning of these things," Liu said. "Now, they can concentrate more on understanding the Chinese language."
Beijing and Zhejiang province are among the few regions in China that issue their own gaokaopapers.
"Beijing's papers reflect the capital's characteristics," said Wen Yuhan, an 18-year-old gaokaocandidate from the national capital. "In this year's Chinese language exam, the reading comprehension was about the city's deep-rooted hutongculture, which is connected with our cultural identity."
Wen said this year's liberal arts paper was closely related to current affairs, such as the ongoing International Horticultural Exhibition in Beijing and the protection of intellectual property rights in China.
"You can't learn by rote because many questions are flexible," she said. "You need to gain a thorough understanding of what you've learned from textbooks."
Xu Kejing, 18, a candidate from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, agreed.
"In this year's gaokaopapers in Zhejiang, some questions were close to our daily life and some were practical ones," Xu said. "Also, there were more open-ended questions. You need to apply theory to practice."