Final Exams for 900 Students: The ESL Struggle

At the end of November, I was informed that I would have to give all nine hundred of my students’ final grades. My immediate thought was: “How the heck am I going to do that?!! I only teach each class once every two weeks and I definitely don’t even have 1/5 of my students’ names memorized!!”

Thankfully I spent hours and hours making a detailed roster for each of my classes with their Chinese and English names. I figured the easiest way to give them grades would be a final exam, but since it’s an oral English class, I wanted it to be an oral exam. I couldn’t do a traditional interview exam because I have 50 students in a 40 minute period, so I decided to adopt my Chinese oral final exam from college.

Designing the Exam

At GW, all of the students who take Chinese have to get together in small groups and write a detailed script that includes everything we have learned in the class thus far. We then memorize and perform the skits in front of the class for our oral final exam. It’s a lot of work, so I wanted to give my students plenty of time to get started.

Since my students sit in previously assigned groups, I decided the easiest way to execute the exam would be to have each group perform a 3-5 minute skit. I typed up instructions and spent over half the period explaining what I wanted.

The difficult thing was that many students had no idea how to write a script, so I had to give them an example. I spent a ridiculous amount of time telling them exactly how to format the script. I told them that they needed to write their English and Chinese names in the top left-hand corner, with the title being their class number and group name. I also told them multiple times that the MOST IMPORTANT THING was to include all three units we learned, and make sure each student spoke about the same amount. I even made a list of the things we learned in each section to help them.

Each group was given two sets of instructions, two example scripts, and I taped the instructions to the classroom wall. (I spent about two hours in the printing room… it was great).

Explaining the Exam

Since I only meet with my students every other week, they have a study hall when I don’t come in. I told them that they should use their study hall time to write their scripts together and that they would be due in two weeks. I told them that the scripts are due at the beginning of class, and then as a reward, we would watch a Christmas movie!

Just to make sure they all understood, I asked them clarifying questions like “When is the script due?” “At the beginning or end of class?” “When is the skit?” etc. When I was sure that the majority of the class understood, I felt we were safe to move on with the lesson.

Even though I was overly explicit about what I wanted, I was still pretty nervous. “What happens if none of them do it?“, I wondered. I can’t fail all of them…

Final Exam Exhaustion

After two weeks of explaining this final exam to 20 classes, I was exhausted. It got to the point where I actually felt like my brain was going to explode. The students were all so confused, and instead of listening to me, they would talk over me, asking questions to one another. I wished I had a whistle to get them to be quiet, I but I relied on smacking the desk really hard to get their attention.

Collecting the Scripts: A Disaster

Eventually, it came time to collect the scripts from my first class. I walked into the room, asked them for the scripts, and instead I got a bunch of blank faces staring back at me. “Those are due now??”.

My students tried to tell me they were confused and didn’t understand that they were due that day. Well that’s funny because it’s written in 25pt font at the very top of the instructions page in bold, It’s also posted on the wall of all the classrooms AND I talked about it being due today in your last class about 15 times, wrote it on the board and made you repeat it back to me before we finished class for the day.

Really? You didn’t understand???! I. was. furious.

After I called them out on their blatant lies, they started making up random excuses like, “We have so much other homework!!”.

Really???! You think that’s going to work on me? The person who just graduated college last year? The person who actually didn’t sleep in high school? I have zero sympathy. They had an entire free class period to do it.

Guilting them into compliance

So you think my class doesn’t matter?“, I asked them in a cold, hard voice. “Because I teach you once every two weeks, you don’t have to do your assignment?“. “You understand that this is for your final exam right??”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen students that scared or ashamed in their lives. I would say I shocked myself as well, but I think deep down I knew I could be that scary.

Eventually after making them “lose face” to the point that some of the girls looked like they were going to cry. I told them that they could take the class period to do it, but that I would take 10pts off for it being late, just like I told them I would do… at least 5 times.

…And No One Followed Directions

My next few classes were a bit better. I would say out of every class, maybe one group would forget. The main problem was that almost no one followed my example format, and most groups forgot to write their names on their papers. Also, most of the groups didn’t include the lessons that we had covered in class, which was the most important thing.

The inability of my students to follow directions was actually shocking. The instructions were there, right in front of them, and all they had to do was read them. But instead, most of my students copied preexisting stories.

Blatant Plagiarism

My main issue with the scripts, besides their inability to follow directions, was blatant plagiarism. I had two different groups in two different classes copy the same Snow White story from the internet. I also had two different groups in the same class have almost exactly the same script. It turns out that they both copied it from the same source unknowingly. No wonder the students aren’t allowed computers. While I knew plagiarism was common in China, it is still really shocking to see it in action. If it were my high school back in America, these students would have been suspended. Here, I took off points for the scripts being late and made them re-write.

No wonder the students aren’t allowed computers!

While I knew plagiarism was common in China, it is still really shocking to see it in action. If it were my high school back in America, these students would have been suspended. Here, I took off points for the scripts being late and made them re-write.

The biggest slap in the face was a group that turned in a typed script. At first, I was impressed with them for typing it up, but then later that night, when I took a look at the script, I realized that they had literally taken an in-class reading from their regular English class, and used whiteout to cover up the book source at the bottom of the page.

The next day I found them in class. I took off 10 points for it being late and another 20 for plagiarism and lying. I then gave them a long lecture about how they only would have gotten -10 if they had been truthful and admitted their script was late, but because they cheated and lied, the highest grade they could now get was a 70.

Some Students Never Turned Their Scripts In

The real joy came when some of my senior 2 students just didn’t turn in their scripts. This was the week that I had really bad food poisoning, so I gave a note to each Senior 2 teacher telling the students to put their scripts on my desk before the western New Year break. It took me a while to grade all of the scripts, but a few days after the break was over I realized that I was missing quite a few. I was then forced to find each group and tell them that their scripts were five days late, which means -50 points.

Now, these groups weren’t all in one class, they were spread out through all the different classes, meaning it was definitely the fault of the students rather than the teacher.

When I confronted the groups they tried to tell me that no one told them how to turn the scripts in.

“Why didn’t you just ask your teacher? You see her every day.” “How come every other group understood except yours? You didn’t think to ask them?”

The complete lack of initiative was astounding to me. Had I not come to harass them, they would never have turned their scripts in. The crazy thing is that all of the students really believed they could convince me to change their grades. A few even left little notes on their scripts or on my desk trying to explain why they were late.

While it was hard to discard their notes and give them all failing grades, their excuses were complete BS and everyone knew it.

Some Groups Did Follow Directions… Kind of.

Although I was pretty disappointed with more than a few groups, a lot of groups did turn their scripts in on time and did follow the directions… kind of.

Some of the scripts even had me laughing out loud, like a group that had Superman and Superwoman saving Jack and Rose from the evil Japanese soldier and his translator… as well as a monster… while the Titanic was sinking? It concluded with Superwoman and the monster getting together.

Seeing the Skits in Action

After two weeks of script drama, it was finally time to see the skits. I made sure to make the rounds to all 20 of my classes and remind them that their skits needed to be memorized for our next class, and silently hoped and prayed for the best.

The main problem with grading the skits was that I wanted to grade the students individually, but I didn’t know any of their names. I solved this by having them write their names on the board. Then I had them stand in front of their names while I wrote them down in a grade book and matched their faces to their names.

This was pretty hard since a lot of my students (don’t judge me) look extremely similar and they all wear uniforms. I made little notes next to their names like “pink scarf”, “bangs”, or “no glasses” to differentiate. You know you’re in China when a defining characteristic is not having glasses.

They Weren’t Good at Memorizing??

Overall, the skits went pretty well. The only disappointing thing was that a very large amount of my students didn’t even attempt to memorize their scripts. They read their lines off the page as if they hadn’t even looked at their script since I had handed it back.

If it had been my Chinese skit in college I definitely would have gotten an F, but I didn’t feel comfortable failing that many students, so I decided that if their scripts weren’t even partially memorized, the highest grade I could give them was a C. I also had a few students who literally only said one or two words in the skit, which was unacceptable, so I gave them C’s as well.

But Some Skits Were Great!

While it was extremely frustrating to see my students blatantly not try, I also had a lot of students who put in a lot of effort to memorize their scripts and even brought props! A few of my skits even made me laugh out loud, like the group that had a boy play Snow White. Let’s just say the “final kiss” was hilariously awkward.

Out of all the skit performances, the best student came from my last class. One of the students in his group was absent, so he decided to play both his part and hers. When the time came for “Helen’s” lines, he put a headband on his head and spoke all of the lines in a high-pitched voice. The entire class was doubled over in laughter. He was a real character and had more lines than everyone else in his group combined.

I gave him 100%. Bravo “Helen”, Bravo.

Would I Do it Again?

Overall, it was a very interesting experiment experience. Actually physically calculating the grades was extremely time-consuming and I may or may not have gone crazy.

The real issue was that many of the students changed their English names without telling me, so I had multiple grades that didn’t match the names on my roster. I was forced to go to each classroom individually and figure out who was who. Also, a few students were absent and their group didn’t think to let me know. At this point, I was so exhausted/ fed up that I just gave the absent students the average score of the rest of their group. 


So…. will I try this again next semester?

No. Definitely not. My sanity honestly wouldn’t be able to take it.

To be honest. I’m not sure if I’ll ever recover from this.

What I Learned from This Experience

While the oral exam idea was probably one of the most ridiculously ambitious things I’ve ever attempted, it did teach me a lot about the Chinese education system.

An exam that would have been a piece of cake to implement in an American high school was almost impossible here.

Chinese students just aren’t used to any testing format that differs from their constant Gaokao practice tests. While I thought having students memorize a written script would be easy since all they do is memorization, a lack of motivation produced poor results. While all of the students in my class received grades, my grades don’t matter. All that actually matters is the Gaokao.

Why bother memorizing a script when the only consequence is your main English teacher maybe giving you a hard time if you don’t do well. Intrinsic motivation? What’s that?!

For an oral English teacher, it’s frustrating and discouraging because I can’t measure my teaching success based off a multiple choice test. However, I do take pride in knowing that my effort will pay off. I succeeded in implementing a testing system that is vastly different from any test these students have ever known, and I got even the shyest of students to stand in front of the class and speak English.

Overall, it didn’t completely blow up in my face and I was only forced to fail 2/900 students. In China, I’d say that’s a success.



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

10 comments on “Final Exams for 900 Students: The ESL Struggle

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  5. Bravo to you for being able to endure all that! I wanted to bang my head against my desk, just reading about your students! I don’t think I would have been able to keep it together if I had students who blatantly ignored and dismissed my instructions. Kudos to you, you have absolutely all my respect!

  6. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks Chinese students respond greatly with mark incentive. Whenever I do group coursework, they would work tirelessly, but when they are not marked they don’t even bother to think. Usually when this happens, I would give them false incentive something like “we should at least try to impress the teacher, who knows they might give us extra mark/ credits for showing effort.” When this happens, their eyes would brighten and started to actually work.

    Also, the instruction thing. Sigh. When I first came to nottingham, we had this groupwork essay. I told them so many times that plagiarism is not ok and they should use english source website rather than translating something they found on Baidu. A week later when they showed me their work, not only they did everything I told them not to, they wrote something off topic!! I was furious as well and told them to rewrite everything. One girl even almost cried after I said that…

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  8. Wow you truly are amazing to be able to have such determination with doing something like this in a Chinese high school. I am currently at one in Sichuan and just getting students to talk and engage is challenging.

    • Thanks Scott! Yeah… I definitely didn’t try to do it again in the Spring semester. I definitely suggest trying your best, but it is SO hard to organize things like this with that many students, especially when you only see them twice a month!

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