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Students' mindset about memorizing, copying texts stifles writing skills and creativity

A foreign professor who teaches at an international-standard university in Vietnam recently said he was disappointed about students’ semester-end exam papers.

He said that many exam papers blatantly copied books and open material sources on the internet without any citation of sources at all. Some papers were simply a mixture of disordered paragraphs from many different sources. 

“If the paper works had been marked honestly, they would have failed,” he said. 

However, as it was the first year he had taught Vietnamese students, he decided to spend time talking to every student before giving marks.

What surprised him was that students did not recognize their problems. A student even argued that he had not reproduced anything. He spent time learning the paragraphs by heart and then wrote them down on the paperwork, and said this was not reproduction.

“There’s something unusual about the mindset of the students,” the professor noted. 

“That is their uniform way of thinking,” I said.

On that day, although I didn’t make an excuse for the students for their serious mistakes, I explained to the professor about the way of teaching of many decades at schools in Vietnam – students learn by heart the teachers’ words and when they sit exams, they write down the words. 

After all, this is not their fault. The problem lies in the wrong teaching and learning method which has been used for too long in Vietnam's education system. 

Those who have experienced Vietnam’s schooling environment are all familiar with essay examples. The books with essay examples sell everywhere, providing essays on different topics. As a result, students don’t have to work when writing essays, but they just copy the samples. The more the students rely on essay examples, the more they dislike literature as an academic subject, because they have to learn by heart long essays.

The books with essay examples sell like hotcakes not only because students are lazy about thinking and creating on their own, but also because teachers are more satisfied with the clear words and sentences of the essays. But in fact, the words are the result of mass production.

The "essay example" teaching method has caused a uniformity in students’ mindset. This teaching method has existed at grammar schools due to the acceptance of teachers who always remain in a rut. When students use the exact words provided by teachers, they have an opportunity to get higher marks for their school work.

But this is a teaching method that causes ridiculous consequences in school. Students tend to cram only for subjects likely to be asked about on exams, or they guess the exam questions. As such, studying literature and social sciences becomes a vicious circle full of inadequacies.

Creativity paralysis

The big problem is that this mindset among students is seen as normal. It is so commonplace that no one is surprised about it.

The normalization of this problematic teaching method has caused a blind spot in students’ perception, causing them to lose the ability to tell the difference between general knowledge and creativity when writing essays. 

This ineffective essay model will paralyze and gradually kill the creativity of students, which should be encouraged and nurtured.

More seriously, the model distorts the concept of learning, and students turn themselves into parrots that just need to learn everything by heart instead of practicing the right skills. 

And students mistakenly think that reading something by rote means learning.

The foreign professor was astonished when I told him about the presence of essay examples. I was sympathetic towards him, a person who came to Vietnam to teach university students and has had to undertake one more difficult task – correcting their thinking about essay writing.

I have heard that the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) has asked to stop this teaching model, and I will inform the foreign professor so that he will have more patience to teach Vietnamese students.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Luu 

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