BEIJING — Chinese primary and secondary schools are often derided as grueling, test-driven institutions that churn out students who can recite basic facts but have little capacity for deep reasoning.
A new study, though, suggests that China is producing students with some of the strongest critical thinking skills in the world.
But the new study, by researchers at Stanford University, also found that Chinese students lose their advantage in critical thinking in college. That is a sign of trouble inside China’s rapidly expanding university system, which the government is betting on to promote growth as the economy weakens.
The study, to be published next year, found that Chinese freshmen in computer science and engineering programs began college with critical thinking skills about two to three years ahead of their peers in the United States and Russia. Those skills included the ability to identify assumptions, test hypotheses and draw relationships between variables.
Yet Chinese students showed virtually no improvement in critical thinking after two years of college, even as their American and Russian counterparts made significant strides, according to the study.
“It’s astounding that China produces students that much further ahead at the start of college,” said Prashant Loyalka, an author of the study. “But they’re exhausted by the time they reach college, and they’re not incentivized to work hard.”
The findings are preliminary, but the weakness in China’s higher education system is especially striking because Chinese leaders are pressing universities to train a new generation of highly skilled workers and produce innovations in science and technology to serve as an antidote to slowing economic growth.
But many universities, mired in bureaucracy and lax academic standards, have struggled. Students say the energetic and demanding teaching they are accustomed to in primary and secondary schools all but disappears when they reach college.
“Teachers don’t know how to attract the attention of students,” said Wang Chunwei, 22, an electrical engineering student at Tianjin Chengjian University, not far from Beijing. “Listening to their classes is like listening to someone reading out of a book.”
“You get a degree whether you study or not, so why bother studying?” said Wang Qi, 24, a graduate student in environmental engineering in Beijing.
In addition to examining critical thinking skills, the study looked at how Chinese students compared in math and physics. While testing for the United States is not yet available, the researchers found that Chinese students arrived at college with skills far superior to their Russian counterparts.
After two years of college, though, the Chinese students showed virtually no improvement while the Russians made substantial progress, though not enough to catch up.
The Stanford researchers suspect the poor quality of teaching at many Chinese universities is one of the most important factors in the results. Chinese universities tend to reward professors for achievements in research, not their teaching abilities. In addition, almost all students graduate within four years, according to official statistics, reducing the incentive to work hard.
“They don’t really flunk anyone,” said Scott Rozelle, an economist who has studied Chinese education for three decades and a co-author of the study. “The contract is, if you got in here, you get out.”
The problems plaguing the higher education system have taken on new urgency as China’s ruling Communist Party tries to navigate a difficult transition from an economy fueled by manufacturing and assembly-line work to one led by growth in fields such as information technology and clean energy.