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Do Chinese teenagers work too hard after school? A survey examines

ZHANG YUAN and XUE HAIPING | 2018-10-11
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Three girls lug their schoolbags on the street. A survey conducted by Renmin University of China shows that Chinese middle school students shoulder a heavy school load when measured subjectively and objectively. Photo: FILE


In recent years, the Chinese government has increased efforts to reduce primary and secondary school students’ study load, but controversies remain over whether to cut the workload for teenagers. In March this year, a netizen posted online an article titled “Ministry of Education, Please Do Not Reduce My Kid’s Study Load,” which sparked heated discussions among parents and internet users on school load reduction.

In order to respond to the controversies, this research utilized data from a large-scale baseline survey conducted in 2015 under the China Education Panel Survey (CEPS) program at Renmin University of China. The original survey sought to empirically examine the study load and differences among eighth graders so as to provide a theoretical basis for the government to implement more reasonable, effective school load reduction policies.


Study load remains heavy
The CEPS took the academic year 2013–2014 as the baseline, with the average degree of education and the proportion of the migrant population as the stratification variables. The survey randomly chose 28 administrative units at the city level and below nationwide. From the chosen units, 112 schools and 438 classes formed a random sample to track newly enrolled eighth graders. All students in the chosen classes were sampled, so the sample consisted of 10,750 students in the eighth grade.

The survey found that Chinese middle school students shouldered a heavy school load when measured subjectively. Among Chinese, mathematics and English, Chinese posed the lightest subjective load to the adolescents. Only 31.2 percent felt it difficult, while more than half of the surveyed said they had difficulties in learning mathematics.

English was the subject that brought greatest pressure. Approximately 55.8 percent of the respondents noted it was difficult and 24.6 percent found it extremely difficult. The rates were much higher than in the cases of Chinese and mathematics.

Moreover, Chinese teenagers faced a great study load when measured objectively as well, namely as time spent on out-of-class assignments. After school from Monday to Friday, nearly one half of the students spent more time doing their homework than the time specified by the Ministry of Education. Half of the surveyed undertook after-school programs and quite a few students spent more than one hour in them. A number of students attended tutoring classes related to schoolwork and unrelated interest-oriented classes, with more students attending the former than the latter.

At the same time, more than half of the surveyed students said they spent more than two hours, normally, on homework from school, and 44 percent of them had to finish extra after-school assignments.

In addition, school homework was heavier than after-school programs. On weekdays, 2.3 percent of the students didn’t have school homework, 15.2 percent spent less than one hour on it, 37.4 percent spent one to two hours and 45.1 percent spent more than two hours. As for assignments outside school, 54.8 percent of the surveyed reported no outside-school assignments. In after-school programs, 23.8 percent of them spent less than one hour, 15.3 percent spent one to two hours and 6.1 percent spent more than two hours.

On weekends, 3.4 percent of the students didn’t have school homework. Those spending less than two hours on school homework accounted for 29.7 percent, 41.7 percent spent two to four hours and 25.2 percent committed more than four hours.

When it came to outside-school assignments, 56 percent of the respondents reported no such assignments, 32.6 percent said they completed them within two hours, 8.5 percent mentioned two to four hours and 2.9 percent spent more than four hours.

Weekday and weekend data both show that the students spent more time on school homework than on outside-school assignments.


Private supplementary tutoring
Private supplementary tutoring typically increased students’ objective study load. On weekdays, 51.8 percent of the students taking extra lessons outside school spent more time on school homework than that specified by the Ministry of Education, exceeding two hours. Of those who didn’t receive private supplementary tutoring, only 38.3 percent finished school homework using more than two hours.

On weekends, it took 28.5 percent of the students attending outside-school tutoring classes more than four hours to finish school homework, while only 21.8 percent of those having no supplementary tutoring lessons spent more than four hours.

In general, private supplementary tutoring occupied the students’ time for finishing homework and outside-school assignments, hence adding to the objective study burden on them.

However, extra lessons outside school typically lessened students’ subjective study load. According to the survey, 53 percent of the students receiving private supplementary tutoring found mathematics not difficult, but to those having no outside-school lessons, the rate was 39.8 percent.

As for Chinese the subject, 74.1 percent of those tutored outside school felt that it was not difficult along with 63.4 percent of those not receiving extra tutoring. In the case of English, the rates were 53.8 and 34.6 percent, respectively.

Therefore, whether in Chinese, mathematics or English, those taking supplementary lessons would subjectively perceive the study load as lighter.


Reduction still vital
The Chinese government has released a series of policies to reduce teenagers’ school load, which have to some extent relieved their heavy study burden. With time, however, some parents and scholars have started to voice objections against school load reduction, maintaining that the students don’t face a heavy burden in study.

However, data shows that Chinese middle school students shoulder both heavy subjective and objective study loads. For the sake of their physical and mental health as well as long-term development, the government should stick to relevant policies, build a supervision mechanism and strengthen publicity to raise awareness among parents and schools about cutting the workload for students.

As for methods of school load reduction, the stress is often laid on lessening objective study load, namely reducing the amount of homework. In fact, the subjective study load is likewise important, such as making assignments less difficult and avoiding tricky and strange questions in daily homework and examinations. Study load should be lightened both subjectively and objectively.

The survey also shows that outside-school workload has become an important part of students’ objective study burden. To lighten their outside-school workload, schools at all levels should lower the difficulty of entrance examinations, thereby reducing motivation for students to attend supplementary tutoring.

Additionally, the General Office of the Ministry of Education should supervise and manage off-campus training institutions, close down those harboring major security risks, and ban pre-teaching and tutoring lessons that go beyond the syllabus, thereby mitigating students’ study pressure.


Zhang Yuan and Xue Haiping are from the College of Education at Capital Normal University.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)