South Koreans rank among the best in the world in terms of education. As a whole, South Korea’s teenagers consistently beat out all or almost all of their international competitors on standardized tests. Having heard this, I was initially terrified of what my classes were going to be like at a Korean university. Mostly I was worried about the classes that I was going to be taking with Korean students, because I was sure they were all going to be much more intelligent and studious than I am. And I was partially right, but things aren’t really more difficult here; they’re mostly just different.
Almost all of the minor differences in university education seem to stem from the major differences in secondary education. For most of a Korean student’s schooling, he is preparing for one thing and on thing only – the college entrance exam. What is known colloquially here as “examination hell” more or less lives up to its name, and students end up coming to college with study skills that make me look completely useless. I first realized it in my US Politics course when we were discussing Supreme Court cases.
When the professor asked who the Chief Justice was during Marbury v. Madison, half a dozen Korean students responded with “John Marshall” in eerie unison. I began to panic. But then she asked, “Why is this case important?” and the room fell totally silent. It seems like this is often the case; the education system has produced a lot of students with an incredible amount of knowledge, but that are rarely asked to think critically. So I suppose it didn’t turn out that all the Korean students were way smarter than me, they just had different strengths.
And that is part of the reason the education system in South Korea is heavily criticized domestically, even though it is lauded internationally. More than once I have had a Korean come up to me and ask if I have heard the one about President Obama praising South Korean education. Apparently it’s something of a national joke.
And because of this teach-to-the test mentality, Korean students also don’t often have a lot of practice writing. So, at the university level there really don’t seem to be a whole lot of writing assignments, either. But this means that the classes tend to be based on a midterm, final exam, attendance, and maybe one or two assignments or projects. There’s not a whole lot of room for error. It also seems like the vast majority of the time the students are unwilling to participate in class discussions no matter how much the professor prods. It either makes for a boring class that is just an hour lecture, or an absolutely frustrating one where the class can’t progress because no one wants to participate.
The biggest difference has to be this though – if you’re taking any classes directly through Yonsei University, you will be graded competitively against your peers. To combat grade inflation, only a certain percentage of students are able to get an A or B in each class. Therefore, you’re not working to get a good grade on the test so much as you’re working to do better than the guy sitting next to you. For me academics has always been a blood sport, so this system may have turned me from competitive to completely unreasonable. I think I like it.
Overall I’m lukewarm about the style of education here. However, I feel like I should mention that many of the “Study Abroad” courses that are not really a part of the university are way too easy. If you’re looking for some academic rigor I’d suggest going with ones offered directly through the colleges.