Putting my son through his paces for college entrance exams is more like purgatory, than hell

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    As my son walked off this weekend with his bento lunchbox and waterflask to sit possibly his final set of entrance exam papers at a public university, I felt a distinct weight lift off from my shoulders, and a feeling like we’re seeing the light at the end of the Tunnel of the Underworld of University Entrance Exams.

I thought I would just ruminate here and unload some thoughts and steam about the entire college entrance exam process as my first encounter with it comes to a close.

The entrance exam circuit as a student racetrack  I recall the first time my uncle brought me to the racetracks and the first bet I ever placed on a horse.  The adrenaline rush during a race is palpable.  To have a child facing entrance exams, for the parent, the experience is sort of similar to owning a racehorse and betting all out on your stable’s horse(s). You hope you’ve done your part in feeding and grooming your horse, choosing the right jockey (juku/high school) for the big challenge and race ahead, and that even if you have a dark horse with an uncertain track record, you hope that it will be able to pull up from behind to win the race. A child is not a racehorse of course, but the neck-and-neck hensachi numbers game of the entrance exam system can sure make you feel like one. To others, navigating the whole entrance exam system and school choice and scheduling complexities it might seem even more like a Snakes-and-Ladders landscape (depicted at the top of this page).

Intense competition Exactly how competitive are the college exams and how fierce is the rivalry between college applicants?

The number of students, including my son, who sat for the National Center Test for University Entrance Examinations Test (Senta Shiken in Japanese) 大学入試センター試験 was 559,132 (1,540 fewer than last year, compare these figures to the total of 582,000 people who sat for the Center tests in January 2000) This figure constitutes 81.4 % of this year’s batch of spring-graduating highschool students.

The two-day national center test for university admissions for enrollment this spring in Japan was held on Jan 17-18, 2015 at a total of 690 locations across the country. My son and his student cohorts are the first generation of Japanese people who saw increased educational content after the end of years of “yutori” relaxed, pressure-free education.

The bone of contention – the source of competitive tension, exam stress and misery — the Senta Shiken

The two-day examination held once a year in January almost simultaneously throughout the country is said to be the source of  exam stress because it is a one-shot exam. However, there are many other countries that hold once a year exams as well, like GCSEs. So this hardly constitutes the key reason for exam hell and misery. We offer more reasons below.

All national and public universities and over 200 private universities use these exams. In many cases, universities also conduct a second screening with different exams for each faculty and an interview, and use the combined scores of these and the Center exams to select new students. The exam dates and results for individual universities are held and posted at different times, but most are announced by the end of March, but the very last of certain public university kouki second stage exams are held around school graduation day.

The format is multiple-choice and covers Japanese, geography and history, civics, mathematics, science, and a foreign language of the student’s choice. Though most students choose the English test, there are a variety of other foreign languages offered. My son took eight tests in five subjects.

The results are announced on the Center’s website and by a recorded telephone message giving the number held by each successful examinee. The exam itself is covered on the national news and the exam questions are later published in national newspapers.

The uni-files describes how the U. entrance exam system works:

University entrance is based largely on the scores that students achieved in entrance examinations (nyūgaku shiken (入学試験?)). Private institutions accounted for nearly 80% of all university enrollments in 1991, but with a few exceptions such as Waseda University and Keio University, the public national universities are more highly regarded. Especially, National Seven Universities are the most prestigious. This distinction had its origins in historical factors—the long years of dominance of the select imperial universities, such as Tokyo and Kyoto universities, which trained Japan’s leaders before the war—and also in differences in quality, particularly in facilities and faculty ratios.

In addition, certain prestigious employers, notably the government and selected large corporations (e.g. those listed in Nikkei 225), continue to restrict their hiring of new employees to graduates of the most esteemed universities. There is a close link between university background and employment opportunity. Because Japanese society places such store in academic credentials, the competition to enter the prestigious universities is keen.

Students applying to national or other public universities take two entrance examinations, first a nationally administered uniform achievement test (senta shiken (センター試験?)) and then an examination administered by the university that the student hopes to enter (niji shiken (二次試験?)). Applicants to private universities need to take only the university’s examination. [Some universities decide on successful candidates using only the National Center Test, but most prestigious universities require the candidate to take another, institution-specific exam, which in the case of top-ranking universities is often more difficult than the National Center Test.]

Such intense competition means that many students can not compete successfully for admission to the college of their choice. An unsuccessful student can either accept an admission elsewhere, forgo a college education, or wait until the following spring to take the national examinations again. A large number of students choose the last option. These students, called ronin, meaning masterless samurai, spend an entire year, and sometimes longer, studying for another attempt at the entrance examinations. In 2011, the number of ronin who took the uniform test is 110,211, while the number of high school students who took the test is 442,421.” [This means    freshies have to compete against the more experienced ronin students who make up roughly a quarter of the college applicants…knowing this can add to the competitive stress]

During this past weekend, my son sat for the zenki (first stage) entrance exam for a public university that offers his chosen course. Only 20 places are allotted and the number of openings is oversubscribed by four times the number of applicants (80).  If he should fail to get in this round, he will have to contend against an even more formidable lot of rival applicants probably holding stronger Senta Shiken results, for only three or four available seats during the kouki (final stage) entrance exam, which will involve an essay, to be considered along with Senta Shiken results (the latter having a weightage of 40%).

Taking the U. entrance exam is today almost a rite of passage for highschoolers. The Senta Shiken and U. entrance exam system as a whole are a cultural institution.

A brief history  The examination system was imported from Europe to Japan following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, and in the 1920s the term “examination hell” represented the fierce competition for academic middle schools and high schools, though only a few elite went to college (Amano 1990:xii). During the Occupation after World War II, college admissions were based on high school records, a standard aptitude test, and entrance examinations by individual colleges. Entrance examinations given by each college primarily determined admissions. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

More on the Senta Shiken from Japan Trends:

“The exam system existed since the 19th c. In high school, students take moshi or mock exams based on the Senta Shiken administered by NUEE Centre, an agency affiliated with MEXT (Monbukagakukasho). Students are given standard deviation scores, known as hensachi, based on their performance in these tests.

University and individual departments within them are then ranked based on average henasachi of students who successfully gain acceptance (Mamoru, 2001). This has led many to see the system as monolithic.

But along with the Senta, there are hundreds of separate exams administered by various U and departments within U. The exams are often an enormous source of income, especially for the higher-ranking universities. Universities actually enjoy a high degree of autonomy in constructing and evaluating such exams. …

Since the primary purpose of the test is to see if the applicant is prepared for college education, the test itself is not designed to distinguish the top three elite students from the rest of the crowd. The Center Test actually has a reputation for being one of the fairest and well-balanced tests to determine one’s academic skills because it covers all the basics in textbooks and has no trick questions.

“What makes the test problematic and even hellish, as criticized by millions in and out of country, has more to do with the fact that applicants get only one shot at taking this test, given on the first weekend after January 13th, just two months before high school graduation. (If they have already graduated high school or can prove the equivalent proficiency, they are also eligible to take the test.)

However, despite the fact that neither high school nor college is part of mandatory education in Japan, the great majority of high schoolers and their parents would admit that failing one college entrance exam can very well be equivalent to falling a hundred steps behind their peers who managed to get that golden ticket to the university of their choice.” – National Center Test for University Admissions to be replaced by new achievement tests in five year (Japan Trends)

The costly investment and the high stakes of testing

From my son’s scheduling chart below, you can see that the entire testing period for my son begins on January 17th, but does not end till April. The mounting costs of each exam, mock tests before each exam, deadlines for fees as well as acceptance fee required to guarantee a place (called “keeping the seat warm”) are also indicated. The dates of the entrance exams, results’ releases are staggered over the three months, beginning with lower tier colleges and ending with the most prestigious of public universities, and the payment dates are timed in a way to allow lower tier universities to earn income from exams and seat-warming fees. It is a busy time for parents, running around making all the remittance payments, not to mention, making bentos and hot soups/ramen and general daily care of your “warrior student”. It is the worst possible season too to hold exams, the cold and stomach flu tend to be at epidemic peaks, and snowfall can prevent candidates from reaching their exam halls altogether, which was what happened to last year’s examinees.


The university entrance exam dilemma touches on the high stakes and role of testing:

“The Center Test is in effect, used in the first round to eliminate candidates, and to cream off the best of the best scoring candidates, even though most universities also have their own exams for those who have scored high enough on the Center and proceeded to the second round of the college admission ordeal (which in Japanese is called juken).

This exam entrance system with the repeated hurdles of testing, is high stakes, costly, longer-drawn out than that of other systems requiring considerable exam endurance, thus is criticized as putting too much pressure on students, turning at least the last two of the three years of high school life into an exam-cramming experience.”

There has been decades of debate regarding the need to reform the exam system and Senta Shiken (see Reform of the university entrance exam sparks debate 14 Sep 2013 University World News), the PM Abe’s administration has announced that the Senta Shiken will be abolished and a new education system to be in place by 2020.

Gregory Poole writes of the EFL pressure on students (although his pre-2003 data needs updating and EFL has become a new source of pressure since having been made a mandatory subject in college admissions as well as all the way to elementary school) in his “Assessing Japan’s institutional entrance requirements” (2003) article:

“Japan has one of the highest rates of post-secondary school attendance among all industrialized nations, with 2.5 million undergraduates enrolled at over 600 national, public, and private four- year universities (Hirowatari 2000). Over half of all Japanese teenagers, then, apply to take a college entrance exam for admission into a tertiary institution. Most such admissions exams include a compulsory English proficiency sub-test although EFL is not a state-required subject at primary, secondary, or tertiary schools in Japan. Partly because of this university entrance exam focus on English, while only a handful of students are exposed to language classes in primary school, over 10 million 12 to 18 year olds, and another million or so university students ‘elect’ to study English” [and do so with inadequate support imho]

Norm referenced vs criterion-based exams – the neck-and-neck ranking of students’ test scores.

“Norm-referenced tests (or NRTs) compare an examinee’s performance to that of other examinees. Standardized examinations such as the SAT are norm-referenced tests. The goal is to rank the set of examinees so that decisions about their opportunity for success (e.g. college entrance) can be made.

Criterion-referenced tests (or CRTs) differ in that each examinee’s performance is compared to a pre-defined set of criteria or a standard. The goal with these tests is to determine whether or not the candidate has the demonstrated mastery of a certain skill or set of skills. These results are usually “pass” or “fail” and are used in making decisions about job entry, certification, or licensure. A national board medical exam is an example of a CRT. Either the examinee has the skills to practice the profession, in which case he or she is licensed, or does not.” – Norm-referenced vs. Criterion-referenced Testing

According to Gregory Poole:

“NRM’s are general tests intended to be used to classify students by percentile for measuring either aptitude or proficiency for admissions into or placement within a program. CRM’s, on the other hand, are more specific, achievement or diagnostic tests intended to be used for motivating students by measuring to what percent they have achieved mastery of the taught/learned material. … Contrastingly, the CRM, such as a locally produced achievement test, measures absolute performance that is compared only with the learning objective, hence a perfect score is theoretically obtainable by all students who have a mastery of the pre-specified material, or conversely, all students may fail the test…. Admissions and placement decisions are questions of proficiency and students are ideally spread out in a continuum for which a NRM is the test of choice. Language skills are tested generally and students can then be grouped accordingly into ability levels for decisions of either admission into a program or streaming into different classes within a program. Comparisons of average proficiency levels within a program, or across institutions on a state, national, or international scale, are other program-level concerns that are best addressed with a NRM. In classroom-level decision-making, on the other hand, diagnostic or achievement assessment is most helpful. For this end, CRMs are most accurate in helping teachers (and administrators) to assess the strengths and weaknesses of individual students with regard to the curriculum goals, as well as checking progress and achievement within such a program.”

“Japan has one of the highest rates of post-secondary school attendance among all industrialized nations, with 2.5 million undergraduates enrolled at over 600 national, public, and private four- year universities (Hirowatari 2000). Over half of all Japanese teenagers, then, apply to take a college entrance exam for admission into a tertiary institution. Most such admissions exams include a compulsory English proficiency sub-test although EFL is not a state-required subject at primary, secondary, or tertiary schools in Japan. Partly because of this university entrance exam focus on English, while only a handful of students are exposed to language classes in primary school, over 10 million 12 to 18 year olds, and another million or so university students ‘elect’ to study English.

3.1 ‘Exam hell’

“In Japan there is a commonly held belief in “the educationally credentialized society,” or gakureki shakai. In many cases, the extraordinary emphasis on ranking colleges and universities has led to a brand-name sensitivity that may affect a person for their entire life. One effect of a gakureki shakai is a phenomenon that has been labeled “exam hell.” As was mentioned in the introduction, the so-called “exam hell” is pressure felt by many young adults in Japan (as well as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and other Asian countries for that matter). Most teenagers are expected to prove their intellectual mettle (or exam-taking talent) on these fact-oriented exams, even though they are rarely pushed to excel once they have matriculated at a college or university (see McVeigh 1997). Entrance into a university is often equated with passing the test, and in actuality this is often the case. Though admissions procedures are becoming more creative in recent years, the majority of colleges have resisted any change in a system that has been in place, arguably, since the Meiji Era in the late 1800s (Amano 1990). Indeed the university entrance, and overall education, system itself is inherently immobile (Frost 1991; Schoppa 1991), and has been described as a societal ‘filtering’ mechanism to create a class structure where otherwise none purportedly exists (see, eg, Cutts 1997; McVeigh 1997; McVeigh 1998). Students are strictly ranked according to hensachi, the “abstract notion of a national norm- referenced person-indexed score.” (Brown 1995, p.25). Using this score, high school and prep school teachers advise their students about which university entrance exams they should take based on their probability of acceptance (a high school teacher’s reputation is on the line if their students shoot too high and miss their mark– conservatism that is a necessity). In fact, the largest cram school syndicates in the Tokyo and Osaka area publish hensachi ranking lists of two and four-year colleges which students and teachers use to make application decisions.”

Not guilty as charged, however, asserts that the competitiveness of the entrance exams is greatly exaggerated as admissions requirements have become more varied, and are neither difficult nor competitive for many students opting for the lower and lowest tiers of universities.

At public universities at least the entrance exams are not sole admissions criteria. Nearly 95% of public universities included interviews and essays as part of entrance criteria(1999 fig. …needs updating). Weight given to various components varies depending on university and departments. 85% of universities admit 30% based on suisen nyuugaku/AO by portfolio of achievement and recommendations.

Notwithstanding the above assertion of varied routes and options, a great many Japanese students still strive to meet the rigorous college admissions requirements of the country’s most prestigious And top ranking colleges. In “Does examination hell pay off? The cost-benefit analysis of “ronin” and college education in Japan” H. Ono concludes,

“The high value placed on college prestige and the highly competitive environment of college entry in Japan suggest that college quality plays a significant role in how individuals prepare for college in that country. College-bound high school students undergo a process of intense preparation known as examination hell, and typically thirty percent will choose the ronin option, in which students spend years in addition to high school preparing for the next year’s college entrance examinations. Using the mean scores of the entrance examinations as a measure of college quality, my analysis finds that college quality significantly improved the internal rate of return (IRR) to college education among the sample of male graduates in Japan. The results show that the IRR with respect to ronin is one of diminishing returns. On average, the number of ronin years which maximizes returns is one or two years.”

The paper “An economic analysis of the exam aspects of entrance exams” makes a number of observations and conclusions regarding the design of the exam system, and analyses the level of student effort induced under norm-referenced testing vs. absolute performance systems, and their relationship between competition pool size, admission rate, informational gap, etc.

“This paper focuses on one of the possible causes of the exam hell, or more specifically, one of the possible causes of the phenomenon that students spend too much time and study too hard for the college entrance exam. Many attribute the causes of this over-studying problem to some cultural and economic-development factors such as Confucianism, the tradition of governmental official exam, and the dual-economy problem. However, we think more attention should be paid on how much the over-studying problem is related to the designs of the exam system. This is because the exam system, if it is (at least partially) responsible for the exam hell, could be adjusted more rapidly and easily to mitigate the over-studying problem than those cultural and economical causes. Economic theories developed to study the effort-inducing function and the selection function of institutions are well suited for studying this issue, since these two functions are the ones that the college entrance exam is designed to serve. …

We follow economics terminology to call the norm-referenced test the relative-performance system (the RP system) and call the criterion-referenced test the absolute-performance system (the AP system). … . And the RP system may induce more effort only when students are substantially different and they are not well informed about the ability of their opponents. Namely, the competition among students alone should not be blamed for the over-studying problem. It is the competition under uncertainty that may be responsible for the problem. The second result is that the effort-inducing function of the RP system is sensitive to the size (the number of students) and the informational structure of the competition pools. Under the RP systems, students’ effort can be effectively lowered, in case it is desired, by downsizing the competition pools (without changing the admission rate and the distribution of students’ ability) and at the same time informing students the ability levels of their opponents. The third result, following directly from the second one, is that the exam authority can manipulate the size and the informational structure under the RP system to induce a wide range of effort that, in some situations, includes the level induced by the corresponding AP system. This flexibility makes the norm-referenced test (a relative-performance mechanism) superior to the criterion-referenced test (an absolute-performance mechanism). The fourth result concerns the selection function. When the number of students contending in the pool is small and students are similar in ability, the AP system selects better in the sense that it gives high-ability students a relatively higher chance to enter college. The RP system may select better when the number of students is small, students are fairly different in ability, and students do not know the ability of their opponents. The fifth result is that adding some aptitude-test-type questions to an achievement test lowers students’ effort and at the same time improves the selection function. The last result is that creating more college positions (and thus increasing the admission rate) may not release the stress from students as many think. Doing so may actually make students study more.”

“the effort induced by the RP system of the same admission rate increases as the number of students increases, and 3. the effort induced by the RP system approaches the level induced by the AP system of the same admission rate from below as the number of students approaches infinity.”

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Applying the ideas above, we should suppose that with the college admissions rate currently being just over 50%(an increase over the yr 2000 figures on the graph above) the Senta exam and competition student pool being nationwide and large, and ability gaps between students small … these all appear to be optimum conditions for inducing the greatest levels of student effort, and thus entrance exam competition can be deduce to be at peak levels.  Furthermore, even with the creation of more college positions as student populations decline, the overstudying might not be reduced as predicted, because in addition to the Senta test there are different combinations of exams and more different kinds of qualifying tests to study for (various types of criterion-based, aptitude tests, essays, dessin and/or interviews depending upon individual college choices and the requirements by the individual faculties) and the time and energy spent in gathering information for the different kinds of tests as well as period for exam studying becomes more drawn out over a longer period.

The paper above says that the intensity of that competition and the level of induced student effort and “overstudying” problem can be lessened to some extent, by dividing the competition pool into smaller ones, introducing achievement and aptitude tests and closing the student’s information gap by assessing his position against his/her rival’s realized scores. Students who are not all-rounders and who are unlikely to do well in academic testing on all subjects can choose not to do the Senta Shiken at all, and opt only for private schools that don’t look at Senta test results, but this eliminates the public college option, and where finances are an issue (which is for the majority of the population), as the cost of any private college is prohibitive, even for the “F tier” of colleges at the bottom rung of the ranking ladder(“F” means Free, for the “free acceptance” by some colleges of virtually any student regardless of their grades). The job of juku cramschools is to assist in performing these function and parents rely on their role in reducing the informational gap and helping them to assess the test performance of, and the probabilistic outcome of the performance of their children.

Risk aversion or uncertainty avoidance trait of Japanese drives them onto the known and well-trodden higher education path to traditional comporate careers.

About 73 percent of Japanese describe themselves as risk-averse, according to a 2008 study of 51 countries by Stockholm-based World Values Survey…According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, fewer than 4 percent of working-age Japanese intend to start a business within three years. That’s the third-lowest rate among 54 countries surveyed last year, behind only the United Arab Emirates and Russia” – Japan’s fear of risk is getting dangerous. Businessweek Dec 6, 2012

In Cultural differences in risk tolerance Christoph S. Weber studies nationality as a factor that determines the level of risk aversion or uncertainty avoidance:

“Societies with lower uncertainty avoidance might be more innovative (Shane, 1995). Taking this into account risk averse people tend to work less in risky sectors, be less willing to found a company or work as self-employed (Ekelund et al., 2005) and work less frequently in the research area3. … nationality also matters in the decision-making processes.

Only the Japanese assess themselves as highly risk averse (Salacuse, 1998).
Women have a higher probability of being risk averse … people with large worries about finances have a higher probability of being very risk averse and have a lower probability of being moderately risk averse and risk neutral.

The degree of life satisfaction has a similar effect… those individuals with higher degrees of life satisfaction are more likely to be moderately or very risk prone. Being highly satisfied increases the probability of being risk prone and vice versa….

Both income and wealth are positively correlated with risk tolerance. Worries about finances tend to increase risk aversion while life and income satisfaction increase risk propensity. Unemployed individuals have a higher probability of being risk averse.

My son did not attend cramschool during the high school years, and my well-meaning neighbour had on more than a few occasions urged me to send my son to cramschool as he did his son some years ago (his son entered the medical profession). Around 75% of my son’s class attend a cramschool in addition already being in a private academic prep high school. Conventional wisdom in Japan has many parents sending their children off to either attend juku or an academic prep school (often both) to increase their chances of obtaining high scores in the Senta Shiken as well as individual university entrance exams. It was a hard choice for us not to do the same, but we felt it would make our son a true learner to have to seek out answers for himself, than to have them spoonfed and delivered to him. We know it has been hard for him, and he spent many hours, seeking out lectures on Youtube, and materials online.

Fear of failure and of an uncertain outcome (and employment opportunities due to failure to gain acceptance to desired prestigious colleges) can weigh heavily upon a family – this fear and risk aversion are why parents expend a huge proportion of their household income in cramschool fees or private school fees in the hopes of their student improving their National Center scores, and thereby increasing the odds of the student clearing college entrance exam and college admissions hurdles. By far, I think the juku’s value to parent may be in that it helps close the informational gap and its counseling services in advising on college choice and in providing probabilistic predictions of which college category the student is a best match for, based in the student’s moshi mock test scores relative to other students, thus taking away some of the exam stress of uncertainty. As the literature above suggested, the stress (and therefore effort induced) is lessened when students are given information and know the ability levels of their opponents. Good schools should have experienced teachers who can provide the same function, and parents can buy informational materials from any bookstore, but the Japanese-illiterate foreign parent might be in a bit of a quandary without some professional help. There is a fair bit of administrative work for the parent in filling out forms, and having to run around meeting the deadlines for paying fees, and making bank remittances, and accepting college offers and such during this period. However, a high school student who is well prepped should be able to handle much of the information on schools enough to make a considered choice on his/her own.

There is considerable research or literature on how risk perception and fear affects people.

In “The hidden danger of being risk averse”:

“According to 20 years of research conducted by Columbia University’s Tory Higgins, it might be more accurate to say that some of us are particularly risk-averse, not because we are neurotic, paranoid, or even lacking in self-confidence, but because we tend to see our goals as opportunities to maintain the status quo and keep things running smoothly. Higgins calls this a prevention focus, associated with a robust aversion to being wide-eyed and optimistic, making mistakes, and taking chances.”

According to the Expected utility theory in Risk aversion psychology:

“The Expected Utility Theory (EUT) model presumes that decision-makers themselves incorporate an accurate weighting of probabilities into calculating expected values for their decision-making, EUT assumes that people’s subjective probability-weighting matches objective probability differences, when they are, in reality, exceedingly disparate. … A large majority of people prefer the sure thing over the gamble, although the gamble has higher (mathematical) expected value (also known as expectation).”

While EUT has generally been accepted as a normative model of rational choice (telling us how we should make decisions), descriptive models of how people actually behave deviate significantly from this normative model.

Affective psychology of risk – the earliest studies of risk perception also found that, whereas risk and benefit tend to be positively correlated in the world, they are negatively correlated in people’s minds, and, therefore, judgments. The significance of this finding was not realized until a study by Alhakami and Slovic (1994) found that the inverse relation between perceived risk and perceived benefit of an activity (e.g., using pesticides) was linked to the strength of positive or negative affect associated with that activity as measured by rating the activity on bipolar scales such as good/bad, nice/awful, dread/not dread, and so forth. This result implies that people base their judgments of an activity or a technology not only on what they think about it but also on how they feel about it. If their feelings toward an activity are favorable, they are moved toward judging the risks as low and the benefits as high; if their feelings toward it are unfavorable, they tend to judge the opposite— high risk and low benefit.

Risk-averse behaviors are the culmination of several neural correlates. While avoiding negative stimuli, perceived or real, is a simple enough action, decision-making requires anticipation, motivation and reasoning, giving a good worklout to different brain areas.

Fear-Conditioning. Over time, individuals learn that a stimulus is not benign through personal experience. Implicitly, a fear of a particular stimulus can develop, resulting in risk-averse behaviour. Traditionally, fear-conditioning is not associated with decision-making, but rather the pairing of a neutral stimulus with an aversive situation. Once an association is formed between the neutral stimulus and aversive event, a startle response is observed each time the neutral stimulus is presented. An aversion to the presentation of the neutral stimulus is observed after repeated trials.

Essential to understanding risk-aversion is the implicit learning that occurs during fear-conditioning. Risk aversion is the culmination of implicitly or explicitly acquired knowledge that informs an individual that a particular situation is aversive to their psychological well-being. Similarly, fear-conditioning is the acquisition of knowledge that informs an individual that a particular neutral stimulus now predicts an event that endangers their psychological or physical well-being.

Researchers such as Mike Davis (1992) and Joseph LeDoux (1996), have deciphered the neural correlates responsible for the acquisition of fear-conditioning.

The amygdala, previously mentioned as a region showing high activity for the emotion of regret, is the central recipient for brain activity concerning fear-conditioning. Several streams of information from multiple brain areas converge on the lateral amygdala, allowing for the creation of associations that regulate fear-conditioning; Cells in the superior dorsal lateral amygdala are able to rapidly pair the neutral stimulus with the aversive stimulus. Cells that project from the lateral amygdala to the central amygdala allow for the initiation of an emotional response if a stimulus is deemed threatening.

We can surmise from the foregoing that students and parents, with the perceived or real high stakes career rewards to be gained from a good performance in the entrance exam(s) and their aversion to and fear of the uncertain future that failure would bring, would be subject to high stress levels and a fearful mindscape. – see Scott D. Lane & Don R. Chorek, Risk aversion in human subjects under conditions of probabilistic reward (The Psychological Record, 2000, 50, 221-234):

“Much is known about how people evaluate hypothetical outcomes in decision situations. … But few human studies have examined risky choices using real consequences. Kahneman and Tversky (1984) reported, under some conditions, equivalent outcomes with real and hypothetical outcomes, but results from other studies are not so straightforward and suggest that there may be differences in subjects’ decision making when real payoff contingencies are implemented. Siovic (1969) found that when choices were hypothetical, subjects maximized gains and discounted the probability of loss, but were more risk averse (sensitive to losses and no gain) under conditions in which they actually played out their choices. …  These findings underscore the importance of investigating the role of contingencies and experimental context (e.g., motivational state) in decision making (see also Hastjarjo, Silberberg, & Hursh, 1990).”

Current theories of human risk taking assert that subjects psychologically transform expected (mathematical) values of choices into subjective values, and choices are subsequently based on these subjective values (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1979, 1984). “[e.g. The latter scenario is particularly likely where students lack guidance by prep or juku school counselors, or knowledgeable parents, and select schools based on whimsical perusal of school pamphlets, rather a good match for their skills and abilities.]

Regarding student (and parental) exam stress due to uncertainty perception,  the article Risk aversion tells us “… we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.” An uncertain outcome and future that seems to be hanging can weigh very heavily upon all concerned during the entrance exam period.

How Japanese cope with walking the testing tightrope. Academic prep high schools and cramschools exist mainly to help parents and students navigate the exam system. The whole exam prep process essentially began Day 1 of high school. My son’s high school came straight to the point … I recall that at the very first induction meeting, parents were already briefed about the high school’s track record in placing students in top universities, their educational philosophy and their strategies for preparing its students for college entrance exams. Academic prep schools such as my son’s also group students according to the same or similar ability in the same classrooms, in addition to facilitating learning at roughly the same pace, it makes for predicting student performance and ultimate college placements easier and a more accurate process. The debate about the connection between the creativity and an overemphasis on testing notwithstanding, according to my son’s school, which apparently knows its way around the testing game, as the aim was to remove the uncertainty and fear around exams and testing, students would be tested frequently, given ten minute quizzes (breaking up academic material into bit-sized digestible chunks for learning) to be followed  periodically, by longer term tests, and that this would be like innoculating the students in frequent small doses, until they were ready for big one or became immune to exam stress and fear. This would mean no surprises, and therefore, no nerves during the real thing. Moshi mock exams are taken by most students in the weeks, leading up to the actual exams. Does it work? I suppose so. Better prepped students are likely to be less nervous before or during an exam. Juku involves the same kind of strategic prep and thinking. In our case we did not have to send him to cramschool, nevertheless, in the days preceding receiving the first college acceptance letter, I fretted and worried that we might have jeopardized our son’s future in not having sent our son to cramschool. Hindsight is an illusory and useless thing, because by its very nature and definition it wasn’t in existence when you needed it.

Goal orientation and self-regulated learning  Academic prep high schools in Japan are really ultimately about two things, determine which university track the student is bound for, and two, helping your child set study goals and achieve them successfully. (It has been argued that the Japanese entrance exam system performs a strong selection role). Every student who wants do well in the college entrance exam has to face the enormity of having so much study ground to cover and the need for mastery of curriculum material when studying for exams.  For educators in Japan, this usually entails an understanding the role of goal orientation and the emphasis upon self-regulated learning.

Pintrich and Boekaerts in “Handbook of self-regulation“(2000), pp. 451-502 discuss motivational constructs, the different goal orientations linked to components of and frameworks for self-regulated learning. In the book, the authors define SRL, i.e., Self-regulated learning (SRL) as concerning “the application of general models of regulation and self-regulation of cognition, motivation/affect, behavior, and context to issues of learning, in particular, academic learning that takes place in school or classroom contexts”. They also suggest in the book that an approach–mastery goal orientation is generally adaptive for cognition, motivation, learning, and performance in an academic context.

The Japanese emphasis on hardwork and diligence and why Japanese students are so pessimistic 

Various global surveys have shown that Japanese children are among the most pessimistic in the world about their own future despite their relatively high achievement and performance in global test (PISA or TIMSS) rankings. Underlying this pessimism is the paradox of their view of the co-relation between effort and goal outcome, and their perception of their inability to control or influence outcome or failure – here, it might be useful to review some literature regarding the Japanese student attitude towards ability, perseverance and hardwork.

On this issue, I found to be particularly enlightening the following extract from an interesting study, “GOAL ORIENTATIONS AND ACTION- CONTROL BELIEFS : A Cross-cultural Comparison among Croatian, Finnish, and Japanese Students by Markku Niemivirta, Majda Rijavec, and Hirotsugu Yamauchi

“Results by Chandler, Shama, Wolf, and Planchard (1981) evidenced that American children believed the influence of effort to be more important for success than for failure, whereas the opposite was true for Japanese. More recently, Tuss and Zimmer (1995) found that both Japanese and Chinese students viewed failure situations as more controllable than did American students, and that these differences were mostly due to Americans making significantly less effort attributions. Additionally, Japanese children, in contrast to other groups, viewed failure outcomes equally controllable to success outcomes.
In general, these findings suggest that compared to Western children, Japanese do not exhibit self-serving bias in their causal ascriptions for achievement outcomes. Although this difference could be attributed to a number of possible culture-bound reasons (see Fletcher & Ward, 1988), two of them can be considered especially relevant in the present context; namely, differences in underlying motives and differences in conceptions of effort and ability.

… they [Western children] take credit for success and deny responsibility for failures (Bradley, 1978), and they commonly view their future in optimistic terms and underestimate possible misfortunes (Weinstein, 1980). However, a number of studies suggest that such self-enhancing tendencies are rare, absent, or even reversed within some Asian cultures, and especially in Japan; in adult populations, there is virtually no evidence of illusory optimism (Heine & Lehman, 1995), false uniqueness effect (Markus & Kitayama, 1991), or self-serving attributions (Kitayama, Takagi, & Matsumoto, 1995; Yamauchi, 1988) in Japanese. The general conclusion appears to be that, compared to Europeans and Americans (herein Euro-Americans), Japanese are far more self-critical – that is, sensitive to negative self-relevant information and motivated to improve potential shortcomings (Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999).

… Nicholls (1984) argued that achievement-related goals are pursued differently depending on how individuals construe competence. Based on developmental data he suggested a distinction be- tween two types of conceptions, which “embody different criteria for judging one’s ability or chances of demonstrating ability” (p. 329). In the less differentiated con- ception ability judgments are self-referenced. That is, high effort is seen to lead to learning, which in turn indicates higher ability; the greater gain in a difficult task reflects greater competence. In the differentiated – normative – conception, ability is perceived as capacity, which is inferred by interpersonal comparison of effort and performance. A demonstration of high ability thus relies on success in tasks where others fail, but high effort implies less capacity. This view suggests that in Japan, the less differentiated conception of ability might be readily internalized as a cul- tural constituent and thus becomes a standard rather than an alternative.

Nicholls (1984) went on to suggest that the two conceptions of ability lead to different goals in achievement situations. He used the term task-involvement to refer to states where individuals seek to gain ability in the less differentiated sense (e.g., in noncompetitive situations) and the term ego-involvement to states where individuals seek to demonstrate ability in the more differentiated sense (e.g., in competitive situations). This distinction between situationally induced ability con- ceptions led Nicholls and his colleagues to propose a similar distinction in disposi- tional tendencies (e.g., Nicholls, Patashnick, Cheung, Thorkildsen, & Lauer, 1989; Nicholls, Patashnick, & Nolen, 1985); they argued that people with different moti- vational orientations – task or ego orientation, respectively – differ in their com- mitment to the two criteria of success. Nicholls (1984) did not, however, argue that people with different task-related goals had different conceptions of the nature of ability and effort; they just differ in their belief in the role of ability and effort in success. …”

“Compared to most of their Western peers, Japanese students showed higher endorsement of effort and lower endorsement of luck and teachers’ influence as causes of school performance. However, they also showed lowest levels of control expectancy and agency beliefs of ability (Karasawa, Little, Miyashita, Mashima, & Azuma, 1997; Little & Lopez, 1997). That is, they were not convinced that they are able to produce positive and prevent negative outcomes in school and that they possess necessary abilities to succeed. These findings are partly in line with the results from attribution research might relate to the other aspect of suspected bias mentioned above – to construct bias in terms of specific item contents. In other words, if Japanese students made a clear distinction between enjoying the consequences of relative success and having it as a goal, the preference for the former might thus explain their score level on the performance orientation scale. Although this interpretation appears to be in disagreement with the robust findings of Japanese lacking self-enhancement tendencies -which, in general, are presumed to underlie the emphasis on performance orientation- it is not necessarily contradictory considering the high demands set and the grading system applied in the Japanese school system (Kanaya, 1994; Stevenson, 1998). This interpretation is also in line with some of the findings in Hayamizu’s (1992) study showing how Japanese students couple affectual attributions with public mistakes and failures in relation to their peers, as well as with Iyengar and Lepper’s (1999) study demonstrating how (American) Japanese students’ motivation and engagement have a strong external frame of reference and appear to result from the internalization of significant others’ values. Nevertheless, future research should focus more carefully on the various aspects of performance orientation and ability-related concerns within different cultural settings.”

In other words, when Japanese students fail they tend to blame themselves, and attribute it to their lack of diligence or the insufficient amount of effort put in.

In “The Art of thinking clearly” Rolf Dobelli writes, “The illusion of control is the tendency to believe that we can control something over which we have absolutely no sway. This was discovered in 1965 by two researchers Jenkins and Ward. The idea that people can influence their destiny by even a fraction, encourage people not to give up their actions.” The illusion or belief that they can achieve success in their Senta (National Center) Test if they work at it and study hard enough motivates many students to strive to enter prestigious colleges in Japan.

This may also explain the Ronin Student Phenomenon and the tenacity of ronin students who retake their entrance exams, sometimes over and over again. My son’s school information pamphlet(2014), I noted, showed that roughly 40% of the students who made it to the top ranked colleges like Todai, Keio and Waseda were ronin repeat students.

I will wrap up here, though my son’s journey through “exam hell” (which is more like purgatory), is not quite done — while having received acceptances from three MARCH universities, he is still awaiting results from a public university. For first-time households with college-headed kids, I recommend Mike Guest’s article “Gettin’ your kids into college” for a blow-by-blow account of school choices, and the intricacies of navigating the exam system.


Good luck to all who have to make this same journey, now that you have been through my “fear landscape” (a Divergent literary reference) you can go out and conquer yours!

Aileen Kawagoe

P.S. I write as a parent, not as a professional counselor. Any errors made are my own, please do due diligence in your own efforts to navigate the Japanese university entrance exam scene.


Sources and further reading:

University entrance center test begins on Jan 17, 2015
Jiji Press via http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001862846 / http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001862250

“We will see a major development this year — the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry will launch preparations for reform of the college entrance examination system, aimed at providing more opportunities for applicants and at selecting successful applicants using means beyond raw test scores.

A report released last month by the Central Council for Education sharply criticized the current education system, saying it “tends to place too much emphasis on memorizing and reproducing information” and “studying for entrance examinations has become the incentive for learning.”

The panel’s proposals are aimed at making a sweeping change to the college entrance examination system as the percentage of students advancing to the university level exceeds 50 percent.”

Other entrance exam-hell-related 0bservations:

English testing is a component on most school admissions requirements, the tests that are set for the most part do not correlate well with classroom teaching which is for the most part inadequate due to the lack of qualified English teachers in Japanese high schools. This is a key source of stress. Another reason given for underchievement by Japanese students is give as follows:

Why Japanese students underachieve in EFL tests. An interesting issue to be considered is the idea that this mastery-goal or performance (and/instrumentalist) orientation of Japanese students, actually has limitations on learning, especially with respect to language learning, where integrative orientation is important. This may account for their poorer performance in TOEFL scores in EFL language learning, relative to that of other countries.

See “Not guilty as charged: Do the U. Entrance exams in Japan affect what is taught?” By Michael Stout (2003, ETJ, Vol. 4, No. 1 Spring 2003 academia.edu  Re criticism of the translation-grammar pedagogy typical of China, Japan and Korea. Stout sees the strengthening of the Center Test as a possible means of promoting changes that would improve English Language learning and teaching in Japan.

See “Perspectives: What Do We Know About the Language Learning Motivation of University Students in Japan? Some Patterns in Survey Studies” by Kay Irie

…instrumental and integrative motivation have still been the largest common denominators of the Japanese survey studies from the 1990s to the present. A review of the research on these concepts will help us to understand some characteristics of the L2 motivation of Japanese university students. …
Mastery and performance orientation, the second set of concepts, are rather new in the field of L2 motivation research although they are the two major concepts in goal orientation theories in motivational psychology. These concepts were originally developed by developmental and educational psychologists to explain children’s behavior in school. Considering that English is taught as a school subject in Japan, it may be advisable to consider the Pintrich and Schunk (199) suggestion that goal orientation theories represent “the most relevant and applicable goal theory for understanding and improving learning and instruction” (p. 233). These two concepts overlap to some extent with the two well-known concepts, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Mastery goal orientation can be considered a contemporary view of intrinsic motivation with a focus on personal cognitive goals in educational learning situations (Pintrich & Schunk, 199). The concept of intrinsic- extrinsic motivation focuses on reasons for doing the task. Intrinsically motivated people engage in tasks for the joy of doing them or to satisfy their curiosity (Dörnyei, 2001b). Extrinsically motivated people engage in tasks to receive an external reward (Dörnyei, 2001b). On the other hand, mastery-oriented learners focus on the value of learning itself, for personal growth, more than on whether or not they enjoy learning. Thus they tend to choose challenging tasks and view errors as opportunities for learning (Dweck, 2000). Also, central is the belief that effort will lead to success (Dörnyei, 2001b). Performance-oriented learners engage in tasks to demonstrate to others their worth or competence. Their goal is set on a performance level: to get high grades, to win recognition of their significant others, or to do better than other students. Thus, they tend to avoid problems that are too hard but prefer tasks that are just hard enough to convey an impression of competence (Dweck, 2000)…

Mastery and performance goal orientations have been empirically investigated in connection to a wide range of cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes in educational psychology and the research provides rich implications for ways to consciously raise students’ motivation in the classroom (e.g. Dörnyei, 2001b; Pintrich & Schunk, 199; for specific motivational strategies, see Dörnyei, 2001a). In this light, although no specific studies have as yet addressed mastery and performance goal orientation in Japanese L2 motivation studies, these orientations should be of value toward interpreting findings in previous studies.

Japanese university students seem to value the importance of English as a means to an end. A factor comprised of instrumental reasons has emerged in most studies of the L2 motivation of Japanese university students (e.g., Johnson, 199; McGuire, 2000; Miyahara et al., 1997; Yashima, 2000). In their large cross-sectional study including a wide range of Japanese learners of English from junior high school to university students and language school adult learners, Kimura, et al., (2001) found that the instrumental motivation of Japanese learners of English (N = 1,027) is mostly related either to career or examinations. …

The researchers conclude that the integrative motivation of Japanese university students is defined by a general positive interest in traveling and communicating with people from English speaking countries. Unlike their Chinese and Korean counterparts however, there was no strong desire to learn English in order to integrate into TL communities, as in the original sense of integrative motivation.
Integrative motivation is also an important measure which may explain the Japanese students’ lowest and the Chinese students’ highest average of proficiency among the three Asian countries compared in Miyahara et al. (1997). Dörnyei (1990) suggests that instrumental motivation plays a significant role in the attainment of an intermediate level of proficiency in FL learning contexts, but for the levels beyond, positive attitudes towards the TL cultures are necessary. The strongest factor in the Japanese university students’ data was labeled as Instrumental Motivation, although we have no way of knowing the level of proficiency. In addition, Miyahara et al. claim that those Japanese students who scored above and below the mean of the proficiency measures (TOEFL-based listening, structure, vocabulary, reading tests) significantly differ in the factor score of Instrumental Motivation. The factor correlates only mini- mally with listening comprehension (r = .10) and does not correlate with any of the proficiency measures of other skill areas.
On the other hand, Yashima (2000) reports that learners who are both instrumentally and integratively motivated are likely to show better learning behaviors. The factors labeled Instrumental and Intercultural Friendship were found to be fairly good predictors of motivation (effort and desire to learn) through multiple regression
Performance Goal Orientation—The Importance of Doing Well
Performance goal orientation, a counterpart of mastery goal orientation, may also be able to explain a part of Japanese students’ motivation. Performance orientation is usually associated with a desire for high grades (status) and better performance than others.
In McGuire’s (2000) study, a factor he called External Influence is composed of six items which represent characteristics of performance goals: “It is important for me to do better than the others in class”; “I want to do well in this class because it is important to show my ability to my significant others”; “The main reason I need to learn English is to pass examinations”; “The main reason I am taking this class is that my significant others want me to improve my English”; “Being able to speak English will add to my social status”; and “I expect to do well because I am good at learning English.” These items originally belonged to the subscales of Intrinsic Motivation, Personal Goals, and Expectancy/ Control Components. The inclusion of a classic instrumental motivation item on passing exams indicates some overlap between instrumental motivation and performance orientation. Since McGuire found the External Influence factor in both the Osaka and Nagoya group data analyzed separately, it may be that a performance orientation is a widespread aspect of the L2 motivation of Japanese university students. If this is found to be true, the concept may shed some light on many Japanese university students’ underachievement and apathy in learning English, because a performance orientation is usually associated with maladaptive, helpless patterns of attribution. When performance- oriented students experience failure, they tend to attribute their failure to lack of ability, which they believe cannot be changed. Therefore, they are inclined to do the minimum necessary to avoid losing face, feeling that nothing they can do will lead to mastery (Pintrich & Schunk, 199.)”



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