18 Things About Korean Students (part 1)

Inspired by the fantastic Sophia Khan’s insightful guest post on the Breathy Vowel’s blog I decided to share some thoughts about Korean students that might be helpful for Sophia or other teachers with many Korean students. The obvious caveats about generalizations and stereotypes apply here. Respectful disagreements and additional opinions are very welcome in the comments. Links to refute and add to the points here are also welcome.

Here is the first half  of the list:

1. School is a big deal

This (like some of the other points) might be obvious to some but education is valued by society as a whole and parents specifically. Education is seen as the driving force behind Korea’s rags to riches story and is seen as the ticket to succeeding in life.  The amount of time Korean students spend in school (both during and after regular school hours) is legendary.

2. Expectations are high for teachers

In accordance with Confucian tradition and Point 1  teachers are highly respected. This respect comes with responsibility. Some key expectations here are caring for students and doing your best to help students. Readers might be thinking that these expectations are the same for teachers everywhere. Fair enough, but my sense is that the thought of teachers doing their best to help students is even more important for Korean teachers.

Possible tips: Consider doing something you might not normally do as a teacher just to help students see  you are on their side and ready to work for them. Examples include spending more time correcting their written work even if you are not totally sold on the pedagogic value of it.  Creating materials specific for the class is another potential example of the teacher’s willingness to work for the students.

Bonus possible tip: Be as clear as possible about your view of your role as a teacher it relates to student expectations. One activity I like to do at the start of a course is create a bunch of strips with sentences about what “Mike will do” during the course. I then ask students to categorize them into piles for true and false. Aside from being quite interesting  to see what students expect, this also gives me a chance to address differences in expectations from the outset.

3. Hard work is valued (differently) 

My sense is that in Korea hard work itself is valued in a different (stronger?) way than most Westerners are accustomed to. A good friend and  former training course participant mentioned that she was confused when I kept talking about “working smart” rather than “working hard” because I didn’t seem to value working hard as a goal in and of itself.

Possible tip: Don’t be afraid to highlight how hard your students are working.
(I can’t be sure but my impression is that many teachers often try to “sell” activities based on how “fun” they are. I think this can be helpful but I also think that emphasizing the hard work or at least acknowledging  it  is also potentially helpful.)

4. Busywork is almost expected

Just an impression really but…
Related to point 3, it seems that Korean students have a much higher threshold for what I might consider busywork. Perhaps they are more experienced with it, perhaps they follow teachers instructions more willingly, perhaps they value the potential learning that can come from it more. Perhaps I have no idea.

Possible tip: Don’t be overly afraid of being “boring!”

5. Plagiarism is different

In my view, this is closely connected to Point 4. If schoolwork is busywork and not really connected to learning but just something that the teacher has to assign and the student has to submit why not copy from someone else or the interwebs? (#realquestion)

Possible tips: Do your best to “plagiarism-proof” your assignments. Make sure you are not assigning busyw0rk. Show students the value in what you are assigning. Give useful feedback on students’ written work.

6. Tests are a big deal

This is another one that might seem obvious to those familiar with the education system in Korea.  Tests are surely important (with the KSAT, the college entrance exam, helping to determine a large part of students’ life paths). The possible cultural difference I see here is that tests are seen as much more “valid” than my sense of how they would likely be viewed in the West. This is to say that I don’t see nearly as much skepticism about tests as I might expect. I also think I must mention that for many teachers I have spoken with the words test and assessment are considered synonymous.

Possible tips: Be clear on your grading systems. Help students see what is expected of them at each level. Consider using written tests that might have high “face validity.”

7. English is a big deal

Understatement of the year. What some people call “English mania” has spread all over Korea. In order to get a job at a big company students must have a high enough TOEIC, TOEFL, IELTS score (see also “Tests are a big deal, Point 6). From my view,  English ability is a (newish) measuring stick used to determine the suitability of people to enter schools and jobs.

8. “Native Speakerism” is alive and well in Korea

We have already thought about how important English is. I can’t even count how many beginner level students I have had that told me they want to sound like a native speaker by the end of the term! Native speaker English (specifically North American)  is highly prized no matter what ELF proponents have to say on the matter.

It should also be noted that in this case “Native Speakerism” also correlates strongly with issues related to race. Students might expect white teachers when they go to Australia. I get a little ranty about related issues here.

9. This is a big deal

The “this” I am talking about is the trip abroad to study. As above, English and English tests are extremely important for people’s lives. I think a large percentage of the students that Sophia and #auselt friends meet are college age or recent college graduates. At a guess some of them are trying to brush up on their English proficiency while others are trying to restart things with their English learning after spending years in class but not developing as much as they’d have liked to. Of course there are probably some folks on holiday but I think that this time studying abroad is probably very important for many students. It also might be worth considering the possibility that their families made big sacrifices to send them abroad to study.

Possible Tips: Nothing specific except to keep in mind how important this might be for them even if it might not seem that way if students come in reeking of booze for a morning class.

Update 1: @annehendler  Responds to this list! 

Update 2: Things 10-18 here. 


  1. Pingback: In response to “18 Things About Korean Students (part 1)” « livinglearning
  2. G. Hall

    I have a feeling I will be tempted to come back and post a comment again, but this came to mind upon reading #2 (perhaps to be considered an expansion of your point, or connecting a couple of points):

    You mention confusion by a participant on “working smart” vs. “working hard”…I’d connect it with item #4 in your list and synthesize/connect by pointing out my impression that (many) Korean Ss (and K people/officeworkers/etc.) do not (get a chance to) understand the law of diminishing returns, and thus productivity, properly (see OECD statistics for evidence and/or brief discussion of low productivity in Korea: http://bit.ly/ZBPqll ).

    That is, the trend I personally see (in especially HS, but in education…all over the spectrum) is that “If one hour helps me learn X, then 10 hours help me learn 10X!! So, I should study for 10 hours – or more!,” with no regard for the thought that “perhaps my brain won’t be functioning properly after 10 straight hours of study.” I imagine there are those (amazing) individuals who can study for 10 hours straight with as much retention and productivity in their 10th hour as in their 1st, but this is unlikely to be true for most people. Thus, we have encountered an instance of the law of diminishing returns: after some point, additional hours of study do not produce corresponding/matching returns on your effort. Thus, “working hard” in the Korean sense of studying continuously for long hours is not encourage, I imagine, by you, in favor of instead “working smart.”

    Of course, not all Korean Ss “work hard,” and surely among those who do, some of them may be modifying it to working hard AND smart – in which case, I applaud them. I wish they would share this philosophy and strategy with their fellow learners (and, teachers!).

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments (here and on Anne’s blog!) As I mentioned on teh twitters, I am thinking a lot about plagiarism. Thanks for the reminder about the law of diminishing returns. This fits in perfectly with the idea of spending hours and hours and hours on something. I won’t comment on the office workers thing (I have some thoughts on that that are probably better left for the pub or coffee shop or at least not on the blog). I feel much more comfortable questioning the efficacy of high students staring at vocab lists of random words for hours on end. This might bring us back to assessment…It is a tangled web.

      You guessed that I am firmly placed in the “working smart” camp. 🙂

      What I really wanted to say was that hard work for hard work’s sake seems to be valued and this is something that I think teachers might want to keep in mind. With the implication that if something doesn’t feel or seem labor intensive students might have a harder time realizing the value. Not sure that I am saying teachers need to be super demanding all the time, but perhaps just to be aware of what students are likely accustomed to.

      Ill stop here before I write another long post in the comments here!

      Thanks again for the comments.

      Take care,

      PS-Feel free to drop by with comments whenever. 🙂


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  4. Pingback: 18 Things About Korean Students (part 2) « ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
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