Meaningful rote learning and the ‘Chinese Learner Paradox’

Guest post by Mark Souter, psychology and sociology teacher

There is good research evidence to show that systematic drills, such as those provided by Learnclick, can enhance learning. This claim challenges some of the assumptions about learning taught in Western pedagogy. I am convinced these assumptions are wrong …

Conventional wisdom in British pedagogy (and much of the ‘West’) is that rote learning is empty of meaning and unhelpful. The paradox is that this is exactly the approach of the most successful cultural group in education. British school children’s test data are thoroughly (excessively in some ways) tracked by the state. One of the beneficial outcomes is that differences between social groups can be identified, though explaining differences is not as straightforward.

In Britain, the most striking and persistent difference in achievement is that between socio-economic classes, followed by that between ethnic groups and then by gender (ONS, 2015). In my setting, the first difference is of most direct importance since I teach in a school which encompasses the most deprived area of the UK. One of the subjects I teach is sociology and the persistent and striking success of students of Chinese heritage intrigued me – not, alas my students who never asked me to explain this phenomenon, nonetheless, I wanted to know! The international evidence is consistent and it is striking that despite the fact that the label ‘Chinese’ encompasses well over 1 billion people, academic success in this group is a worldwide phenomenon. In the UK detailed research shows that the difference is deeply culturally embedded since it is consistent across those who have been settled in the UK for many generations as compared to new arrivals, and across socio-economic classes. This last aspect is striking in the context of the UK. Among those of ‘white British’ heritage the difference in GCSE exams (a public exam taken in Year 11, at 15-16 years old) between the national mean and those poor enough to be entitled to free school meals is 30 percentage points. Among students of Chinese heritage it was too small to measure accurately (HoCEC, 2015). Their gender gap is also the smallest of any ethnic group (Connolly, 2006).

Such is the healthy state of British social science that detailed research has been carried out on possible causes of this difference. In particular, Woodrow and Sham (2001) sought the views of students of Chinese heritage. For those interested in the methodological details there is a reference at the end of this article; here I am going pick out what I think are the implications for learning in general. Firstly, learning is revered. Parents and teachers, in particular, are also held in high esteem (though, reading between the lines of their responses, I suspect this is despite some disappointment!) The students value subjects which the see as contributing to future economic success; being told what is important for forthcoming tests; and teacher directed learning in general. They do not value discursive learning methods such as group work. There is a widespread commitment to study between lessons and to correct errors. In short students of Chinese heritage are almost invariably relentless in their pursuit of knowledge.

It seems entirely unreasonable to assume that the academic performance shown by these students happens in spite of their labours. Although they tend to have a marked preference for vocationally relevant learning they excel across all subjects, and on into undergraduate and post-graduate study, so this attitude to learning does not let them down when the knowledge they cram needs to be used at the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (in its post-2002 or ‘classic’ form). The ‘paradox’ of the power of supposedly ‘empty rote learning’ has been accounted for by rejecting the core assumption that such learning is empty. There is good evidence that empty learning is possible, as demonstrated by one of my heroes of psychology, Ebbinghaus. I will expand on his virtues in another post. I’ll just say here that he isolated meaning from his studies for the purpose of scientific rigour, not because meaning it unimportant to memory – on the contrary, he was acknowledging its power through his realisation that the powerful role of prior learning was a variable that needed to be controlled.

Equally, it is possible to memorise otherwise important data in a meaningless fashion – al la Mr. Gradgrind (and my French teacher, for whom I learned “me, te, se, nous, vous, le, la, les, lui, leur, y, en”. To this day, some 40 years later, I remain totally ignorant of its significance – though it did save me from finding out whether he would follow through on his threat involving the sharp half of a snooker cue). The point here is that knowledge and understanding are not independent phenomena. Piaget has been caricatured as saying understanding comes before language – ideas have to be learned first and independently before the words that refer to them. In fact, Piaget acknowledged the importance of social context and language in development (Becker and Varelas, 2001). In this respect, his differences with Vygotsky have been exaggerated. For teachers the central point is clear – language can scaffold learning; ideas do not have to precede words, they word together. Presenting our students with drills that focus on the use of key language is not empty learning.

Some of the other findings about Chinese learners relate to the influence of parents in respect to completing homework and other studies at home. This echoes the ‘Tiger Mom’ phenomenon in less academic sources. When I raise the topic of Chinese learners at presentations in the UK other teachers often express concerns about the work-life balance for students, and even suggest that this can have negative effects on their mental health. I am going to side step this issue here because – as has been pointed out in other research – 5,000 years of Chinese culture is not going to be simply transferred wholesale into the lives of occidental students. For my classroom teaching the issue is more straightforward: what aspects of the Chinese learning phenomenon can be transferred?

Much as I would like automatic reverence from my students I think I have to accept that this is going to remain hard-earned. I also doubt that my charges will readily adapt correcting their errors or a relentless attitude to study – but this is something I can facilitate with some technological support. The acquisition of new knowledge is especially important in my subject area (social science) since it is not part of the UK National Curriculum. At 16 years old they leave the straight jacket of the National Curriculum and can choose from a much wider array of subjects. Psychology and sociology bring with them a very large, new vocabulary, just as the level of cognitive demands in general takes a large step upwards. It has been difficult to convince students of the need to up their game.

It is hard to add wisdom on top of all the other things I have to teach; all the more so, when teaching adolescents. Sometimes it takes most of two years to do this, which is a shame because the final exam comes just weeks later. It made me feel a little better to hear a student say ‘you were right; I wish I’d taken you seriously at the time, sir’, but it was something of a pyrrhic victory. My conviction that information technology could contribute was not immediately matched by my attempts at implementation. The main problem was that the effect of IT was not tested since it was initially only those students who would study anyway that took up. What I have been focussing on in the last few years has been finding electronic learning systems that do not impose their own extra demands on students, and ones that lift burdens from teachers. There are a lot of card-sort systems (Quizlets is my favourite), but when it comes to cloze learning I’ve found nothing that matches Learnclick.

Becker, J. and Varelas, M., 2001. Piaget’s early theory of the role of language in intellectual development: A comment on DeVries’s account of Piaget’s social theory. Educational researcher, 30(6), pp.22-23.
Bhattacharyya, G., Ison, L. and Blair, M., 2003. Minority ethnic attainment and participation in education and training: the evidence. Nottingham: DfES Publications.
Connolly, P., 2006. The effects of social class and ethnicity on gender differences in GCSE attainment: a secondary analysis of the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales 1997–2001. British Educational Research Journal, 32(1), pp.3-21.
House of Commons Education Committee, 2014. Underachievement in education by white working class children. House of Commons, 142.
Woodrow, D. and Sham, S., 2001. Chinese pupils and their learning preferences. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 4(4), pp.377-394

Tools I use for teaching English online

Guest post by Marina Petrovic, Online English and Serbian teacher

I’ve been teaching languages online since 2008. You may imagine that I have tried out a myriad of different tools since my first online lesson! However, in time I learnt to stick to the ones which are extremely simple to use and to which my students respond best. So far these have been the following platforms and tools:

For synchronous teaching:

  • Skype/FB
    After working with various virtual classrooms for years, starting with ancient DimDim and then pricey AdobeConnect and popular WizIQ, I ended up using Vyew. Its uniqueness dazzled me, until dozens of my virtual classrooms and years of course creation disappeared overnight. I wish I hadn’t spent so much time, effort and money while Skype and Google doc have always been there for me: the most reliable ones and free!

For synchronous and asynchronous teaching:

  • Google documents
    Of course, Skype along with Google doc! Another great tool that has patiently been waiting for me to discover it! It allows both you and your students to follow the changes to the document in the real time. There is also a chat available along with other addons.<
    Once the lesson is over, my students do their homework when they have time, add it in the form of a comment and I get an instant notification into my Gmail inbox. I reply to them instantly and this allows a continuous flow. How cool is that!

For asynchronous teaching:

    • Blogger and Facebook page for sharing content
      Blogger is the simplest form of blog I would advise teachers to use. It looks neat and trendy, and yet you needn’t worry about many technical details, especially in comparison to WordPress. There is nothing to install, nor to update. My free blog on platform has more than 80k unique visitors a month. I keep sharing the numerous posts I create there through Facebook and Twitter as well. Many of my online students get in touch with me for the first time through my FB page or comments on the blog.
    • Youtube for publishing my videos
      Fifty percent of the traffic I attract to my website comes from my Youtube videos. They are embedded into my own posts. That is why I managed to create a kind of a LMS with my blog and Youtube. I simply add a link into my Youtube video lesson which leads to a language quiz which is based on my video lesson. Most of my students tell me they feel happy to be able to use platforms such as  Youtube, Facebook and Blogger to do the tasks  and listen to my video lessons. There is nothing complicated about that!
    • Embeddable quizzes for practicing various language skills.
      Let me explain to you how you can add  a quiz to your blog and change it within minutes!

      As you have seen here, the most important steps are as follows:

      1. Logging into your Learnclick account
      2. Naming your quiz
      3. Adding a category
      4. Deciding on the number of attempts and quiz timing
      5. Adding a text
      6. Creating gaps
      7. Making your quiz visible to everyone
      8. Saving the quiz
      9. Clicking “show quiz” in order to check what it looks like and if everything is correct
      10. Clicking on “change”, next to Visible to in order to get an embed code
      11. Grabbing the embed code
      12. Pasting the code into your blog or website

      It’s that simple!

  • Padlet for writing exercises
    This is another fun tool which proved to be reliable and attractive to my students. They easily access a Padlet page with my video lesson, click twice and write whatever I instruct them to practice. I guess it is also fun for them to see that there has been a continuous flow of messages for a few years. Students of various ages and backgrounds from the whole region of ex-Yu have been learning together –  check it out on this padlet.
  • for speaking exercises
    The quickest way to leave a message for someone and relax knowing that it will be erased in a month or so. No need to sign up, sign in – just allow the platform to use your mic, record the speaking task and send your teacher the link. My students keep sending me their speaking exercises though their own Google docs or FB messages. I listen to them and reply within a day. This is an indispensable tool for all language teachers out there!

I hope you enjoyed learning how I perfected my online teaching in years while downsizing the number of tools and platforms. In the course of the last year I made my dream come true and switched to teaching online completely. Of course, more than twenty years of F2F teaching helped a great deal 😉

I would like to invite you to share your online teaching experiences, your blogs and your favourite tools! If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments below.

Import and Export Quiz Questions

You can now import questions into Learnclick or export Learnclick quizzes. We use the Moodle XML format. See documentation.

import / export quiz questions

We chose the Moodle XML format because it’s well-documented and works well with our quizzes. And it has the advantage that there already exist a number of converters with which you can convert your questions to Moodle XML.

Exporting your quiz questions does not only serve as a way to backup your questions, but it can be also used if you want to reuse some quiz questions you created in another quiz. You can check which questions you want to export and then you can import those into your new quiz (where you can re-order them).

How to import Moodle Quizzes into WordPress

So you created many quizzes inside Moodle and would now like to use them in your WordPress blog? The solution I’m giving you here won’t actually import the quizzes into WordPress, but into and you can then embed them using an iframe (note that this solution only works if you’re self-hosting your blog, not on as they don’t allow iframes).

  1. Export your questions in Moodle:
    Make sure you choose the file format “Moodle XML format”.
  2. In Learnclick click on “Create a Quiz” and then choose Import Questions.
  3. Follow the instructions for embedding your quiz into WordPress. You will need to install the iFrame plugin. When pasting the iframe code into your WordPress code you will need to change the angle brackets <> into square brackets [ ].

With Learnclick you can also create usernames and have the answers recorded.

An alternative to Zondle?

Zondle was a great website for creating classroom games and assessments. Sadly, as it often happens with free products, they closed down.

If your’re looking for an alternative, we suggest you give a chance. Learnclick has many different types of quiz questions,  you will especially like the option to add drag & drop questions (see an example quiz). To make your quizzes more interesting, add images, audio and videos (see our help on multimedia). The best part are the detailed reports you get for assessments.


Learnclick offers an option to import questions and soon you will be able to export questions too.

To try it out, go to and login with the following credentials:

Username: demo
Password: demo

How to create a Cloze Dictation Quiz

Cloze dictation quizzes are great for learning languages in context. In this article I will explain to you how this can be done with

  • I click on “Create a Quiz” and then choose the first option “Blank Boxes & Dropdowns” from the dropdown list and click “Add Question”.
  • Then I paste my text into the Learnclick textbox. For the words or short phrases I want to learn I mark them and click on “Create Gap” .

The examples for this quiz are in Korean. I added the English translations.

Korean article

“Talk to me in Korean” has the above article also available as a video on Youtube. I only want to include the audio into my quiz, so I copy the Youtube vIdeo URL and head to to convert the video into an mp3-file (you can find the Youtube link when you click on “Share” below the Youtube video).

  • Above the quiz text-field I click on the icon to add a a multimedia element:
  • I choose the type “audio” and click on the symbol next to text-field for File/URL to upload my mp3 file.
    upload audio
  • After clicking on the button “Create” in the multimedia dialog, it will insert the audio file inside our textbox. In the edit mode it will only display a yellow box. You will get to see the actual audio controls once you display the quiz.
  • This is how my dictation quiz displays after I click on the button “Show Quiz”:

This is a dictation quiz one of our users created:

Why our clients are using…

A few months ago we asked some of our clients the following question(s): “What makes unique? Why did you choose our product?” We thought you might find the answers useful for deciding if is something you could use:

  • Real customer service
    The reporting is key to formative assessments and reteaching
    The help pages are actually useful

  • It has lots of functions – all that I need, it’s constantly updated, quizzes can be embedded into my site, I can see statistics.

  • I can create different types of quizzes.
    I can add explanations to each answer.
    I can create PDF from my quiz and give it to students during classes.

  • am a teacher of special needs young adults and created our own curriculum for our program. Your program allowed me to customize assessments and assignments with the added feature of scoring them and keeping the data for me.  This has been absolutely huge for us and for me personally.
    I love the fact that I can customize work for our students, the program is user friendly, and the support has been great as well.

  • I give my students a lot of assessments at the beginning of each year, and this really streamlines the process so I don’t have to grade them all by hand.

  • It is the easiest way to make a fill in the blank activity online

  • Because of the simple creation of drag and drop exercises

  • I wanted to find a way to give vocabulary quizzes with drag and drop.

Why create Online Quizzes?

Quizzes help teachers to assess if what they instructed has been understood by their students. The advantages of creating quizzes online are many:

1) The answers get stored online. The teacher can immediately see which students completed the quiz. Teachers do not lose time in going around the classroom physically checking in homework.

2) Teachers can quickly compare the given answers and see in what areas students are successful and in what areas they have demonstrated learning gaps.

3) It saves time grading and the student can immediately see if his answer was correct or not. One can also add an explanation to the quiz question which appears after the student answered the question.

4) Students can retake a practice quiz as often as they want and can see if they improved their score.

5) One can add images, sound and videos to an online quiz and of course save paper.

For doing all this, provides an easy to use, yet powerful quiz creator. Its strength comes into play when creating fill in the gap quizzes. There are several gap-filling options: a simple blank field, a dropdown menu or by using drag & drop boxes. Of course you can also add multiple choice or essay questions. The given answers can be compared very quickly with Learnclick’s statistics and grades feature.

Creating Quizzes in Arabic (making left-to-right work)

We’ve heard from many people that they are facing the problem with many quiz creators that they can’t do right-to-left quiz questions. Learnclick solves this now. We added the symbol right-to-left:


This works for gap-filling questions, as well as drag & drop, dropdowns, etc.


If something doesn’t work as expected, please let us know. We’d be happy to improve this or help you.

Create free pdf worksheets online

We now have a free feature at You can use our advanced quiz maker to create professional looking printable pdf worksheets! Just login with the demo account (username and password are both “demo”).

After you finished creating a quiz, click on the button “Show Quiz”. Then you will see the link to “Generate a PDF file” at the top right of the quiz you created.

create a pdf file

Here is an example screenshot of a pdf worksheet created with our quiz creator:

See here for how it looks like when creating the pdf:

Let us know if the generated pdf files don’t turn out as you would like them too. We are always open to suggestions.