The man behind liberal studies sits the exam

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 July, 2012, 12:00am


If anyone could secure top marks in the first ever Diploma of Secondary Education liberal-studies exam, it would probably be a man who helped develop the subject.

But principal Dr John Tan Kang was not nearly as disappointed as some of his pupils at Kowloon's Wah Yan College when he received his mark yesterday, even though he scored only a grade 4, three tiers lower than the maximum 5** grade.

Tan, who served as the Education Bureau's chief curriculum developer for liberal studies, sat the exam alongside the Form Six pupils he taught because: 'I felt that I could only fully understand the difficulties of this subject by taking the exam for myself.'

Tan's pupils were speechless when told he would be joining them in the exam hall. The most memorable moment for him was chatting with them during the 30-minute break between the two exam papers. 'We were like comrades in a war.'

It was the first time Tan had taken a public exam in 20 years, and he felt he got what he deserved without having attempted any practice papers. 'I didn't even have time to finish the last of the three questions in paper one. It was a race against time.'

Tan decided a year ago to take the plunge and sit the liberal-studies paper. More than 70 per cent of the 70,000 pupils who sat the exam scored grade 3 or above.

Tan said he found the third question in one paper most challenging, which showed a pie chart of eight political parties and asked pupils which ones Hongkongers thought best represented their interests.

'The chart, which listed eight parties, included the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Trade Unions - I'm not entirely sure how many students can differentiate the two English names even if they've been following the news,' he said of the pan-democrat and Beijing-loyalist branches of the city's union movement.

One of the sub-questions that followed asked the candidates whether they agreed or disagreed that: 'The presence of various political organisations in Hong Kong enhances the effectiveness of governance by the Hong Kong government.'

The answer had to reference the pie chart, and Tan said the question would naturally lead candidates to write about the Legislative Council and the district councils - both of which consist of elected representatives from various political factions.

'In my answer, I mentioned the Executive Council, which also has representatives from different parties, and they certainly aid in the city's governance,' Tan said. 'But I think this would have been overlooked by most, and would count as a non-mainstream response. I'm not sure if this response would have been accepted in a subject that is supposed to welcome different views.'

But it was the time crunch that Tan said most hurt his performance.

'There is just not enough time. I only had 40 minutes to answer each of the three questions, all of which have three sub-questions. I knew I had to read the data, plan my answers and write it out - all at high speed.'

Tan, who has experience in setting liberal-studies exam questions, said it would have been impossible to know that the data was too hard to digest without sitting the exam himself in timed conditions. 'You can't forget the nerves,' he said.

'When you are sitting in a room drawing up questions in a meeting, you really cannot estimate whether a student would have enough time to digest the data and write up a cogent answer. Either the examination board should simplify the data or designate more time, or candidates will not give a quality answer.'

He says more exam writers should take the test for themselves.

'The linkage between liberal-studies teaching and examining is still loose right now. Understandably, the Examinations and Assessment Authority has to be secretive, but the two have to be more aligned.'


Reporters Dennis Chong, Wong Yat-hei, Jennifer Cheng, Helen Yu, Thomas Chan, Chris Lau, Joyee Chan, Jolie Ho, Lilly Zhang, Michael Au, Emily Ting and Elaine Leung

Photographers Nora Tam, K.Y. Cheng, Felix Wong and May Tse




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