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Fostering Leaders of the Future: Undergraduate Education Reforms at Peking University

DEC . 15 2015
Peking University, Dec.14, 2015: Adhering to its Constitution, Peking University has set “consolidating the fundamentals, respecting choices, encouraging inter-disciplinary exchanges and promoting high-quality education” as its guidelines to further education reforms, based on its past experiences in such efforts and studies on the development of higher education around the world.

Enhancing General Education and the Fundamentals

Throughout the years, the undergraduate program at Peking University has always focused on a balance between undergraduate majors and general education. The university has established a curriculum system consisting of core fundamental courses, general classification courses and general education courses.

Undergraduate Class of 2017 student Dai Wei took a general education course “Intensive Reading of the Four Books”. During this course, she not only listened to philosophy professor Yang Lihua discussing classics, but also attended weekly seminars, sharing thoughts with her fellow students after reading original classics

“During seminars, clashes of thoughts were very vibrant. We need to recite original texts. This consumed quite some energy, but through reciting we got a better grasp of the spirit between the lines,” said Dai Wei.


“Intensive Reading of the Four Books” is one of the core courses in the general education curriculum at Peking University. It combines classical reading with seminars and encourages students to think about the fundamental questions on human and society.

Apart from general education courses, Peking University pays more attention to blending the idea of general education with majors, in an effort to comprehensively improve students’ overall and academic abilities. Departments adopt modularized curriculum and develop different programs for students with varying abilities to choose based on their own interests.

Experiments and practices are also vital parts of undergraduate education. In recent years, Peking University has been consistently focusing on experiment reforms in practice-oriented education. There are currently 10 national and 12 municipality-level model experimental education centers at Peking University. Apart from the improved conditions of laboratories, many departments have also drawn up courses for practice. The School of Archeology provides students with courses such as Artefact Protection, Museum and Cultural Heritage Exploration and Field Archeology Trips. The Department of Chinese Language and Literature provides surveys of dialects, classical reading and field trips on folk literature. The School of Earth and Space Sciences offers field trips on comprehensive and regional geology, as well as seismology. The College of Urban and Environmental Sciences provides field trips for the study of comprehensive humanistic and natural geography.

He Yipeng, Class of 2017 at the College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, says, “the most valuable pursuit of a geography student is to understand the thoughts of mountains, and comprehend the songs of the rivers”, recalling an unforgettable experience of his field trip into the volcanic group in Datong, Shanxi Province, to study its geographical features.

Professor Liu Jianbo, vice-Provost at the School of Earth and Space Sciences laid much importance on undergraduate education of experiments and practices as well, “The ability to practice is a vital quality for a student to become innovative and ready to lead. A university student’s abilities of academic research, practice and innovation are three that gradually enhance each other. Only when you master enough knowledge of your major, put it into practice and undergo the test of reality will you be able to become more innovative …To nurture future leaders, we must prioritize the education of experiments and practices.”

Respecting Choices and the Freedom to Develop

Zhang Weijia, Class of 2011 at Yuanpei College, published 27 articles as the first author, with 7 of them published in the SCI or EI during his undergraduate study. After enrolling in Cambridge’s PhD program with the best GPA in his class, he published 3 more SCI articles, and is now a Fellow at The Royal Academy of Astronomy in the UK.

As the “Shenzhen Experimental Zone” of Chinese higher education reforms, Yuanpei College was established to manifest Peking University’s concept of “Respecting Choices” in fostering talents. Further efforts were made to “offer junior students with basic and general education, senior students with open-ended major courses, gradually establishing a course-credit system in which students are free to elect courses under the guidance of faculty members”.

With the fundamental concept of fostering talents from Yuanpei College, other departments have followed suit to implement different undergraduate education reforms according to their own strengths and weaknesses.

At the beginning of this semester, all freshmen and sophomores at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature received a unique card – the “one-on-one mentorship” contact card. In order to help students adapt better to university life, the department assigned a faculty member for each student as a mentor for one year. The mentor would give personalized guidance to students regarding their studies, researches, and living experiences on campus. Xu Zilan’s mentor is Professor Wu Xiaodong. She frequently contacted Professor Wu via phone and email. Through her communications with Wu and her participation in graduate students’ reading groups, she feels that her future research direction is now clearer than ever. The “one-on-one mentorship” program has narrowed the gap between faculty members and students to such an extent that students laughed that they never realized professors are so approachable.
Encouraging Inter-disciplinary Learning

Chen Gaoyuan, Class of 2016 in the Department of Philosophy, is a member of the “Classical Literature” program established by seven schools and departments: the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, the Department of History, the Department of Philosophy, School of Archaeology and Museology, School of Foreign Languages, Yuanpei College, and School of Arts. The program aims to bridge elementary courses of humanities in the seven schools and departments for cultivating interdisciplinary elites in humanities.

Apart from co-founding the “Classical Literature” program, Yuanpei College has made one steps further by setting up several other interdisciplinary majors including “Paleontology”, “Philosophy, Politics and Economics”, “Foreign Languages and History” and “Data Science”.

Xu Zeshu, a Medical English major at Peking University Health Science Center, is taking a double major in Arts. She enjoys a lot studying both majors. Peking University provides opportunities for many others like Xu. 16 schools and departments provide 19 double majors and 21 minors covering Chinese, History, Philosophy, Psychology, Economics, Mathematics and Computer Sciences.
Initiatives to break down barriers between schools and departments are forging ahead at Peking University. Programs for interdisciplinary study, double major and creative elites, among others, provide for undergraduates multiple access to fair competition and all round development.

Improving Teaching Methods

As Mei Yiqi, a Chinese educationist, once said, a university succeeds for its great faculties instead of grand buildings. Various sets of curriculum leave enough freedom for students to develop while high-standard teaching directs students’ pursuit of academic achievements.
“Professor Tang Xiaoyan gave us the very first lecture at Peking University,” recalled Zhou Liwei, Class of 2016 from School of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, “she talked about ozone depletion, photochemical smog, acid rain and Minamata disease, greatly stirring up my interest in environmental sciences”.

Like Tang Xiaoyan, many professors at Peking University, including Yangtze Rive Scholars, members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, or winners of The National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars, have been devoting themselves to teaching.
Besides, undergraduate academic research, internships and social practices, reading groups and seminars are new ways for students to enhance their relationship with professors. The assessment system of instructors has given them more vigor to teach as well.

Among the pioneers to practice small-sized courses, College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering experiments with the course “Inorganic Chemistry”. Students enrolled in the course are divided into ten groups, each comprising of 14 to 16 people. Every group is instructed by one professor for more engagement into the courses by reading papers, raising questions and in-class discussing.

Since September 2013, Peking University has launched more than 50 MOOCs in humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, computer sciences and medicine. On campus teaching has greatly transformed by the aid of technology.

As Peking University president Lin Jianhua says, an education system with “Chinese characteristics and PKU qualities” is what Peking University strives for. Subject-oriented classes should be replaced by student-oriented ones where teachers guide students to knowledge and thus rediscover themselves.
Written by: Xu Liangdi, Yan Shengnan
Edited by: Zhang Jiang