Why do Korean university students look like zombies?

This was the question that was on my colleague’s mind. Bradley Smock (check out his blog Bradley’s English Blog) teaches English composition to 3rd and 4th year English Literature students at Keimyung University. As the semester went on, he started noticing that his students were coming to class looking lethargic and lifeless: like zombies. In an attempt to understand them, he posed the question:

What is causing the low motivation of many students at Keimyung?

As part of their next essay assignment, his students wrote responses, and I will be posting* their responses here. I hope this offers insight into what life is like for many Korean students.

Today’s theme revolves around student competition, and not having personal goals and dreams.

Essay 1 

When professor asking how are you, usually students say tired. Despite there was nothing happen last night, they always feel tired and gloomy. To foreign students or teachers maybe do not understand this normal happen in Korea. Also this happen arise to most of Koreans. Most students are zombie at the class because they are not doing exercise, they just follow Korea’s competitive atmosphere and they do not know what they want to be or like it.

Most students are not doing exercise. Few of students are exercise themselves but exercise is not familiar to Korean students. when they were young about elementary school students they started to go to academy(Hakwon) after school. So exercise was second to them. Even they learned exercise at the hakwon such as Teakgundo or Judo. Maybe people understand these exercise should learn at the hakwon however they have less time to hang out with other friends. Most highschool do not have PE class because of study. Even if students have a PE class, it was time for sleep not a exercise to students. Therefore all Korean students need exercise for their physical strength.

Most Koreans are just follow and attend on Korean’s education system. This is kind of psychological problem. Korea society make a competitive atmosphere which means playing is wasting time and not studying is considered becoming loser. I always feel, Korea society said “you must be a winner at the competition to live comfortable. There is no friend in this society.” I’m sure every Koreans are feeling this. This kind of feeling make them anxious even when they are hanging out with their friends. Thus, Korea’s society make a competitive atmosphere and people are tired to following this.

Last reason is related above paragraph. Most Koreans ,age 17 to 24, do not know what they want to be, what they like it. This is happened because of blind education system. Every highschool teachers or parents said “Do it whatever you want when you become University student. But now is for study.” I also listen this sentence when I was middle and highschool student. Theoretically, middle school and high school age is looking for their interesting and what they are good at. In Korea, it’s opposite. Most students study with short knowledge about them and just attend on university with their highschool score and Korea SAP score. Shortly most students attend on university do not have exactly what they want to be and like it.

Do not excercise, competitive atmosphere in Korea and Do not know what they like or want to be, make spiritless to students in the class. It’s kind of sad thing in Korea. This reason, happiness index is the lowest in the world. Although Korea education system make Koreans smarter than other countries, they have less happiness and creativity.

Essay 2

The students at Keimyung are being zombies in class these days. They seem to have no enthusiasm for what they learn and what the teachers say in class. They also have no emotion on their faces and do not respond to the teacher. Due to this fact, teachers are having really hard time teaching in most of their classes. The reasons that many students at Keimyung are low motivated are because of the pressure on the grade, getting no immediate benefit, and not knowing what they like or want.

Most students are under pressure to have good grades. Since the beginning of the semester, they start to fight with assignments and exams. It is likely to be released from the pressure when the midterm is over, but assignments go on and on. They consider the grades very important because they believe that the grades affect their future when they try to have a job. That is why they are so stressed on assignments and exams to get good grades in class, but they do not, so that makes students less motivated.

Since students study to prepare for their future, they do not see immediate benefit ahead of them, so they are low motivated in class. What they study in class seems useless in daily life, so they might think that these studies are useless overall. They, however, do not know what they study in class now will be used when or where in the future. Not knowing all of this, students do not see a point of studying in class and keeps complaining that they do not want to study. They lose interest in studying while they do not see the future.

Whether they think the study now will be helpful in the future or not, the worst problem they have is that they do not know what they really like or what they really want.

In my case, I am majoring in English language and literature and taking classes to complete a course in teaching training. I like English, but frankly, I do not know exactly why I am trying to complete a course in teaching training. I am not even sure if I want to be a teacher. I actually more interested in planning performances or exhibitions. This is the problem. Like me, most students do not know what they like and want, and they keep studying what they are not interested in.

Students at Keimyung are not much enthusiasm in class, and the teachers know and have difficulties in getting the students’ attention and the class going smoothly. What are being the problems in this situation are that they are so pressured, that they do not see what is ahead of them, and they do not find their own interest. The most important thing among what they can do now is to find what’s their interests are sooner rather than later. Finding it, it will give them more motivation in studying and help them to be more active in class.

*My intention was to post more essays and create a series, but I decided against it. I think this post was enough to create a valuable discussion.

10 thoughts on “Why do Korean university students look like zombies?

  1. I’m korean high school student.
    My comment may sound wierd, because I’m not good at English.
    In korean high school, almost half of students sleep while class.(almost 40 students in each class)
    because we have to arrive at school at7:20~40 and it ends 1st graders:10pm others end 11pm.
    after school, we go to academy some academy ends at 1~2 am.
    It is so exhausting. and we are pushed to go to university by parents and teachers.
    Some of students who are passed the good university(like seoul university),they have speech to first and second graders.
    One student said when he was writing self introduction to pass the school,he didn’t know what to write because he didn’t know what does he want to be,and what does he likes. I don’t know how it is going on.


  2. In my personal opinion, the writer of Essay 1 sounds like a female student. Overall, many students in Korea lack exercise but it’s more true for female students. About half of my high school male students exercise all the time in PE, lunch and dinner hours even skipping their meal. And they get exhausted and become zombies in class. ㅡ.ㅡ And study doesn’t make them look each other not as friends but as competitors. They just don’t have enough time to hang around toghether. I don’t think this problem is unique for Korean students but have to admit it’s a bit serious due to those many circumstances mentioned above. But party-animals, alcoholics, drug abusers or dropouts are more common in Western universities, aren’t they? Each society has its own problems. People live with the problems. Something must be done for them but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.


    1. Thank you for sharing your comments here, Steve. I hope you don’t mind me offering a friendly argument. :-)

      Regarding your last comment about Western universities, I wonder if I struck a nerve by posting these essays? Maybe because I am Canadian (an outsider) and I am posting about Korean students (a context I have not lived) it may seem like I’m judging. I like to think I’m questioning. I must say that I would equally question the life of students in Canada as well. I just don’t teach there. Sure, each society has problems, but are we supposed to dismiss them? I think we need to give a voice to the dropouts, the party-animals and the alcoholics in what ever country they’re in. Why does any student do what they do or feel what they feel? I think these are important questions to ask, especially when they are connected to their well-being. My intention was to show what some students thought and felt because they often don’t have a voice in the larger sense. I think that by listening to what students say we can start making informed changes.

      I won’t start the discussion about feminism that your comment brought up for me. ;-) I’ll save that for another time.

      I know you’re super busy with work this week, but if you have time, I’d love to hear what you think about what I wrote above.

      Thanks again!


  3. I have a question. Does the theme of competition and goals come from the essays the students have written or the professor’s prompt?
    I’ve also conversed with middle and high school students who tell me that their reality is studying for exams because being the top will give them the freedom to choose their major. Rather than proving themselves in university level classes (or not), the list of potential majors they can have is drastically cut depending on where they want to go to school and how they did in Suneung. What ends up happening by college is that they end up in a major they never had any interest in because they feel they had no choice.
    And all this time, no one ever told them that education is “the great equalizer.”


    1. Josette found common themes in my students’ replies, so as to share the practice essays in groups rather than individually. My prompt did not include any mention of competition or goals.


    2. I’m glad Bradley could clear that up. My intention was to post more of the essays here as he said.

      And thanks for sharing your experience here Anne. It’s interesting to note the different perspectives on the question of studying, and the meaning it has at different points in their education. If the students here didn’t get into a major they wanted, why would they feel compelled to study? How could they feel compelled? I know I don’t want to waste my time on things I’m not passionate about.

      Your last line prompted me to do a bit of Googling on “education as the great equalizer”. I found this http://atthechalkface.com/2013/07/25/education-as-the-great-equalizer-more-myth-than-reality/ and I am now off on another train of thought. Words fail me. Perhaps I am not reading your sarcasm. :)

      Thank you for reading and sharing my dear!


      1. Sorry. It was sarcasm…. but incidentally because of this conversation I used “education is the great equalizer” as a free-writing topic for one of my classes and nearly every single one of them disagreed and had cogent reasons why, most particularly that access to better education depends on wealth – which is notoriously unequal. Thank you for sharing that article. Very interesting!


  4. So in Korea, it is extreme, but I think this could be true in many places. My experience in the US is that people kept saying that I could “be anything I wanted” and “the world was open to me”. But all that choice was not empowering. It was not frightening. It was just incomprehensible. For years I studied things I did not want to, and which I do not use. But the opportunity to try new and creative things was not there until the last 2 years of High School, when I started driving 35 miles one way each day to go to a “school for gifted and talented students”. Maybe all schools should be that. Since many college graduates cannot find qualified work, what does it really matter what you study? Since most people have 5 or 7 different “careers” in their lifetime (depending on whom you read) how can anyone possibly prepare for that in a few years of school? Answer these questions and then I will hear what you have to say about motivation.
    The word career means “to plunge headlong”. I think that sums it up.


    1. Hello Scott,

      Yes, it seems that education being for purposes other than for personal desire is an international epidemic. Be it connected to “be all that you can be” or “be all that I want you to be”, the results support feelings of sel-defeat.

      In your comment, I hear a desire to be heard for the struggles you faced as a student, and I also hear an interest in making school, if not life itself more meaningful. What does it matter what we study? Well, personally it matters a lot to me. I would like to know that I lived a life rich of learning. I don’t regret my studies as a teenager or as a university student — I learned a lot, and have found ways to integrate this in my current work– but I know that if I had had the choice to study what my passions were earlier on (not math, not science, but art, drama, music, psychology…), I would have had a more fulfilling life. I think it’s less a question of motivation, and more a question on meaning. Imagine the result of people spending their time studying something that was meaningful to them? Just the psychological health benefits are staggering to consider.

      And now maybe I have answered your question about motivation. :)

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s