American masters and doctoral students undergo a public presentation of their research that includes an oral defense. It provides some standard of rigor but also reflects the questioning nature of the American educational system.
The U.S. defense is a single event for each student and is usually scheduled on an afternoon. Faculty file in beforehand, as do other graduate students and anyone else who wishes to attend. A student should not stand for this defense until his or her major professor feels they are ready. The student's committee has also met with the student throughout their study.
My U.S. colleagues make a point of spreading out across the room; we would never sit across the front row as judge and jury. When the student finishes their presentation and the floor is open to questions, faculty intentionally hold back, encouraging the students to engage in questioning, pursue alternate interpretations, and look for weaknesses in the research. This is part of their training. At this level, we are going beyond science as a body of knowledge, and pursuing science as questioning. The young students have seen their older classmates do this, and usually participate.
Departmental faculty follow up with more questions, serving as models and causing the students to realize: "I should have thought to ask that." After the public defense is over, the session moves to closed-door with just the student’s graduate committee. At the end of that intense questioning, the student and committee both understand the exact edge of the student’s knowledge and ability to pursue research.
Contrast that with the process in China. There are so many students here that masters or doctoral examinations are scheduled back-to-back on one grueling day, processing from 9 to 13 students in 45-minute sessions. In contrast, the examination panel here cannot contain the major professor of any student — a Ministry of Education requirement to prevent favoritism. One distinguished professor heads the examinations and at least one of this examining board must be from another university, again an attempt by the MoE to establish quality control. As a result, many professors spend the month of May on planes and trains traveling to university graduate panels.
We sit on the front row or along a central oval table, our names on large red cards. The graduate students all sit in the back and side seats. At the end of each presentation, only the faculty on the panel ask questions. No student would ever dare offer a question, even in the face of egregiously wrong research. This is another exam for a classmate, and their questions would "give trouble" to a classmate.
So here they are, needing to practice science as questioning, and they sit quietly. I observed one panel headed by a professor who had returned from a decade of teaching in the U.S. He very much understood the need for student participation. At the end of the panel questioning, he turned to the students and asked "any questions?" He knew this was a missing piece of the defense, but the graduate students remained silent and sank as low in their seats as possible.
Some research in China, similar to the U.S., is "cookbook." It follows the plan laid out by the grant from the student’s major professor. And the defense can then be cookbook, and so can the panel’s questioning. That is why I end up on some panels; they want American-style critical questioning. How does this analysis actually work? What does the "S" in "16S rRNA" mean? Is there something else that might cause the same result? You can hear an audible gasp ripple through the students in waiting.
For my panel colleagues who have been to Western universities and learned Western questioning, smiles cross their faces. They knew how to pose questions that require creativity and critical thinking, but it is so easy to get pulled back into the rote system. But over the decade, I have seen their questioning improving as more are trained in the West. Soon they will get Nobel Prizes in science.
But critical thinking does not start at this level, by turning to the student audience and insisting they ask questions. It starts in their elementary and high schools, where those teachers begin students down the road to natural questioning of real lab and field work instead of test preparation.
And for our next generation of science students in America, who now must begin focusing on test preparation under teachers who will now be judged by their students' test performance, we can expect to see our graduate student defenses eventually erode into cookbook science.