After a couple blogs posts, it is probably about time to discuss the whole “studying” part of studying abroad. Living in a new country involves adjusting to new cultures, including academic ones. For this post I will be joined by Emma Allen, a current junior and Newcomb Scholar studying Political Economy and English. Emma is currently abroad with the INSTEP Cambridge program in England, and will be talking about her experience with the UK academic system. On my side, I’ll mention a little about my experience in Scotland, but mainly focus on my semester in France in terms of both my program courses and the ones I took at a local university. It can be stressful suddenly not knowing what to expect -- from courses, to grades, to assignments, to interactions with professors. Hopefully this post can lend a student’s perspective to the academic side of studying abroad. Even if your country might be outside of Europe or experience a different academic culture, this can help pinpoint some areas that tend to differ across countries, such as grading scales and teaching style.
University is definitely different in the US than the UK, specifically Cambridge. At Tulane, I go to class five days a week, with two to three classes a day. Here, I only go to class Monday- Thursday, and I only have one class a day, for two hours. Most of my classes are supervisions, which means it’s only me or a couple students with a professor. University is much more independent and research based, with less emphasis focused on lecture and more on outside reading and preparation. One professor framed the structure as each week should be a 40 hour work week, but time in class only makes up 8 of those hours.
Because classes are so research focused, most of my workload consists of reading, which puts a much bigger emphasis on time management and making myself read when it doesn't feel like I necessarily have to. Unlike at Tulane, I do not have giant textbooks, instead, I have a couple core texts, small books, that have a loose reading schedule, but I also have 2-3 pages of provided additional resources. These vary from articles, economic journals, podcasts, and books. I am not expected to read all of them, I am just expected to find some aspect of the material I find interesting and dive deeper, using the provided resources. A major distinction in my lectures that I have experienced at Cambridge is the way professors treat their classes. In the states, lectures might have some background reading required, but lectures are structured to teach students all the information. At Cambridge, professors expect students to have a solid grasp of that week’s content already, so class can be spent diving deeper or discussing a text. A higher level of preparation is expected.
Finally, the thing students care about most: grades. At Tulane, and many American colleges, our grades are made up of exams, quizzes, discussion posts, papers, and maybe a presentation. At Cambridge, I have two papers that make up the entirety of my grade. They are the only assignments I have all semester, which makes my day to day workload light, but the weeks leading up to paper due dates extremely heavy.
All in all, university is very different than in America, and there are trade-offs. It relies heavily on time management and self-discipline rather than laying out assignments and checkpoints throughout the course. It gives more freedom and downtime during the day but less time with a professor. It’s different, but I am so happy I am able to have this experience and learn from such amazing faculty for the semester.
Emma did a perfect job of describing some key differences I also noticed between the US and my UK university, the University of St Andrews. In my experience, it definitely took time to adjust to a new grading scale – not only was it a 1-20 scale, but I had to interview a couple students to find out that even while 17/20 is a B in US eyes, it is a much rarer grade for a St Andrews student. A 20 is like getting exactly 100 percent, where it is mainly reserved for things like math tests when it is technically possible to get all the questions right (versus a subjective essay). Once you start to shift scales, it can reduce some stress after getting back grades that may seem low.
While in France, I got to experience two more academic systems: that of my CIEE (program) courses, and my local French courses at the Institut Catholique de Toulouse. Starting with CIEE, I felt like because this was an American program for an American cohort of students, it was very similar to what I have experienced at Tulane. Grades were on a percentage or letter scale, and there were multiple difference assignments throughout the semester, ending with a final. I noticed that participation was a larger portion (up to 20%) of the grade than I am used to. CIEE was understanding of the fact that all of us were study abroad students and that despite us only having a couple classes, we were likely to still be quite busy with cultural events and independent travel outside of class. This is definitely one of the benefits of doing program-run courses rather than directly enrolling in a university: even the professors understand that you are studying abroad.
My courses at the Institut Catholique de Toulouse could not have been more different. There were barely any assignments – one in one class and three in my the other. This took the UK style of a few heavily weighted assignments to a new extreme. Similarly, with grading the French are even more reluctant to give high marks. They use the same 1-20 system as the UK, but skewed even further. Even a 14/20 could be considered an A in the US. According to French teachers, “20 is only reserved for God.” Teachers in France can be a bit harsher with their feedback, and it is rarely anonymous. My geography teacher would hand back papers, commenting on them as he went. He even asked me if I wrote my paper myself – in front of the whole class.
Another thing to consider is how expectations for assignments may change. Teachers are a lot less hand-holdy than those in the UK and US – I never got to see the rubrics or the outlines for what was expected of an assignment until I got my grade back. Additionally, I had to learn how to write in classic French essay formats. Luckily CIEE offered a seminar to help us learn these skills, and I supplemented this with online research. I mentioned to a classmate at my final that I was about to write my first French dissertation. She told me she understood how stressful that might be, especially considering she and her classmates had been writing them since high school. Certain cultural shifts exist at the university level, but some involve the entire schooling system. Another silly thing was that when I entered my final, I noticed everyone had brought a glue stick to seal the corner of the exam, hiding their name from graders. I ended up having to borrow one, but it just goes to show that there will always be some random things you will not expect. You will just have to roll with the punches and be prepared to ask for help.
Overall, studying in a new academic culture can be a stressful adjustment, but I think it is very worth it for what you are able to learn – whether it is history from a new perspective, a subject you have never heard about, or a new take on your major courses. And remember – classes that are just counting as general elective credit are not factored into your GPA, so do not be too scared about these cultural gaps!