Top 5 Ways Academics in the US are Different

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Mohammed’s post yesterday about the amount of coursework assigned in American classes got me thinking about some other differences about studying in the States. Here are 5 of the biggest academic adjustments you might face, based on what I’ve heard students talk about:

1) Assignments are due throughout the semester

As Mohammed warned, course grades usually don’t depend on one final examination, but on a number of pieces of work submitted over an entire semester.

Some have papers that you have to write every week, others have group projects you have to work on with your classmates, presentations you do in the class, or research you do by yourself to prove a thesis you come up with.

So, instead of being stressed out all at once at the end of the semester, you get to be stressed out in little bits all the way through. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say.

2) Participation matters

In most schools, talking is required (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user alamosbasement)

In most schools, talking is required (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user alamosbasement)

Many professors will also grade you on your classroom participation – how much you speak up and contribute to the class discussion. Chris told us classroom participation has made up as much as 25% of his grade in graduate school courses.

Indian student Kanchana Suggu explained in a discussion on rediff:

The US education style is definitely more interactive; in most courses, class participation counts toward your final marks. You have to keep this in mind and be sure to participate in class discussions from the very beginning of the programme.

One ESL teacher even advised that students who are outgoing and assertive will tend to adapt better to the American style of education.

3) Understanding can be more important than memorization

One reason classroom discussion is so important is that it demonstrates your understanding of the course material, which many American professors value more highly than your ability to memorize the material.

Nick told us about a discussion in one of his classes about the meaning of a piece of literature. The class ended, quite comfortably, without answering the question:

After all, it did not matter whether we got to the conclusion. The merit lies in the critical thinking process that one goes through to test the different ideas.

I’ve taken examinations, even in math courses, where you were not expected to get the answer, but rather to demonstrate your thought process as you tried to work it out. And I’ve graded examinations where I took off points from a student who stumbled onto the right answer but didn’t seem to know how or why they got there.

All this has caused some students to conclude that it’s actually easier to get good grades in the U.S.

One commenter on a Malaysian forum wrote:

I’ve taken my diploma in Malaysia before continuing with my degree in the US. I would say studying in US is a lot less stressful compared to Malaysia. They emphasize on class participation and projects rather than the finals. You have finals that are only 20% to 30% of your total grade compared to Malaysia which is 60%. Also it wouldn’t hurt either that some courses in my university allows notes or “cheat sheets” for the final exams.

4) Being intellectually well-rounded is encouraged

American higher education tends to emphasize intellectual exploration, and many schools will allow you to take electives outside your specialization. Undergraduate students in particular are often encouraged to take courses in subjects far removed from their major. And by “encouraged,” I mean required.

Sebastian said:

… in Bolivia there are no general education requirements so, for example, an economics major like me doesn’t have to take courses like physics or philosophy. That is better in some way because it keeps one focused on the things really important to one’s career only, in the other hand, having “gen ed” helps student open their minds and even gives them the possibility to change their minds before is too late.

5) Work happens in groups

Jamal warned last year:

American schools think it is important to teach their students how to work in a team, and sometimes assign group projects. So, the very vital tip is to always be sociable, especially in your classes, so you are always ready to work in a group.

Another vital tip for group work: Work hard on the assignment, but not so hard that the rest of the group dumps all the work on you!

Bonus: Plagiarism is BAD

As a bonus, here’s one difference that could actually save you from getting kicked out of school (really!).

In the U.S., plagiarism is a big deal, and American professors care A LOT whether your work is original. Copying from another source, even with the best of intentions, can cause you to be suspended or kicked out of school.

In fact, in an odd quirk, even copying from YOURSELF can be grounds for disciplinary action (if you use something you already wrote in a previous paper, for example).

Tara cautioned:

So, never ever copy anything and paste it directly into your paper! What you should do is paraphrase and reorganize what you want to include in your paper, use quotation marks to indicate direct quotes from a primary source, and be sure to provide a proper citation for the information.

Did I miss any important differences? What do you think is the biggest academic adjustment for international students?

7 Responses to “Top 5 Ways Academics in the US are Different”

  1. [...] most Chinese students who take undergraduate study in China, graduate study in America will be a challenge. You can no longer be fine skipping classes, partying or dating and cramming the night before [...]

  2. [...] Read more: Top 5 Ways Academics in the US Are Different [...]

  3. [...] the student splits their time largely between sleeping and performing regular activities (including going to class). But as exams get closer, you can see that both of those activities drop off dramatically, [...]

  4. Kevin says:

    I think academics in the U.S are a breze…. seriusly, everything is so relax and you even have time to dod other things…. in many competitive colleges in the world , being a full time students means being a full time studens ,these means no free time… maybe sunday afternoon to play soccer, or you can change that for a night going out on Friday…but after that you HAVE tostudy…. i find myself with a lot of free time. Education here must be re formated it is clear that the motors of this country (studens) are not doing something good…. proof? just look at the economy and challenges…

  5. Word Counter says:

    I wish I had a chance to be educated in US

  6. [...] “5 Ways US Academics Are Different” (from our very own VOA Student Union) [...]

  7. [...] “5 Ways US Academics Are Different” (from our very own VOA Student Union) [...]

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