What are the differences between US and UK academics you encountered while abroad?
I’ve been asked this question by just about everyone I’ve come across at school, so I thought I’d touch upon it here. US vs. UK academics, as I’ve experienced them, are very different. Now that I’ve experienced both systems, I’ll try to explain some of the key differences below.
*Disclaimer* This post is written by an American recent graduate who attended a small, academically demanding liberal arts college in North Carolina. I attended The London School of Economics and Political Science for one academic year abroad, where I was fully integrated into their academics and student life. I can’t speak for all American or British academic experiences, but I will do the best I can to broadly differentiate between the two here.
Academics in general
America: It stuns many Brits to know that you don’t usually specialise until your second or third year of university. I was a Political Science and French double major but I’d taken English, Latin, Religion, and Philosophy classes before I chose my majors. Also, university here lasts 4 years.
England: Most of the people I went to class with had been specialising for years in whatever subjects they were taking. They all had extensive theoretical knowledge and backgrounds that I didn’t have upon arriving, so I had some catching up to do the first couple of months. University lasts 3 years.
The Verdict: I will say, there is something to having such extensive knowledge as an undergraduate. However, there is no way I could have chosen exactly what I wanted to study in high school. In fact, I didn’t take a Political Science class until I started college. I actually went to college wanting to be a Classics major! Each system definitely has its pros and cons, but I definitely couldn’t imagine only spending 3 years in college studying one subject!
America: I had four classes each semester that generally met two or three times a week each for about an hour. Seminars are usually once a week for three hours. Each class is taught by a tenured or tenure-track professor who holds a PhD. Most of my classes were discussion-based. Attendance was taken and participation counted for part of your grade.
England: I took four classes that lasted the academic year. After the first term, the classes I took changed content slightly, building upon the theories and readings we had examined earlier. Each week, each class consisted of an hour long lecture given by a lecturer or professor and then an hour long discussion seminar taught by a PhD student in the department.
The seminar would go over what we covered in the lecture, as well as the readings on the syllabus. Depending on the department and class level, the lecture or seminar could be longer. Attendance wasn’t required at lectures, but you were expected to attend all of your classes, as missing more than a couple without excused absences would get you into trouble.
The Verdict: Due to the nature of my classes in London, it almost felt as if I took different classes each semester. I had some fantastic lecturers and 3/4 of my seminar teachers were incredibly good. So, I consider myself pretty lucky! I did miss the close contact with the actual professors, but I enjoyed having the fewer contact hours in class overall, giving me more time to focus on the readings that interested me most.
America: Davidson is a special case because it’s so small, and all of my classes had fewer than 30 people. My smallest class has been 4 people and my average size class over three years has been about 15. I had lots of contact with my professors, who always knew my name (not always a good thing) and they often invited the class over to their house for dinner. *Not many American universities are like this*
England: Because our classes were divided into lectures and seminars, I guess you could say I got the best of both worlds. Lectures could be anywhere from about 40-50 to over 100 (again, this depends on the department and class level) while classes were at most 20 people. Again, though, lecturers held the highest degree while our seminar teachers were PhD students.
The Verdict: As a shy introvert, small class sizes (in which discussion and participation count for a grade, see below) can be incredibly overwhelming. Sometimes I wish I could just be a fly on the wall and absorb things without stressing about having to participate once per class. As much as I like the personal attention from professors at Davidson, I think the class style in London fit my personality better. I could ‘warm up’ during the lecture and then be more prepared and confident for the seminars :)
America: Because most of my classes are two or three times a week, I had readings assigned for each specific class. Theoretically, that means I did my Monday readings on Sunday, my Tuesday readings on Monday and so on until Friday. My schedule was very dictated for me, and not doing the reading for a class is detrimental to my participation grade and can lead to some embarrassing classes. The American university system is also notorious for incredibly expensive textbooks. Luckily, half of my classes are novel-based and the other half only had me shelling about $200 total for textbooks. #blessed
England: I received a syllabus at the beginning of the year for each class, with a long list of ‘required’ and ‘supplemental’ readings. For the classes I took, we got all of our readings online for free unless it was a novel, and most of my readings were actually scholarly articles and not textbooks. We weren’t required to actually do the reading until our exams (however, it was highly recommended before classes since we would discuss the required readings in great detail). It also wasn’t detrimental if I had to miss a week or two of readings. I had a much larger stack of readings than I do at Davidson, but I could schedule them as I pleased; and, as long as I got most of them done before my seminar classes, I was happy.
The Verdict: I preferred the British style of readings. I could create my own schedule and didn’t have to stress out if something came up during the week. I was accountable to myself and learnt a lot about time management with minimal guidelines, which I consider a valuable skill.
America: On top of my heavily dictated schedule of readings, I had several assignments and assessments. In one week, I had 3 essays, 1 test, and a presentation. Midterms and frequent tests and essays are common, as well as this new trend of having to be a discussion leader for each class every couple of weeks (not a fan). I’d rather spend more time on my readings than just checking off busy-work assignments. Any classs grade could be determined by: 20% participation and attendance, 25% midterm, 20% essay, 35% final exam.
England: For each of my classes, I had 3 essays over the span of the academic year and then a mock exam due close to the end of summer term. Occasionally I would have a short presentation at the beginning of a class to examine an opinion from the readings or relate it to current events. Very manageable. For full-time students, the final exam in June generally counts for 100% of your final grade. As a study abroad student “still adjusting to the British academic system”, the administration made it so that our exam counted for 50% of our final grade, with essays, presentations and participation (loosely defined) counted for the other 50%.
The Verdict: London wins again! I don’t like stress and to me, this style of academics was much less stressful. I worked on my presentation skills and focused on valuable critical thinking and writing skills for each class, as I had more time to spend on each essay. As stressful as the final examination period was in May/June, I could devote long periods of time to revise for them without having to worry about writing final essays for the same classes (which I have had to do often at Davidson).
America: At Davidson, almost everyone will arrive to class early and chat with the professor until the official start time of class. It’s a weird phenomenon and can get awkward when the professor starts class early because everyone is just already there.
England: In London, contrasting with their stereotype, it was almost expected that classes would start a few minutes late and most students would stroll into the lectures or classes as much as 10 minutes late. I would always show up on time, mostly because I hate being late ;)
The Overall Verdict
As most of my friends know, I preferred the academic style I experienced in London a lot more than the one I’ve had in America. That’s not to say that I haven’t had valuable academic experiences in America: I’ve become close to many of my professors, all of whom have offered me invaluable personal and professional advice; I’ve learnt to handle incredibly stressful academic situations; and I’ve learnt how to speak up in class, even when I would rather listen. However, I just felt more comfortable with the academics I experienced during my year abroad. Which is why I’m looking to eventually go back after I graduate for a Masters!
Anyways, I hope this post clarifies some things for friends and family who have asked me before. And for those of you considering doing a year abroad or even thinking about doing your entire undergraduate schooling in Britain, I hope what I’ve [tried to] explain proves helpful.
Feel free to ask me any more questions or further clarifications :)