GENERAL ACADEMIC ADVICE ON STUDYING ABROAD
The educational system in other parts of the world may be very different from what you are used to at Colby. It is difficult to generalize but there may be less assigned work, fewer classes, and different expectations from and relationships with professors. Students are generally expected to take much more responsibility for shaping their academic program, and instructors provide relatively little guidance. Even in an American study abroad program, your professors will generally be local professors and their teaching styles may vary. Treat learning another academic culture like learning a new language. Ask, “What are the rules? Can I translate what I am experiencing into something I can understand?” Observe. Ask questions! This is all part of living and learning in a new culture!
ACADEMIC EXPECTATIONS ABROAD
The educational system where you will be studying may be very different from what you are used to at Colby. It is difficult to generalize about different educational systems around the world but here are some common areas of difference that may help you anticipate what will be expected of you, and what questions to ask:
- In many countries, students complete 13 years of education (instead of 12) before entering university, and a broad-based liberal-arts type of program exists only at the high school level. Students often begin their major in their first year at university, and they may be more advanced in their studies than a typical first-year student here; in addition, they generally study only one subject (or two, if they are doing a “joint degree” or interdisciplinary program).
- Although it may not be explicitly stated in the syllabus, attendance is important. Expectations about the style and form of essays may be different from what you are used to. Students’ progress toward a degree often depends on exams given at the end of each year, or at the end of their program, rather than on work completed for individual classes. Degree candidates therefore may put less emphasis on attendance at lectures and more on the work they are doing outside of class to prepare for exams. As a non-degree student, your work may be assessed differently, perhaps with more emphasis on class essays and attendance.
- Students often are expected to take much more responsibility for shaping their academic program, and instructors provide relatively little guidance (for example, students may be expected to read widely from a long list of resources, with no specific assignments, and faculty may not be readily accessible outside of the classroom).
- In many cases, the professor may be expecting you to be reading on your own and ask you for original research and thought in the exam essays. You will be expected to provide your own motivation and to assume responsibility for your own education and learning, and not to simply wait to be taught the course material. Generally speaking, emphasis is put on reading widely and making use of what you have read in essays and during seminars. Your reading will not usually be based on a textbook or directed in the detailed way that is common at Colby. If you are told: “You may wish to have a look at these specific titles,” that implies strong advice that these books should be read! Don’t rely on being told exactly what to do or when to do it.
- You may attend lectures, but a larger share of the classroom time may be spent in small tutorial and seminar groups. You may be asked to be an equal contributor to these discussions.
- It is likely that exams will be essay-type. Before you take your first exam, ask for clarification of the grading system. This will help alleviate any surprises when you receive your results!
- All grades you receive will be translated into U.S. grades on your Colby transcript (but will not factor into your Colby GPA).
- Remember that you are required to complete all your assignments and stay until the end of your program (or until you have taken your last exam).
ADJUSTING TO A DIFFERENT EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM
- Treat learning another academic culture like learning a new language. Ask, “What are the rules? Can I translate what I am experiencing into something I can understand?” Observe.
- Be independent in your learning. If the lecture doesn’t match the readings, ask yourself why. Make a connection, think about it on your own, or talk about it with your local peers or resident director. If you need more input in order to understand the material, take the initiative: go to the library – in itself a valuable cross-cultural experience.
- Don’t expect a syllabus – at least, not the step-by-step syllabus you receive from professors in the US. You may get one, or you may receive a list of 40 or 100 books that are somehow relevant to the general discipline of the course you’re taking, in which case it’s up to you to figure out which, and how many, to read, and how to locate them.
- Ask your instructors for what you need. They may not know they’re teaching across a cultural divide. If you need clarification or extra help, speak up.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions; just be diplomatic. Socratic teaching is not the norm abroad, so instructors won’t automatically steer the class back to a point or thread.
- Try, for just this semester or year, to focus more on learning than on your GPA. Students who work hard, do the readings and homework, and consistently attend class nearly always do very well.
- Remember that your program staff or international students’ office is available to help you with the transition and ‘translation’ process. They are both your support and your advocates, but they can help only if you let them know what’s going on.