Academic differences in the USA (because it’s not called “study” abroad for nothing)

By Elizabeth Pace (Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA)

So now that I’m officially half-way through my exchange and no longer in the midst of the panic and stress of final exams I thought it would be a good time to take a step back and talk about the actual “study” part of studying abroad. As I was told numerous times before I left, the American system is very different to the UK system in that it is “continuous assessment”. This means that, instead of having just having one exam, or one essay and one exam at the end of each semester determining your grade you are graded on everything from 10-question homeworks, to hour long midterms, to surprise quizzes at the start of class, and it all adds up so that, come the end of the semester, your final exam only contributes about 30% of your overall grade. Going into my year abroad I didn’t think it would be too hard to adapt to this system, after all, I’d handled weekly homeworks and the occasional in-class test back in my school days so how different could the American system be?!

Well quite a bit as it turns out…

Once again, my good friend Rhiannon has beaten me to it and already written a blog about the various pros and cons of studying chemistry at Illinois and to be honest she’s got my feelings on the subject pretty spot on, take a look:

So in order to avoid me writing essentially a rehash of her blog I called in the help of some of my fellow exchange students here at Illinois to give me some insight into the academic differences, not just between America and the UK but also between America and Australia, America and Ireland and even America and Belgium. They study a wide range of subjects from Psychology to Engineering, Physics, Business and Law and here’s what they had to say:


“A lot of my subjects here took attendance and that counted towards your grade which I didn’t like. Also, there are a lot more multiple choice exams here which is bliss but it means you can’t fudge answers and you actually have to study” – Emily (Biology, York, UK)

12373305_10153096843400518_6299976276735224674_n“Lectures here aren’t recorded like they are at home, which I think is much more useful when it comes to revising rather than just having to read off lecture slides. And I agree with Emily, attendance points suck!” – Maddi (Psychology, Adelaide, Australia)


“I study Law, which in America is only offered as a graduate course so everyone who takes it means serious business. They arrive early to every lecture, do the readings for every class and actively answer questions. Back home, no one tends to talk in class unless they’re forced to. Also, while everyone doing undergrad courses was continuously assessed it’s not the same for the graduate courses meaning I ended up having 100% exams at the end of the semester.” – Eddy (Law, Sydney, Australia)

12391328_10208472784157123_3982407060343363985_n“Engineering is hardcore out here in comparison. While the content isn’t any harder, it’s more work because there is graded homework all the time. The classes here do tend to be more in-depth but I prefer it because it feels like I’m learning a lot more (who knew?) and there’s less hoops to jump through. Being able to swap and change modules, switch majors and minors or even transfer to a different university halfway through your degree is pretty sweet I think, instead of being stuck with the degree you chose when you were 17 like at home. UIUC is definitely more intense, not just for engineering though, people actually study. All the time. There’s so many study spaces everywhere, and they’re usually occupied. I’ve never seen anything like it in the UK, apart from around exam time.” – Lois (Mechanical Engineering, Birmingham, UK)


12313975_1167478873271630_8044091738663304553_n“I agree with most of what Lois said when it comes to studying engineering in Ireland. Here you get a lot more choice on what classes you do whereas at home most of your modules are core modules and you usually only get one or two optional ones.” – Niall (Electronic Engineering, Dublin, Ireland)

12373361_10156275073965065_2531326148175050858_n“This is similar to Physics. I feel I have to actively learn a lot more due to weekly homeworks in which you need 90% for an A. The content probably isn’t that much easier, but you get more help from the professors and teaching assistants in office hours to understand it. Also finals week is pretty ridiculous because there’s not really any time off to study (classes officially end on the Wednesday and exams officially start on the Friday). You have to learn a whole semester’s worth of content for four modules in one weekend, or even one day if you’re unlucky, but as a result the exams are a lot easier and some of mine were even open book.” – Angus (Physics, Lancaster, UK)

“I mostly agree with Angus except my office hours weren’t quite so friendly and I wish I had open book exams! Cheat sheets were common though, a A4 sheet of paper you could write on whatever you want to bring into your exam, which is very helpful with all the equations we have to know in engineering.” – Lois (again)

12193285_10208105691260098_1176582984928407776_n“I agree with what Lois and Niall said, but also want to point out that there is a massive jump between level 3 and level 4 courses. My graduate level 4 soil mechanics class was absolute hell. It was mainly independent study, but having said that I was being taught by professors and teaching assistants that are some of the best in their fields. In terms of difficulty, it’s definitely easier to get an A in level 3 courses than level 4 ones. However, the level 3 courses vary in difficulty depending on the professor taking the course. It’s also weird but kind of convenient that you can get marks just for showing up to lectures.” – Hugh (Civil Engineering, Bristol, UK)

12011199_1017591198275070_4057921068019712066_n“I feel like Business is a lot harder in Belgium than it is here. My level 4 courses were more difficult in terms of actual content but just as easy to get an A in because the grades were curved. A huge difference was the continuous assessment through the semester where we got grades from problem sets, midterms, projects, you get the jist. In Belgium we have one final exam and everything depends on that. This obviously has its pros and cons, but I really didn’t mind it. Also I much prefer the personal rapport with the professors. There’s quite a lot of individual communication so you can ask for favours and they can be pretty flexible if they like you enough. In Belgium, I didn’t even know some of my professors’ names, let alone talk to them.”– Filip (Business, Leuven, Belgium)

 12278899_10156219188665640_7255129862842503880_n“I agree. Business here is a lot easier. Lots of group work and presentations that were a lot of the time graded on whether or not I actually did them rather than the quality of the work. Communications and advertising is very much the same. As long as you know the basic terminology you can do well in the assignments. Basically you have to be opinionated about whatever the topic is and you get marks for it.” – Shirley (Communications and Business, Sydney, Australia)

12308607_10203833918248177_7130394001519299499_n“For my subjects the structure of classes was very different to back home. In Illinois, all the classes are seminars whereas in Australia they’re all big lectures with one short seminar once a week. I liked having seminars because I actually paid attention and did some work rather than zone out or not attend at all. Also back home we aren’t given any extra credit opportunities, but in my classes here students really valued it and felt the extra credit was necessary.” – Erin (Media, Communications and Politics, Wollongong, Australia)

12193362_10208105708340525_7972587063882257940_n“Engineering isn’t necessarily harder in the U.S. but it is much more time-consuming. Although the final exams are worth less, because the grade boundaries are higher here (60% for a pass, 90% for an A) it still means the same amount of work has to go into them. I found most of my time was spent just trying to get homework done rather than actually understanding what I was doing. In fact, I feel like I actually learned a lot more in classes where I only had one homework a week than in classes that gave me two homeworks plus a test every week. Lecturers in the U.S. also expect to get to know you which I found weird as in Ireland you seem to be just a face in the classroom. It’s also strange how much choice you get with modules. It means you could graduate with the same major as someone else but have specialised in a completely different area to them.” – James (Civil Engineering, Dublin, Ireland)

So there you have it. Hopefully that’s given a pretty comprehensive overview of what it’s like to study at a U.S. university. At the end of the day, every academic system is different and overall I’ve found that people tend to prefer the system they grew up with. Most Americans I’ve spoken to seem horrified by the thought of having your entire grade rest on one two-hour exam, whereas I find the whole continuous assessment thing to be unnecessarily high pressure. Especially when, as an exchange student, I want to do a lot more with my time abroad than just sit in the library and do homework. That being said, spending the whole 16-week semester under pressure and working hard does mean that I now have a month off for Christmas and not one single piece of work to do or exam to revise for (a luxury I don’t think I’ve had since my GCSE years) and having now received most of my final grades, it seems things haven’t turned out too badly after all! I think I’m almost ready to do it all again next semester…

See you in January, Illinois!

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