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Academics in the US vs. the UK

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Written by  February 1, 2017

A breakdown of the perceived differences between the two systems.

Guess who’s back, by popular demand? You may be thinking, “Oh huh, I figured she gave up on that blog thing by now.” Well, fortunately for my readership (aka my mother and my boyfriend), I’m here to report I am still at it, despite the unforeseen hiatus that occurred over the last two months.

Why this sudden break, you may ask? School is why. People, this may be an obvious fact to some, but getting a master’s degree turns out to actually be kind of hard. Between spontaneous trips to Brussels, losing myself in the cobblestone streets of York, and binge-watching First Dates, I swear actual studying has occurred. A lot of this difficultly has come due to adjusting to the differences between the American learning styles and that of the United Kingdom.

So here is your unofficial Ned’s School Survivor Guide for going from an undergraduate US system to a master’s UK course:

1. Structure

During my undergraduate, we had numerous contact hours or classes spread throughout the week. These classes were structured typically as lectures with some discussion if the teacher facilitated it. In the UK, you have lectures and seminars that may run on the same day. Lectures function in the typical lecture hall fashion and the seminars are entirely dedicated to discussions, presentations and class interactions.

2. Assessment

In the United States, we’re used to constant tests, homework, midterms, group assignments, reading checks, pop quizzes, essays and everything in-between in order to make sure we’re following along, doing the work and are on pace with the course. In the United Kingdom, you are assigned required and optional readings and in the seminar classes, it’s assumed you’ll talk about what you’ve read. You may have a PowerPoint presentation of some sort once a term, but that is it. When it comes down to it, it is really on you to decide if you even want to do the reading.

3. Reading

On that note, the reading itself comes in a different form. For one, textbooks are not a prominent thing in my course. Let me repeat that for dramatic effect: THERE ARE NO TEXTBOOKS. Any key readings can be found in the library and, shocker, there is typically enough copies. Usually, key readings are found in the form of articles from multiple sources as well, not just one textbook.

When you have learned in one formulated fashion for your entire post-secondary career, it can be a curveball to adjust to a new learning structure. Something that did take me months to figure out is that in the UK, you should not assume that the readings for the week are to be done before the lecture. In fact, some lectures, as mine were last term, are introductory lectures to the reading. So to my despair, I was a week off in the reading for the entire first term of my masters. Whoops.

4. Grading

All right, down to the nitty-gritty. You’ve read articles from your reading list, you’ve contributed in your seminars, now what? Now, as an American student, you mentally prepare yourself for the ultimate hell that is finals week. To my ultimate relief, the hellfire of stress, Americanos and mental breakdowns was left behind in the good old US of A.

In each master’s module (class) you simply have to write a 5,000-word paper and your grade on that paper is your final grade for the course. It is make or break, all hands on deck to make sure that paper is solid. You have around three to four weeks to solely focus on this paper so it had better be damn good when you turn it in. Hence, even when I went home to America over Christmas break I stayed up well into the night working on a paper about policy transfer.

These differences may seem just superficial, but when you have learned in one formulated fashion for your entire post-secondary career, it can be a curveball to adjust to a new learning structure. So the next time your friend studying in London freaks out about their paper being due, for the love of humanity send them a fiver for coffee, because lord knows they need it.

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Published in Study Abroad Blogs
Kelli Kennedy

Kelli Kennedy is a graduate student at University of York in Comparative and International Social Policy. After multiple short-term study abroad programs during her undergrad, the California native is taking on the winters of England to learn how to change the world.

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