Sometimes we get so excited about being abroad, we forget that we are there to study. When deciding where you will go to study abroad, it’s important to consider the academic structures of the universities you are considering. Often, they are quite different to the U.S. model you might be used to. I spent a semester at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and I’ve gained some insights into the workings of UK universities.
The first thing to note about universities in the UK is that the learning style is much more independent than universities in the US. In my experience, most lectures only have one section rather than several, and tend to be larger. Because of this, there is very little interaction between professor and student. For some classes you will have a tutorial, which is a small group that meets once a week to go over the material covered in the lectures. This is your chance to get personalized help, as your tutor will be working with less students and is there to answer any questions you have about the material. Overall, it is expected that the student be self-motivated and independent. You won’t have much, if any, coursework to help guide your learning and provide a gauge on your progress. Instead, you will have to study the course materials throughout the semester with one final exam in mind.
The second major difference between UK and US universities is the grading structure. Most classes I have taken in the US have had graded homework or attendance to boost your final grade. At the very least, my courses have had 3-4 exams/papers/projects, so your final grade is comprised of several assessments. For my courses in the UK, my final grades were determined by one exam in each class. So, there is a lot of responsibility to keep up with the course materials all semester, even without periodic assignments to hold you accountable. Additionally, students in the UK take fewer classes, usually just 3 or 4 a semester. The courses tend to be more intense, detailed, and content heavy because students are taking just a few of them.
I really enjoyed my time at the University of Edinburgh, but learning how to navigate the academics in a UK university was a major learning curve. It takes a little bit to adjust to the independent learning style, and it can be stressful to have your entire grade depend on one final exam. You should definitely take these factors into consideration when making study abroad choices, but remember that you can handle different academic loads with a bit of persistence.