Class Field Trip to The Somerset House

“We strive to build bridges between the academic cultures of the U.S. and of our host communities to help you adjust quickly and get the most out of your courses.”

– CIEE. (2024) Academic Manual for Students Academic Year 2023-2024.

Cultural Differences in Education

When I decided to study abroad in London I was eagerly awaiting cultural immersion. I imagined struggling to learn new lingo, failing at public transportation, engaging with foreign art scenes, and observing and adapting to new norms. As I fantasized about my upcoming trip abroad, I never considered that there would be differences in academic expectations. Yet, to my surprise, over the six week period that I was in London, these academic differences were the hardest challenge for me to overcome.

Differences in Grading

As a senior who decided to study abroad in her final semester, maintaining my good grades was extremely important to me. Although they didn’t really matter (my degree works was already completed), my need for academic validation overweighed the little weight the grades actually held. Due to my own self induced academic pressure, I was not willing to let my grades slip even in the slightest.

My Professor for my Human Enslavement course also worked as professor at Kings College, an extremely prestigious University in the UK. When the Professor returned our grades for our first paper back to us, we were surprised to see that the highest grade in the class was an 85%. On behalf of advocating for the entire class I questioned how we could do better on the next assignment. Our professor responded that 70%-85% were extraordinary marks, and that our class was performing exceptionally well. He went on to explain that he typically did not give marks above 88% because that would mean perfection.

Cultural Perspectives

When I spoke to some local Londoners about my frustration, they called me “obtusely American”. Never before had I really considered myself to be extremely American, but in that moment my individualism and competitive nature was on blast. In America, school is a stepping stone for future employment opportunities, while in the UK, there is less of a push to live for your career. The differences in the purpose of education impacted the standard benchmarks in America and the UK. As a competition driven American, I felt uncomfortable with this change, especially because my grades would transfer back to my American transcript.

Working with Professors Abroad

Studying abroad is an opportunity for both students and professors to learn through cultural exchange and immersion. In my experience, Professors were interested in learning about the differences in classroom expectations in America. This allowed them to become better educators and understand their students better.


This experience helped me shift my perspective on the purpose of grades and what I wanted out of my education. The fact that benchmark grades can shift so drastically based on location limits their legitimacy as a true measure of ones intellect and ability. Although I engaged in conversations with my Professors and worked to find mutual understanding, I began to see grades as more of an arbitrary number.

Here are some tips to navigate differences in academic expectations abroad:

  • Demonstrate interest in the course on the first day and participate often.
  • Provide quality work and follow all guidelines on the syllabus.
  • Speak with the professor in person about the difference between grading scales. Emphasize how grades impact future opportunities. (this is better received when there is a relationship between student and professor).