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THE UK: Once you arrive

'Go to every single class': Studying in a new country

Our student blogger Emilia talks us through varying study cultures between American high school and British university, including how to reference correctly and how marking varies...

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So you've moved in to your new accommodation, made some new friends and attended some socials; now comes the actual studying. Classes should have begun by now, and you may have found that the study culture is quite different to what you are accustomed to in your own country. Plus, there's the frenzy of finding where you're supposed to be for your first class! Our student blogger, Emilia, talks us through her experience adjusting to British higher education, including how work is marked, the different ways to reference work, pronunciation and why you shouldn't skip classes!

 

'When I first began university, I was so overcome by the idea of adapting to the new culture (both the English and university cultures in general) that I barely gave any thought to what my actual lectures and seminars would be like. Describing my contact hours as lecture and seminars, even now, feels slightly foreign. Though I may have to pause for a moment before I decide whether to say REN-ai-ssance or ren-AI-ssance (the first being American pronunciation and the second British), I still let American terms such as classes (lectures/seminars/tutorials) and school (synonym for university) flow freely, confusing anyone around me. 

 

Luckily, university classes are quite similar to the ones I had at school, so I didn’t experience that much culture shock during the transition. We had some larger lectures — though large in a department of 60 first-year students is relative — but the majority of our contact hours were in smaller classes. I divided my time between five weekly hours of language, two content modules and one open unit. In total, I was sitting in university classrooms for about 9 hours per week; dramatically less than what I was used to.

 

The real difficulty in getting adjusted to my university schedule wasn’t the academics, but the structure of them. It was another manner in which university culture was stranger than English culture. After having highly participatory classes in high school, lots of our teaching was less geared towards student input. Sure, participation was expected, but ideas and opinions weren’t fired off the walls with the same vigour as they were in my previous classes. Homework didn’t contribute to your final grade and neither did attendance nor participation. Living with the shadow of the American school and university system, however, I am bound to go to every class with fear that, if I don’t, I will fail miserably. My British classmates clearly didn’t think this way and skipped with near-reckless abandon. If there is one piece of advice I would give to first years, it is go to every single class. No matter how boring, no matter how early. The simple act of being in the same room as the professor and as (some) your peers will ignite the motivation in you that you need to stay focused on your studies.

 

Finding classrooms is once again a challenge, speaking up in class sparks fear and organising my time when I’m not in a lecture or seminar is an ongoing struggle. Buying books for classes still irrationally annoys me (I have to spend how much?!).

 

As for the actual academics, the marking structure is the most challenging.  Everything counts in America, which inevitably leads to an inflated final grade. Marking isn’t done anonymously and exams aren’t quite so regimented. While I appreciate these attributes of British universities (I do fear I may omit some ‘u’s in my translation work), I’m constantly battling between my classroom persona and my marks, which don’t always match up as neatly as I wish they would. During classroom hours, I participate, contribute to discussions, take notes and have immaculately highlighted readings; I seem like a first-class student. 

 

My essays, however, don’t always agree. The switch from thinking about an essay as something free form in which I can choose my own point and argue how I see fit, to a more structured exercise with pre-selected prompts, was the biggest academic struggle I faced during my first years in university. To a certain degree (no pun intended), I still face it. In America, we are loyal users of the MLA style of writing; conditioned from our first five-paragraph essay that this is undeniably the way in which you annotate your work. In England, the lines aren’t so clearly cut and there are many different styles, some preferred more than others depending on the tutor.

 

Academics at university are no doubt something that every student must get used to, but the unique challenges come more from one’s specific culture. They arise in unpredictable ways. The one thing that is predictable at the start of university is that everyone is struggling to get a handle on his or her new life. I don’t know about you, but I find that very reassuring.'

 

Learn more about the University of Bristol

 

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About Author

Emilia Morano-Williams is a fourth year student of Italian at the University of Bristol, though she comes from New York. When not studying, she writes a travel/coffee blog, works as an international ambassador for her university and works as social media manager for Sweet Lemon Media.

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