Academic Differences

How to succeed in the British system

If your study abroad program is the type known as “direct enrollment,” you will be sitting in a classroom with British and other international students as classmates and British instructors will be teaching you. You will take examinations, write term papers, and be graded just like the degree-seeking students at your school. It is a different academic system, and to succeed in it you may need to change the way you study.

Let’s look at the U.S. academic system first.

You are in class quite a bit, roughly 15 hours per every 1 semester hour of credit earned (for example, a 3 s.h. hour classes has 45 hours of classroom instruction, or roughly 3 hours a week for 15 weeks.) For every hour spent in the classroom, you are expected to study approximately 2 hours outside the classroom. You are given a syllabus at the beginning of the semester explaining how the course is structure, what assignments there will be, how you will be graded, what textbooks you must purchase, and what reading you need to do for each class. Your final grade will be based on many things – your performance on quizzes, midterms, and the final; papers you are required to write; participation in classroom discussion; perhaps a presentation or two that you make to your classmates; pop quizzes; extra credit projects, if offered; and perhaps even more criteria. If you are taking a full-time course load, you will be very, very busy. Time-management skills are critical, just to keep up with the assignments in all of your classes.

The British classroom, in contract, seems to be less structured in terms of readings and assignments, but will probably be more formal. Classes meet less frequently and there are fewer assignments during the semester. You may have less contact with your instructors. You may receive a reading list at the beginning of the term, but it probably won’t give you a schedule of when the books will be covered in the class. And the reading list will be very long – there will be primary texts and lots of secondary readings, and you will wonder how you could possibly reading everything (don’t worry, you probably can’t). You will find that you are expected to be a much more independent learner in the British system. You are supposed to attend the classes and pay attention to what is said there, but you are also expected to do your own reading, selecting texts from the suggested reading list, and form opinions and hypotheses about the materials on your own. It will feel like you have a lot more free time on your hands – until you realize that your grade for the course will be based on one paper or a final exam, and that the concept of “grade inflation” is alien to the British system. Then you realize that you can only succeed by working diligently and independently on all of your classes throughout the semester, because if you don’t you are facing 4 or 5 term papers and/or final exams with only a few weeks to prepare or write.

British students are “closet studiers.” They love to appear nonchalant about their classes and they often go out during the weeknights to the pubs with friends. You’ll assume they don’t study at all. But they do. They read in their rooms with their doors closed. They go home during the weekends (when you are probably traveling instead of studying) and their mom does their laundry and cooks while they do their homework for the coming week.

Getting admitted to a degree program at a British university is still a fairly competitive and rigorous process. Students specialize in high school and take advanced classes as they study for national examinations that will determine which universities will admit them. The standard degree in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland is a three-year program (in Scotland it is four, like it is here). Students take classes in their major, but they do not need to fulfill “general education requirements,” or “foreign language requirements,” or “electives.” (They did all of that in high school.) By the time a British student gets admitted to a university, s/he is already quite advanced in the major subject and focuses only on that for three years (or, as is sometimes the case, a student double-majors). If you take 2nd or 3rd-year classes, the British students have probably been studying their subject continuously for 4-5 years already.
Succeeding in the British system requires discipline, self-motivation, and time-management skills, just as it does here. But you may find that you need to adapt your study habits and attitudes in order to perform well in the new system. Writing essays, in particular, is critical to good grades, and the expectations of an essay may be different there than the expectations are for a paper in our system.

Most U.S. students find that they receive roughly the same level of grade in the British system as they do in the U.S. academic system, despite all of these differences. It is unusual for students who do average work at the UI to suddenly receive high marks in the British system. Similarly it is rare that a student who has a high GPA suddenly does very poorly overseas. That said, the academic systems are really very different, and the student who succeeds is the one who understands this and adapts to it quickly.

Further reading

Study Skills excerpt from University of Wales Swansea Visiting Student Handbook

Thoughts on How to Survive and Thrive in the UK, an essay from the British Council newsletter, Education UK.