Academic Differences

Guten Morgen, Herr Professor Doktor

If your study abroad program is the type known as “direct enrollment,” you will be sitting in a classroom with German and other international students as classmates and German instructors will be teaching you. You will take examinations, write term papers, and be graded just like the degree-seeking students at your university. You will also be on a different academic calendar. The German Winter Semester runs from October through mid-February with a break for the winter holidays. Sommer Semester begins in mid-April after a two-month break between terms. It concludes at the end of July. Germany’s academic system is different from our own, 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 readying 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 German classroom, in contrast, seems to be less structured. Classes meet less frequently and there are fewer assignments during the semester. A reading list will probably be distributed at the beginning of the semester, but you may not know from class to class what books your professor will be teaching. You may attend very large lectures (Vorlesungen). Even if you attend smaller classes (Proseminare, Übungen, Seminare), you will probably have less contact with your instructors, and the relationship will be quite a bit more formal than in the U.S. You will find that you are expected to be a much more independent learner in the German 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 just a few assignments and/or a final exam, and that the concept of “grade inflation” is alien to the German 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.

The student handbook for the Academic Year in Freiburg program describes this nicely:

In Germany, university professors are generally less available for providing individual student guidance than professors in the U.S. This is partly because of the high student/professor ratio in Germany, but also party because German professor teach four courses per semester (more than the U.S. average) in addition to handling various other time-consuming administrative duties. […] You should not count on a particular course being offered in any given semester, even if you that that it has been offered in the past. Professors at German universities offer entirely new course topics each semester. This is a pillar of the German understanding of “academic freedom,” and you must therefore be prepared to be flexible in selecting your courses each semester.

Germans who are admitted to a degree program at a German university have undergone competitive and rigorous preparation in secondary school. They take advanced classes as they study for their “school leaving certificate” (called the Abitur), the results of which will determine which universities will admit them. Once admitted, the course of study begins with basic coursework in the major (Grundstudium), at the end of which students take a written and sometimes also an oral examination to be allow to continue with more advanced studies (Hauptstudium). This examination is usually called a Vordiplom or a Zwischenprüfung. Thus, as a study abroad student directly enrolling in German university classes, the German students in your classroom will have extensive background knowledge in the subject, either from secondary school or from their Grundstudium courses.

Succeeding in the German 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.