Embarking on the path to study abroad can be exciting and full of thrills. The thought of traveling to a new land, experiencing a different culture, potentially learning a new language, and mingling with the locals is enough to probably make you want to start packing your bags right now, right?
Then you remember one key thing: Once I get there, I actually HAVE TO STUDY.
Trust me, I was the same. The first time I studied abroad, I was caught up in the glamour part of it all, overwhelmed with the veil of the misconception that the ‘abroad’ part weighed more than the ‘study’ portion. I quickly learned it was the other way around.
Study abroad classes are not any easier than traditional on-campus classes. In fact, in many ways, they can be harder and more challenging because there are often more hurdles to overcome in a semester away.
I always tell the students I advise that when they study abroad, they will feel like they have just stepped back into freshman year. You’ve gone from a comfortable norm to being thrust into a place you know nothing about.
For the first week or so, every time you go outside you’ll be lost, may or may not know anyone in your new city, will probably come off as socially awkward, and still have to academically perform in order to stay enrolled in your program.
While it would be impossible to highlight the specifics of what may be different about studying abroad in any particular country in a single blog post, there are some overarching themes that impact most semester away students at one point or another, allowing the notion of ‘I thought this would be easier’ to sink away.
Here are three things that make study abroad classes equal to or harder than traditional classes:
1. Different Expectations for Grading Scales
This is a BIG ONE and will be important to consider and research prior to departing for your program, especially if you plan to receive course credit or are an exchange student work towards a degree in a new country. Most countries have their own unique grading system and academic success within that system is judged differently.
I will never forget the first time I received my first graded assignment back in my International Studies course in London. I sat in my seat speechless for nearly two minutes, confused beyond belief.
I have always been a writer, it’s my thing. If you know me, you know me for being a writer. I was editor of my high school paper for three years and have written essays for other students since middle school, “HOW THE HELL did I get a 76 percent on a paper? How is this happening to ME?” I thought to myself.
After class ended, I stayed behind to speak with my lecturer. I wanted to be very clear about where I had gone wrong and why I had just made a C+ on a lengthy essay I spent so much time on. In asking him, he said ‘Your work was fantastic, I loved it, a few more arguments needed to be added, but I gave you high marks anyway since it’s your first assignment’.
I gave a pause: “But you gave me a C+….”, I said. He gave me a head tilt then smiled. “Oooooh no, I SEE,” he said. “You’re thinking about the American system. In the UK, anything above 70 percent is exceptional, we call that First Honors. Let me show you” he said as he pulled out a diagram of grade conversions from a notebook.
Can I tell you about the sigh of relief I felt? I had gone from feeling like the world’s biggest failure to being overwhelmed with pride. I was completely ignorant of the concept of being judged on a different system, especially since I was studying with an American university, it never crossed my mind.
But knowledge of that nuance makes all the difference so start learning about the grading system in the country you plan to spend your semester away in NOW.
2. Critical Thinking Versus Memorizing Information
This is specifically for my fellow Americans, but others who find it relevant, feel free to take note. For all the discussion about the cost of college, shady admissions practices, and making the system more “fair”, I have yet to hear us have a real in-depth analysis of the tragedy of what happens once you actually get into a standard American college classroom.
American education thrives on memorization and what I like to call “thought regurgitation’. While it’s politically convenient to blame it on the Bush-era policy ‘No Child Left Behind’, it’s an intellectually lazy argument as this has been happening long before teachers were expected to “Teach for the Test”.
For nearly four decades, America has fallen short globally in education, both K-12 and higher ed, unable to equally compete with our counterparts in basic and advanced subjects.
A major part of this constant fall from grace is directly related to the fact that outside of specialized professions (think Science, Medicine, etc), the average American student is not taught concepts to learn them, but is presented concepts to remember them so they can effectively parrot them back in exchange for a grade on rinse and repeat cycle.
Specialized theories and concepts in most subject areas are traded in for big themes, generalizations in ideology, and simply focusing on seeing the world through the lens of the instructor, instead of learning how to form your own arguments and options effectively.
And I won’t even get into the fact that a high percentage of US professors themselves are not currently or have never been PRACTICING real world specialists in the areas they teach (Completing a Ph.D. in something in a gilded ivory tower is absolutely NOT the same as actually doing it in the practical field position). It’s a joke, but a rant I won’t get into at this time, just know it’s not a good situation.
If you study abroad, you will learn very fast that most of the world simply does not operate this way. A focus on critical thinking, applying theory and concepts to real-world problems, practicums, and going beyond expensive textbooks holds higher value in most other parts of the world.
I have openly said and will always stand by the fact that I feel I actually LEARNED more in both of my international master’s programs than even I LEARNED throughout my K-12 years and an undergraduate degree in the US, and I went to very good schools. Imagine the deficit for my peers who got an even more subpar version of the American education system.
For once, I was expected to understand how to see ideas and apply them, not required to complete hours of endless “busy work” homework assignments to show I gained knowledge and was able to thrive by feeding off of intellectual discussions and debates that related concepts to individual experiences.
All of my professors in the UK and Italy were practicing specialists in the subject areas they taught (imagine that, someone teaching something they actually know because they’ve done it…..refreshing!)
If you are American or plan to study abroad in a country outside of America, prepare yourself for this learning curve. It is real, it will hit you like a wave, but I’m sure you will appreciate it in the end and will come away with a bundle of knowledge that will stick with you for years to come.
3. Independent Study Model Versus ‘Submit Daily Busy Work’
In my almost rant above, I previewed the fact that in many parts of the world, “busy work” assignments are rarely used as a factor in rating success in study abroad programs.
While you may have some nightly coursework to complete, especially for language classes or other practicum-focused subjects, you are likely to find that much of your graded work will be divided into group work projects and other assignments that have to be completed independently, but may not be due until the end of your program.
For students who are not organized or procrastinate (no judgment here!), this can be a challenge in many ways because it forces you to be accountable to yourself without someone constantly reminding you of the due date.
In some study abroad programs, you will be expected to form your own group for assignments, while for others you may be pre-assigned.
Instructors or lecturers are likely to periodically check-in with you and will mostly like be available for questions, but will not hold your hand. In many instances, you may be given a very high-level instructional brief with a few details that you have to fill in yourself through your applied research.
This is true for individual assignments as well. I would highly recommend planning out your due dates (as you may already do now in your traditional studies) once you get your syllabi and then create mini success plans for your study abroad assignments to help you stay on track.
The illusion of study abroad classes being “easier” than on-campus courses at your home institution could not be anything further from the truth. As you embark on this journey to spend a semester (or longer!) away, consider the fact that you must study, possibly harder than you are now to return home with a win.
Until next time…
Known as The Study Abroad Specialist, Kimber Grayson is a serial-study abroader turned International Education coach and expert. Since 2014, she has helped 100+ students navigate their semester away journey from the coastal areas of Spain to China and every place in between. In 2018, she launched The LiveStudyLearn™ Abroad Association, a one-of-a-kind online membership platform for study abroad students worldwide.
She holds two Master's degrees from two well-respected London-based universities and has experience working in the US, UK & and Italy.
In her spare time (what's that again?), she enjoys leisure travel city breaks, any snow-based activity, skeet shooting, and attempting to learn new languages.