Important advice about teaching styles, strategies for learning, and the pace of academic life in European universities
Teaching styles vary greatly between Europe and the United States; so too, therefore, strategies for learning. In Europe, professors tend to rely on lectures_much more than out-of-class reading or written assignments. The final exam, a final project handed in at the end of the semester, or a combination of the two often constitutes the sole means of evaluation.
American students succeed in this new environment so long as they attend class regularly, take careful notes, read the major items of the course bibliography, and pace their learning of the material appropriately. Sharing notes and forming study groups with classmates is an important aspect of the European educational experience.One of the virtues of this system is that responsibility for learning is shifted to the student. The best students in Europe benefit from this system by reading widely on their own, by learning to work closely with the professor, by developing good independent research skills, and by taking advantage of the cultural life of the city (e.g., museum exhibitions, lecture series, concerts, archives, etc.).Because European university courses tend to evaluate less frequently, some American students are lulled into concluding early in the semester that classes in Europe are much easier, only to be stunned by the frenzied pace at the end of the semester in anticipation of the final exam. In any case, to keep a proper perspective on the Spanish university system, remember that Spanish students tend to take more than double the credit load required by the VWM program. This helps explain why formal out-of-class reading and writing assignments are required less frequently than is the norm in American liberal arts colleges. Much more of the learning process is expected to take place in class or else on the student's personal initiative.
The differences may be summarized as follows: learning in the United States is often structured by a series of external guides (a schedule of periodic, graded assignments), whereas European students pace their learning largely on their own. Our advice: attend all classes; take copious notes; study them regularly; consult more than once with the professor about final projects and/or exams; read course bibliography on your own, guided by your professor's recommendations; and share material and study with Spanish classmates.
The following overview of the academic challenges that often face American university students abroad has been adapted from the CIEE's Amman Language & Culture Program: Students Handbook (spring 2008) and accurately characterizes the typical academic experience of American students abroad. We reprint it here because it usefully encourages students to accept these challenges as an opportunity to learn in different ways from what they are accustomed to at home and offers strategies for adjusting to most new academic environments outside of the U.S.
American students abroad most likely
- Have expectations about what makes a good class based on previous academic experiences in the United States
- Work best when the instructor gives them clear, precise guidelines on assignments and expectations, and encourages them to do their best
- Assume that the instructor will define the main ideas for the class, connect the outside-of-class readings to those ideas, and provide detailed syllabi and visual aids like PowerPoint presentations or overhead projections
- Expect the instructor to welcome and value student questions and opinions, even when they challenge what the instructor is saying
- Assume grading criteria to be spelled out clearly so that students who apply themselves and follow those criteria will be assured a good grade
- Expect to be tested and evaluated on a regular basis so that they can monitor their performance on a continual basis
Local students most likely:
- Expect the instructor to stand at the front of the classroom and give a lecture, considering it their job as students to connect the lecture to the readings themselves
- EITHER assume that they will have to figure out for themselves what the instructor expects, and that it is best to take copious notes, read every assignment, and memorize everything OR skip class and ignore readings until the last two weeks of class content to come away with a barely passing grade (this is particularly the case in countries where grades have no relevance in the job search process, so don? get sucked in since it is not likely to apply to you)
- Regard the instructor as the authority, and would never consider challenging the instructor? point of view (unless specifically invited to by the professor)
- Recognize (if they think about it) that the instructor may consider them unqualified, at the undergraduate level, to have an informed opinion on the subject matter of the course
- Understand that it is their job to stay motivated and on task, and not the instructor?. If they are good students, they will know (or figure out) what needs to be done and do it independently: first of all, by speaking early and regularly with the professor and other motivated students about readings, assignments, and final exams or papers
- Know there will be one, maybe two, exams, that will cover everything, and that they probably won? have a real idea of how well they did until after grades are final
- Would never fault the instructor if the whole course fails
What to do to adjust:
- Treat learning in another academic culture like learning in another language. Ask yourself, "What are the rules? How do I translate what I am experiencing into something I can understand?"
- Be more independent in your learning. If the lecture does not match the readings, ask yourself why. Make a connection, think about it on your own, or talk about it with your peers. If you need more information, take the initiative and go to the professor (early and regularly) and to the library.
- Do not expect a syllabus ?or, at least, not the kind of step-by-step syllabus you receive from instructors at Wesleyan or Vassar. You may receive a list of 40 or 100 books that are somehow relevant to the course you're taking, and it's up to you (with the professor's guidance in office hours, if you seek him/her out) to figure out which, and how many, to read, and how to locate them.
- Ask for what you need from your instructors. They may not know that they are teaching across a cultural divide. If you need clarification or extra help, or aren? sure what to do, ask.
- Don? be afraid to ask questions; just be diplomatic and monitor yourself. Because Socratic teaching is not the norm, instructors will not automatically steer the class back to a point or thread. They will follow your questions graciously wherever they lead and not understand why you get upset when the class does not stay on point.
- Be prepared to memorize a lot more than you are used to doing ?not a bad skill to pick up. Yes, the concept is critical, but even in the US you sometimes have to be able to rattle off the facts and indeed you should know them before venturing to make sweeping judgments!
- Try, for just one semester or academic year, to be more focused on learning than on your GPA. This is not to trivialize the importance of your GPA to your future, but rather to encourage you to trust yourself, your hard work, and your intellect. If you accept that you will not be able to keep a running tally of your grade throughout the term, and instead focus on learning, you probably will be much happier and do better in the long run. Students who work hard and well (by seeking guidance from the professor early and regularly), do the readings and homework, and come to class consistently nearly always do well.
- Remember that your program staff (if you are on a program or at a university with an international student office) is available to help you with the transition and "translation" process. They are both your support and your advocate, but can? help if you don? let them know what? going on.
Study skills abroad
- Begin studying the assigned readings and materials prior to class. The material will be fresh in your mind, and doing so will keep you from falling behind. If you don? study immediately, the subsequent lectures will make little sense, and you'll continue falling behind.
- Read widely in the field outside of what is assigned (using the course bibliography as a guide).
- Reading is not the same as studying. Studying involves thoughtful, careful contemplative reading and note-taking.
- Study and work through both the instructor? lectures and the texts yourself. Make notes while doing so, and try to connect the main ideas with the relevant facts. This will make it much easier to study for exams, and is particularly useful when you're studying in a language in which you are not fluent.
- Begin your homework immediately after it is assigned. This way the material will be fresh in your mind and you will retain it better. This is important because there are fewer exams and papers, and you will need to remember material for longer periods of time.
- Review things on the weekend. Even a brief re-read of notes will make it that much easier when exam time comes.
- Treat homework like a quiz. Relying on notes, learning aids, or friends has its benefits, but if you really want to know your knowledge baseline, try doing at least 50% of your homework assignments on your own.
- Do not be deceived by an apparently casual attitude to class or to coursework by most fellow students and even the professor.Grade-point averages do not matter to graduate schools or future employers in Spain, in Europe, and indeed in most of the world as much as they do in the U.S. Therefore, what you will observe in many (perhaps, in some courses, most) students is the attitude and the work habits of students content merely to scrape by (with a?ometimes barely?assing grade). Most VWM program students are not used to getting only barely passing grades nor do they expect them. Therefore, if you want to come away with the kind of grade you are used to at home, you will need to work for it the way the very best of students (not nearly as visible as the others) do here: namely, by scrupulously following the strategies for studying abroad outlined above.
Recapping academic regulations
- Participate fully in the CEH orientation program and to abide by the norms and regulations stipulated in the CEH's Guía del estudiante. These norms pertain to: deadlines for registration and adding/dropping courses; use of the internet facilities; access to announcements on the CEH's bulletin board; personal conduct; process for obtaining the UC3M identification card.
- Daily attendance in all class sessions is required throughout the semester. UC3M with the full backing of VWM take absences into consideration in the final grade. Personal travel or family visits do not justify absences.
- All participants must enroll in the equivalent of 24 UC3M credits. (This does not include the two credits from either Santiago or Granada.) Special permission must be requested to carry a heavier course load.
- At least 6 credits should correspond to regular UC3M or UCM courses (that is, to coursework taken outside of the CEH).
- The CEH requires students to take one language course. Bilingual students may be exempted or they may choose to take "Spanish for bilinguals". Year-long students may be exempted from the language requirement in the spring; the decision will depend on the results of the spring term CEH language placement exam.
- VWM participants may not enroll in courses taught in English.
- Students interested in using courses in Spain to satisfy general requirements or expectations for graduation (such as the Wesleyan "expectations for general education" or gen eds) should notify the study abroad officer and faculty advisor on their home campus, indicating exactly which course(s) they wish to use and the requirement(s) or expectation(s) they wish to satisfy.
- The schedule is announced at the beginning of each semester and it is firm.
- At the professor? discretion, students taking licenciatura or grado courses may be able to take the exam as soon as classes are over. They may also opt to take the final exam by fax, as an alternative to the regularly scheduled final exam.
- Students taking regular UC3M courses (ALs or CHs) must discuss the date of their final exam with their professor at the beginning of the semester and communicate this information to the Director on the ficha de matríula.
- If you must anticipate your final exam and your professor agrees to it at the beginning of the term and if you are given a choice between a final paper and a final exam, we strongly urge you to choose the final exam since papers tend to be more strictly graded.
- Professors at the Carlos III usually post their grades in the (electronic) aula global. Students with questions or doubts have up to three weeks from the last day of class to request a revisión(an explanation and, if warranted, a change) of the grade. However, professors also have the right to set aside one date for this purpose (called the día or fecha de revisión), which they post in the aula global in the last week of classes. Professors rarely grant exceptions to the process or deadline. Students are therefore advised to act promptly. If no date is posted, contact your professor in writing or in person immediately to request an appointment.