The View From Campus: How has Life Changed in the U.S. College Classroom?

Over the last two years the Covid-19 pandemic had caused significant changes to how classes are taught on U.S. college campuses. Many lecture classes with 100, 200, or more students that met in big rooms or auditoriums have largely gone online, supplemented by smaller, in-person lab or discussion sections with 15-25 students each. Students on many campuses are still wearing masks indoors and are socially distanced within the classroom. Hand sanitizer stations are everywhere. All of these changes have been designed to stop the spread, but in the end, these are superficial changes to how different taking a university class in the United States is compared to many other countries.

For international students seeking to study in the United States there are and will continue to be several important parts of academic life that will remain. While many courses have been taught online and those taught in-person having significant physical changes to the classroom space, the following areas remain consistent.

The Informality

What surprises most international students when they get into their first classes at U.S. colleges is how professors can be so friendly. You may be used to a very formal relationship between students and faculty members in your educational institutions in your home country. For many professors in the United States, the opportunities to help students become what they hope to be is a calling. Faculty members are routinely required to have a set number of hours each week that they are available outside of class periods for students to schedule appointments about topics in class that need clarification or even drop by to have a conversation. International students often develop close relationships with faculty members in their academic program who serve as mentors for students as they progress through their degree program.

The Syllabus

Typically, the first time each class meets, all students in the room receive what is called a syllabus. This document serves as an informal contract between students & the professor. The syllabus outlines all requirements for the duration the class meets, what textbooks or other resources will be studied, when assignments or papers would be due as well as the dates of quizzes, tests, and/or exams. Oftentimes, the syllabus breaks down all content that will be covered as well as how grades will be determined. Quizzes might be worth 10%, a mid-term test 25%, a paper 20%, final exam 30%, and classroom participation 15%. That’s right, you read that last part of the preceding sentence correctly – how well you participate in class can count as a significant portion of your academic grade for a course!

Asking Questions

While you take a minute to digest that last part, let us explain that whether it’s simply asking questions to demonstrate you are engaged in the conversation or need explanations of certain topics, the expectation is that students participate. Speaking with new international students over the years, I have found that while they can usually adapt to the informality of relationships with professors, the real challenge is in changing the way they approach class. Faculty members, in general (certainly not all), encourage debate and discussions on the issues that the topics of the day’s class cover.

Academic Integrity

The realities of the differences in how classrooms operate here compared to your home country may take you some time to become comfortable with them. But one area of how U.S. classrooms operate on college campuses that must be understood immediately after classes begin is academic integrity. In effect, this means there are university policies that require students to practice academic honesty and not engage in plagiarism or other forms of cheating while enrolled. See what the University of North Carolina’s policy on academic integrity involves. MIT breaks down what that prestigious institution means into simple dos and don’ts for issues that may come up in the classroom.

In the end, you’ll need to prepare for the academic transition to a U.S. college. For additional resources on these topics and more, check out this video playlist from our colleagues at EducationUSA that answers questions on the different facets of the classroom experience in U.S. colleges and universities. EducationUSA is the U.S. Department of State’s network of advising centers in 175 countries and territories that serve as the official source on U.S. higher education. The website for this network also has some excellent advice about study options in the United States.

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