Abroad in England: Differences in higher education and humanities courses

About a month ago, when I began to sign up for modules (what they call classes in the U.K.), I had some trouble getting what I wanted. This was because I had planned to sign up for what would be equal to a 400-level, or senior-level, poetry writing class in the United States. Although I am only in the first semester of my junior year, I have earned enough credits to almost be a senior. However, at uni in the U.K., they don’t really have a senior year– or, in other words, they don’t have a fourth year. An average British university student completes their undergraduate degree within three years. So this level four class was actually only designated for those studying to complete their master’s degree, and, having not yet completed my bachelor’s degree, I was unable to take it.

University of Nottingham students studying in the campus library.  Source: www.nottingham.ac.uk

University of Nottingham students studying in the campus library (Photo via www.nottingham.ac.uk)

Not only do British students complete their degrees in less time but they also spend significantly less time in the classroom than the average American student. For example, I am taking 60 credit hours. An American would gape at that amount of hours, but it is also important to remember that the credit hours here are measured differently than they are in the United States. In the England, 10 credit hours are equal to about 3 credit hours. This is because the credit hours in the UK count for not only the time spent in the classroom, but also for the independent work a student does outside of the classroom. So no, I am not taking more than three semesters worth of college in one semester, but I am still taking a full load.

As their credit hour system puts more emphasis on time spent reading, writing and researching outside of class — the assessment of the class does too. Rather than being quizzed on readings, students are asked to look up an article that relates the piece. In some classes, there are assigned readings, but no timetable for them. In the U.S., a student is usually asked to read a certain number of pages or chapters before a lecture or seminar. In the U.K., however, readings are assigned but may not have a deadline. As a result, rather than being assessed by multiple tests, quizzes or papers, students that major in the humanities such as English or history, are expected to write a thesis paper on the subject of the class by the end of the semester. The grade that a student earns depends entirely upon how well they do on this thesis paper. Unlike college in the U.S., grades do not so much depend upon, or may not depend at all upon, attendance and participation. However, I would still strongly recommend going to the lectures, as your absence may be reflected upon in your final paper.

The average size of a humanities lecture at the University of Nottingham.  Source: www.nottingham.ac.uk

The average size of a humanities lecture at the University of Nottingham (Photo via www.nottingham.ac.uk)

I know that the definition of higher education in both the U.S. and the U.K. is learning to study independently and develop theses. All while managing your time outside of the classroom with studying, socializing and other activities such as jobs or sports. However, it feels as if the multiple assessments in the U.S. are things that I used as baby steps towards a larger goal. Here, it seems as if these papers, though they are not due until mid-January, are looming. It’s almost as if trying to swallow something whole. Now the breaking down of this large task into smaller, more do-able tasks, will be my job. Of course, like the U.S., the professors here are just as helpful and willing, even eager, for visitors at their weekly office hours. Also, though the University of Nottingham is about twice the size of the College of Charleston, my classes remain quite small. This is something I enjoy, as it gives me a chance to speak my mind in seminars, and to feel as if there is a closer student-professor relationship. Although higher education in the U.K. emphasizes independent work, it seems that there is no shortage of help when it is most needed.

The higher education system in the U.K. is different from that in the U.S. in more ways than I thought it would be. Though it was not expected, in a way I’m almost glad that it wasn’t. Before coming to England, I thought that maybe England would be too similar to the U.S. and that I would not have as many opportunities to expand my horizons as those who chose to study in other places. Through this struggle, I am experiencing higher education from a new angle.

Alex Worthy is a junior at the college and is currently studying abroad at the University of Nottingham in Nottingham, UK for the semester.  She is majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing and enjoys singing, playing guitar and reading.

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