NZ Education vs. USA Education

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Okay! So, I am a bit behind on my blog schedule. BUT I have a good reason: I have been enjoying and using every minute of my time here! I am currently on my midsemester break and have been traveling to multiple places in NZ and even a bit of Australia. More information on this to come. However, I would like to discuss something that has been really interesting to me…comparing education systems! Afterall, I did come to New Zealand to STUDY abroad. Now that I have completed half of a semester, I feel I am more than qualified to speak on the major differences in the education systems. Just kidding, I am sure there are plenty of differences and similarities that I have not yet witnessed or experienced in my short time here, but the things I have experienced are intriguing, nonetheless.

There is an obvious difference: the grading system. For the most part, the letter grades at the University of Auckland are equal to that of the Vassar, except for anything lower than a C- which is simply an F. However, the grade percentage that yields the letter grades in UoA are surprisingly different. 90-100 is not just an A, it is an A+ with the lower boundary of an A- being an 80 which as US students know would usually yield a B-! I wont bore you with each conversion but will leave you with the knowledge that a passing grade is a 50 and above compared to the States’ >60 passing grade. This may not be of significance to some people, but as a person who (I’d like to say WAS, but in all honesty) is obsessed with checking grades and GPA made me wonder what this would mean for me when my grades are transferred to my VC transcript. In the end, I decided that it would have to mean nothing, seeing as the letter grades and thus the percentage is quite similar, I would just continue to do my best rather than worrying about my GPA. It does me no good to fear such things when all I need to be concerned with is doing my best in my classes. That’s all I can control.

Also, something that should be obvious, but was actually unexpected to me was the difference in undergrad years. In the US, it is hammered into our brains that college is 4 years long, so for me I expected nothing less. But in New Zealand and, what I have come to learn, in most countries undergraduate degrees are only three years. When I asked my schoolmates why, they responded that they don’t really take elective courses. All classes taken in their college career are meant to be focused on their area of study. In conjunction to this, students are required to declare their major prior to enrolling in university. While some colleges and universities in the US require a declared major for enrollment, it is much more common that majors can be declared in there second year and even changed if one wishes. I know at most liberal arts colleges, including Vassar, a major is needed by the end of your sophomore year. I really waited until the deadline to declare mine in biochemistry and waited until the beginning of my junior year to declare my drama major. This is because I was contemplating a single or double major and questioning which I wanted if I chose single. I appreciate the extra time afforded to me to make up my mind. Afterall, deciding something like a major is a big decision and to be expected to have made up your mind in your senior year of high school, a.k.a at the age of 17/18 (for most people), is absurd to me. That is something I very much appreciate about the US education system. Although, I believe students at uni in NZ can request a change if desired. However, I am not sure what that process would look like. In addition to the extra time given to declare, I thoroughly appreciate the opportunity to engage in elective classes. In fact, Vassar has a graduation requirement that forces students to interact with departments outside of their area of study. To complete this requirement, I took humanities courses like sociology and philosophy in my freshman year. And I have had the pleasure of taking ASL, psychology, and dance classes. As someone who enjoys learning, I liked taking these electives and value that in the US education system. However, I do recognize the appeal of leaving uni a year earlier :)

To continue with the aspects of the Vassar education system I like a bit more than that of UoA, I have to dicuss one on one time with the professor. The University of Auckland is huge and caters to people from all over NZ and international programs, so, to accommodate that many people, their lecture halls are huge too with many students. After the novelty of large classrooms and vast amounts of classmates wore off, I realized that I wasn’t really able to get one on one time with my professors. Yes, I can email them and talk with them before/after class, but their time is limited and they cant possibly meet with each student. While I try to try to discuss notes prior or at the end of class, it can be difficult to get through the swarms of other students lining up for the same exact thing. In response to this lack of time and energy from professors, there is an encouraged site called “Piazza” where students can ask their questions and peers/professors can respond. While this definitely helps, it does not top the quality time with professors that I benefit from. At Vassar, professors are more than giddy when students come to their open office hours to ask questions and it is quite easy to discuss any concerns (with class and even with life lol). I do miss office hours, but I appreciate the things professors at UoA will do to make up for lack of office hours.

Okay, now that I have discussed what I miss about the US education system, buckle up because I am about to go into what I love about the NZ system. First off, recorded classes! During the COVID-19 pandemic, most schools went online via zoom and, with this media, teachers and professor can record the meetings and distribute them to the students. After COVID (and by that I mean 2022-2023 school year and on) many US schools, Vassar included, abandoned this feature, and returned to in person classes with no recordings. Well, I did not enjoy this at all. I came to realize that I learn better with a recorded class. I am able to look back at them while studying, meaning I can take notes during class or simply listen to the professor and go back to the recording to further my understanding of the material. Thankfully, my science professors have continued with this liberty, but other classes have not been so fortunate. Well, at UoA recording classes is a staple of each lecture hall. In fact, professors are mic-ed, projector screens are programmed to record the minute class begins and end the minute classes finish, AND lectures are instantly uploaded to Canvas. I LOVE THIS! I understand that the reason for it is to benefit all students. Many people have to travel up to three hours to get to class and it is just better to record so student can stay home while not missing course content. But it is just common sense to do this. I cant even say how many times I looked back at recorded lectures to study for my mid-terms. It was amazing. I performed better in class and felt more confident in my knowledge. I hope that US colleges will adapt this into their education system because students learn in different ways. Sometimes repetition is the golden ticket.

In addition to recorded lectures, I must speak to the amazing lab classes. First off, as a biochemistry major, I am required to take two biology courses in my junior year. It worked out that I would have to take both in one semester which I was dreading because two bio classes means two 4-hour labs each week, and I didn’t think I could mentally handle that with the rest of my schedule. Luckily, UoA offer courses that were extremely similar to those required at Vassar, so I was able to sign up for those and get major credit. What I didn’t know until I had to do preregistration for UoA is labs are every other week! And given that they are 5-hour labs, it can still teach us everything we are meant to understand. So, each week I only have one lab class which is much more manageable than two in one week! In addition to this change in schedule, all labs are broken down in procedural detail at the start of class. The lab professor will take the time to go over each step AND the lovely lab coordinator posts videos prior to lab showing how to do the procedures as well. I very much liked this system as, again, people learn in different ways. For me, I work best after having seen someone do it and then doing it myself. Simply reading the procedures and being told to go for it wastes time as students are trying to understand each procedure without a visual guide. On top of this, I have found that the experiments done in the lab are directly correlated to what we learn in class. You may be asking “what do you mean?” I mean that the whole week we will learn about the fly genus, drosophila, and the next week in lab, we are working with the flies themselves. I have found that labs in the US are a bit different. Because there are multiple of the same class taught by different qualified professors, where students are in the course content will differ between each class. Therefore, the labs may be on something that Professor X has already taught, but not Professor Y, leaving some students to learn the lab content for the first time. A big university like UoA has one singular class so every student is on the same page and has the same knowledge. Therefore, labs go a bit smoother and asking a friend for help is much more doable. I think there is a lot more I can say about the lab differences, but I’ll leave it at that. I think I got my point across and I would love to see these methods brought to the states.

Now, for all my talk about the differences between Vassar/US system and UoA/NZ system, I do see some similarities. One being the underpaid teachers and professors. Coming to New Zealand, I had a haze around my perception of the country. I thought that everything would be perfect and shiny and happy. While most of the time it can be, I will say that I have definitely seen some discrepancies in my perception. As a continuation from last year, the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) and Public Service Association (PSA) in Auckland went on strike the first week of classes (March 1st-2nd). After looking into it slightly and asking my fellow classmates, they responded with the information that professors went on strike to protest the wage they are paid as it is unfair and devalues the work and energy teachers contribute. This was very eerie to hear as I am fully aware of the teacher shortage in the US due to many things, the first being pay. While it is heartbreaking to see this problem world-wide, it is inspiring to see professor and supportive students stand up for what they believe in.

Okay, if you read these somewhat analyses on the education systems, thank you! I know it was a lot and much more than I expected to write. But I had so many thoughts on the matter swiveling around in my brain and thought this would be the perfect place to jot them down. If education systems are not your thing, then stay tuned because my next blog will consist of my so-far amazing and life-changing midsemester holiday!

image 1: my awesome handwritten lecture notes!

image 2: (source) https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/90508881/university-of-auckland-staff-protest-stops-traffic-at-symonds-street