It was just 2 days ago when I finished my second and last final exam. I want to reflect on the academic shock I had at the beginning of the semester and differences in the US and Scottish University education system.
During the process of applying to an exchange program, one of the reasons I chose an English-speaking country was because I wanted to compare the science education system. I did not want to go through the stress of learning a new language while trying to learn a topic in biology with that language (that is already hard enough in English). That being said, despite what people think, I did not choose an English-speaking country because of its similarities in teaching style between US and UK. During orientation in the University of Maryland, I was told that don’t expect a high score; 70 is considered an A. Then, during orientation in University of Edinburgh and by my personal tutor (equivalent to the advisor in the US), I was told that anything above an 80 is publishable quality, but adding that I will have to write essays that “Americans don’t do well in.”
On the first days of classes, the course organizers explained the essays that will be due in 7 weeks. For one of my course, Parasite Biology, we were told to choose a topic already, even though we only had our first lecture. The other course, Immunology posted 5 essay topics, and we had to pick a topic on a space available basis. However, none of the questions made sense because we had not learned about them yet. I was confused about whether these students are geniuses or they already had background knowledge from previous classes. Therefore, everyday after class I would go straight to the library and read as much of the “essential readings” that were assigned. One stark difference is that in the UK, professors do not teach you everything, they expect you to read everything they assign, whereas, in the US, some professors straight up say, “textbook is optional, the test will be on what I teach you.”
Because I didn’t know the limit to the knowledge I need to know, I was going crazy cramming everything into my head. Also, information is endless because they teach based on research articles and new research findings. I had little previous experience reading research articles, and none were enjoyable because I barely understood any of the terminologies. I felt very repulsive about the expectations and teaching method at first. The idea that 10+ research articles are what should compose of my essays made me stressed. After about a month into the semester, I started to like the teaching method in the UK. Each lecture is based on a couple of research articles and because they outlined the main ideas for you, the research articles complemented the lectures rather than burdened me. Also, more than 5 professors are teaching a course, because they find leading researchers in the field to share their research findings and their expert knowledge.
In the US, there are numerous assignments every day for 6 classes and at least 2 to 3 midterms before the final exams (18-20 hours contact time). I believed that assignments made me keep on track with the learning material. Therefore, I did not know how to distribute time to study for the standard course load of 3 classes (9 hours contact time). I relearned time management that was not due to time pressure, but with self-motivation to maximize so much extra time. In addition to the lectures, we had practicals (lab sessions) about 6 times per semester and had tutorials. Even though the University of Edinburgh is a huge university, it has a small school feel due to so many practical leaders answering questions and teaching us how to use research technologies. The tutorial (similar to discussion sections) is composed of 8 students with a professor or graduate student and is extremely helpful in keeping up with the materials.
Back to the essay. Since I was told “Americans don’t do well,” I wanted to prove that wrong. I started 3 weeks before the essays were due and planned everything out. The essay gave me the opportunity to learn about what I am interested and do some data analysis, which helped me retain and learn more. In the end, I did prove that Americans can do well. Apart from the essay, there is a practical exam and a final exam that make up our grade, so buffer grades are non-existent. The final exams were all essay-writing again. However, the questions were more about how much you have read and how much knowledge you retained. In comparison, the biology classes in the US taught me to utilize the knowledge in hypothetical questions rather than “knowledge dump.” In a way, the final was easier because there is less “do you know how to use the scientific knowledge?”, but more of “do you know all the specifics of this topic?”
Overall, I have come to embrace a different education system. I have learned to manage my time more efficiently by being self-motivated. I have also overcome my fear of reading research articles and writing essays.