Some of the biggest culture shocks I encountered while abroad were those related to academia. If you come from a big state university in the states, like me, here are some major differences you can expect while taking science courses in England, or more specifically, at the University of Bristol.
1. Classes may not be held on a consistent schedule
Coming from the states, I was used to taking classes that have a set schedule every week (two or three times a week) at a set time from the first until the very last week of the semester before finals. So, it came as a huge surprise when I found out that two of my courses (the third year ones) were held everyday at the same time for four weeks and ended a month into the semester. I wasn’t sure how they expected us to retain the material for the next two months before exams, but nevertheless, one month into the semester, I only had classes for one course left to attend. With all the extra time left before exams, I found myself not learning the material as thoroughly and going to class day by day just to receive the printed lecture slides.
Side note: This may not be true for all classes/departments, but at least in my experience, the science courses provide a printed copy of the lecture slides before every class for you to take notes on.
While my third year courses consisted of daily two hour lectures for a month, my first year science course consisted of biweekly lectures (with a lecture time that changed depending on the day of the week) as well as five lab practicals dispersed throughout the semester. This also caught me off guard as I was used to courses that had labs every week, so I found myself having to check and double check the course schedule to make sure I didn’t miss one of the practicals. Beware, professors will not remind you of time changes for lectures or days of practicals (even if you see them an hour before the practical for lecture), so be sure to always check your online portal for your class schedule.
2. The coursework
While education in America likes to emphasize a broad, liberal arts curriculum, education in England is quite different. The students pick a “major” their freshman year of university, and only take classes in that concentration for the next three years. This came to be a disadvantage for me while I sat in my third year courses as these students had so much more knowledge and experience than I did. Their depth of knowledge in molecular biology was astounding, and I felt very unqualified to be sitting in the lecture. Thankfully, I wasn’t completely lost in the coursework. The basic scientific knowledge I had acquired throughout my first two years of college helped me study the advanced material. I also found that asking my fellow study abroad classmates for help or to study together really helped me transition into this different academic environment. One thing to note is that upper level science courses really tend to focus on reading primary literature and annual reviews.
However, one of the benefits of studying abroad is the amount of classes you can take that may not be offered at your home university. For example, I was able to take a course on hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, which is a course that is more medically relevant and is definitely not available for undergraduates to take at my university. This class also provided the opportunity to visit one of the biggest blood banks in the UK and observe the clinics in which people go to donate marrow. I am truly thankful that I was able to take advantage of this opportunity while studying abroad.
3. The exams
Lecture times and coursework weren’t the most difficult aspects of science classes to adjust to. The exams… oh exams. The exams for the two third year courses I took were like none I had ever taken before. If your home university is similar to mine, your science tests consist of either multiple choice, short answers, or a mixture of both. It came as a huge surprise to me when I learned that these exams were essay style. We were given 6-10 broad questions/topics, and we were to choose 3 to write as much as we could about the topic in a span of 3 hours. We were encouraged to draw diagrams and basically regurgitate as much information as possible. While I sat in the exam room for 3 hours trying to scour my brain for any sort of fact or relevant diagram, I glanced around the room to see my classmates writing page after page and asking for extra blue books when I had filled out a mere 8 pages (about 2-3 pages per topic). I felt so discouraged and thought I had failed the exam for sure. Oh, did I also mention that this one exam was 100% of my grade? Yeah, I was intimidated.
Despite major differences in academics in the US versus academics in the UK, science classes are science classes and they will be difficult wherever you are. If you study and put in the time and effort, same as you would during any other semester, your grades will reflect that.