I will never forget my first day in New York city! After, I landed and took the bus to the city center, I stood there on the pavement staring at the never ending skyline and I wondered: OMG, what did I sign up for? When I was given the scholarship, I barely had a month to prepare for this adventure. I hardly had any time to look into the educational system of the U.S, the university or the city that I would live in. Whatever knowledge I had of the U.S. was based on what was conveyed to me through media. As long as I could remember, my heart was set on studying in the U.K or New Zealand because they were both countries where I was familiar with the education system (Mauritius is heavily based on the U.K system), where I had connections and where I was comfortable with the culture.
In all honesty, when I applied to the Fulbright scholarship, I did not even consider the question of what if I get it? Life always had a wonderful way of pulling me out of my comfort zone! So I got the Fulbright scholarship and I was so shocked and unprepared that I initially considered turning it down. Unbelievable right?! It now seems completely crazy that I even thought of saying no to everything that is being given to me here. Fast forward to the present with one year completed into my master's program in Biodiversity, Conservation and Policy at the University at Albany, I now realize that the fear of the unknown can be a very paralyzing one. Going to the U.S was conquering new territory and meant that I had to learn everything from scratch. Yet, this experience is now undoubtedly the best thing that has ever happened to me, both from a personal and a professional standpoint. So in this blog, I want to share with you my insights on the U.S. educational systems and what I like and dislike about it. My experience is based upon my program, so it might not be applicable to all schools, programs or states. It can still act as guidelines into what you must look for in a program.
Semester versus yearly system
In Mauritius, where I did my undergraduate degree, our classes were on a yearly system meaning that for the final examination you had to study a year's worth of information. With a major in Biology, you can imagine that it meant I had to retain a lot to succeed in my exams. I am not entirely blaming it on the system but if like me, you don't have a strong memory but a more practical and logical mind then it makes the situation a lot harder. Also, I felt that it was very easy to procrastinate for a whole year and then panic two weeks before exams while attempting to cram information in your brain.
In my U.S. school, classes occur on a semester basis and the final exam are at the end of each semester. In my case, I did have one core examination after my first year but it was not an exam that would affect my GPA. I only had to have a 50% pass on the exam to be allowed to move onto my second year (this requirement was specific to my department). I prefer the semester system for several reasons. Firstly, the knowledge that the exams were only five months away was a strong initiative for me to not procrastinate. Secondly, the amount of information that I had to process and retain was more manageable. Thirdly, the semester system meant that I could take more classes if I wanted to. Finally, it is easier to have a real break in between semester where i can focus my energy on extra-curricular activities or even getting work experience.
Let's talk about the final exam
In Mauritius, final examinations would account for 70% of a student's final grade and the 30% is divided between continuous assessments and practical reports. Obviously, there was a lot of pressure on the final examination. Personally, I also had less incentive to work throughout the semester. Information cramming before the exam was a very common thing during my undergraduate years. This was extremely detrimental to my academic gain and I have retained very little in three years of university.
In my current program, final examination accounts for 40% of the final grade with the rest being allocated to attendance, presentations, mid-term exam and projects. In this case, applying regular and continuous effort throughout the semester is a must to pass. Moreover, not all classes have final exams but instead some classes have a final project or essay. The disadvantage of this system is that there are often assignments due every week and that can feel quite overwhelming depending on how much credits you take during the semester. This system was highly beneficial to my learning style as I find it easier to work on practical projects and assignments. A lot of work done was based on my critical thinking skills rather than my memorization skills. After all, we are in the 21st century and instead of focusing our energy on retaining information, we should instead learn to assimilate and critically process the huge flow of information being sent our way on a daily basis.
Is grade inflation a problem?
I have most certainly felt challenged by the sheer volume of work that I had to abate all throughout the semester. However, in terms of grading, I often wondered if the lecturers were too lenient. This made it difficult for me to really evaluate my performance since I came from a system that almost never gave any student more than 90% on their score. I have a hard time stating my preference on either system because i believe each have their pros and cons.
Exams are like a game and getting a high score does not necessarily means that I understood the game's logic, it could simply means that I remembered the rules of the game. Therefore, how important is it that lecturers are more strict with the grading system? I think that grading is a slightly archaic system but that it has been retained for the obvious reasons: it provides a universal system that is easy to understand, recognize and compare. Yet, it is not a true reflection of what the student is learning and it is easy to manipulate. Hence, the pros of the U.S. system, is that it offers a less stressful atmosphere for the student to focus on finding their own learning pace and it is more encouraging. The cons of the U.S. system is that high grading can often mislead the student in terms of his/her real performance and may hinder further effort. The pros of the Mauritian system is that it does encourage students to strive harder for better grades and it makes students more disciplined. The cons is a that it create a very unhealthy and competitive environment where the student often feel like him/her is never good enough.
Do I have a preference?
Yes, I do! My experience in the U.S has been better suited to my learning style. However, everything discussed so far was very subjective and based on my personal experience. Will I ever study in Mauritius again? I am definitely open to the idea if I deem that the experience will add to my professional development.
The bottom line of this blog is that it is crucial for you to understand what works best for you. Looking into schools and countries, it is always advisable to do thorough research into into how the program is structured in terms of exams and in terms of deliverable. This is particularly relevant if you plan to study abroad, as you will not only face the challenge of a different education system but also of a new culture and country. So be prepared! In this case, there is no such thing as too much information. However, keep a critical and open mind as people's experience are often subjective and need to considered with a pinch of salt (including my own blog!). Good luck on your adventure and if you have question feel free to reach out on my social media or by email.
"Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation."
John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America