Tuesday, March 31, 2015

American Academic Culture: Finding Success in a U.S. Classroom

By Todd Shumway
Director of Global Exchange,

University of Hawaii at Hilo

When we define the idea of culture, we talk about religious beliefs, food preferences, or music that people with similar backgrounds share. But while culture definitely helps us understand the difference between Italian and Korean food, it is just as important in understanding the expectation, rules and environment of a classroom. Different cultures have different classroom rules and expectations, and the chances are good that the classroom you will experience in the United States is quite different from the classroom that you are used to at home.

What are the characteristics of an American classroom?

American classrooms are typically learner-centered. In a learner-centered classroom, less time is devoted to lecture and more time given to discussion. In a learner-centered classroom, students are often asked to work in small groups or individually to present material from the class to other students, and the teacher often plays the role of facilitator rather than absolute authority. American students are taught from a young age that independent thinking, supported opinions, and skeptical questioning are attributes of a good student. Students who challenge ideas, ask questions, and participate in discussion are often more successful than those who merely listen, memorize, and repeat what they hear.

This approach to learning can differ dramatically from what students from other cultures are used to. Many classrooms, especially in Asia, operate on a teacher-centered model. Teacher-centered classrooms require students to be attentive listeners and diligent readers, and to digest large volumes of information. However, less value is placed on the willingness to ask questions, articulate opinions, or challenge accepted ideas. In fact, these behaviors can be actively discouraged or prohibited. Therefore, students coming from teacher-centered classrooms can find the cultural adaption to an American classroom more difficult than getting used to the food, language, or roommates. Being successful in an American classroom requires more than hard work and determination. It also requires an understanding of what professors expect from students and strategies for how to be successful in this kind of classroom.

How do you succeed in an American classroom?

1. Expect more interaction between you and the professor, and you and the other students.

Many American professors expect students to contribute to discussion as well as engage in small group projects with other students. Discussion can be a part of the overall grade. Group projects and presentations are also frequently used as significant portions of the student’s overall grade. This can be intimidating for non-native English speakers as they may be afraid to speak up in class due to insecurity about their language skills. Students who are uncomfortable with the oral presentation should prepare questions and comments in advance of class. Write down these comments and questions and use them to assist in contributing to classroom discussions.

2. Communicate with professors about concepts and material that you don’t understand.

American students learn to be direct when asking questions. Direct questions allow professors to understand what the students don’t understand and where they need help. A direct question can help a student understand unfamiliar or difficult ideas. If a student doesn’t understand something, it is acceptable to ask the professor for clarification or additional explanation. Most American professors will be willing to help students during or outside of class if the students are willing to ask questions. However, it is still important to treat professors and other students with respect. Being direct is not the same thing as being rude. Asking direct questions and even having differing opinions is encouraged. Treating students or professors rudely is not acceptable in any classroom.

3. Remember that final grades are often determined by the total of many grades for quizzes, group projects, short papers, or individual presentations throughout the semester.

Students entering an American classroom for the first time from a European university can be forgiven for thinking they have unexpectedly returned to high school. Some American university professors believe that learning is better facilitated with frequent evaluation of the students. This evaluation can take the form of weekly quizzes, short papers, or group presentations throughout the semester. Each of these projects makes up a small percentage of a class grade, but taken together can be far more important than a midterm or final exam. This can be disorientating for students who are accustomed to having little or no homework throughout a semester with a heavily weighted, do-or-die final at the end of the semester. Being successful in this type of classroom requires consistent attention to assignments and regular class attendance.

There are many cultural challenges awaiting you as you prepare to enter a new country. Classroom culture will be one of those challenges. With awareness of the expectations, good preparation and courage, you will find success in your new classroom.
Todd Shumway has been the director of global exchange at the University of Hawaii at Hilo since 2007. He coordinates international partnerships and incoming study abroad students. He previously served as a lecturer at the English Language Institute at UH Hilo, and director of the intensive English program at Hawaii Community College. He has worked as an ESL tutor, an international student coordinator at an aviation academy, and a high school teacher in Japan. His educational background includes an undergraduate degree from Occidental College in Los Angeles and an M.Ed. from UH Hilo.

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