5 Key Facts for International Students About U.S. Academic Culture

Danh D. Pham

As an international student, being in an American classroom can be a life-changing experience. You will able to express yourself freely, make friends, build your confidence and challenge your friends and professors on topics in class.

There are, however, five characteristics of classes and the academic atmosphere in the U.S. that may be different from those in your home country.

1. Class participation matters. For most classes, you will be expected to speak up, either to share an opinion on the subject or simply to ask questions on things that you do not understand. This is especially important for those who are going to pursue majors in the liberal arts, such as political science or sociology.

By speaking up, not only are you going to make good contributions to the class, you are improving your public speaking skills. In some classes, making interesting remarks can improve your grades significantly.

[Here's what to know about the American academic system.]

2. The grading is probably different. Speaking of grades, most international students are accustomed to the letters system, based on a scale of A to F, which ranges from superior to average performance to failure. Many colleges in the U.S. uses this scale to evaluate how well students are doing in class.

Your grade-point average will be based on a scale of 4.0 -- though some colleges use 5.0 -- with a minimum division of 0.01. In order to get somewhere close to a 4.0, you will need to get all A's for all of your courses. However, these are only the most common rules, and grading policies vary among colleges and sometimes even classes within a college.

3. There will be group projects and presentations. Many international students are familiar with the concept of the teacher assigning a group of students to complete a project and present it in front of class, but may not have experienced it back home. The grade the group receives is your grade, so it is everyone's responsibility to make good contributions to the project.

[Learn 4 Ways International Students Can Ace a Class Presentation]

Sometimes, the professors will hand out evaluation sheets for all team members and ask them to rate each individual's commitment and contribution to the project. Students may even be asked to suggest the grade you think your other group members should receive. A group project can be fun and less stressful, as you are sharing it with other students, but you will be expected to produce a better outcome together.

4. Professors will have office hours. This may take place outside of the context of a classroom, but it is worth mentioning for international students who have not necessarily had a chance to interact with their instructors on a personal level. College professors usually hold office hours one a twice a week for a few hours at a time.

This is a time when students can come in to have any questions or concerns addressed or simply just have a discussion with their professors on what they are learning in class.

If you find yourself having difficulty grasping the class materials, going to office hours is a must. Moreover, most professors are very open about speaking with and getting to know students outside of class as well as h helping them succeed academically.

[Know the five questions international students should ask professors.]

5. Discipline is still important. Although there are plenty of opportunities for students to express their opinions in the classroom or to have personal interaction with their instructors, it is still critically important for students to be polite and respectful to professors and other students.

Challenging a professor's authority, using a cellphone while in the classroom or cheating on exams are considered poor behavior in American college classes. Your professors respect and value your contribution to the class, and your classmates -- just like you -- are people who are there to learn and grow.

Furthermore, being an international student means that you are a representative of your country. As a result, it will be your responsibility to perform well and follow the rules in class.

Being in a foreign classroom with people who have different perspective from yours may be a difficult thing to do at first, so you should not be worried if you still have a hard time adapting to it. Eventually, you will learn how to enjoy your American classroom experience.

Danh Pham, from Vietnam, is a sophomore and a member of the Liberal Arts Honors Program at Providence College, where he majors in economics and political science.

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