Characteristics of the US higher education system

2020-02-26 17:57:51
Characteristics of the US higher education system
It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed when you step into an American college classroom for the first time. Below are characteristics of a typical American college that you’ll likely experience when you study abroad

Classroom Environment

Classes range from large lectures with several hundred students to smaller classes and seminars (discussion classes) with only a few students. The American university classroom atmosphere is very dynamic.


Speak Up

This does not only pertain to group discussions but also during classroom instruction. Most professors welcome questions from students during a lecture — as long as they are intelligent and relevant to the topic. International students may find this disrespectful and disruptive, but American classroom culture encourages lively discussion and open exchanges of ideas. Students are expected to challenge theories, question assumptions, evaluate options, and judge the merit and importance of facts according to its relevance to their learning.


You will be expected to share your opinion, argue your point, participate in class discussions and give presentations. International students find this one of the most surprising aspects of the American education system.


Independent Learning

Americans value their independence fiercely, and this is evident even in the college classroom. To a great extent, each student is responsible for her own learning. Your professors won’t tell you all the answers. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself.


Each week professors usually assign textbooks and other readings. You will be expected to keep up-to-date with the required readings and homework so you can participate in class discussions and understand the lectures. When you show up for class you should know the topic assigned for the day and be ready for an intelligent discussion, even debate, on the subject matter. Certain degree programs also require students to spend time in the laboratory.


Professors issue grades for each student enrolled in the course. Grades are usually based upon:


· Each professor will have a unique set of class participation requirements, but students are expected to participate in class discussions, especially in seminar classes. This is often a very important factor in determining a student’s grade.

· A midterm examination is usually given during class time.

· One or more research or term papers, or laboratory reports must be submitted for evaluation.

· Possible short exams or quizzes are given. Sometimes professors will give an unannounced “pop quiz.” This doesn’t count heavily toward the grade, but is intended to inspire students to keep up with their assignments and attendance.

· A final examination will be held after the final class meeting.



Although there is some professional distance between student and teacher, that distance is not as great in the United States as it might be in some other countries. Students in U.S. college classrooms are encouraged to have independent opinions about their courses, and many of them may hold a point of view about the course material that differs from the teacher’s. Students expect to be recognized as individuals and not singled out or asked to speak for their group based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc.


Professors are regarded as highly knowledgeable, but not as absolute authorities who cannot be questioned, doubted, or challenged. Student involvement is strongly encouraged in the teaching and learning process. Students who show initiative, work well independently, and interact with instructors to get the help they need, are rewarded.  


The best students are those who take the initiative to connect what they are learning in one class to what they learn in other classes and also to real-life situations. In fact, asking questions and offering contributions to discussions are skills that are cultivated in American classrooms as early as elementary school. Sometimes this means speaking up before a thought has been completely formulated because students are eager to participate.



The culture of the U.S. college classroom tends to be more egalitarian and less authoritarian. In spite of the apparent informality, instructors and students do not have equal status. The instructor is still the authority figure. The instructor is responsible for managing the classroom and ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to participate and learn.


Even if you involve your students in the design and implementation of learning activities, it is appropriate for there to be some professional distance between you and your students.


Collaborative process

Most international students come from an academic environment where teachers are expected to lecture for the entire length of the class. By contrast, in most American classrooms, learning is student- rather than teacher-based. Students are encouraged to interact with their instructors and classmates much more closely


Group discussions, special projects, peer teaching, and other pedagogical styles are typical for an American professor to use in the classroom. Keep an open mind, and participate as fully as you can manage. You will find out that the ability to work and get along well with your peers and superiors will serve you well in the professional world.

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